Multisensory brain mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness

Key Points

  • A powerful approach to study self-consciousness has been to target brain mechanisms that process bodily signals (bodily self-consciousness).

  • Bodily self-consciousness depends on three factors: self-identification with the body, self-location and the first-person perspective.

  • Visuotactile and visuovestibular conflicts that induce changes in bodily self-consciousness have been tested using video, virtual reality and robotic devices.

  • Experimental changes in illusory self-identification with a fake or virtual body are associated with changes in touch and pain perception, as well as physiological changes.

  • Activity in the bilateral premotor cortex and posterior parietal cortex that is probably due to the activation of multisensory neurons integrating visual and somatosensory signals has been associated with self-identification.

  • Neurological data in patients with heautoscopy reveal that damage to the left temporoparietal cortex leads to abnormal self-identification and self-location.

  • Activity in the temporoparietal cortex and posterior parietal cortex that is probably due to the activation of multisensory neurons integrating vestibular, visual and tactile signals has been associated with self-location and the first-person perspective.

  • Neurological data in patients with out-of-body experiences reveal that damage to the right temporoparietal cortex (posterior superior temporal gyrus) leads to abnormal self-location and first-person perspective.

  • The interaction of these multisensory signals with other bodily signals, especially those related to interoceptive signals, and their respective importance for bodily self-consciousness and consciousness in general should be targeted by future research.

  • Future neuro-rehabilitation procedures for amputees, stroke patients and patients with spinal cord injury are likely to benefit from the described automatized multisensory stimulations between augmented artificial bodies and residual own-body signals.

Abstract

Recent research has linked bodily self-consciousness to the processing and integration of multisensory bodily signals in temporoparietal, premotor, posterior parietal and extrastriate cortices. Studies in which subjects receive ambiguous multisensory information about the location and appearance of their own body have shown that these brain areas reflect the conscious experience of identifying with the body (self-identification (also known as body-ownership)), the experience of where 'I' am in space (self-location) and the experience of the position from where 'I' perceive the world (first-person perspective). Along with phenomena of altered states of self-consciousness in neurological patients and electrophysiological data from non-human primates, these findings may form the basis for a neurobiological model of bodily self-consciousness.

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Figure 1: Illusory hand ownership.
Figure 2: Set-ups of illusory self-identification experiments.
Figure 3: Brain mechanisms of illusory self-identification.
Figure 4: Illusory self-location and first-person perspective.
Figure 5: Multimodal neurons in illusory self-location and the first-person perspective.

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Acknowledgements

The author thanks C. Pfeiffer for his valuable help on the manuscript. The author is supported by grants from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SINERGIA CRSII1-125135), the European Science Foundation (FP7 project VERE) and the Bertarelli Foundation.

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Glossary

Body ownership

The feeling that the physical body and its parts, such as its hands and feet, belong to 'me' and are 'my' body.

Trimodal neurons

Neurons that respond to signals from three perceptual domains. One type of trimodal neuron responds to visual, tactile and proprioceptive signals; another type of trimodal neuron responds to visual, tactile and vestibular signals.

Proprioceptive signals

Sensory signals about limb and body position.

Autoscopic phenomena

A group of illusory own-body perceptions during which subjects report seeing a second own-body in extracorporeal space. They include autoscopic hallucination, heautoscopy and out-of-body experiences.

Heautoscopy

The phenomenon in which the subject experiences seeing a second own-body in extracorporeal space. Subjects often report strong self-identification with the second own-body and heautoscopy is often associated with the sensation of bi-location (that is, the sensation of being at two places at the same time).

Ego-centre

A single point from which human observers believe they are viewing a spatial scene. Ego-centres have been investigated for visual, auditory or kinaesthetic stimuli.

Prism adaptation

The phenomenon that subjects who wear prism glasses that introduce spatial mismatches between the seen position of visual cues and their actual spatial coordinates learn to correctly perceive and reach for visual targets.

Out-of-body experience

(OBE). The phenomenon in which the subject experiences seeing a second own-body from an elevated and distanced extracorporeal position. Subjects often report disembodiment (that is, a sensation of separation from their physical body) and sensations of flying and lightness.

Virtual mirrors

Part of an immersive virtual reality scenario that includes a region where the image and movements of the immersed user will be simulated as if reflected from a physical mirror.

Egocentric

An umbrella term for maps and/or patterns of modulation that can be defined in relation to some point on the observer (for example, head- or eye-centred maps).

Allocentric

An umbrella term for maps and/or patterns of modulation that are defined in relation to an object external to the observer.

Microgravity environment

Environments in which no gravity exists for short periods (parabolic flight) or prolonged periods (orbital flight).

Vestibular neurons

Neurons responding to activation of receptors in the vestibular labyrinth (semicircular canals and otolith organs).

Otoliths

Organs in the vestibular labyrinth of the inner ear that are sensitive to linear acceleration and gravity.

Translational signals

Otolithic vestibular signals that cause linear acceleration.

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Blanke, O. Multisensory brain mechanisms of bodily self-consciousness. Nat Rev Neurosci 13, 556–571 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3292

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