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Where Does Self-Awareness Come From?

Scientists are pretty familiar with the way our brains pay attention to the world around us, but what about our internal world? What’s happening in our brains when we listen to our breathing, or when our gurgling tummies catch our attention?

Scientists are starting to uncover which parts of the brain are involved in so-called “interoceptive attention”—attention to physiological signals inside our bodies. The research could help explain what goes on in our brains when we meditate, and could advise studies on autism spectrum disorder and anxiety, where internal attention can be an issue.

According to a study published in ELife, an area called the anterior insular cortex (AIC) is crucial for paying attention to our bodies’ signals. The study’s authors include Professor Jin Fan of Queens College and The Graduate Center at CUNY.

Researchers showed volunteers graphs of breathing patterns, and asked the volunteers whether or not the patterns matched up with their own rhythm, a task that requires internal awareness. The scientists simultaneously scanned the participants’ brains using fMRI.

The volunteers who answered the question most accurately showed the highest activation of the AIC. On the other hand, participants with lesions in the AIC had much lower accuracy, demonstrating how crucial this cortex is to interoceptive attention. While scientists have thought for some time that the AIC plays a role in interoceptive attention, this study is the first to find an experimental task that clearly demonstrates this.

Meditation, which can involve focusing on your breathing, has long been regarded as good for your mental health. The study authors hypothesize that the AIC is involved in such mindfulness practices. On the other hand, issues with the AIC could be related to disorders such as autism.

“We have demonstrated that the anterior insular cortex is a critical brain structure for people to feel their body and bodily reactions, which is important for people to have a normal emotional life,” Fan said. “Since patients with some major neuropsychiatric disorders are associated with difficulties in feeling their body, understanding the underlying brain mechanisms may inform targeted treatments.”