Neural correlates of context-independent and context-dependent self-knowledge

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Abstract

The self-concept consists of both a general (context-independent) self-representation and a set of context-dependent selves that represent personal attributes in particular contexts (e.g., as a student, as a daughter). To date, however, neuroimaging studies have focused on general self-representations, such that little is known about the neural correlates of context-dependent self-knowledge. The present study aimed at investigating this issue by examining the neural correlates of both kinds of self-knowledge. Participants judged the extent to which trait adjectives described their own personality or the personality of a close friend, either in a specific context (i.e., as a student) or in general. We found that both kinds of self-judgments were associated with common activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), as compared to judgments about others. Interestingly, however, there were also notable differences between self-judgments, with context-independent judgments being associated with higher activity in the MPFC, whereas context-dependent judgments were associated with greater activation in posterior brain regions (i.e., the posterior cingulate/retrosplenial cortex). These findings show that context-independent and context-dependent self-referential judgments recruit both common and distinct brain regions, thereby supporting the view that the self-concept is a multi-dimensional knowledge structure that includes a general self-representation and a set of context-specific selves.

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