Theoretical and conceptual advances in the cognitive neuroscience of self representation:
Representations of the minimal self in self-narrative

Cognitive Science Lab, University of Central Florida



This was a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, and the European Science Foundation and conducted at the University of Central Florida during the time period 2006-2009 (Principle Investigator: Shaun Gallagher). It involved interdisciplinary collaboration that put American researchers and graduate students in touch with a larger collaborative project that included a number of leading research groups and laboratories in Europe. The larger project brought together researchers from philosophy, psychology, cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry in an interdisciplinary examination of the phenomenology, psychology and neuroscience of self-representation.

Research conducted at the University of Central Florida was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0639037. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

People (updated as of 2011)

Shaun Gallagher (PI) Institute of Simulation and Training (UCF); Moss Professor of Excellence, University of Memphis

Jeffrey S. Bedwell (co-PI) Clinical Psychology (UCF)

Stephen Fiore (co-PI) Cognitive Science Program and Institute of Simulation and Training (UCF)

Scott Sutterby (Ph.D. Candidate) Clinical Psychology (UCF). Spring 2007.

Michele Merritt (M.A. Linguistics; Ph.D candidate Philosophy, USF); NOW: Visiting Assistant Professor, UCF.

Micah Allen (Undergrad Honors Student) Psychology (USF); NOW Ph.D. Candidate, Neuroscience, University of Aarhus.

Leon de Bruin (Ph.D. Candidate) Philosophy, University of Leiden. NOW: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Bochum, Germany

Rebecca Jacobson (Ph.D. Candidate) Philosophy, University of Hertfordshire.


The research carried out at the Cognitive Science Lab at UCF was published or presented/discussed in the following papers/presentations.

  • Bedwell, J., Gallagher, S. Whitten, S. and Fiore, S. 2010. Linguistic correlates of self in deceptive oral autobiographical narratives. Consciousness and Cognition. Published online, October 2010. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.10.001.
  • Gallagher, S. and Cole, J. 2011. Dissociation in self-narrative. Consciousness and Cognition 20: 149-155 (doi:10.1016/j.concog.2010.10.003).
  • Dissociation in self-narrative and the narratives of schizophrenics. A quoi ca ressemble d'etre schizophrene / What is is like to be schizophrenic. Centre d’Epistémologie des Sciences Cognitive. ENS. Lyon (13-15 December 2010).
  • Dissociation in self-narrative. Concluding AHRC conference. Emotions and Feelings in Psychiatric Illness. University of Durham, UK (8-11 September 2010)
  • Narrative distance and the landscape of action in deceptive self-narratives. Workshop on Narrative and the Self. Macquarie University, Sidney, Australia (12 December 2009).

    The study collected orally-delivered autobiographical narratives from a sample of 44 undergraduate students. Participants were asked to produce both deceptive and nondeceptive versions of their narrative to two specific autobiographical question prompts while standing in front of a video camera. Narratives were then analyzed with Coh-Metrix software on 33 indices of linguistic cohesion. Following a Bonferroni correction for the large number of linguistic variables (p < .002), results indicated that the deceptive narratives contained more explicit action verbs, less linguistic complexity, and less referential coherence (sentences being cohesive with each other). The results support a theory that, in deceptive narratives, there is greater narrative distance between the self that narrates and the self that is narrated about. This suggests that narrative selves are constituted not as autonomous selves, but are subject to processes (e.g., psychological, linguistic, social) that are likely operating on a subconscious level.

    Generally, the intentionally deceptive narratives showed: (1) less referential coherence (measured by Anaphor Reference and Stem Overlap) than the non-deceptive narratives. The deceptive narratives were also (2) less complex (lower Flesch Kincaid Grade Level, higher number of simple short sentences) with similar syntax (Sentence Syntax Similarity) and less rare words (Log Min. in Sentence for Content Words). The intentionally deceptive narratives also had (3) significantly higher “intentional content,” i.e., more descriptions of actions, than in the non-deceptive narratives.

    Less referential coherence may reflect the fact that the participants constructed the deceptive narratives on a more ad hoc basis than narratives based on memory of their own activities, which they may have described before. Despite the similarity in the total number of words, the reduced complexity in the deceptive narratives is consistent with previous research showing less detailed information delivered (Vrij, 2001; Vrij & Heaven 1999) and shorter sentences with simpler syntax for deceptive communication (Miller & Stiff, 1993, but see Anolli, Balconi and Ciceri, 2003 for further discussion). Notably, 71% of the variance between the stories in the Flesch Kincaid Grade Level was explained by whether the story was non-deceptive (more complex language) or deceptive (less complex language; see Table).

    We suggest that the higher intentional content (i.e., descriptions in terms of actions and external events) in the deceptive narratives reflects a greater narrative distance (a higher degree of impersonality) between the narrator and the narrated self. One way to think of the greater degree of impersonality (or depersonalization) in this context is to consider the self described in the narrative as more like another person (not me, not the true me). That is, if in fact I am lying about myself or about what I have done in the past, then in some sense I am describing someone who I am not. I’m describing someone other than myself. In that case I (the narrator) am giving a description of someone (myself -- the narrated self) as another, and from the outside. In a first-person narrative the narrator does not know what goes on in the minds of the other characters except what is revealed through their actions, so in the descriptions of the other, actions become the main focus (Genette, 1983). Using this view, the prediction is that one’s narrations about people other than oneself will reflect a higher intentional content. That is, they will offer a description more in terms of actions and external events than in terms of the other’s motives or reasons for acting. Accordingly, the fact that deceptive self-narratives reflect higher intentional content suggests that the narrating self is distancing herself from the narrated self.

    Bruner’s (1986) distinction between the landscape of action (LoA) and the landscape of consciousness (LoC) is useful here. For Bruner, descriptions in the LoA describe what happens in terms of a series of actions or external events. In contrast the LoC describes “what those involved in the action know, think, or feel, or do not know, think, or feel” (Bruner 1986: 14). Here is a simple example of the contrast between LoA and LoC in the context of self-narrative.

    LoA: I walked to the store to get some candy.
    LoC: I decided to walk to the store because I wanted to get some candy.

    Feldman, Bruner, Renderer & Spitzer (1990) show, in a study of narrative comprehension in adults, that people easily understand the gist of a story cast solely in the less complex LoA, and it is clearly possible to represent the major events in a drama without always being able to decipher or explain, with full clarity or perhaps at all, the reasons why a protagonist will have acted.

    We note that generating deceitful narratives is more cognitively complex than generating non-deceitful narratives. Deceivers must use cognitive resources to maintain a coherent and consistent version of a false story, and to suppress “prepotent” responses, that is, to inhibit some aspect of the story that may correspond too much to the truth (Johnson, Barnhardt and Zhu 2004; Ganis, Morris and Kosslyn 2009). Moreover, there is an important difference in cognitive complexity between generating autobiographical narratives more on the basis of imagination (as in deceptive narratives) than on the basis of memory (as in non-deceptive narratives). In the case of memory, where I have a direct memory of my experience of the past event, I do not require an extra step of identifying who the subject is (Shoemaker, 1959). I know that it was I who experienced X. In the case of imagining myself do something, however, the structure is more like (1) I imagine someone does X; (2) I know that I did not do X; but (3) I nonetheless identify that someone as myself. Pretense enters into the deceit as an extra cognitive step.

    The cognitive complexity involved in generating a false narrative, however, doesn’t automatically translate into complex narratives. Indeed, as noted above, the deceptive narrative may be expressed with a higher syntactical simplicity than the non-deceptive narrative. This, we propose, is a compensatory effect – a way of balancing out the cognitive complexity. In order to be able do all the cognitive work involved in deception, the narrator may keep the story as simple as possible. Likewise, if the cognitive work is not as complex, the narrator may have more resources available to enhance the story or embellish the details.

    Generating LoA narratives require less cognitive work than LoC narratives, and may be preferred to balance out the higher cognitive demands of lying. Generally speaking, to describe my own actions or the actions of others (LoA) in simple terms is an easier task than to explain one’s own motives or reasons for acting (LoC). For example, as children gain narrative competency, they begin with narratives that are dominated by actions, and only gradually learn to add intentional language (Hutto, 2008; Nelson, 2009). And generally, to explain one’s own motives or reasons for acting may be an easier task than explaining the motives or reasons of another person. Clearly, however, describing another person’s motives, emotions, intentions, etc. in narrative form seems more complex than describing the actions of others.

    In regard to others, for example, I have an external view on their behaviors -- I see what the other person does, and I can tell you about his actions, but I may not be entirely sure about his motives. In describing the other person I can more easily tell you about his actions, or I can more easily imagine a set of actions to tell you about. If in the case of deceptive autobiographical narrative, I am describing myself as if I were another, and from the outside, then, we would expect the narrative to be framed more in the LoA than in LoC. This seems to be what happens in the deceptive narratives studied here, represented by the stronger intentional content. Furthermore, in line with the compensatory effect for the cognitive complexity of deception, noted above, the lesser degree of cognitive complexity for LoA narratives seems to be reflected in the lesser degree of syntactical complexity for the deceptive narratives (shorter and simpler sentences, lower reading level, syntactic similarity), consistent with what we find here.

    In summary, we propose that in intentionally deceptive narratives, there is greater narrative distance between the self that narrates and the self that is narrated about, than in non-deceptive narratives. Our results support this hypothesis, as reflected in the degree of impersonal structure -- framed more in LoA than in LoC (more intentional content) – and less syntactical complexity in the intentionally deceptive narratives.

    This study, however, has a number of limitations that should be addressed in further research. First, one of the questions that remains unresolved is whether the deceptive narrator uses LoA (more intentional content) and thereby creates more narrative distance because: (1) the narrator treats the narrated self as if it were someone other, or (2) it is a less cognitively complex strategy and it reduces the cognitive workload, or (3) some combination of (1) and (2).1 How we answer this question may determine some important features of the narrative distance involved. In the narratives under discussion here, we can rule out perspectival distance since all narratives were told in the first-person. We can also rule out temporal distance since the narrative distance correlates to deceptive vs non-deceptive rather than content, family (earlier) vs high school (later). We might want to say, then, that if the narrator’s use of LofA is because the narrator treats the narrated self as if it were someone other, as in (1), the narrative distance involved may involve evaluative or hermeneutical components: evaluative, depending on whether the narrated self presents a positive or negative picture; hermeneutical, in regard to what the narrator is trying to accomplish. However, if the narrator’s use of LoA is a less cognitively complex strategy to reduce the cognitive workload, this may involve something like the difference between use of memory (for non-deceptive) vs. use of imagination (for deceptive). In this case what seems to be narrative distance is simply an artifact of the cognitive requirements. Further research should be able to address this question. Furthermore, if it turns out that use of LofA is simply a strategy to reduce cognitive load, are there different strategies used in deceptive narratives that don’t involve LofA and that may reduce the appearance of narrative distance?

    There are several other limitations to this study. It considers only the syntactical aspects of a limited number of narratives generated in an experimental setting where subjects are asked to create deceptive narratives (see Sip et al. 2008). It would be important to study “real life” deceptive narratives (e.g., perjured courtroom testimony), as well as narratives of greater length. “Real life” motivation for deception may have significant effects on the structure of deceptive self-narratives. Longer narratives would reveal their own overall narratological syntax which may not be reducible to the sentential syntax which was the focus of this study (see Petitot, 1995).

    The project at UCF was one part of a larger BASIC research project which was itself part of a larger complex of projects sponsored by the ESF under the title: Consciousness in Natural and Cultural Contexts (CNCC). BASIC stands for Brain, Agency, Self, Intersubjectivity and Consciousness -- a network of projects designed to examine the relations between phenomenologically relevant markers of self – e.g. senses of agency and ownership as part of the "minimal self" (see Gallagher 2000 for background) – and particular patterns of brain activity (e.g., the default mode (see Raichle et al. 2001). The aim of the project was to further develop both empirical research and conceptual refinement, integrating into an interdisciplinary research field whose epistemological validity is supported by a solid anchoring in well-established research traditions.

    BASIC Project Leader: Andreas Roepstorff, University of Aarhus, Denmark

    BASIC Principal Investigators:
    • Christopher Frith, University College London, UK
    • Shaun Gallagher, University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA
    • Anthony Jack, Washington University, St. Louis, USA
    • Tatjana Nazir, Hôpital Lyon Université, France
    • Marcus Raichle, Washington University, St. Louis, USA
    • Dan Zahavi, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

    BASIC Associated Partners:
    • Vittorio Gallese, Università degli Studi di Parma, Italy
    • Patrick Haggard, University College London, UK
    • Evan Thompson, University of Toronto, Canada
    • Kai Vogeley, University of Cologne, Germany

    BASIC Project Description: The larger research project unites a number of leading research groups and laboratories in Europe and in the US employing a range of methods from conceptual analysis and phenomenological investigations to fMRI, PET and TMS. This allows bringing already ongoing research into a larger framework and it allows establishing novel collaborative research projects directly aimed at examining aspects of self-relations. Planned activities range from phenomenological examinations, and conceptual and linguistic analysis to behavioral, cognitive and brain imaging experiments. Much of the work carries potential clinical implications in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases involving disturbances in self-relations, body image and action ascription (e.g., see Brain's 'Default Mode' Awry In Schizophrenia). To assure coherence within the network, there was be a yearly workshop for all research group members 2007: Subjectivity, Intersubjectivity and Self-representation (Aarhus), 2008: Default brain mode and Self-correlates (St. Louis), 2009: Agency and Self (Lyon). Further integration of projects was assured by a scientist exchange program within the network, particularly aimed at PhD students and post docs.

    General background for the UCF Project: Representations of the minimal self in self-narrative explores the connection between aspects of the "minimal self" (which includes senses of ownership and agency) and a fuller and more developed narrative self. Competency for self-narrative extends the experience of self, in a very plastic way, across time and variation in contexts. It forms the basis for developing a consistent self-concept. This competency, however, depends on the more basic sense of minimal self. Although the capacity for self-narrative is complicated by metacognition and autobiographical memory, it includes a basic connection to phenomenological structures of the minimal self, represented by use of the first-person pronoun (and other related constructions) in contexts that involve self-agency.

    A number of philosophers have argued that use of the first-person pronoun has guaranteed self-reference (Strawson 1994), and, in certain circumstances, immunity from misidentification (Shoemaker 1984). As such it is an extremely stable anchor of a minimal sense of self-ownership in self-narrative (Gallagher 2003). It is nonetheless possible to find instances where the first-person pronoun becomes dissociated from the predicates of self-agency. These include cases of schizophrenic symptoms of delusions of control and thought insertion (Frith 1992; Gallagher 2004). Although our group is primarily interested in studying the role of the minimal self in the normal construction of a narrative self, our investigation will also focus on variations from normal.

    This part of the BASIC project proposes to study the precise involvement of first-person markers of the minimal self and the sense of agency in self-narrative by contrasting non-pathological and schizophrenic narratives.  As such, it depends on and contributes to the theoretical background defined in the BASIC research program. It aims for conceptual refinement of the notions of minimal self and narrative self, and their interrelationship. The specific aims of this investigation are (1) to study both normal and pathological self-narratives, (2) to compare structural differences in narratives with special attention to textual markers of action ownership (specifically in the use of the first person pronoun) and agency, and (3) in collaboration with the BASIC research groups (Roepstorff-Frith, Zahavi) in Europe, to correlate these differences with neurological processes.


    Theoretical background

    Gallagher (2000) argued that recent developments in philosophical approaches to the self may enhance the exchange of ideas between the philosophy of the mind and the other cognitive sciences. These included a conceptual clarification of the notions of a “minimal self,” including a sense of agency, and a sense of ownership, and a narrative self. articularly the concepts of agency and ownership have proven eminently productive, in terms of path-breaking empirical research (Ehrsson, Spence, and Passingham 2004, Farrer and Frith 2002, Frith 2005, Tsakiris and Haggard 2005), and novel conceptual developments (de Vignemont and Fourneret 2004, Legrand 2003, Proust 2003). One of the reasons for this rapid development involves significant improvements in scanning technologies and data modeling and processing that have allowed for highly sophisticated empirical examinations. However, equally important are conceptual changes in the understanding of experiments, particularly in terms of paying detailed attention to experiential qualities (Frith 2002, Jack and Roepstorff 2002) and of ‘front-loading’ phenomenology into experimental designs (Gallagher 2003, Lutz and Thompson 2003). Recent scientific investigations of the relation between self, consciousness, and the brain have thereby amply demonstrated the feasibility of an interdisciplinary approach.

    Minimal self.  The notions of minimal self and narrative self, have hitherto not received the same interdisciplinary attention, although from a phenomenological and conceptual perspective they appear at least as fundamental as notions of agency and ownership. It has been difficult to translate these notions into concrete investigations and difficult to identify particular signatures at the level of brain dynamics that could usefully relate to the general notions. However, during recent years, it has become apparent that patterns of activations seen during typical task-related brain imaging experiments often appear against a background of a down-regulation, as measured by various physiological parameters, in a network of brain regions, particularly along the medial axis of the brain, and in the posterior parietal cortex. Activity in this network, which may be found across a number of experimental conditions (Fransson 2005), has become known as the ‘default mode’ of the brain (Raichle et al. 2001). It was early suggested that self-referential mental activity may be related to the anterior part of this network (Gusnard et al. 2001), and several pieces of independent evidence have correlated activity also in the posterior part of this network with a first-person perspective or an egocentric stance both in combined script- and stimulus driven activation studies (Lou et al. 2004, Vogeley et al. 2004) as well as in meditation studies (Lou and Kjaer 2005). Activity in the default brain network is therefore one possible candidate for a neuronal signature of self-consciousness (Newen and Vogeley 2003), particularly with reference to a minimal self, i.e. ‘a consciousness of oneself, as an immediate subject of experience...[depending on] brain processes and an ecologically embedded body’ (Gallagher 2000). As activity in the network appears related to outward activity and to task difficulty, there are obvious putative links between the default mode network, and the signatures for self-agency-ownership relations developed in the approaches discussed above. However, the interpretation of these results is complicated by the fact that in many of these experiments, it is difficult to tease apart task difficulty and putative self-reference. There is therefore a strong need to extend the solid, interdisciplinary approach developed for agency-ownership-self relations into a thorough examination of this novel field.

    Narrative self.  From a conceptual, a phenomenological and an empirical point of view, the relations between a minimal or core self and an extended, narrative or autobiographical self remain controversial. They may be seen to be complementary notions. But is the core self a (logical and temporal) precondition for the extended (narrative or autobiographical) self? Or is the core self, on the contrary, a subsequent abstraction; is it simply a stripped-down version of what must count as the genuine and original self (Zahavi 2005)? An examination of the narrative or extended self across a number of fields of inquiry is, therefore, important both in its own right and in establishing an understanding of basic requirements of selfhood.

    Intersubjective relations.   Both from the perspective of philosophy of mind and of phenomenology, a strong link between the constituents of self and intersubjective self-other relations has long been claimed (Thompson 2001). This line of research has only recently received attention within cognitive science, partly due to a certain behaviouristic heritage (Roepstorff 2003). However, there is increasing evidence, also from the empirical literature, of strong links between self and relations with others, in experiments framed in terms of theory-of-mind (Vogeley et al. 2001), agency and intentionality (Wohlschlager, Engbert, and Haggard 2003) and shared understanding (Gallese 2003). It has been hypothesized that this may, in neuronal terms, generalise onto a medial prefrontal self-other anchoring (Roepstorff and Frith 2004). However, the links between this line of research and the more well established field of inquiry outlined above have not been thoroughly investigated. There is therefore much need of extending the interdisciplinary research approach into this field also.

    Clinical extensions.  A number of clinical diagnoses, particularly schizophrenia and autism, are characterized by apparent disturbances in the experience of agency, stability of minimal self and inter-subjective relations (Kircher and David 2003, Sass and Parnas 2003). It is therefore of considerable importance to examine whether the general findings of this research project have explanatory value in an understandings of these disorders. Research on clinical populations will be carried out in collaboration with the Roepstorff and Zahavi groups (schizophrenia), the Vogeley group (autism) and the Nazir group (brain lesions). A long-term objective is to examine whether neuronal signatures of the self, identified within this project, are applicable also for diagnostic purposes.


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