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How Neuroscience Is Disrupting Our Concept of Self

The end of ego.

Key points

  • Theories of Self do not take into account the neuroscience of how and why we think.
  • Half of our thoughts come from an automatic brain network. We listen to these thoughts, but we don't choose them.
  • Our therapeutic language needs to change to reflect this new understanding accurately.
Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels
Pavel Danilyuk/Pexels

Major theories of Self, from psychoanalytic to self-concept, assume that our thoughts and feelings are the windows to the Self. But what if they are wrong?

These theories fall prey to a fundamental attribution bias so ingrained in our worldview that it is like asking fish to describe water. We assume that our thoughts come from the Self. We assume they are personal rather than situational, even though research states otherwise.

Consider stereotype threat, whereby a person’s thoughts, beliefs, and performance can change based on reading one sentence before a test (O’Brien & Crandall, 2003). Or how in a controlled laboratory setting, participants in an orderly room donate more money than participants in a cluttered room (Vohs et al., 2013). It is time to rethink our original theories.

Neuroscience shows that our thoughts come from multiple networks. There is the central executive network responsible for our problem-solving and goal-directed thinking (Sridharan et al., 2008). These are the thoughts we choose to have. Then, there is the default mode network, the seat of our social and emotional awareness (Li et al., 2014). Most of our self-oriented thoughts come from here. As implied in the name, the default mode is automatic and has the floor 46.9 percent of the time (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). We listen to these thoughts. We don’t choose them.

A more accurate model of Self would be to say that humans have an ecosystem of thoughts and feelings. Some they control, and some they don’t. The Self is the experiencer of this ecosystem: the one who watches the show. The Self is also the chooser within this ecosystem, deciding where to direct attention and which thoughts to believe.

Take two children who are both told by adults that they will amount to nothing. One chooses to agree with the comment and takes on the belief, “I am worthless.” The other chooses to disagree, thinking, “I am going to prove them all wrong.” Their opposing beliefs drive different behaviors, with one stagnating and the other striving. Outcomes do not arise from the Self. They are shaped by our choices.

It is up to psychologists to start shifting this worldview. We need to stop talking about “core beliefs,” making clients feel that negative beliefs are a fundamental part of their identity, driving everything they do or say. We are in the driver’s seat: We choose what to believe. Instead of “Tell me what you’re thinking,” implying that the Self is creating these thoughts, we should ask, “What automatic negative thoughts are you experiencing?” Instead of working with clients to replace negative thoughts with more realistic ones, we should talk about the automaticity of thoughts and how they can be dismissed outright.

If neuroscience designed therapy, it would involve educating clients on this ecosystem of thoughts and feelings and how thoughts often happen to them rather than by them. It would explore how stress, fatigue, and pain all make it harder to turn off automatic thoughts, causing them to spiral. It would acquaint clients with the real Self, the experiencer and chooser within this ecosystem. It could help clients create a proactive definition of the Self, rather than a reactive one, building resilience and grit.

The major theories of Self were all written before people had ever seen a picture of the brain. Perhaps it is time for us to let them go.


Killingsworth, M.A., & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932.

Li, W., Mai, X., & Liu, C. (2014). The default mode network and social understanding of others: what do brain connectivity studies tell us. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(74), 1-5.

O’Brien, L.T., & Crandall, C.S. (2003). Stereotype Threat and Arousal: Effects on Women’s Math Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(6), 782-789.

Sridharan, D., Levitin, D.J., & Menon, V. (2008). A critical role for the right fronto-insular cortex in switching between central-executive and default-mode networks. PNAS, 105(34), 12569-12574.

Vohs, K.D., Redden, J.P., & Rahinel, R. (2013). Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity. Psychological Science, 24(9), 1860-1867.

See also: Mason, M.F., Norton, M.I., Van Horn, J.D., Wegner, D.M., Grafton, S.T., & Macrae, C.N. (2007). Wandering Minds: The Default Network and Stimulus-Independent Thought. Science, 315(5810), 393-395.

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