The sense of agency in health and disease: The contribution of cognitive neuroscience in understanding self-consciousness

Marc Jeannerod

in From the Couch to the Lab

Published on behalf of Oxford University Press

Published in print May 2012 | ISBN: 9780199600526
Published online February 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780191754753 | DOI:
The sense of agency in health and disease: The contribution of cognitive neuroscience in understanding self-consciousness

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How does it happen that one can recognize oneself as the source of one's own actions? This process of self-recognition is in fact far from trivial: although it operates covertly and effortlessly, it depends on a set of mechanisms involving the processing of specific neural signals, from sensory as well as from central origin. In this paper, experimental situations where these signals can be dissociated from each other and where self-recognition becomes ambiguous will be used in healthy subjects and in schizophrenic patients. These situations will reveal that there are two levels of self-recognition, an automatic level for action identification, and a ‘personal’, conscious level for the sense of agency, which both rely on the same principle of congruence of the action-related signals. The automatic level provides an immediate signal for controlling and adapting actions to their goal, whereas the conscious level provides information about the intentions, plans, and desires of the author of these actions. This dissociation between the two levels of recognition of oneself as the origin of an action can be seen as a clear dissociation between unconscious and conscious components of mental function as studied by cognitive neuroscience. These concepts could be adjusted and applied to other domains of cognition and emotion to establish similar dissociations in behaviour and in the brain. This can have implications for a discipline such as psychoanalysis, which has long endeavoured to study the unconscious facets of the mind and their dynamic relation with conscious mental processes.

Here, the contribution of schizophrenic patients will show that these two levels can be dissociated from each other. Whereas automatic self-identification is functional in these patients, their sense of agency is deeply impaired: the first rank symptoms, which represent one of the major features of the disease, testify to the loss of the ability of schizophrenic patients to attribute their own thoughts, internal speech, covert or overt actions to themselves.

Chapter.  6301 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Psychiatry

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