Psychological Scientist Takes a Fresh Look at Our Selves
May 31, 2012
by Robin Tricoles
Nestled among our bones and tissue, somewhere beneath our skin, resides the self—or so it seems. The self is our neural capacity to make the distinction between ourselves and others.
But the brain’s capacity to make that distinction may not be clear-cut—especially when it comes to threatening situations involving someone we care about, says James Coan, a psychological scientist who specializes in the neuroscience of emotional expression. That’s because one’s self doesn’t reside only beneath the skin, instead it extends to friends and loved ones, says Coan.
Using neuroimaging to measure the brain’s reaction to a threat, Coan looked at what happens to the brain when one's self is threatened and again when somebody else is threatened. What he found: the brain responds to threats directed at familiar friends almost exactly as if the threat were directed at the self, but when the threat is directed at an unfamiliar stranger, the threat is processed in a very different way.
“You use self-referencing circuitry if the person under threat is a friend or spouse,” says Coan. “What that suggests is that a person you care about is part of your neural representation of yourself. It’s like we become super organisms. It’s mind blowing—at least to me.”
But the same cannot be said when we observe a stranger under threat. Instead, our brain’s self-referencing circuitry is applied in very different ways, as if we are using our past experience to know that the stranger is under threat, but without the assumption that the stranger’s threat response is similar to our own.
Why the difference? Resources, says Coan.
“We’ve gotten used to thinking that the self is what’s under our skin,” he says. “But the neural representation of ourselves expands when we have relationships with people. Even social support may be a form of empathy. So, when we’re under threat, we feel less threaten when our friend is with us, and when our friend is under threat, we feel threatened too, all because as we grow close we begin to share resources, almost as if we’re the same person.”
One of those resources, says Coan, involves the physiological energy required to stay safe, to watch for threats, to remain vigilant. But vigilance is pricey. And the currency used to pay for vigilance is prefrontal cortex activity. The PFC is in charge of higher-order brain functions including planning, reasoning, judgment, and impulse control. Its tasks are ongoing and complex, and, for reasons that are not yet fully understood, it is “expensive”—using it a lot can cause feelings of exhaustion, a decrease in the effectiveness of its functions, and, some believe, even a drop in the body’s blood glucose levels.
“The PFC is a big piece of real estate,” says Coan. “The part of the brain we use to stay vigilant is expensive and using it for very long is exhausting,” he says. “But when we have a trusted companion, we don’t work it as hard. When people develop relationships, we can in a sense outsource some of that vigilance. We outsource it because it costs us less to do so. It costs everyone less. Within a rich social network, there’s likely to be an exponential decrease in processing load. So, relationships are like highly efficient networks of vital neural processing.”
Indeed, some of those activities are so vital, you don’t want to outsource to just anyone, specifically, a stranger, says Coan. And vigilance is one of them.
James Coan is an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He investigates the neuroscience of emotion, personal relationships, and how those relationships affect our emotions. To learn more about his research, please visit the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory website.