Self-referential processing in our brain-A meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self

Georg Northoff, Alexander Heinzel, Moritz de Greck, Felix Bermpohl, Henrik Dobrowolny, Jaak Panksepp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2063 Citations (Scopus)


The question of the self has intrigued philosophers and psychologists for a long time. More recently, distinct concepts of self have also been suggested in neuroscience. However, the exact relationship between these concepts and neural processing across different brain regions remains unclear. This article reviews neuroimaging studies comparing neural correlates during processing of stimuli related to the self with those of non-self-referential stimuli. All studies revealed activation in the medial regions of our brains' cortex during self-related stimuli. The activation in these so-called cortical midline structures (CMS) occurred across all functional domains (e.g., verbal, spatial, emotional, and facial). Cluster and factor analyses indicate functional specialization into ventral, dorsal, and posterior CMS remaining independent of domains. Taken together, our results suggest that self-referential processing is mediated by cortical midline structures. Since the CMS are densely and reciprocally connected to subcortical midline regions, we advocate an integrated cortical-subcortical midline system underlying human self. We conclude that self-referential processing in CMS constitutes the core of our self and is critical for elaborating experiential feelings of self, uniting several distinct concepts evident in current neuroscience.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)440-457
Number of pages18
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 15 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Cortical midline structures
  • Domains
  • Imaging
  • Processes
  • Self

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Neurology


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