What COVID-19 tells us about the self: The deep intersubjective and cultural layers of our brain

Andrea Scalabrini, Jiawei Xu, Georg Northoff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


The COVID-19 crisis is affecting our sense of self and touches upon our existential fears. This extends to the self–other relationship, as there is both being infected and infecting the other. What does this pandemic crisis tell us about our self and relatedness, its cultural differences, and how these are rooted in the brain's relation to the world? First, we discuss the psychological and neuronal features of self and self–other relation and how they are rooted in a deeper layer of the brain's neural activity complementing its cognitive surface layer. Second, we demonstrate cultural differences of Eastern and Western concepts of the self (i.e., independency and interdependency) and how these reflect the manifestation of the brain's neuro-social and neuro-ecological alignment. Finally, we highlight the intersubjective and cultural nature of the self and its surface in the COVID-19 crisis. Discussing various lines of empirical data showing the brain's intimate alignment to both social and ecological environmental contexts, our results support the assumption of the brain's deep layer features by laying bare a continuum of different degrees of neuro-social and neuro-ecological alignment. This entails a two-stage model of self with neuro-social-ecological and psychological levels that extends the previously suggested basis model of self-specificity. We conclude that the current pandemic shows the importance of the deeper intersubjective and cultural layers of both the self and brain; their neglect can be life-threatening for the self and others and, paradoxically, might reduce, rather than enlarge, the self's sense of freedom and independence.

Original languageEnglish
JournalPsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • COVID-19
  • independency and interdependency
  • neuro-social and neuro-ecological alignment
  • self
  • spontaneous activity of the brain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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