|From Alsmith & Longo 2014|
Although you probably consider all of your body is yours, if you’re like most people, you also have a feeling that your very essence, your self, is more localised. Past research has turned up mixed findings for where exactly this spot is. In some studies people say they are located in their head, near the eyes. Other research has found that people consider the self to be located in the chest. The varied results are probably partly due to the different methods used. Some studies have focused on people’s judgments about their own essence; others have involved participants marking the location of another person’s self on a drawing of the body.
According to Adrian Alsmith and Matthew Longo – another problem with past studies is that they haven’t given participants the option to choose more than one location. In their new paper, the researchers invited 10 participants to stand opposite a pointer mounted on a stand (see picture). As the researcher rotated the pointer up or down, each participant had to say when it was pointing “directly at them”. The starting angle and height of the pointer was varied from trial to trial. Also, the participants were sometimes blindfolded, in which case they moved the pointer themselves to a position that felt like it was pointing directly at them. There were 96 trials per person in all.
The researchers divided the chosen pointer positions into five areas, depending on whether its final position was pointed at: lower torso, upper torso, neck, lower face, or upper face. There was a clear bias for the participants to direct the pointer towards their upper torso, and even more often, towards their upper face.
“Each of the two regions … has a high degree of functional salience which explains their status as natural candidates for self-location judgments,” the researchers said. Consistent with these findings, we still refer to the heart and chest in many everyday sayings, such as “learn by heart” and to “love with all my heart”. Yet we’re aware too that our mental functioning is located in the brain, and of course it feels as though we look out at the world through our eyes.
Although participants showed a clear bias for the upper chest and upper face, they tended to be inconsistent and to vary their choices between the two. Alsmith and Longo said this novel finding suggests that “no single body part is judged as the unique seat of the self.”
So what influenced whether participants chose the upper torso or upper face? The researchers said that this varied according to the starting position of the pointer – participants tended to choose the body location (torso or face) that was reached first. This wasn’t simply due to laziness because otherwise responses would have been biased toward the lower torso when the pointer started in a low position. Instead it seems the participants’ decisions were influenced by whether their attention was first directed towards their upper torso or face. Another detail was that participants’ responses did not vary systematically according to whether they were blindfolded or not.
“To the extent that … self-location judgments tell us anything about the concept of the self as a spatial entity, they tell us that the concept is inherently ambiguous,” concluded Alsmith and Longo. From a critical perspective, it’s a shame that the participant pool was so small. It would also be interesting to conduct the same study across different cultures and with people holding diverse religious beliefs.
Alsmith AJ and Longo MR (2014). Where exactly am I? Self-location judgements distribute between head and torso. Consciousness and cognition, 24, 70-4 PMID: 24457520