Want to see your ego?

Things have got a little more interesting at university as we're now in an elected 'mindfulness' module. Instead of commenting on their fixation on Buddhism over other Eastern traditions (ooooops....I just did), I thought I would show your 'ego'. You'll often hear in spiritual teachings about dissolving the ego, or the notion of a separate self. In this week's lecture they showed it to us, under the banner of 'self-referencing' and the 'Default Mode Network.' Neuroscience sure makes it sound so sexy hey?

Ta daaa! I am going to suggest that the areas in green/blue are the 'ego'. Convinced? No? Ok, let's rewind a little to give some context.

In early fMRI research it was always sought to study the brain in 'working'/task based situations. In order to know whether the area of the brain was 'lighting up' due to the task, you need it's 'opposite'. This was originally done with a different task, for example showing someone a word whilst someone is the fMRI scanner, see where is activated, and then show them a picture. The difference would show the areas which were related solely to 'words'. Then it occurred to some science-y people (namely Debra Gusnard and Marcus Raichle, 2001) that there would be a resting state of the brain which could be used as the baseline in studies. In their hunt for this they found the brains in subjects were always active. These areas of the brain are the ones which are the green/blue.

It was discovered was that when given a task, these blue/green areas would become inactive/less active and the red/yellow areas (associated with working memory and focussed memory) would become active. This 'resting state' was our constant mind chatter and used up 20% of our total body oxygen consumption (Raichle, 2006). This mind chatter and wandering mind was found by Killingsworth & Gilbert (2010) to be an unhappy mind . But why do I think this our identity with the separate self and our ego?

Buckner and Carroll (2007) studied this further and found when people were using remembering the past, thinking about the future (prospection) or conceiving the viewpoint of others (theory of mind), the same areas of the brain were active.

These are all activities which involve a projection of self. To do that requires the concept of this separate self. In other words, they are the ego! Of course, this cannot really be proven as such, but let's go on to see how it gets a little more interesting.

Taylor and colleagues (2012) studied the 'impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state'. They found that compared to 'beginner' meditators, 'experienced' meditators had weaker functional connectivity of the default mode network regions involved in self-referential processing and emotion appraisal, but stronger connectivity in the regions concerned with perspective taking. We see here the sense of 'I' diminishing, but still present in the perspective taking.

Further studies have been carried out looking at what occurs with no sense of 'I' or subject. Grant and colleagues (2012) studied Zen meditators in their reaction to a cold stimuli, in comparison to control subjects. They found the meditators were responsive to the cold at earlier temperatures, suggesting a greater openness to 'displeasurable' experiences, but due to a lack of self-referencing or (default mode network activation) they showed no reactivity to this. In other words they experienced more fully, yet responded less to this. Here we see the benefits of the lack of identification of 'I', the separate self.

The studies I've seen thus far all seem to be missing a huge point though. In each one, the results are attributed solely to meditation. Does it not make sense that what they call 'experienced meditators' are also going to be well versed in the teachings of their path? The researchers neglect, or are simply unaware of the constant practice of awareness that the study subjects will have most probably been 'performing' for a large part of their lives. Is it meditation alone which slowly dissolves the ego, or is it actually a culmination of 'practices'? The teachings of yoga would suggest the latter [karma, bhakti and jñāna for example]!

Whether you want to call it- ego, default mode network, Jeff- it takes a lot of effort without us realising. It may also initially take effort and awareness to slowly dissolve it- essentially disconnecting areas of the brain- with that initial effort becoming slowly effortless. We also have to remember that for 99.99999999999% of people it may be highly necessary to maintain in their daily life, in order to function in this society, so do not necessarily take a wire cutter to your synapses! But, we can in time become less and less attached to this separate self and feel the benefits.

Is knowing where the ego may be in the brain going to change your life in any way? Probably not! Is it slightly interesting? Also probably not. All it really does is allow researchers to eventually catch up with what the ancients said all along. And that was all learnt through experiencing, not fancy pants fMRI scanners.

Cut the time and the middle(wo)man- just go straight to the teachings!


Buckner, R. L., & Carroll, D. C. (2007). Self-projection and the brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(2), 49-57.

Fox, M. D., Corbetta, M., Snyder, A. Z., Vincent, J. L., & Raichle, M. E. (2006). Spontaneous neuronal activity distinguishes human dorsal and ventral attention systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 103(26), 10046-10051. Gusnard, D. A., & Raichle, M. E. (2001). Searching for a baseline: functional imaging and the resting human brain. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2(10), 685-694.

Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932

Raichle, M. E. (2006). The brain's dark energy. Science-New York Then Washington-, 314(5803), 1249.

Taylor, V. A., Daneault, V., Grant, J., Scavone, G., Breton, E., Roffe-Vidal, S., ... & Beauregard, M. (2012). Impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 4-14.