The brain can generate body awareness by registering coincident sensations. For example, when you rub your arm, you see your hand rubbing your arm and simultaneously feel the rubbing sensation in both your hand and your arm. This simultaneity tells you that it is your hand and your arm. Infants use the same type of coincident sensations to initially develop the self/nonself distinction that is fundamental to our construal of the world.
The fact that your brain constructs body awareness in this way can be experienced via the rubber-hand illusion (see Outside Resource on this). If you see a rubber hand being rubbed and simultaneously feel the corresponding rubbing sensation on your own body out of view, you will momentarily feel a bizarre sensation—that the rubber hand is your own.
The construction of our body awareness appears to be mediated by specific brain mechanisms involving a region of the cortex known as the temporoparietal junction. Damage to this brain region can generate distorted body awareness, such as feeling a substantially elongated torso. Altered neural activity in this region through artificial stimulation can also produce an out-of- body experience (see this module’s Outside Resources section), in which you feel like your body is in another location and you have a novel perspective on your body and the world, such as from the ceiling of the room.
Remarkably, comparable brain mechanisms may also generate the normal awareness of the sense of self and the sensation of being inside a body. In the context of virtual reality this sensation is known as presence (the compelling experience of actually being there). Our normal localization of the self may be equally artificial, in that it is not a given aspect of life but is constructed through a special brain mechanism.
A Social Neuroscience Theory of Consciousness (Graziano & Kastner, 2011) ascribes an important role to our ability to localize our own sense of self. The main premise of the theory is that you fare better in a social environment to the extent that you can predict what people are going to do. So, the human brain has developed mechanisms to construct models of other people’s attention and intention, and to localize those models in the corresponding people’s heads to keep track of them. The proposal is that the same brain mechanism was adapted to construct a model of one’s own attention and intention, which is then localized in one’s own head and perceived as consciousness. If so, then the primary function of consciousness is to allow us to predict our own behavior. Research is needed to test the major predictions of this new theory, such as whether changes in consciousness (e.g., due to normal fluctuations, psychiatric disease, brain damage) are closely associated with changes in the brain mechanisms that allow us to model other people’s attention and intention.