That Old “Chestnut” – The Ego


With Election Day right around the corner, political egos are on full display. One might even think that possessing a “big ego” is a prerequisite for success..But when does a “healthy ego” cross the line into unhealthy territory? Where is the line between confident, positive self-image and grandiose self-importance, which might signal a personality disorder or other psychiatric illness? More fundamentally, what do we mean by ego, from a neural perspective? Is there a brain circuit or neurotransmitter system underlying ego that is different in some people, giving them too much or too little?

What is Ego?
The popular concept of ego is a far cry from what Sigmund Freud elaborated at the turn of the 19th century in his seminal work on psychoanalytical theory. Freud distinguished between:

– primary (id) and secondary (ego) cognitive systems and
– proposed that the id, or unconscious, was characterized by a free exchange of neural energy and more primitive or animistic thinking.
– It was the job of the ego, the conscious mind, to minimize that free energy, to “bind” it and thereby regulate the impulses of the unconscious.

It was Freud’s attempt to “link the workings of the unconscious mind to behavior,”

Ego constructs continue to be used in some psychoanalytical therapies, but beyond that, the term seems to be falling out of favor in modern psychiatry. (“Ego is so last century…Ego is a terrible word. In Freudian theory, ego has a meaning–not a very precise one, but a meaning. But you can’t take the word ego out of Freudian theory and apply it in non-Freudian ways. It just doesn’t work.”

… terms like sense of self or self-identity are more common today. The new diagnostic criteria for personality disorders being developed for the revised APA Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-5) will reflect this newer language….

Where’s the Ego in Neuroscience?
If ego is loosely defined in psychiatric circles, a neural definition is virtually nonexistent. “Ego doesn’t exist in the brain”…What does exist, he explains, is a brain circuit that controls the intrusiveness of feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, which can modulate self-confidence. But, Kagan says, “We are nowhere near naming the brain circuit that might mediate the feeling of ‘God, I feel great; I can conquer the world.’ I believe it’s possible to do, but no one knows that chemistry or that anatomy.”

…it’s a truism that our personality—who we are in totality—is represented in the brain as a complex pattern of synaptic connectivity, because synapses underlie everything the brain does. “We are our synapses,”

… studies have fairly consistently linked self-referential mental activity to the medial prefrontal cortex, a subregion of the frontal lobe where higher-order cognitive functions are processed.

The medial prefrontal cortex is the locus of the brain’s “default mode” network, where metabolic activity is highest when the brain is not actively engaged in a task. During task performance, default mode activity decreases…

Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston of Imperial College London explored that question in a recent article in Brain (Carhart-Harris, 2010), where they proposed that the Freudian ideas of primary and secondary cognitive processes (corresponding to the id and the ego, respectively) “fit comfortably with modern notions of functional brain architecture, at both a computational and neurophysiological level.” Acknowledging the “ambitious” nature of that thesis, the authors reviewed a large body of evidence to support it. Freud’s theory that ego represses id is consistent, they argued, both with the default mode’s characteristic ebb and flow of neuronal activity in opposition to neuronal firing in other brain areas and with theories about the hierarchy of brain systems (e.g., the cortical “thinking” brain is higher-order and therefore regulates the subcortical “primitive” brain).

The Disordered Self
Clues about the neurobiological underpinnings of self can also be seen in psychopathology. “There are a whole range of disorders in which self-identity is affected, in the sense of ‘who am I?’ and ‘how am I distinguished from those around me and things occurring around me?,”

…All personality traits exist on a continuum, Oldham points out, with extremes at either end that sometimes cross the line into psychopathological behavior. The key determinants of whether that line has been crossed are the degree of disruption on interpersonal relations and daily activities. Who goes over the line and who doesn’t involves a complex interplay of genetic factors—comprising up to 50 percent of the risk—and environmental triggers, mostly related to stress. Beyond that, there are many more questions than answers.

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