Dr. Tamami Nakano, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences

Dr. Tamami Nakano, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences

"Who are we? A scientific pursuit of the essence of the self"

Dr. Tamami Nakano attempts to capture the essence of humanity by focusing on higher cognitive functions. She has been looking at the relationship between eyeblinks and human cognitive function and has verified that eyeblinks support the default mode network as homeostasis for one’s mind [1]. This time, her interest is in cognitive function related to eyesight, particularly for human faces.

Uncovering the mechanism behind viewing our own face, even in subliminal images

She has been pursuing the mechanism in the brain that allows for recognition of one’s own face, and recently, her research group has uncovered new information about how our cognitive systems enable us to distinguish our own face from those of others [2], even when the information is presented subliminally. They revealed that a central element of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain was activated when participants were subliminally shown images of their face. This provides new clues regarding the underlying processes of the brain involved in self-facial recognition.

Fig: Subliminal presentation of face (upper) and brain regions showing self-face related activation (bottom).

A large part of the brain is used for eyesight, particularly in recognizing faces. We are better at recognizing our own face than the faces of others, even when the information is delivered subliminally. The results found by Dr. Nakano’s group provided us with new insights regarding the neural mechanisms of self-face advantages. Furthermore, she mentions that people are looking for their own face unconsciously. We know by instinct that we should be aware of how we look as it is necessary for self-defense, which relates to her original research question on the sense of self.

“Who am I?”: Sense of self provides the research question of a lifetime

“Sense of self” has always been at the center of Dr. Nakano’s research. The sense of self in humans is highly developed, leading humans to constantly question their own identity. This is a definitive difference between humans and other animals or even robots. We own our bodies and our sense of self is firmly centered within us. She believes that almost all that we think about is related to ourselves. This rapidly increases during adolescence, as we begin to care more about how others see us. This sense of self makes us express ourselves objectively in the public eye. Dr. Nakano points out that in modern society, people care far too much about the opinions of others, particularly regarding their appearance, which implies an overdevelopment of this sense of self.

Facing a challenging topic as a neuroscientist

Research on the sense of self has been deeply pursued in the field of psychology; however, the sense of self has yet to be elucidated in the field of neuroscience. Dr. Nakano mentions that this is a topic which requires diverse approaches that combine human behavior and the cognitive brain, thus making it a multidisciplinary area of research that even incorporates psychology. Her goal as a scientist is to reveal the true essence of “self” from the perspective of neuroscience.

[1] Tamami Nakano et al. (2012). Blink-related momentary activation of the default mode network while viewing videos. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1214804110

[2] Chisa Ota and Tamami Nakano (2021). Self-Face Activates the Dopamine Reward Pathway without Awareness. Cerebral Cortex. Bhab096. https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhab096

Text: Saori Obayashi/Edit: Christopher Bubb

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