The Neuroscience of self-reflection

When we are not thinking about thinking we are thinking about ourselves apparently. Self-reflection is such a fundamental attribute of mental life than it goes on even when we are not conscious of it.

The reason self-reflection is so important is because it plays a pivotal role in planning and decision-making. Self-reflection that is poorly executed due to unresolved issues becomes evident in subsequent poor planning and flawed decisions at a later stage.

Self-reflection is theorized to occupy as much as 50% of our waking life. Unlike the rest of our thinking it arises seemingly of its own volition instead of as a response to specific stimulus so it is often called stimulus-independent thinking.

Trying to understand this requires us to treat the brain as a task-oriented, goal-focused machine whose executive functions are designed to help it complete them. When that completion is disrupted or worse, interrupted by the internal monologue of self-reflection it stops the brain from achieving its task and we have to ask the simple question: why? What is, if anything, achieved by such seemingly inhibitory mechanism? Is it a bug in the program (so to speak) or does it play a beneficent role we don’t always notice?

First Principles and Core Programming

The brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN) has been identified through functional neuroimaging as the unique set of connections through which the brain engages in activity that establishes the boundaries between the self and the outside world and leads to an evaluation of personality traits and characteristics (self-reflection) in relation to group expectations and social norms.

We know three distinct things about the brain’s Default Mode Network (DMN): First, our notion of the self is the result of neural circuitry that is referred to as a superordinate schema that contains information in a cognitive structure that is kept separate from all other topics. Second, self-reflection (thinking about our self) is an activity that takes place through the DMN. Third, the Default Mode Network is active even when we rest and it overlaps the brain’s network that governs social cognition.

The outcome of these considerations is that self-reflection has an overt social component that is designed to clarify direction in our sense of self, aid in imagining the future and, as such, play a key role in planning and decision-making. But that is not the whole story, apparently.

Good or Bad?

Self-reflection preoccupies the brain with neural activity that directs its attention and resources away from the task at hand. Three proposed theories labelled, respectively Distractability, Executive Failure and Decoupling all of which have more or less in common lack of focus and a lack of discipline in executive functions. Experiments have demonstrated that in such cases the efficiency and quality of tasks bring performed is impaired because the participants lack the mental tools to marshal their mental resources.

There is also a positive side to this however: Self-reflection allows us to time-travel inside our head. It reinforces memories that form part of our sense of identity, it aids in long-term planning and goals and plays a key role in creativity.


Like most things that have to do with the brain and the mind we have here a mechanism that provides an evolutionary advantage (i.e. long term planning, creativity and the ability to see time as a non-binding element inside our head) that helps mitigate the uncertainty provided by the future. At the same time the complexity of our present can trigger this mechanism inadvertently and at the wrong time, undermining our ability to be effective at what we do.

In order to make better use of our mental capabilities we need to be aware of the mental tactics we need to employ: focus, mindfulness and attention and the cognitive competencies we need to develop.

Self-awareness and self-regulation are key to better executive function and decision-making. The bedrock is identity, self-knowledge and a sense of direction and purpose. These are the building blocks of a life that is intentional and in control of its destiny.


Intentional: How to Live, Love, Work and Play Meaningfully by David Amerland   The Sniper Mind by David Amerland