Self-awareness and the subconscious effect of personal pronouns on word encoding: a magnetoencephalography (MEG) study

Neuropsychologia. 2007 Mar 2;45(4):796-809. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.08.017. Epub 2006 Sep 26.


The effect of personal pronouns such as "ein" (German for "a"), "mein" (German for "my") and "sein" (German for "his") on the processing of associated nouns was investigated using MEG. Three different encoding strategies were provided in order to vary the level of consciousness involved in verbal information processing. A shallow (alphabetic), a deep (semantic) and a very deep (contextual) encoding instruction related to visual word presentation were given to all study participants. After the encoding of pronoun-noun pairs, recognition performances of nouns only were tested. The number of correctly recognized nouns previously associated with "sein" was significantly lower than the number of correctly recognized nouns previously associated with "ein" in the shallow encoding condition. The same trend was found for "mein" associated nouns which were also less accurately recognized compared to "ein" associated nouns. Magnetic field distributions recorded during the encoding phases revealed two significant effects, one between about 200 and 400ms after stimulus onset and the other between about 500 and 800ms. The earlier effect was found over occipito-parietal sensors, whereas the later effect occurred over left frontal sensors. Within both time ranges, brain activation varied significantly as a function of associated pronoun independent of depth of word processing. In the respective areas of both time ranges, conditions including personal pronouns ("mein" and "sein") showed higher magnetic field components compared to the control condition of no personal pronouns ("ein"). Evidence is shown that early stage processing is able to distinguish between no personal and personal information, whereas later stage processing is able to distinguish between information related to oneself and to another person (self and non-self). Along with other previous reports our MEG findings support the notion that particular human brain functions involved in processing neurophysiological correlates of self and non-self can be identified.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Awareness / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Occipital Lobe / physiology
  • Paired-Associate Learning / physiology*
  • Parietal Lobe / physiology
  • Personal Construct Theory
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Reading*
  • Self Concept*
  • Semantics*
  • Unconscious, Psychology*
  • Verbal Learning / physiology*