Evolutionary aspects of self- and world consciousness in vertebrates

Franco Fabbro, Salvatore M. Aglioti, Massimo Bergamasco, Andrea Clarici, Jaak Panksepp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although most aspects of world and self-consciousness are inherently subjective, neuroscience studies in humans and non-human animals provide correlational and causative indices of specific links between brain activity and representation of the self and the world. In this article we review neuroanatomic, neurophysiological and neuropsychological data supporting the hypothesis that different levels of self and world representation in vertebrates rely upon (i) a "basal" subcortical system that includes brainstem, hypothalamus and central thalamic nuclei and that may underpin the primary (or anoetic) consciousness likely present in all vertebrates; and (ii) a forebrain system that include the medial and lateral structures of the cerebral hemispheres and may sustain the most sophisticated forms of consciousness [e.g., noetic (knowledge based) and autonoetic, reflective knowledge]. We posit a mutual, bidirectional functional influence between these two major brain circuits. We conclude that basic aspects of consciousness like primary self and core self (based on anoetic and noetic consciousness) are present in many species of vertebrates and that, even self-consciousness (autonoetic consciousness) does not seem to be a prerogative of humans and of some non-human primates but may, to a certain extent, be present in some other mammals and birds.

Original languageEnglish
Article number157
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - Mar 26 2015


  • Mental time traveling
  • Nervous system evolution
  • Self and world awareness
  • Theory of mind
  • Vertebrate brain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Neurology
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology


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