Is there a clear definition of the ego which is accepted by the neuroscientific community?

I have seen a previous post (What do id, ego and super-ego exactly mean?) but this definition is for the Freudian concept of the ego. In neuroscience, the concept of ‘ego depletion’ is used (Baumeister) - but this has a different connotation.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In what non-Freudian context are you thinking about ego? $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 23 '19 at 18:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ As @Bryan notes, is your question whether there is an equivalent notion of 'ego' in neuroscience, knowing that it is a concept in psychoanalysis, or do you have a reason to believe 'ego' is used in neuroscience? In case of the former, please edit and clarify, in case of the latter, please incorporate a reference where you encountered the concept of ego in neuroscience which needs elaboration. $\endgroup$ – Steven Jeuris Apr 23 '19 at 20:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I’m not interested in ego depletion though, just ego. But the concept of ego (as a controlling mechanism ) used by Baumeister is clearly different to that used by Freud, Jung or the psychoanalysts. I’m interested in a consensus definition of the ego concept in neuroscience. Hope that doesn’t upset anyone. $\endgroup$ – Nick H Apr 23 '19 at 23:03
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ That's just it: I don't think anyone in neuroscience uses the term "ego." $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Apr 24 '19 at 0:06
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I agree with Bryan. Also "ego depletion" is hardly neuroscience either. It's mostly been studied in psychology (there is psychology beyond Freud). See psychology.stackexchange.com/questions/22041/… for the distincion. There are some neuroimaging studies of ego depletion, but most studies of ego depletion are just plain experimental psychology papers. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Apr 24 '19 at 6:21

I've read this opinion in Quartz

Axel Cleeremans pointed out that Freud’s Id-Ego-Superego structure roughly matches onto the Unconscious-Conscious-Metacognition structure of the mind studied in neuroscience today.

“The ‘id’ is what we call the unconscious today or the idea that there’s a vast reservoir of representations that sits there and influences ongoing processing but without being available to conscious awareness,” he says. “The ‘super-ego’ in a sense is connected with meta-cognition, with the idea that in addition to first-order awareness, the technical movie that we have as soon as we wake up and the field of sensations we experience and thoughts we have, there’s an additional monitoring and control system.”

Cleeremans believes that much of Freud’s work has scientific value today. “I think he’s wrongly discredited. He’s discredited for all sorts of political reasons that have nothing to do with the ideas,” he says. While Freud’s work on sexuality and women, for example, are largely dismissed, there’s still considerable value in broad structure of his work. “The core set of ideas hold up,” adds Cleeremans.

YMMV how correct or widely shared that view is. As far as I can tell Cleeremans is a psychologist, not a neuroscientist.

Also Freud's ideas are still pretty popular in France; I don't know about Belgium, but... it's close geographically; Cleeremans holds a professorship at a Francophone Belgian university.

You could also read Rizzolatti et al. "Linking psychoanalysis with neuroscience: the concept of ego." for more details. Looking at the authors' list of this paper, it does seem an interdisciplinary approach (one of the co-authors is affiliated with a neuroscience department). They seem to advance roughly the same analogy as Cleeremans:

We maintain that, in order both to act coherently and to have a basic, first person, understanding of the behavior of others, it is necessary to posit the existence of a neurophysiological "motor" ego similar to the "rider" of the Freudian metaphor. We review then a series of neurophysiological findings showing that the systems underlying the organization of action and conscious perception are both mediated by a cortical motor network formed by parieto-frontal circuits. In conclusion, we show that the activity of this network has strong similarities to that postulated by Freud for the conscious part of ego. We also propose that the default-mode network might represent that part of ego that is mostly involved in unconscious processes.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.