Dartmouth researchers discover a source of self-esteem in the brain


June 16, 2014

A new Dartmouth College study shows that people’s levels of self-esteem are related to how regions of their brains connect, a discovery that could ultimately help improve treatment for depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and more.

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A depiction of the anatomical connections between the ventral striatum and the prefrontal cortex. The strength of these connections correlated with subjects’ self-esteem scores in the study. (Courtesy of Robert Chavez)

Dartmouth researchers found that the connection between the area of the brain dealing with self-knowledge and the area handling reward predicts self-esteem levels. A physically robust connection corresponds with high self-esteem over the long-term, and a well-functioning connection correlates with high self-esteem in the moment.

The final version of the study was published online today and will appear in an upcoming edition of the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

“Very few studies have ever looked at self-esteem from a neurological point of view,” said lead author Robert Chavez, a PhD student in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. “That’s surprising because self-esteem is such an important concept in psychology. People with high self-esteem are less prone to depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and other affective disorders. Our findings could help inform treatments for such conditions down the road.”

Chavez collaborated with Todd Heatherton, the Lincoln Filene Professor in Human Relations at Dartmouth, to scan the brains of 48 individuals as the individuals answered questions about how they viewed themselves both at that moment and in general.

The pair found that people with stronger white matter connections from their medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for self-knowledge) to their ventral striatum (involved in the sensation of reward) demonstrated high long-term self-esteem. People who showed a flurry of activity between the two brain areas had high self-esteem in the moment. While stronger physical connections tended to correspond with high levels of activity, it was not a hard-and-fast rule. In other words, people with strong white matter connections can still have poor functional connectivity, and vice versa.

The study clearly establishes brain anatomy as an important factor for determining self-esteems levels, but the researchers emphasized that other factors are also at work.

“Our results do not imply that you are locked into your self-esteem,” Chavez said. “Beyond brain structure and activity, factors like age, personality, and life circumstances also help determine how people view themselves.”

Chavez added that new evidence suggests brain anatomy may not be as rigid as once thought, pointing to recent studies that showed repeated tasks can sometimes alter the brain’s structure slightly. He and Heatherton hope to explore in the future whether self-esteem enhancement therapies could induce such structural changes in the pathways seen in their study.

Chavez is available to comment at robert.s.chavez.gr@dartmouth.edu or (505) 907-2860; Heatherton is available at todd.f.heatherton@dartmouth.edu.

Media contact: Shea Drefs | shea.m.drefs@dartmouth.edu | 603-646-2255