OSAKA, Japan — Enjoy stopping at the mirror to admire yourself every now and again? What may seem like vanity could really just be a natural function of the brain after all. That’s because scientists say that seeing our own face in a mirror or even a selfie triggers feelings of pleasure.

The study by researchers at Osaka University shows that the image of one’s face — even subconsciously — can activate reward pathways in the brain. Their research uncovers new understanding about how our brain enables us to distinguish our own face from those of others, even when the information is presented subliminally.

In the study, a central element of the dopamine reward pathway in the brain was activated when study participants were subliminally shown images of their face. They say their findings, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, provide new clues regarding the underlying processes of the brain involved in self-facial recognition.

“We are better at recognizing our own face compared to faces of others, even when the information is delivered subliminally,” says study lead author Dr. Chisa Ota in a statement. “However, little is known about whether this advantage involves the same brain or different areas that are activated by supraliminal presentation of our face.”

Ota explains that when we are exposed to a subliminal image of our face — meaning we are not fully aware of it — many brain regions are activated, including those that process face information. The brain responds differently to these supraliminal (conscious) and subliminal (subconscious) images of one’s own face compared to faces of others.

However, whether we use the same or different neural networks to process subliminal versus supraliminal faces had not previously been established, something the researchers aimed to address.

They used MRI scanning to examine the differences between brain activity elicited by subliminally presented images of the faces of participants and faces of others. They also examined brain activation produced by subliminally presented images of faces with modified features.

“The results provided us with new insights regarding the neural mechanisms of the self-face advantage,” says study senior author Tamami Nakano, a professor at the university. “We found that activation in the ventral tegmental area, which is a central component of the dopamine reward pathway, was stronger for subliminal presentations of the participant’s face compared with faces of others.”

Instead, she says subliminal presentation of others’ faces induced activation in the amygdala of the brain, which is known to respond to unfamiliar information.

“This difference in brain responses to the face of the participant or those of others was consistent even when the faces were modified, as long as the shapes of the facial features were retained,” adds Nakano.”Our findings indicate that the dopamine reward pathway is involved in enhanced processing of one’s own face even when the information is subliminal. Furthermore, discrimination of one’s own face from those of others appear to rely on the information of facial parts.”

SWNS writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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