Dr Patricia Lockwood publishes paper in ‘Nature Communications’

Dr Patricia LockwoodDr Patricia Lockwood, Junior Research Fellow in Psychology at Christ Church, is the lead author on a paper published in the journal Nature Communications. 

The paper, entitled ‘Neural mechanisms for learning self and other ownership’, was published on 12th November. Nature Communications is an open access journal that publishes high-quality research from all areas of the natural sciences. Papers published by the journal represent important advances of significance to specialists within each field.

Summarising her findings, Dr Lockwood said, ‘The sense of ownership is a fundamental aspect of our everyday life. We quickly and rapidly form a feeling of things being ours or other people’s. For example, when we first move in to a new home we don’t always feel that it is ours, but over time we start to feel that ‘it is like home’. We sometimes do not even notice how strong the feeling of ownership has become until we see someone else who is wearing ‘our’ jumper or has bought ‘our’ shoes or has stolen ‘our’ idea. 

‘Psychological ownership is different from legal ownership as it is a feeling that can develop over material objects such as houses and cars, but also immaterial objects such as ideas. It has been thought for over 100 years that we might form a sense of ownership through associating objects with ourselves and other people, but we know very little about how the sense of ownership shapes our behaviour and the parts of the brain that might be involved.

‘Researchers from the University of Oxford conducted a study to test how we develop a sense of ownership, and the biology behind it. They tested 39 healthy adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging while they did a task where they learned over time which objects belonged to themselves, their best friend or to a stranger.

‘They found that people are quite selfish when it comes to ownership – the first time they saw something they were much more likely to say it belonged to them, when it was equally likely to belong to themselves, their best friend or to a stranger. They were also much faster at correctly saying things were theirs and even learnt more quickly which objects were theirs than other people’s.

‘When examining the brain areas that changed over time with strength of ownership the researchers found two parts of the brain already known to be involved in learning and decision-making responded more to self ownership than to other ownership. This suggests that these areas of a brain involved in learning and decision-making are biased to learn about what we own ourselves.

‘Intriguingly, when it came to learning about the ownership of other people, the researchers found a specific part of the brain, the anterior cingulate gyrus, that only responded when learning about friends and strangers and did not respond when learning about oneself. These findings suggest that there might be relatively specialised areas of the brain for learning about what other people own.

‘Overall, these findings could have important implications for understanding how a sense of ownership can change our learning and decision-making and for disorders associated with a distorted sense of ownership or problems with social behaviour.’

Dr Lockwood studied psychology and philosophy at the University of Bristol before completing her PhD at University College London. She is now a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, and Medical Research Council Fellow at the University of Oxford and the University of Zurich. Her work focuses on social learning and decision-making, and how these processes are related to individual differences in health, disease and ageing.

You can read Dr Lockwood's paper on the Nature Communications website