Saturday, August 25, 2012

Documentary - Stress: Portrait of a Killer (with Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky)

Open Culture posted this, and I may have posted it here before, but it's good stuff and well-worth the time to watch. Stress is gaining recognition (along with the inflammation it causes) as a primary source of many diseases, so learning to control stress will offer us a better quality of life - and a longer life.

This was a National Geographic documentary, so it's well done and a good use of 52 minutes of your life.

Do Yourself a Favor and Watch Stress: Portrait of a Killer (with Stanford Biologist Robert Sapolsky)

August 22nd, 2012

Intelligence comes at a price. The human species, despite its talent for solving problems, has managed over the millennia to turn one of its most basic survival mechanisms–the stress response–against itself. “Essentially,” says Stanford University neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, “we’ve evolved to be smart enough to make ourselves sick.”

In the 2008 National Geographic documentary Stress: Portrait of a Killer (above), Sapolsky and fellow scientists explain the deadly consequences of prolonged stress. “If you’re a normal mammal,” Sapolsky says, “what stress is about is three minutes of screaming terror on the savannah, after which either it’s over with or you’re over with.” During those three minutes of terror the body responds to imminent danger by deploying stress hormones that stimulate the heart rate and blood pressure while inhibiting other functions, like digestion, growth and reproduction.

The problem is, human beings tend to secrete these hormones constantly in response to the pressures of everyday life. “If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons,” Sapolsky told Mark Shwartz in a 2007 interview for the Stanford News Service, “you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you’re chronically shutting down the digestive system, there’s a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you’re more at risk for as well.”

Chronic stress has also been shown in scientific studies to diminish brain cells needed for memory and learning, and to adversely affect the way fat is distributed in the body. It has even been shown to measurably accelerate the aging process in chromosomes, a result that confirms our intuitive sense that people who live stressful lives grow old faster.

By studying baboon populations in East Africa, Sapolsky has found that individuals lower down in the social hierarchy suffer more stress, and consequently more stress-related health problems, than dominant individuals. The same trend in human populations was discovered in the British Whitehall Study. People with more control in work environments have lower stress, and better health, than subordinates.

Stress: Portrait of a Killer is a fascinating and important documentary–well worth the 52 minutes it takes to watch.

Related content:

Pema Chödrön - Stay With Your Broken Heart

This wisdom quote from Pema Chödrön was posted at Tricycle's Brief Teachings page - this is a hard one to master, but it is also one of the most important skills we can develop. When we can learn to stay with the pain, or sadness, or whatever - rather than stuff it down or try to escape it through addictions - we become more present in our lives, present to others, and less likely to be reactive or defensive. This has been for me a path toward happiness.

Stay with Your Broken Heart

Pema Chödrön

When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism, I always say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he saved my life. When that marriage fell apart, I tried hard—very, very hard—to go back to some kind of comfort, some kind of security, some kind of familiar resting place. Fortunately for me, I could never pull it off. Instinctively I knew that annihilation of my old dependent, clinging self was the only way to go. . . .

Life is a good teacher and a good friend. Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. Nothing ever sums itself up in the way that we like to dream about. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation, a situation in which we don’t get caught and we can open our hearts and minds beyond limit. It’s a very tender, nonaggressive, open-ended state of affairs.

To stay with that shakiness—to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge—that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path. Getting the knack of catching ourselves, of gently and compassionately catching ourselves, is the path of the warrior. We catch ourselves one zillion times as once again, whether we like it or not, we harden into resentment, bitterness, righteous indignation— harden in any way, even into a sense of relief, a sense of inspiration.

Every day we could think about the aggression in the world, in New York, Los Angeles, Halifax, Taiwan, Beirut, Kuwait, Somalia, Iraq, everywhere. All over the world, everybody always strikes out at the enemy, and the pain escalates forever. Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, “Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?” Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, “Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?”

The Buddha Is Still Teaching, selected and edited by Jack Kornfield, © 2010. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.


David Eagleman Day on NPR - The Secrets of the Unconscious Mind

Neuroscientist David Eagleman is the author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (now out in paperback). Yesterday on NPR he was a guest on Talk of the Nation Science Friday, and then on Fresh Air they replayed an interview with him from May of this year. Both interviews are great - he is passionate about what he does and that feeling is contagious.


August 24, 2012
In his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain neuroscientist David Eagleman says "most of what we do and think and feel is not under our conscious control." Eagleman discusses the book, and his latest research on the possible link between time perception and schizophrenia.

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. Up next, discovering the universe inside your skull, and it is a universe. According to my next guest, a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue contains as many nerve connections as there are stars in the Milky Way - billions and billions just in a tiny bit of your brain.

Never mind the other three pounds of brain matter, it's a vast world inside our skulls, and much of it operates without us really knowing or thinking much about it or even understanding it. The secret life of the brain is the subject of David Eagleman's latest book and a focus of his work as a neuroscientist. He is here. It's "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." Dr. Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor's College of Medicine, also director of the Laboratory of Perception and Action and director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law there. He joins us from KUHF in Houston. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DAVID EAGLEMAN: Thanks, Ira, good to be here.

FLATOW: The secret lives of the brain, not the life of the brain but the lives of the brain.

EAGLEMAN: Well, it turns out there's so much happening under the hood there that we're not consciously aware of, and it turns out you're not one thing. In other words, brains aren't like a computer program that run and make decisions. Instead it's like there are competing programs in there.

And as a result, the analogy I use in the book is that the brain's more like a parliament, with different political parties that have different drives(ph), and you only have one output channel for your behavior. And so all these parts of your brain are always battling it out to steer the ship of state.

FLATOW: All the time. Give us an idea. What kind of argument - what kind of mud-throwing is going on in the parliament of our brain in there?

EAGLEMAN: Well, we're all familiar with let's say temptation. So if I offer you some warm chocolate chip cookies, part of your brain wants to eat that, part of your brain says don't eat it, you're going to get fat, and you argue with yourself, maybe you contract with yourself. You say OK, I'm going to eat it, but only if I promise that I'm going to work out tomorrow.

And so the question is: Who's talking with whom here? It's all you, but you have parts of your brain that are invested in impulses and gratifying those impulses. You have other parts of your brain that care about the long term. They understand you as a creature who lives through time. And everything in between. All these different time scales, different drives, and so they always have to fight it out under there.

FLATOW: Yeah, 1-800-989-8255, talking with David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." And the brain has been kept secret for so many years, it's...

EAGLEMAN: That's right. The reason I use the word secret in there is because the most remarkable thing to me as a neuroscientist, as I spent my career studying this, is the vastness of the operation going on in there. The brain, it's commonly noted, is the most complicated thing we've ever found in the universe. Every single thing you do is underpinned by lightning storms of brain activity, even the simplest things.

Just lifting a cup of coffee to your mouth is an enormously complicated act, as we know from trying to make robots do even simple things. And yet all of this happens invisibly for you. When you lift the coffee, you don't know anything about the nerves and the tendons and the muscles and the exquisite symphony of signals that allows it to happen. It just seems to happen for free.

FLATOW: Yeah, you know, just even - to me what's very fascinating, I know all of the things that go on in your brain, but just knowing where you are in time and space, right? You know, you're sitting or standing, keeping your balance, knowing where you are, knowing the spatial relationships, how you can reach out and touch something and not miss it.

EAGLEMAN: That's right, although, you know, this leads to an interesting point, which is that you buy, you believe whatever your brain serves up to you. And so the example you just made about knowing where you are in time and space, we're not always so accurate.

So when you are asleep and dreaming, you believe you have all kinds of things going on in time and space that are not true. So it turns out whatever your neural circuits are feeding up to you, you buy that and take that to be reality, but it's not always necessarily the case.

And things like visual illusions are very interesting to neuroscientists. They're also interesting to third-graders, and then everyone else forgets about them. But the reason they're interesting to neuroscientists is because we think that we open our eyes and we're seeing the world.

But in fact what visual illusions demonstrate is there's a lot of computation going on under the hood to construct this illusion of vision, and it's only when we can find these little cracks in the system that we say, wow, it ain't what you think it is going on out there. Instead, what's happening is your brain is doing massive computations and deciding what the best story is for what's out there, and then you believe that, the conscious you.

FLATOW: Yeah, can you change people's perception of time, make them think something is happening in a certain sequence when it's not, or time is slowing down, things like that?

EAGLEMAN: So this is the work my lab has been doing for the last decade or so. It turns out that not only is vision a construction of the brain that's manipulable, but so is time. There are temporal illusions that we've discovered, just like visual illusions, and it turns out it's quite easy to manipulate these things.

And what that demonstrates is that time is not just flowing past like a river the way Newton thought about it or most people do think about it, but it turns out that it's a - it's something that the brain is actively constructing. And in answer to your question, yes, we can make - in the laboratory we can make you believe that something happened before something else, even though it was the other way around.

So let me give you a one-second example of this. If I have you press a button, and that causes a flash of light, then you, you know, immediately figure out that you're causing the flash of light by pressing the button. But now let's say I insert a very small delay in there, so when you hit the button, there's a tenth of a second before the flash of light.

Now, it turns out, it's such a small delay, you don't even notice it, but if you train up on that, let's say you press the button 10 times, and now I remove that delay, when you next hit the button, and the flash happens immediately, you will think that the flash happened before you pressed the button.

In other words, there's an illusory reversal of action and effect. You will think that you didn't cause that flash, and instead you'll say, oh, it happened just before I got there. And the reason this is important is because when my student and I discovered this a few years ago, I realized, my gosh, that's exactly what schizophrenic patients do. They have what's called credit misattribution, where they'll do something, and they'll say, whoa, it wasn't me, I didn't do it, I wasn't the one who caused that.

And what I realized is that at bottom, making causality judgments is a temporal issue. You have to - you have to learn the order that I put out the motor act, then I got the sensory feedback, therefore I'm the one who caused it. But if you get the timing wrong by even a few thousandths of a second, you're going to have a completely different interpretation of the world.

And what I hypothesized at that time is that schizophrenia might fundamentally be a disorder of time perception, and the more I started looking into this, the more I think this is probably right.

For example, you're always generating an internal voice and listening to it. You're always talking to yourself on the inside. But imagine now you got the timing wrong so that you think you heard the voice before you generated it. That would be an auditory hallucination. You would have to interpret that as somebody else's voice.

So if schizophrenia is fundamentally a disorder of time, and that's what we're studying right now, that suggests entirely new rehabilitative strategies. Instead of pumping people full of meds, what if we could just sit them down and have them play videogames that recalibrate their timing?

So this is why studying very basic science things like time can really end up having a lot of importance for bigger issues.


FLATOW: If it's - could it be that simple?

EAGLEMAN: Oh, it - who knows. I mean, like any scientific theory, there are 100 ways this could go wrong. But it might be. It might be that at bottom there's a fundamental problem in schizophrenia that leads to fragmented cognition and then these strange interpretations and stories about what's happened in the world.

FLATOW: Well, we always talk about the nature-nurture problem on anything in the body or the mind. Could there also be the nature side, which is some sort of inherited chemistry imbalance that might cause it, and might that be causing the time delay that you're talking about?

EAGLEMAN: Yes, I mean the general story with the nature-nurture question is it's a totally dead question because the answer is always both. And when it comes to schizophrenia, you do find identical twins, one of whom ends up expressing schizophrenia, and one does not, and that's how we know that there's this interaction.

Even things like smoking marijuana when you're a teenager has a correlation with expressing schizophrenia later if you have the genetic predisposition for that. So - but all that tells us is that time perception is a biological issue. In other words, if you have this particular set of genes mixed with this set of experiences, that can make the system go awry in a very particular way.

And I think what that is is, in the way of time perception, that's what - that's the part that's breaking.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can get some phone calls. Lots of people want to call. Let's go to Gary in our nation's capital, in Washington. Hi, Gary.

GARY: Hi. I want to - I want to know whether Mr. Eagleman, whether he believes that brain creates mind or whether he believes they are two separate, interacting entities. And I want to know whether he believes his answer is a well-informed opinion or a scientific fact.

EAGLEMAN: Thank you so much for that very important question, Gary. First of all, we essentially never use the term scientific fact, because all science ever gives us is the best story at any given moment where the weight of evidence best supports it, but things always turn over.

As far as the question about whether brain creates the mind, whether the mind is an emergent property of the physical system, that's, I would say, the main hypothesis in modern neuroscience, is that somehow the mind emerges from the brain. And I'll tell you why.

It's because in Descartes' time, for example, Descartes suggested that the brain and the mind are two separate issues. You've got your physical stuff, but then you've got this other thing, your soul, and these are separable. But Descartes never saw patients with brain damage.

And it turns out when you see people with strokes and tumors and traumatic brain injury and so on, the lesson that emerges and becomes very clear is that you are irrevocably tied to this three pounds of tissue in your skull. And when it changes, you change.

When it gets damaged, things change with you. You lose the capacity to name animals or understand music or see colors. Or your decision-making changes. Your risk aversion changes. Your capacity to simulate possible futures and evaluate them - these all change when the brain changes. And that's how we know that these are tied together. They're inseparable.

Now whether the mind is nothing but the emergent property of the brain, that has yet to be proven. As I said, it's the driving hypothesis in the field. But we'll only really know that once we get to a point where we can simulate a brain in its entirety, and then we'll ask it. Hey, how do you feeling there? And, you know, we'll see if it passes the Turing test or, you know...

FLATOW: Right.

EAGLEMAN: ...seems to be a conscious being. So that's so - that's where it stands, is we think probably the mind is an emergent property of the brain, but we don't know it for sure.

FLATOW: Is consciousness a synonym for the mind?

EAGLEMAN: You know, it can be. I usually just refer to consciousness as the part of you that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning, because everybody knows what I mean by that.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

EAGLEMAN: You know, when you're asleep, you've got the same brain, but there's some bit that's missing there, and that's the part we call consciousness, your awareness of what's going on around you - of the world that way.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

And what is the difference between subconscious mind and your unconscious mind?

EAGLEMAN: Thank you for that. Those are synonymous. Those are equivalent terms.

EAGLEMAN: Freud used the term subconscious, and then modern neuroscience, in certain ways, wants to distinguish itself from some Freudian ideas. And so many people now use the term unconscious for that, which is a little unfortunate, first of all, because Freud actually had several very good ideas. Not all of them are right, but he had some good ideas.

The other thing is that unconscious is a bit of a confusing term, because it's also what happens when you go into a coma. But what - in this conversation, when we use the word unconscious, we mean all the stuff happening under the radar of conscious awareness.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

EAGLEMAN: So, you know, your heartbeat, your respiration, the peristalsis in your gut and essentially everything you think and believe and so on is happening in ways that you don't have acquaintance with or access to in your brain.

FLATOW: Let's go to Stu(ph) in Palo Alto. Hi, Stu.

STU: Hi, Ira. How are you?


STU: I just was really wondering if science has learned anything recently about the concept of deja vu. In other words, you walk into a room and you see something, and you swear you've seen that before. Have your studies shown anything more about that?

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Thanks for the question. It turns out deja vu probably doesn't have to do with time. Instead, it has to do with memory, and specifically with matching a template. So when you walk into a place where you actually have been before, you're doing some sort of matching where you say, ah, yes, this, there, and that room's there and this person's over here. And it all sort of clicks together, and that's familiarity.

And what happens sometimes is you walk into a place, and your brain is struggling to match a template that sort of works, that mostly works, but it's not quite clicking into place. And that seems to be what happens with deja vu.

And, of course, some people think that deja vu is really where you're maybe seeing a step ahead into the future. And if anyone ever tells that to you, the next time they have deja vu, just take out $20 and say, I will give you these $20 if you tell me what's going to happen next. And, of course, they can't actually tell you what happens next. It's just that everything that happens, they think, yeah, I kind of knew that.

FLATOW: Mm. Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Before the break, I want to - do you think we can - we will actually be able to model the mind in its totality with computers or - artificial intelligence has not really worked out.

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. I mean - look, I mean, AI, you know, from the 1960s, we've been throwing the smartest people on the planet at that problem, and it's a total failure in terms of, you know, in terms of where we've actually gotten. I expected, by this point...


EAGLEMAN: ...we would have robots everywhere. We'd have C-3PO. And we don't. And what that illustrates is it's just a really, really hard problem. And so I think the game has changed a bit, so that what we're really wanting to do now is figure out, well, how did Mother Nature solve the problem? She had billions of years and trillions of experiments in parallel, and she's come up with tricks that we haven't even dreamt of yet. And so the new game is to go inside the head and figure out what's actually getting implemented there.

And as far as whether we'll ever be able to simulate the mind in its entirety, it's a totally open question. I mean, we will be able to - who knows, 30 years or something - run a full-scale simulation of a brain. And then the question is, is that sufficient? Can you reproduce the brain in zeroes and ones? Or is there something special about the wet biological stuff that's necessary?

FLATOW: Yeah, because it has all those connections, you know, that we need to have all of those connections for a reason, so...

EAGLEMAN: Right. I mean, you can simulate all of the connections, but is there something special, for example, some quantum-mechanical property that happens inside neurons? And people debate this vigorously on all sides. The fact is it's just not known, and we'll just have to get there and simulate it to know that answer.

FLATOW: Yeah, (unintelligible) experiment. Eric Kandel will come on and talk this over with you. OK. We're going to take a break. Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Talking with David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." If you'd like to, as I say, give us a call: 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri. Let the tweets coming in, and also, we can talk about it on our Facebook page and our website. So stay around. More questions and some answers after this break. Don't go away. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Talking with David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." A great read, it's very, very interesting if you want to think about the mind. David, you describe in your book the story of Charles Whitman. He's a man who, in Austin in 1966, shot more than 40 people, killed his wife and his mother. We all heard about that, those of us old enough, like me, to remember that. But it's an interesting case. Tell us about that case.

EAGLEMAN: Well, for those who don't remember or know about the story, he climbed up on the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, yeah. And he opened fire randomly on people. He killed pedestrians. He killed the people who came to help them. He killed the ambulance drivers who came to help them. And it was such an act of random violence. And when the Austin police finally got to the top and killed him, of course, what everyone wanted to know is who is this guy? And what they discovered was that it was a surprise.

There was nothing about this guy that would have presaged that kind of behavior. So he was an engineering student. He works as a bank teller. He had been an Eagle Scout. And what they pieced together, eventually, by looking at his diary and also at the suicide note he wrote the night before is that Whitman was very smart, first of all. He has a very high IQ. He was very insightful. And he said, over the course of the year before this happened, something inside of me is changing, and I don't understand it.

But I'm becoming somebody different. And I've got this irrational anger, and I can't control this anger. And he went to see a psychiatrist in 1966, but he didn't get any relief from that. And he said in his suicide note, when this is all over, I want an autopsy to be performed. And that's exactly what happened. And they discovered that he had a brain tumor that was growing, and it was impinging on a part of his brain called the amygdala, which is involved in fear and aggression.

And he was introspective enough and insightful enough to know that something was changing and to demand this autopsy. And that's, you know, just one of hundreds of cases that we can talk about where somebody's brain changes and their behavior changes. And this again illustrates the point that we are tied to this biology, we're the sum total of this biology. And this leads to - this lead us right in the heart of a very deep question about things like culpability and blameworthiness.

And one of the things I do is I direct the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law, and we seek to understand what's going on in different brains. It turns out brains are very different from one another. They're like fingerprints. Everyone's got them, but they're quite different. People see the world differently. They see reality differently. They have very different approaches and personalities. And our legal system essentially imagines that all brains are created equal.

If you're over 18 years old and you have an IQ of over 70, it's imagined that all brains have equal capacities for decision making, for simulating possible futures, for impulse control and so on. And it's a very nice idea, but it's demonstrably incorrect. And so a legal system that has some more science baked into it would be able to do more refined sentencing and more customized rehabilitation. As it stands now, we use incarceration as a one-size-fits-all solution.

We put everybody in jail. You probably know that America incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizens than any country in the world. And aside from any conversation we might have about the humanity of that, it's not cost effective and has extremely low utility. And as it stands out, our prison system, 35 percent of the people in the prison system have mental illness, which means that our prison system has become our mental health care system. And this is not the right thing for us to be doing.

We also stuff our prisons with drug addicts. And, you know, we know so much about the circuitry and pharmacology of the brain at this point, that there are so many fruitful things we can be doing to help people break their drug addiction rather than incarcerating them - which is expensive for us and it's damaging to the person who's incarcerated. So neuroscience and the law seeks to have a much more refined understanding about why individuals act differently. It doesn't let anybody off the hook. It doesn't exculpate anybody. But it does allow us to do customized sentencing and rehabilitation.

FLATOW: So instead of sending someone to prison where they're not going to really get rehabilitated, you recommend some other line to be taken.

EAGLEMAN: Well, right. You know, it turns out - I'm not opposed to incarceration because for - if you have a well-functioning - normally functioning brain, then that plugs right into these reward-and-punishment systems, and hopefully it might change your behavior into the future. But it doesn't do any good to incarcerate somebody whose deliberative systems in their brains are not working. You can't get a schizophrenic to break rocks in the hot summer sun and hope that that's going to change their behavior or somehow make them pro-social. So the punishment has to fit the brain. And you know, again, I have to emphasize that we'll continue to take bad actors off the street. This doesn't let anybody off the hook, but it does mean that we can do things to encourage pro-social behavior and get people back out into society when they're able to be.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It seems like you're talking about the brain variability and possibility that tumors or other brain disorders are causing this kind of behavior. How do we know what someone's quote, unquote, "real character" is, then, if there are all these other things that is influencing your - what - who you are?

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. You know, in "Incognito," I have a chapter called "Will the Real Mel Gibson Please Stand Up?? Because I was interested some years ago when he got arrested in Malibu and he said to the cop, are you a Jew? And it turns out the police officer was Jewish. And Gibson spouted off with all sorts of anti-Semitic comments, really horrible stuff. And so that got on - that, you know, that leaked out, and the whole media was talking about it the next day.

So Gibson writes a couple days later a - what seemed to be a genuinely apologetic letter for this. And he said, look, I was drunk, and it's no excuse for saying things like that. He said, but it's not how I feel. Some of my best friends are Jewish - which is true. He had been hanging out at his friend's house that afternoon who's Jewish. And he's - he was very apologetic. So the question is: Who's the real Mel Gibson? The one who spouts off the anti-Semitic comments? Or the one who is contrite about that later and apologizes?

And the answer - I only bring this up as a rhetorical thing, because the answer is both. You are the sum total of what's going on in your brain. People are interestingly nuanced and complicated and can have contradictory drives and ideas inside of them. And both of those people are Mel Gibson.

FLATOW: Do you ever think of yourself as taking on the new Oliver - as being the new Oliver Sacks of our time, who writes about cases and thoughtful like you are?

EAGLEMAN: Interesting. I mean, so there's only one Oliver Sacks, and I love him. You know, I think maybe I've got a slightly different niche in the ecosystem, because he's a neurologist who sees patients. I'm a neuroscientist who runs a research laboratory. And so I get the great opportunity to be living during this blossoming of modern neuroscience. You know, I'm using every available technology, from genetics to neuroimaging, to deep-brain stimulation in patients, to really get to explore things hopefully at even the next level.

FLATOW: You know, it seems like neuroscience is really, as you say, the hot new thing. We see the prefix neuro on everything: neuro-economics, neuro-education.

EAGLEMAN: Neuro-radio. That's what this is. Yeah.

EAGLEMAN: It turns out, you know, it turns out - yeah, I've noticed that, as well. And sometimes, that prefix has meaning. Often, it has very little meaning or none. It's probably a spectrum, so I have no - for example, I happen to really care a lot about K-12 education, and I've noticed that everybody calls everything neuro-education now. And sometimes it's predicated on some kind of good ideas, and sometimes it's totally meaningless. So one has to be careful, too, when interpreting that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Because it's just there to get your attention if we call it neuro something.

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Exactly. It's just - it's - yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to Mary in Vacaville, California. Hi, Mary.

MARY: Yeah. Hi. Yeah, I was wondering if there's any scientific research (technical difficulties) in sleep. What could you tell us about that that you find most interesting? And I've been reading about sleep architecture, a term I hadn't heard before, and how it's constructed in levels down, up, down, up, and then it seems there's a lot still to be learned about that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. My apologies to those in Vacaville, California.

MARY: Yeah actually got it.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. I even know where that is. Go ahead. David, you want...

MARY: (Technical difficulties)

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Well, thank you for that question, Mary. Sleep is one of my favorite topics. I wrote an article five years ago called "Ten Unsolved Question of Neuroscience," and to me, one of the biggest ones is: Why do brains sleep and dream? And there are several theories. There have been historically many ideas about this, but I'll tell you which one seems the most correct at this point, which is it has everything to do with learning and memory.

It has to do with consolidation of the information that you pull in during the day. So the brain is like a piece of hardware that runs two different software programs, very different programs. So when you're awake, you're pulling in lots of information. Then you go to sleep, you switch over the whole factory and you run, really, a different program going on there, which takes out the neural trash and puts things together, and it's absolutely necessary. As, you know, if you deprive somebody of sleep, they'll spin into delusion and madness, eventually.

FLATOW: Yeah. Thanks, Mary. I want to go Dan in Tucson, because he has a similar sort of question. Dan?

DAN: Yeah. I had a very similar question. Had to do - my father used to ponder the fact of whether we had previous-life experiences, and he was pretty skeptical. But the one question he couldn't answer is: How are we able to envision new people, places and things in our dreams? And I was wondering if maybe you could talk to how we could create these images if we had not experienced them before.

EAGLEMAN: Well, thanks for that question. And I love it, because that's one that I've been asking since I was a little kid. And, in fact, I thought so deeply about that question, that I started having really funny dreams about that question. And in my dream, I was in a restaurant and I stood up and I said, OK, everybody quiet. I said, I know that you're a construction of my head, and how did you get here?

And I went up to one of my dream characters and I said, show me what you have in your pockets. And so he pulled out his pockets. He had some coins and some Chapstick and whatever. And I thought: How does my brain construct this so quickly, where whatever question I pose, it will cook up some answer? So I also find that a terrific question, how the brain does it. We don't have any evidence, not a shred of evidence suggesting that this is explained by previous life experience, although, you know, every - science has broad table, and we can keep many hypothesis on that table, but there's no evidence supporting that at the moment.

DAN: But I will say, let's assume that it's just a construction, a generation of the brain - as Shakespeare said, coinage of your brain - that it just illustrates how much is going on under that hood that you don't have access to.

EAGLEMAN: The fact that your brain can make up plots that you think the conscious you wouldn't 
have thought of, or sometimes in dreams, there's a joke that you find quite funny and you think, well, I wouldn't have thought of that joke. But something in your head did, presumably, and so it's just a good consciousness razor about how much is happening in the factory down there.

FLATOW: Rod Serling made a whole career out of this sort of dreaming.


FLATOW: I'm talking with David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain," on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

So much to talk about, so much to discuss. But before we go, I have a few minutes left. I want to talk to you about "Perception," the TV show. You are the science advisor for that, correct? Tell us a bit about that.

EAGLEMAN: That's right. Well, it's been a real pleasure for me. So it's - so "Perception" is a new show on TNT. It's about a neuroscientist who happens to be schizophrenic, and he happens to, every week, end up in some situation where he helps the FBI solve crimes. So you might think that the plot is, you know, it's a little unlikely, but no more so than any other television show. But what's lovely about it is that every week, the show gets to introduce some new issue in neuroscience, some disorder, some strange thing about memory, about face blindness, about whatever it is. And the talented scriptwriters for this show, you know, spin a wonderful narrative around this with plot twists and everything else.

But I think it gives viewers a real opportunity to dig in and learn something new about science. And I'm a real believer in the endeavor of dissemination of science, the popularization of science. And I think, you know, I mean, in the end, it's television, and one can criticize all day long. But, in fact, it gives people - it plants seeds for deeper exploration for all the millions of people who watch the show and think, well, that's interesting. I've never even heard of that. Maybe I should look into neuroscience a little bit more deeply. So I'm really happy about it.

FLATOW: Yeah. We've had the - I think the producer of the program has been on, talking about it. And we're great believers here that entertainment and the arts and - have a great connection to the sciences as a way of understanding both of them and...

EAGLEMAN: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: stimulating conversation about both of them. Do you come up with any of the ideas, or do they run an idea past you? Or you say, hey, this is a great idea for us for a show.

EAGLEMAN: The way it works is I sat down with the writer. It was actually Skype meeting, but I 
met with the writer several times. And I said, look, here are ideas that you guys could use as, you know, as the scene, you grow something out of it. So, you know, there's this disorder. There's this symptom. There's this thing that happens. And then they go off. And months later, they, you know, pass a script over to me. And then I go through - my job then is to go through and make sure everything's factually correct.

FLATOW: That's great. That's great.


FLATOW: And so now, you've done with "Incognito." What - where do you go from here? What interests you now?

EAGLEMAN: Well, I've got my next five books under contract. So...

FLATOW: Really?

EAGLEMAN:'s moronic. Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: Five of them.

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. It's a little painful, but...

FLATOW: Can you give us some idea what your - what kinds of things you're looking into?

EAGLEMAN: Sure. I mean, my next book is about time. It's about everything I've been doing this last decade in the world of time perception, because it's such an amazing world, I think, and it's a little-known world. So I'm doing it on time. I've got a book on neurolaw, because it's a, you know, it's a really important topic, I think. I have a book on brain plasticity - in other words, how the brain is always rewriting its own circuitry on the fly and what that means, and how we could build machines modeled off that. So, you know, the book is all about the brain, but it ends with this call for bio-inspired machinery of a totally different type than we build now. And then two textbooks for undergraduates.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, you want to keep busy, don't you?

EAGLEMAN: I'm finding ways to fill my time. Yeah.

FLATOW: David, thank you so much for taking time to be with us today.

EAGLEMAN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And if it's - you filled that very well. David Eagleman, author of "Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain." He is a neuroscientist at Baylor's College of Medicine, also director of the laboratory of Perception and Action, director of the Initiative on Neuroscience and the Law, and takes time to talk with us and write books and stuff like that. Thanks for being with us again today.

EAGLEMAN: A pleasure.

* * * * * * *

Dr. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and writer. He directs the Laboratory of Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and writer. He directs the Laboratory of Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine.

August 24, 2012
This interview was originally broadcast on May 31, 2011. David Eagleman's Incognito is now out in paperback.

Your brain doesn't like to keep secrets. Studies at the University of Texas, Austin, have shown that writing down secrets in a journal or telling a doctor your secrets actually decreases the level of stress hormones in your body. Keeping a secret, meanwhile, does the opposite.
Your brain also doesn't like stress hormones. So when you have a secret to tell, the part of your brain that wants to tell the secret is constantly fighting with the part of your brain that wants to keep the information hidden, says neuroscientist David Eagleman.

"You have competing populations in the brain — one part that wants to tell something and one part that doesn't," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And the issue is that we're always cussing at ourselves or getting angry at ourselves or cajoling ourselves. ... What we're seeing here is that there are different parts of the brain that are battling it out. And the way that that battle tips, determines your behavior."

Eagleman's new book, Incognito, examines the unconscious part of our brains — the complex neural networks that are constantly fighting one another and influencing how we act, the things we're attracted to, and the thoughts that we have.

"All of our lives — our cognition, our thoughts, our beliefs — all of these are underpinned by these massive lightning storms of [electrical] activity [in our brains,] and yet we don't have any awareness of it," he says. "What we find is that our brains have colossal things happening in them all the time."
On today's Fresh Air, Eagleman explains how learning more about the unconscious portions of our brain can teach us more about time, reality, consciousness, religion and crime.

Eagleman is a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine and directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action. He is also the author of Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia and Sum: Forty Takes from the Afterlives.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Authors@Google: Howard Friedman, "The Measure of a Nation"

Interesting talk . . . . Friedman is author of The Measure of a Nation: How to Regain America's Competitive Edge and Boost Our Global Standing. Based on things like infant mortality rate, number of citizens per representative, percentage of women in national legislature, global peace index, voter turnout, and yearly days spent in school for children, we are not among the world leaders. In fact, we pretty much trail most of the other nations Friedman uses for comparison.

Here is a little of the publisher's commentary on the book:
This book focuses on how to improve America by first comparing its performance with thirteen competitive industrial nations, then identifying the best practices found throughout the world that can be adopted here in the United States. Friedman lays out some disturbing facts about America's lack of competitiveness in five key areas: health, education, safety, equality, and even democracy. Taking the approach that "data doesn't lie," Friedman notes alarming statistics, for example:
  • Americans have the lowest life expectancy among all competitor nations.
  • Americans are at least two times more likely to be murdered and four times more likely to be incarcerated than any other competitor country, including Japan, France, and the United Kingdom.
  • America shows the sharpest disparity between rich and poor among all nations on its competitor list.
Using charts that clearly illustrate the unbiased, party-neutral data, Friedman uncovers the major problem areas that the nation must address to become a leader again. Homing in on best practices from other countries than can be adapted to the United States, Friedman plots a course to transform America from a corporate behemoth burdened by internal issues and poor performance to a thriving business with an exciting portfolio of solutions.

Enjoy the talk.

Authors@Google: Howard Friedman, "The Measure of a Nation"

If America were a corporation, how would an independent analyst judge its ability to compete against other corporate giants? According to UN statistician Howard Steven Friedman, that hypothetical analyst would label America a corporate dinosaur and recommend that the nation either change or face extinction.

Recent Research on Schizophrenia Reveals How Little We Know

Over the past several weeks, several high profile studies on schizophrenia have been released, one of the most complex and confusing mental illnesses we can experience. Most simply, schizophrenia is characterized by disordered thinking and lack of affect regulation - this often manifests as auditory hallucinations, delusions (sometimes paranoid), or highly idiosyncratic speech (word salad) and cognition, along with considerable social or work dysfunction.

Age of onset is typically 15-35 (young adulthood), although I am reading about early-onset schizophrenia in children (a diagnosis I find troubling at best). Prevalence is about 1/2 to 1%. There is no "test" for the disease, so diagnosis is based on behavior and the patient's self-report.

So far, no single isolated organic, social, or environmental cause has been identified (duh!?). So these studies represent the latest efforts in trying to understand this disease (if it is an actual disease).

Schizophrenic Brains Try to Repair

Neuroscience Research Australia
Monday, 06 August 2012

Most neurons are found in tissue near the surface of the brain, but people with schizophrenia have a high density of neurons in deeper areas. The researchers suggest this is because the neurons are migrating towards the surface, where they are lacking, in response to the disease. Image: Sashkinw/iStockphoto

New NeuRA research shows that the brains of people with schizophrenia may attempt to repair damage caused by the disease, in another example of the adult brain’s capacity to change and grow.

Prof Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Dr Dipesh Joshi and colleagues from Neuroscience Research Australia studied the brains of people with schizophrenia and focussed on one of the hardest-hit regions, the orbitofrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in regulating emotional and social behaviour.

Most neurons – brain cells that transmit information – are found in tissue near the surface of the brain. However, in the brains of people with schizophrenia, the team found a high density of neurons in deeper areas.
Read more.

* * * * * * *

This is from PLoS ONE - just the abstract, the whole article is available by clicking on the title link.

Abnormal Neural Responses to Social Exclusion in Schizophrenia

Victoria B. Gradin1*, Gordon Waiter2, Poornima Kumar3, Catriona Stickle4, Maarten Milders5, Keith Matthews1, Ian Reid4, Jeremy Hall6, J. Douglas Steele1

1 Medical Research Institute, University of Dundee, Dundee, United Kingdom, 2 Biomedical Imaging Center, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, United Kingdom, 3 Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom, 4 Institute of Mental Health, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, United Kingdom, 5 Department of Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, United Kingdom, 6 Division of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom


Social exclusion is an influential concept in politics, mental health and social psychology. Studies on healthy subjects have implicated the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), a region involved in emotional and social information processing, in neural responses to social exclusion. Impairments in social interactions are common in schizophrenia and are associated with reduced quality of life. Core symptoms such as delusions usually have a social content. However little is known about the neural underpinnings of social abnormalities. The aim of this study was to investigate the neural substrates of social exclusion in schizophrenia. Patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls underwent fMRI while participating in a popular social exclusion paradigm. This task involves passing a ‘ball’ between the participant and two cartoon representations of other subjects. The extent of social exclusion (ball not being passed to the participant) was parametrically varied throughout the task. Replicating previous findings, increasing social exclusion activated the mPFC in controls. In contrast, patients with schizophrenia failed to modulate mPFC responses with increasing exclusion. Furthermore, the blunted response to exclusion correlated with increased severity of positive symptoms. These data support the hypothesis that the neural response to social exclusion differs in schizophrenia, highlighting the mPFC as a potential substrate of impaired social interactions.

Full Citation:  
Gradin VB, Waiter G, Kumar P, Stickle C, Milders M, et al. (2012). Abnormal Neural Responses to Social Exclusion in Schizophrenia. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42608. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042608

* * * * * * *

Brain Abnormalities in Schizophrenia Due to Disease, Not Genetics

By Associate News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on August 3, 2012 
Brain Abnormalities in Schizophrenia Due to Disease, Not Genetics 

The brain differences found in people with schizophrenia are mainly the result of the disease itself or its treatment, as opposed to being caused by genetic factors, according to a Dutch study.

“Our study did not find structural brain abnormalities in nonpsychotic siblings of patients with schizophrenia compared with healthy control subjects, using multiple imaging methods,” the team says.

“This suggests that the structural brain abnormalities found in patients are most likely related to the illness itself.”
 Read the whole article.

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Schizophrenia Linked to Inflammation in the Brain

By Associate News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on August 8, 2012 
Schizophrenia Linked to Inflammation in the Brain 

The brains of people with schizophrenia may be under attack by their own immune system, say Australian researchers, who are offering the strongest proof so far of an association between schizophrenia and an immune dysfunction.

About 40 percent of people who suffer from schizophrenia have increased inflammation in an area of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — a key brain region affected by the disease.

“To find this immune pattern in nearly half of people with schizophrenia raises the possibility that this is in fact a new root cause of the disease,” said senior author of the study, Cyndi Shannon Weickert, Ph.D., from Neuroscience Research Australia and UNSW.

Read more.

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Brain Hemispheres Out of Sync in Schizophrenia

By Associate News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on August 22, 2012
Brain Hemisphere Coordination Reduced in Schizophrenia

People with schizophrenia have significantly decreased interhemispheric coordination compared to those without the disorder, according to a new study.

Researchers discovered that interhemispheric connectivity was especially reduced in the occipital lobe, the thalamus and the cerebellum areas of patients with schizophrenia.
Read the whole article.

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Face in the Mirror More Distorted in Schizophrenia

By Associate News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on August 11, 2012 
Face in the Mirror More Distorted in Schizophrenia 

Individuals with schizophrenia experience more intense perceptual illusions while gazing into a mirror than do healthy people, according to a new study.

The new research also showed that patients with schizophrenia were more likely to believe the illusions they see in the mirror were real.

The research highlights the underlying ego dysfunction and body dysmorphic disorder found in schizophrenia.

According to the researchers, gazing at one’s own reflected face under low light can lead to ghostly experiences called “strange-face in the mirror” illusions. No study has previously focused on mirror gazing in schizophrenic patients, who already experience delirium, hallucination and self mis-attribution.

Read more.

How the Brain Works - Ben Goertzel (H+ Magazine)

In this article, originally published in H+ Magazine, Ben Goertzel offers a Neuroscience 101 paper spiced up with his synthesis of other information that fleshes out one particular model of brain science - his. It's a geeky but interesting piece, certainly worth a few minutes to read it.

Other popular models involve duct tape and hamsters in wheels . . . and bacon.

How the Brain Works

Ben Goertzel

Posted: Aug 6, 2012

The human brain is a big, complicated system, with different parts doing different things. No one fully understands how it works, yet. But like many other researchers, I think I have a fairly good idea, at a high level. 

What I’m going to give you here is a capsule summary of how one AI researcher, and sometime computational neuroscientist, thinks about the structure and dynamics of the human brain — the “brain according to Ben,” if you will.  I’ll also briefly discuss the relation between brain function and current approaches to artificial general intelligence.

If you want an in-depth yet concise tutorial on the current state of textbook neuroscience knowledge, try this one from Columbia University.  Rather than reviewing the basics in “Neuroscience 101″ style detail, what I’m going to do here is give an overview of what I think are the most critical points and how they all fit together.

Reader beware, though: Neuroscientists have discovered a lot, but there are many different, widely divergent expert opinions about how to integrate the diverse data available from neuroscience into a coherent whole. The ideas I give here are just one opinion, albeit one I think is well grounded from a variety of directions.

The Big Picture

I like this picture created by IBM researcher Dharmendra Modha and his team:

As I discussed in an earlier blog post, this picture shows 300+ regions of the macaque monkey brain and how they connect to each other.  Most of these correspond to similar regions in the human brain; and a similar diagram could be made for the human brain, but it would be less complete, as we’ve studied monkeys more thoroughly.

Each of these brain regions has a literature of scientific papers about it, telling you what sorts of functions they tend to carry out. In most cases, our knowledge of each brain region is badly incomplete. The nodes near the center of his diagram happen to correspond to what neuropsychologists call the “executive network” — the regions of the brain that tend to get active when the brain needs to control its overall activity.

But all these different parts of the brain do seem to work according to some common underlying principles. Each of them is wired together differently, but using the same sorts of parts; and there’s a lot of commonality to the dynamics occurring within each regions as well.

Between Neurons and Brains

All the parts of the brain are made of cells called neurons, that connect to each other and spread electricity amongst each other. The spread of electricity is mediated by chemicals called neurotransmitters — so, one neuron doesn’t simply spread electricity to another one, it activates  certain neurotransmitter molecules that then deliver the charge to the other neuron. Things like mood or emotion or food or drugs affect these neurotransmitters, modulating the nature of thought.

There are also other cells in the brain, like the glia that fill up much of the space between neurons, that seem to play important roles in some kind of memory. Some folks have speculated that intelligence relies on complex quantum-physical phenomena occurring in water mega-molecules floating in between the neurons — though I have no idea if this is true or not.

The part of the brain most central for thinking and complex perception — as opposed to body movement or controlling the heard, etc. — is the cortex. And neurons in the cortex are generally organized into structures called columns.  The column is the most critical structure occupying the intermediate level between neurons and the large-scale brain regions depicted in Modha’s diagram above.  Each column spans the six layers of the cortex, passing charge up and down the layers and also laterally to other columns. There are a lot of neurons called “interneurons” that carry out inhibition between columns — when one column gets active, it sends charge to interneurons, that then inhibit the activity of certain other columns.

And columns tend to be divided into substructures that are often called “mini-columns”, or sometimes just “modules.” In some cases, it seems that each mini-column represents a certain pattern observed in some input, and the column as a whole represents a “belief” about which patterns are more significant in the input.

In the visual cortex, you can have columns recognizing particular patterns in particular regions of space-time, for instance. So one column might contain neurons responding to patterns in a particular part of the visual field — where the neurons higher up in the column represent more abstract, high-level patterns. Lower-level neurons in the column might recognize the edges of a car, whereas higher-level neurons in the same column might help identify that these edges, taken together, do actually look like car. But the functions of columns and the neurons and minicolumns inside them seem to vary a fair bit from one brain region to another.

If you’d like to dig deeper into the column/minicolumn aspect, check out this recent review of mini columns; and this more speculative paper, that proposes a particular function and circuitry for mini columns.  A capsule summary of the literature these papers represent is:

* cortical columns are in many cases well-conceived as hierarchical pattern recognition units, using their minicolumns together to recognize patterns
* the minicolumns in various parts of cortex are implementing a variety of different sorts of microcircuitry, rather than possessing a uniform internal mini-columnar structure.

Read the whole essay.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Preserved Self-Awareness following Extensive Bilateral Brain Damage to the Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Medial Prefrontal Cortices

Whenever we think we have it figured out - in this case the "it" is self-awareness - we find something that totally disrupts what we think we know. This research article tells the story of Patient R, who had lost considerable brain tissue following a viral infection, including the chunks of the brain's three 'self-awareness' regions - the insular cortex, anterior cingulated cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex.

The patient, despite these brain tissue losses, still maintains a fairly solid self-awareness, although he experiences amnesia that impacts his narrative sense of self.

New Scientist offered a nice summary:

Location of the mind remains a mystery

Where does the mind reside? It's a question that's occupied the best brains for thousands of years. Now, a patient who is self-aware – despite lacking three regions of the brain thought to be essential for self-awareness – demonstrates that the mind remains as elusive as ever.

The finding suggests that mental functions might not be tied to fixed brain regions. Instead, the mind might be more like a virtual machine running on distributed computers, with brain resources allocated in a flexible manner, says David Rudrauf at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who led the study of the patient.

Recent advances in functional neuroimaging – a technique that measures brain activity in the hope of finding correlations between mental functions and specific regions of the brain – have led to a wealth of studies that map particular functions onto regions.

Previous neuroimaging studies had suggested that three regions – the insular cortex, anterior cingulated cortex and medial prefrontal cortex – are critical for self-awareness. But for Rudrauf the question wasn't settled.

So when his team heard about patient R, who had lost brain tissue including the chunks of the three 'self-awareness' regions following a viral infection, they immediately thought he could help set the record straight.

Not a zombie

According to the models based on neuroimaging, says Rudrauf, "patients with no insula should be like zombies".

But patient R displays a strong concept of selfhood. Rudrauf's team confirmed this by checking whether he could recognise himself in photographs and by performing the tickle test – based on the observation that you can't tickle yourself. They concluded that many aspects of R's self-awareness remained unaffected. "Having interacted with him it was clear from the get go that there was no way that [the theories based on neuroimaging] could be true," says Rudrauf.

However, R does have severe amnesia, which prevents him from learning new information, and he struggles with social interaction.

Self-awareness and other high-level cognitive functions probably do not relate to the brain in a simple way, says Rudrauf. "They involve layers of abstraction and mechanisms that cannot be explained by standard functional-neuroanatomy." He suggests that there are fundamental mechanisms yet to be discovered. "We would all like simple answers to complicated questions, and we tend to oversimplify our conceptions about the brain and the mind," he says.

Linda Clare, a psychologist at Bangor University, UK, is also not surprised by the finding. "Awareness has many manifestations," she says. "It's not just a matter of a few brain cells."
Journal Reference: 
Philippi CL, Feinstein JS, Khalsa SS, Damasio A, Tranel D, et al. (2012). Preserved Self-Awareness following Extensive Bilateral Brain Damage to the Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Medial Prefrontal Cortices. PLoS ONE, 7(8): e38413. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038413

PLOS ONE is open access, so the article is freely available online. Here is the abstract:

Preserved Self-Awareness following Extensive Bilateral Brain Damage to the Insula, Anterior Cingulate, and Medial Prefrontal Cortices

Carissa L. Philippi1#, Justin S. Feinstein1#*, Sahib S. Khalsa2, Antonio Damasio3, Daniel Tranel1, Gregory Landini4, Kenneth Williford5, David Rudrauf1#*

1 Division of Behavioral Neurology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Neurology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, United States of America, 2 Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 3 Brain and Creativity Institute and Dornsife Cognitive Neuroscience Imaging Center, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States of America, 4 Department of Philosophy, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, United States of America, 5 Department of Philosophy, University of Texas Arlington, Arlington, Texas, United States of America


It has been proposed that self-awareness (SA), a multifaceted phenomenon central to human consciousness, depends critically on specific brain regions, namely the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Such a proposal predicts that damage to these regions should disrupt or even abolish SA. We tested this prediction in a rare neurological patient with extensive bilateral brain damage encompassing the insula, ACC, mPFC, and the medial temporal lobes. In spite of severe amnesia, which partially affected his “autobiographical self”, the patient's SA remained fundamentally intact. His Core SA, including basic self-recognition and sense of self-agency, was preserved. His Extended SA and Introspective SA were also largely intact, as he has a stable self-concept and intact higher-order metacognitive abilities. The results suggest that the insular cortex, ACC and mPFC are not required for most aspects of SA. Our findings are compatible with the hypothesis that SA is likely to emerge from more distributed interactions among brain networks including those in the brainstem, thalamus, and posteromedial cortices.