Lost in Thought


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comparison of brain activity: prefrontal areas are significantly activated during introspection, while a completely different network of more posterior areas are active when people are intensely engaged in perceptual tasks

Can one literally “lose oneself” in an experience?

Prof. Rafael Malach, Ilan Goldberg and Michal Harel of the Neurobiology Department found a scientific means of addressing this question – by scanning the brains of volunteers performing various mental tasks. The results of their study, published in Neuron, were unanticipated: When subjects were given outwardly focused tasks that demanded their full attention, areas of the brain that relate to the self were not only inactive – they appeared to be vigorously suppressed.

The scientists were particularly interested in certain regions in the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain known to be involved in personality and self-knowledge, among other things. Brain scans performed with functional magnetic resonance imaging confirmed that these regions were active during introspection, but when subjects were absorbed in a recognition task – such as identifying pieces of music that included a trumpet’s sound – activity in these areas was silenced.

 “It is tempting,” says Malach, “to put these findings in a broader perspective – one that veers away from traditional Western thought, with its emphasis on self-control and ‘someone always minding the store,’ and toward more Eastern perspectives, in which the self must be abandoned in order to engage fully with the outside world.” On a more scientific level, the study suggests that the brain’s self-awareness centers do not function as a critical element that allows perceptual awareness of the outside world. Rather, when we are so occupied with the outside world as to “forget ourselves,” only local, sensory-specific systems seem to be needed.  
Prof. Rafael Malach’s research is supported by the Nella and Leon Benoziyo Center for Neurosciences; the Clore Center for Biological Physics; the Carl and Micaela Einhorn-Dominic Brain Research Institute; the Murray H. and Meyer Grodetsky Center for Research of Higher Brain Functions; the A.M.N. Fund for the Promotion of Science, Culture and Arts in Israel; the Edith C. Blum Foundation; and Mr. and Mrs. Irwin Green, Boca Raton, FL. Prof. Malach is the incumbent of the Barbara and Morris Levinson Professorial Chair in Brain Research.