Who needs self-awareness?

Self-awareness, regarded as a key element of being human, is
switched off when the brain needs to concentrate hard on a tricky task,
found the neurobiologists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in
Rehovot, Israel.

team conducted a series of experiments to pinpoint the brain activity
associated with introspection and that linked to sensory function. They
found that the brain assumes a robotic functionality when it has to
concentrate all its efforts on a difficult, timed task – only becoming
"human" again when it has the luxury of time.    

Here is the full story.


The researchers seem to have muddled their concepts. The abstract says, "A common theme in theories of subjective awareness poses a self-related “observer† function, or a homunculus, as a critical element without which awareness can not emerge. Here, we examined this question using fMRI."

They have confused the 'observer' aspect with "introspection". An elementary error.

They go on to say, "In our study, we compared brain activity patterns produced by a demanding sensory categorization paradigm to those engaged during self-reflective introspection, using similar sensory stimuli."

"Our results show a complete segregation between the two patterns of activity. Furthermore, regions that showed enhanced activity during introspection underwent a robust inhibition during the demanding perceptual task. The results support the notion that self-related processes are not necessarily engaged during sensory perception and can be actually suppressed."

Even ignoring the muddling, they have yet to show that due to our elastic brain architecture, the self-awareness function isn't subsumed by different regions, as per context.

Combine this research result with previous research that says that self awareness leads to depression. Now you can explain why people spend hours in front of their computer playing Solitaire, or delving bizarrely into sports statistics. My strategy: Wikipedia.

fMRI researchers as a group remind me of the Leeuwenhoek microscopists, pointing their high-tech glass at anything from petals to horse feces with equal fascination and describing what they saw. This bit is interesting, though.

Well that looks like some lousy science reporting. This post from Mixing Memory, about a previous example of bad reporting about neuroscience research, gives you a good sense of why that is. I don't know how much of the problem is in the study itself, and how much is just in the write-up, but it's pretty bad.

For starters, I have no clue why they use the phrase "robotic functionality" (other than because it sounds cool) - the study showed nothing of the sort. Does anyone seriously want to claim that it is just the superfrontal gyrus that separates us from robots? Setting the metaphors aside and looking at the technical finding, it also can't be true that "there was no activity in the superfrontal gyrus". fMRI studies usually use the "subtraction method", which means that they compare the activity in some part of the brain in one condition with the activity in that part of the brain in another condition. In other words, they are looking at changes in activity. I haven't looked at the paper, but I'm guessing that what they found was something like a decrease in activity there compared to some other condition. They couldn't have found that there was nothing at all going on in the superfrontal gyrus, because the brain just doesn't work that way and that's not what neuroscience studies look for.

Finally, when the article is being careful they say that neuroscientists have found that the superfrontal gyrus is "the brain region associated with self-awareness-related function." That indirect way of indicating a relationship between that part of the brain and self-awareness should clue you in to the fact that they don't really understand how self-awareness is related to brain activity, and that the relationship may be a complex one (and even there, they should be saying "a brain region" not "the brain region"). Note that they don't even say what they mean by "self-awareness" here - surely there are lots of definitions that you could give, some more philosophically interesting than others. Saying that the superfrontal gyrus is the "self-awareness" part of the brain, or that a drop in activity there means that "self-awareness" is being switched off, involves a large, unwarranted leap.

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