Where Is My Mind: New Study Casts Doubt On Location Of Self Awareness

By Max Eddy on August 23, 2012 8:21 AM EDT

Roger Brain Scan
As seen in this MRI, Roger suffered brain damage in the areas thought to be responsible for self awareness and yet retained a sense of self. (Photo: PLOS One)

While it may seem like a naval-gazing question, scientists are still struggling to understand exactly what in the human brain is responsible for self awareness. In a new study, researchers examine a man who retained his self awareness despite extensive brain damage to areas previously believed to be responsible for this complex behavior.

Specifically, the study takes aim at a theory which posits that particular regions of the brain - the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex - are critical in forming self awareness. The going theory is that damage to these regions should impede a sense of self awareness.

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The study, published on the PLOS One website and led by David Rudrauf, centers on "R" or "Roger." Now 57 years old, Roger is described in the study as "a right-handed, college-educated, male, whose brain was damaged in 1980 following a severe episode of herpes simplex encephalitis."

Rudrauf has worked with Roger before, in a 2010 study that praised Roger's remarkable intellect. "Despite the magnitude of his brain damage, Roger has a normal IQ, average to above-average attention, working memory, and executive functioning skills, and very good speech and language abilities," says the 2010 study. "In fact, his only obvious presenting deficits are a dense global amnesia and a severe anosmia and ageusia," that is, the inability to smell or taste.

Roger presented an interesting opportunity for the researchers as his brain damage covers the three areas thought to be responsible for self awareness. Yet Roger appeared to be self aware, though the researchers acknowledged that his amnesia had curtailed his "autobiographical self."

To test the range of Roger's self awareness, researchers first confirmed the extent of his brain damage. Next, they subjected him to a series of basic tests, such as identifying himself in pictures, in a mirror, and measuring his response to being tickled. This last test, far from an exercise in fun, is predicated upon the notion that being tickled by someone else is far more intense than tickling yourself.

In addition to these tests, the researchers noted that Roger appeared to have a complex understanding of social situations, notably a strong sense of humor. "Not only can he appreciate humor, but he also has a sophisticated understanding of what others will find humorous," write the researchers. "Moreover, he caters his choice of jokes to the audience at hand. For example, around men he has been known to tell 'dirty jokes' but he has never deployed such humor in the presence of women."

To the researchers, this demonstrated that Roger had what's called a "theory of mind," or an understanding that other people have feelings and expectations unique to them. In this case, Roger appeared to feel that some people might find certain jokes offensive and edited himself accordingly.

Given Roger's response to these tests, the researchers concluded that his self awareness was largely intact even though his brain was damaged in key areas. Instead of a limited view on the formation of self awareness, the researchers write that their results suggested that a "distributed interactions among networks of brain regions" is responsible.

While the study suggests other areas of the brain that may play a role, Rudrauf told the New Scientist that the interaction between these regions of the brain is likely more complex and subtle than previous theories suggest. "We would all like simple answers to complicated questions," said Rudrauf. "And we tend to oversimplify our conceptions about the brain and the mind."

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