Brain region linked to introspective thinking

Date: 2010-09-27

Introspection, or “thinking about your thinking”, is a key aspect of human consciousness, but scientists have already discovered differences in people’s ability to introspect.

The researchers along with Prof. Geraint Rees from University College London, suggests that the volume of gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex of the brain, which lies right behind our eyes, is a strong indicator of a person's introspective ability. They also believe that the white matter connected to this area is also playing a major role in introspective thinking. The scientists are unsure of how the tow matters and introspection work, however they are sure that people with more gray matter in that area tend to be more introspective.

In the future this knowledge may help doctors to understand what brain injuries will do to a person’s ability to introspectively think. Eventually, this could lead to tailored treatments for stroke victims or people who have had major head trauma or brain injury.

"Take the example of two patients with mental illness—one who is aware of their illness and one who is not," Stephen Fleming, one of the authors of the study, from University College London was quoted as saying. "The first person is likely to take their medication, but the second is less likely. If we understand self-awareness at the neurological level, then perhaps we can also adapt treatments and develop training strategies for these patients."

The study recruited 32 healthy human participants and showed them two screens, each having six patterned patches. One screen had one patch that was brighter than all the rest and the participants were to look at the screens then say which screen had the brighter patch and rate how confident there answer is. While the experiment was taking place their brains were being scanned by an MRI. The research team designed the task to be difficult, and for the participants to have to use introspection to correctly answer and judge their confidence. The researchers thought that those who were good at introspection would be confident after they knew their answer was right and unconfident when their answer was wrong. They altered the patches every time to.

"It's like that show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'" Ramiona Weil, form the Wellcome Trust Center Neuroimaging at the University of London was quoted as saying. "An introspective contestant will go with his or her final answer when they are quite sure of it, and perhaps phone a friend when they are unsure. But, a contestant who is less introspective would not be as effective at judging how likely their answer is to be correct."

"We want to know why we are aware of some mental processes while others proceed in the absence of consciousness," said Fleming. "There may be different levels of consciousness, ranging from simply having an experience, to reflecting upon that experience. Introspection is on the higher end of this spectrum—by measuring this process and relating it to the brain we hope to gain insight into the biology of conscious thought."

SOURCE: Science, published online September 16, 2010

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