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Friday
Sep172010

Self-Reflecting Human Consciousness Tied To Prefrontal Cortex Grey Matter

If you are a self-reflective individual, a person who thinks about the meaning and impact of your decisions and actions — considered to be a key aspect of human consciousness — you may have more grey matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex of the brain. This region lying right behind our eyes is a strong indicator of our introspective ability.

Researchers also believe that the structure of white matter connected to this area is a second factor in the process of introspection. Scientists at the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging at The University College London don’t yet understand the interplay of grey matter and white matter in the prefrontal cortex, only that brain scans reveal a positive correlation between volume and being a self-reflective individual. via Science Daily

Researchers already know that “liberals” have twice as much activity as “conservatives” in the deep region of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, located away from the prefrontal cortex. Liberals were much more adept at noting the odd-button in a sequence of decision-making exercises, predicated on repetition with an occasional new item requiring a different response. Conservatives tended to get the new button wrong, operating on mental auto-pilot and hitting the same button without thinking.

Note that conservatives argue that liberals spend too much time analyzing situations and not enough time taking action. Liberals continue to ask too many questions, rather than acting on proven knowledge, say conservatives.

What brain scans are teaching us is that our values, politics, even global perspectives may be determined by our brain structure, more than we ever believed possible.

Nor should we conclude that brain structure is a steady state structure. Researchers scanning brains of young children determined that physically unfit kids (based on treadmill tests) had a smaller hippocampus. A larger hippocampus is associated with superior spatial reasoning and other cognitive tasks. Our lifestyles impact brain structure.

Reader Comments (6)

I think it makes a lot of sense and that more research should be done.

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCynthia Mendes

I feel like this article is drawing the wrong conclusions. Wouldn't it make more sense to presume that global perspectives influence brain structure? When you learn to play piano, your brain shape changes to accommodate your new skill. Learning forces the structure to change. So wouldn't learning a perspective (as you do throughout early adolescent years) change the shape, as well? Couldn't the hippocampus test really be showing that kids with smaller hippocampi find less motivation to exercise (perhaps based on their lower spatial reasoning abilities, hence, inability to do it well), rather than assuming the study means that not exercising decreases cognitive abilities?

I'm simply frustrated by the contemporary philosophy blaming actions on brain structure, rather than brain structure on learning and derived response.

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHeather M

Hi Heather. You make good points. I'm reading quickly, but it seems like the classic nature/nurture debate. For certain, exposure to new ideas and experiences stimulates dendrite growth. But the new scanning techniques are allowing researchers to prove that our brains are different, from one human to another. This is one of the most politically loaded issues in our future.

In my case, I had a visual perception 'gift' that I believe I was born with. I definitely didn't get it from my family or upbringing. In the last month, researchers scanned the brains of visually creative people, discovering that the part of their brains working on visualization was three times the size of most brains.

I'm tracking this topic regularly, because I believe it's critical in the gender debate but has applications elsewhere. I was nearly run out of a presentation at Intel by Berkeley women years ago, over this issue. The women insisted there are no differences between female and male brains, which just is not true. Brain scans have totally established key differences.

http://www.anneofcarversville.com/fp/tag/brain-science

The science is showing that both nature and nurture are real factors in how our body works. Politically, most liberals (including myself) prefer that all issues are driven by nurture and environment. I doubt that is true. Best, Anne

January 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterAnne

Hi there! Sorry for the awful english that are about to follow :P I think we should ask ourselves what we mean by "nature". If we mean the adaptational tricks that our organism has adopted, in time, to cope with the enviroment it faces (I guess we all understand what evolution is), then we should again consider how important the upbringing enviroment is. Remember that the fetus is also exposed to the enviroment via his mothers hormonal levels. "Nature" is what we make of it.
Best, Jim

March 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Jim, you do add another important consideration to the conversation. Many a pregnant woman is fed up with all this new science about how her lifestyle and hormonal balance impacts her developing fetus . . . except that it's true. You are very correct to say "what do we mean by nature?" Genetically, there are some variables that the mother doesn't control with her fetus and others that she does, via her own lifestyle and health habits. I'm not sure this all rolls back to self-reflecting human consciousness tied to prefrontal cortex grey matter but the complexity of human consciousness, values and behavior is not only 'nurture' as so many have argued in past decades. Being a left of center moderate, I understand the explosive nature of the statement, but I do believe in much of the new science I'm reading. Nurture alone does not determine behavior patterns and how we think.

March 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterAnne

@Heather. I'll post the links but given the research that shows fast food attacking critical thinking faculties in the brain, and knowing that physically unfit kids tend to eat a lot of fast food, I found that physically unfit kids study made sense, based on a wide range of intersecting studies. Perhaps some kids start off as you suggest, but the brain science research on unfit kids' diets is becoming overwhelming.

March 26, 2011 | Registered CommenterAnne

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