Seat Of Self-Awareness Discovered In The Brain

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Brain Regions active during Lucid Dreaming
Research using magnetic resonance tomography (MRT) have now been able to demonstrate that a specific network in the brain that is activated when this lucid consciousness is attained. All of these regions are associated with self-reflective functions. This research into lucid dreaming gives the authors of the latest study insight into the neural basis of human consciousness.
Neuroscientists from the Max Planck Institutes of Psychiatry in Munich, Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, and Charité in Berlin have identified a specific cortical network associated with self-awareness.

The human capacities of self-perception, self-reflection and consciousness development are among the unsolved mysteries of neuroscience. Despite modern imaging techniques, it is still impossible to fully visualise what goes on in the brain when people move to consciousness from an unconscious state. The problem lies in the fact that it is difficult to watch our brain during this transitional change.

Although this process is the same, every time a person awakens from sleep, the basic activity of our brain is usually greatly reduced during deep sleep. This makes it impossible to clearly recognize the specific brain activity underlying the regained self-perception and consciousness during the transition to wakefulness from the global changes in brain activity that take place at the same time.

Using EEG and fMRI brain imaging the group studied “lucid dreamers,” who have access to their memories during dreaming and are aware of themselves, although remaining in a dream state and not waking up.  The study is published in the journal SLEEP.

The researchers found neural activations in a specific network that is normally deactivated during REM sleep, comprising these areas:

  • -Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with self-focused metacognitive evaluation)
  • -Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in combination with parietal lobules (may reflect working memory demands)
  • -Bilateral frontopolar areas (related to the processing of internal states, e.g., the evaluation of one’s own thoughts and feelings)
  • -Precuneus (implicated in self-referential processing, such as first-person perspective)
  • -Bilateral cuneus and occipitotemporal cortices (active in conscious awareness in visual perception)

The study was limited to only four subjects who were highly trained lucid dreamers ”due to the rarity of lucid dreaming in untrained subjects, the researchers report. 

“Only one of them became lucid twice under concurrent EEG/fMRI conditions, rendering our data a case study.” The researchers also advised that part of the observed activation may have originated from the eye-signaling and hand-clenching task performed during the lucid-dreaming process.

By comparing the activity of the brain during one of these lucid periods with the activity measured immediately before in a normal dream, the scientists were able to identify the characteristic brain activities of lucid awareness.

“The general basic activity of the brain is similar in a normal dream and in a lucid dream,” says Michael Czisch, head of a research group at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry. “In a lucid state, however, the activity in certain areas of the cerebral cortex increases markedly within seconds. The involved areas of the cerebral cortex are the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, to which commonly the function of self-assessment is attributed, and the frontopolar regions, which are responsible for evaluating our own thoughts and feelings. The precuneus is also especially active, a part of the brain that has long been linked with self-perception.”

The findings confirm earlier studies and have made the neural networks of a conscious mental state visible for the first time.

SOURCE  Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry

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