Nicky Blackburn
June 28, 2006, Updated September 13, 2012

‘People talk of losing themselves, or escaping themselves during engaging moments. What we have shown is that this is actually what their brains reflect.’A new Israeli study indicates that when people are absorbed in an engaging task that requires their full attention, areas of their brain that relate to the self appear to be vigorously shut-off, meaning they are quite literally “lost in the moment”.

The research, carried out by Prof. Rafael Malach, along with colleagues Ilan Golberg and Michal Harel of the Weizmann Institute’s Neurobiology Department, goes against current theories which suggest that any type of sensory awareness is critically dependent on the mediation of areas involved in self-representation – a vigilant, self-aware ‘observer’ network – in the human brain.

The researchers carried out their study, the results of which were published recently in the journal, Neuron, by scanning the brains of volunteers performing various mental tasks. The functional brain scans were done with an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) system, which maps brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow and oxygenation.

Volunteers either viewed photos or listened to short music segments. At the same time they were also asked to perform two different tasks. In one, ‘introspective’ assignment, they were asked to think about themselves and how the image or musical selection made them feel. In the second, ‘sensory-motor’ task, they performed rapid and demanding recognition exercises – such as identifying pieces that included a trumpet’s sound.

The scientists were particularly interested in certain regions in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain known to be involved in personality and self-knowledge, among other things.

The fMRI confirmed that these regions were active during introspection but, when subjects were absorbed in the recognition task, activity in these areas was silenced. (fMRI readings in these areas fell below those measured when subjects were resting.)

“It was conventionally assumed that for sensory perception to occur, the areas of the brain related to self had to be co-active,” says Malach, who is currently on sabbatical in New York University.

“Instead we found that when a person is absorbed in a highly engaging activity in the outside world – like watching a movie for example – they can have a sensory experience, they can see and hear, without the need of an active agent in the brain looking on and “evaluating” or interpreting the experience. You do not need your entire brain to be active, or your brain’s self-awareness center to be functioning, for you to have a sensory experience,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Taking a broad perspective, Malach believes that this research has common themes with the tradition of Eastern philosophies.

“Traditional Western thought tends to emphasize self-control. There is always the need for someone to be in charge of what is happening. Eastern philosophies, however, talk of abandoning the self to truly engage with the outside world. It is intriguing that modern brain scans seem to support a neuronal manifestation of such ancient wisdom.”

Malach also believes that this study is not that far from “pop’ psychological intuitions.

“People talk of losing themselves, or escaping themselves during engaging moments. What we have shown is that this is actually what their brains reflect. When people have an intense sensory experience, only local, sensory-specific systems seem to be needed. The self-related areas of the brain are inhibited. Furthermore, the stronger the experience, the more the self-related areas shut down.”

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