Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Brain matter linked to introspective thoughts: Structure of prefrontal cortex helps humans think about one's own thinking

Date:
September 17, 2010
Source:
American Association for the Advancement of Science
Summary:
A specific region of the brain appears to be larger in individuals who are good at turning their thoughts inward and reflecting upon their decisions, according to new research.

Views of inflated cortical surface showing areas of brain gray matter correlating with introspective accuracy.
Credit: Image Science/AAAS

A specific region of the brain appears to be larger in individuals who are good at turning their thoughts inward and reflecting upon their decisions, according to new research published in the journal Science. This act of introspection -- or "thinking about your thinking" -- is a key aspect of human consciousness, though scientists have noted plenty of variation in peoples' abilities to introspect.

The new study will be published in the 17 September issue of the journal Science. Science is published by AAAS, the nonprofit science society.

In light of their findings, this team of researchers, led by 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. Furthermore, they say the structure of white matter connected to this area is also linked to this process of introspection.

It remains unclear, however, how this relationship between introspection and the two different types of brain matter really works. These findings do not necessarily mean that individuals with greater volume of gray matter in that region of the brain have experienced -- or will experience -- more introspective thoughts than other people. But, they do establish a correlation between the structure of gray and white matter in the prefrontal cortex and the various levels of introspection that individuals may experience.

In the future, the discovery may help scientists understand how certain brain injuries affect an individual's ability to reflect upon their own thoughts and actions. With such an understanding, it may eventually be possible to tailor appropriate treatments to patients, such as stroke victims or those with serious brain trauma, who may not even understand their own conditions.

"Take the example of two patients with mental illness -- one who is aware of their illness and one who is not," said one of the study's authors, Stephen Fleming from University College London. "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."

This new study was born from collaboration between Rees' group, which investigates consciousness, and another group at University College London led by Prof. Ray Dolan, which studies decision-making. Fleming, together with co-author Rimona Weil, designed an experiment to measure both an individual's performance at a task, as well as how confident that individual felt about his or her decisions during the task. By taking note of how accurately the study's participants were able to judge their own decision-making, the researchers were able to gain insight into the participants' introspective abilities.

To begin, Fleming and Weil recruited 32 healthy human participants and showed them two screens, each containing six patterned patches. One of the screens, however, contained a single patch that was brighter than all the rest. The researchers asked the participants to identify which screen contained the brighter patch, and then to rate how confident they felt about their final answer. After the experiment, participants' brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI.

Fleming and the researchers designed the task to be difficult, so that participants were never completely sure if their answer was correct. They reasoned that participants who are good at introspection would be confident after making correct decisions about the patch, and less confident when they were incorrect about the patch. By adjusting the task, the researchers ensured all of the participants' decision-making abilities were on par with each others' -- only the participants' knowledge of their own decision-making abilities differed.

"It's like that show, 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'" said Weil. "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."

So, although each participant performed equally well at the task, their introspective abilities did vary considerably, the researchers confirmed. By comparing the MRI scans of each participant's brain, they could then identify a correlation between introspective ability and the structure of a small area of the prefrontal cortex. An individual's meta-cognitive, or "higher-thinking," abilities were significantly correlated with the amount of gray matter in the right anterior prefrontal cortex and the structure of neighboring white matter, Rees and his team found.

These findings, however, could reflect the innate differences in our anatomy, or alternatively, the physical effects of experience and learning on the brain. The latter possibility raises the exciting prospect that there may be a way to "train" meta-cognitive abilities by exploiting the malleable nature of these regions of prefrontal cortex. But, more research is needed to explore the mental computations behind introspection -- and then to link these computations to actual biological processes.

"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."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by American Association for the Advancement of Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Stephen M. Fleming, Rimona S. Weil, Zoltan Nagy, Raymond J. Dolan, and Geraint Rees. Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure. Science, 2010; 329 (5998): 1541-1543 DOI: 10.1126/science.1191883

Cite This Page:

American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Brain matter linked to introspective thoughts: Structure of prefrontal cortex helps humans think about one's own thinking." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 September 2010. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100916145047.htm>.
American Association for the Advancement of Science. (2010, September 17). Brain matter linked to introspective thoughts: Structure of prefrontal cortex helps humans think about one's own thinking. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 29, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100916145047.htm
American Association for the Advancement of Science. "Brain matter linked to introspective thoughts: Structure of prefrontal cortex helps humans think about one's own thinking." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100916145047.htm (accessed July 29, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Losing Sleep Leaves You Vulnerable To 'False Memories'

Losing Sleep Leaves You Vulnerable To 'False Memories'

Newsy (July 27, 2014) A new study shows sleep deprivation can make it harder for people to remember specific details of an event. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

University Quiz Implies Atheists Are Smarter Than Christians

Newsy (July 25, 2014) An online quiz from a required course at Ohio State is making waves for suggesting atheists are inherently smarter than Christians. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

Beatings and Addiction: Pakistan Drug 'clinic' Tortures Patients

AFP (July 24, 2014) A so-called drugs rehab 'clinic' is closed down in Pakistan after police find scores of ‘patients’ chained up alleging serial abuse. Duration 03:05 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

New Painkiller Designed To Discourage Abuse: Will It Work?

Newsy (July 24, 2014) The FDA approved Targiniq ER on Wednesday, a painkiller designed to keep users from abusing it. Like any new medication, however, it has doubters. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins