From: Wade T. Smith (email@example.com)
Date: Wed 06 Aug 2003 - 13:40:51 GMT
A look at where consciousness lies in the brain
By Laurence Schorsch, Globe Correspondent, 8/5/2003
When you look at yourself in the mirror each morning, you may be
surprised by how disheveled you look, but you're never surprised by a
face you don't recognize as your own.
Most animals, though, have no such self-recognition, and if presented
with their image in a mirror, will usually view it as another animal.
This ability to know our own reflection is called mirror-recognition,
and it's the dominant theme of a new book, ''The Face in the Mirror,''
by Julian Paul Keenan with Gordon G. Gallup Jr. and Dean Falk.
In 1970, Gallup, then an assistant professor of psychology at Tulane
University, published a seminal paper on self-recognition in primates,
describing a simple test he devised to prove chimpanzees could
recognize themselves in a mirror. Chimps previously exposed to mirrors
were anesthetized, and an odorless mark was put on their brow. When the
chimps were reintroduced to the mirror, they immediately noticed the
change, often rubbing the marks with their hands. This elegant test
clearly demonstrated that the animals knew the chimps in the mirrors
were images of themselves.
Gallup's mirror test immediately was tried on other primates. Monkeys
failed, orangutans passed, and surprisingly, gorillas -- closest to
humans after chimps -- usually failed. For humans, the question wasn't
whether we could pass the test, but when? For most children,
mirror-recognition occurs at around 18 months.
Keenan, a neurologist and director of the Cognitive Neuroimaging
Laboratory at Montclair State University in New Jersey, contends that
mirror recognition is a key to understanding consciousness. Once
animals are able to recognize themselves, they can begin to view their
world in a different way. ''If self-awareness is intimately tied to
understanding one's own thoughts,'' he writes, ''then, we might assume,
self-awareness may give rise to the ability to reflect on the thoughts
The ability to attribute thought to others is essential to empathy, as
well as the ability to feel resentment, pride, envy, embarrassment,
guilt, and to lie and deceive. Though this may sound like a list of
deadly sins, it's also the list of skills essential for interacting
intelligently with others, or within a group or culture.
Much of the book is taken up with the search of where consciousness
lies in the brain, and detailed descriptions of dozens of experiments
are given. But, as Keenan writes, ''With all the available evidence,
the precise location of the self in the brain remains elusive. In
almost all studies on self-awareness, the right hemisphere is
implicated.'' Unfortunately, pages and pages of repetitive,
inconclusive experiments make dreary, frustrating reading.
The idea that our identity as a unique and complex individual may
simply reside in a chunk of brain tissue is a staggering thought, but
Keenan doesn't spend too much time examining the implications of this
concept. He tries to liven things up in the manner of Oliver Sacks with
bizarre but enlightening stories of patients with brain disorders.
Sadly, these are mostly short and unengaging, and are usually
introduced to show that consciousness is located in the right
If you're interested in neurology, and don't mind reading what is often
no more than a digest of clinical and animal studies, you'll no doubt
find the book enjoyable. There's plenty of background on brain anatomy
and imaging techniques, but if you're looking for the big picture, and
want a basic primer on human consciousness, you'll want to take your
The Face in the Mirror: The Search for the Origins of Consciousness
By Julian Paul Keenan with Gordon G. Gallup Jr. and Dean Falk
Ecco, 278 pages; $24.95
This story ran on page D2 of the Boston Globe on 8/5/2003.
ęCopyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
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