Fwd: A look at where consciousness lies in the brain

From: Wade T. Smith (wade.t.smith@verizon.net)
Date: Wed 06 Aug 2003 - 13:40:51 GMT

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    BOOK REVIEW A look at where consciousness lies in the brain

    By Laurence Schorsch, Globe Correspondent, 8/5/2003

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/217/science/ A_look_at_where_consciousness_lies_in_the_brainP.shtml

    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 of others.''

    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 hemisphere.

    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 brain elsewhere.

    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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