Richard G. Petty, MD

Multiple Selves

There is a most interesting report from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This study relates back to some of my previous posts about meditation and hyperfocus. I think that we’ve all had the experience of losing ourselves in any activity: playing a game, watching a movie, sex or an enthralling novel. The researchers showed that during intense sensory tasks, the introspective self-related functions of the brain shut down. The experimental subjects were asked to look at pictures or listen to music. For sensory processing, the subjects were asked to answer yes/no questions about the items. To study introspection, the subjects were asked to indicate whether emotionally they felt strongly or neutrally about the image or musical passage. While they were doing all this, their brains were being scanned using functional MRI (fMRI).

As expected, regions of the brain activated during sensory processing or self-reflective introspection were quite distinct and segregated. Sensory processing activated the sensory cortex and related structures, while introspection activated the prefrontal cortex. But the important finding was that activity in the self-related prefrontal cortex was damped down during intense sensory processing. What this seems to indicate, is that the self-related cortex isn’t involved in the awareness of perceptions, but is involved in allowing us to reflect upon perceptions, to judge their importance to us, and to allow us to report our experiences to the outside world.

I have a quibble with something that they say at the end of the paper: “Thus, the term “losing yourself” receives here a clear neuronal correlate. This theme has a tantalizing echoing in Eastern philosophies such as Zen teachings, which emphasize the need to enter into a “mindless,” selfless mental state to achieve a true sense of reality.”

As interesting as the study is, I think that these comments betray a rather one-dimensional view of the “self.” There are clearly many aspects to the “self:”

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychological: the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious Selves
  • Relational: (Have a look back at my post form March 15th
  • Subtle
  • Spiritual

My 35-year experience and understanding of the Eastern traditions is not of simply switching off one or other of these “selves,” but of bringing full mindful attention to everything that is going on. I just came across a brief piece by Professor Charles Tart , in which he is saying something very similar, and points out, with characteristic wit, that the Eastern mindfulness teachings don’t require us to enter into a “mindless” state to find reality. After all, if you are belabored about the head and shoulders with a stout cudgel, that should also achieve that aim!

So we return to a theme on which I’ve been expounding for some time now: these studies are fascinating and interesting, but they only deal with one part of the human experience. Let me refer you back to Ken Wilber for his important views on this issue, and the long section in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, that discusses this in considerable detail. The neurological findings represent correspondences and not causes.

Another blogger, Neurocritic, picked up an amusing error in a report of this study in New Scientist . Well spotted!

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About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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