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Switching off self-awareness
April 20, 2006 7:16 PM   Subscribe

Researchers have found that prolonged concentration on a difficult task actually switches off a person's self awareness. Fancy experiencing this sensation for yourself? That would be an oxymoron in existence. Just lay back and let the orgasm take hold.
posted by 0bvious (31 comments total)

 
I expect a bad reaction towards the second link here (it's from my own site), but since the articles contained therein are from a variety of authors I hope this metafilter slip can be overlooked. May the connections between the links become the main topic of conversation. Enjoy...
posted by 0bvious at 7:29 PM on April 20, 2006


This is precisely why I stopped concentrating. Lack of self-awareness is a terrible thing.
posted by Decani at 7:30 PM on April 20, 2006


From the third link:

“At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings,” says Gert Holstege ...

Only one small part of the brain, in the cerebellum, was more active during female orgasm. The cerebellum is normally associated with coordinating movement, though there is also some evidence that it helps regulate emotions. “We don’t know what activation of the cerebellum corresponds to,” Holstege admits.

Huh?
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:31 PM on April 20, 2006


"a similar study involving 11 men, which revealed far less deactivation during orgasm than in women. However, Holstege says the results are probably unreliable and need to be repeated. The problem is that PET scanners measure activity over two minutes - and in men it is all over in a few seconds." Ha!
posted by tellurian at 7:33 PM on April 20, 2006


Umm... self-linking is still bad, right?
posted by knave at 7:39 PM on April 20, 2006


This isn't anything new. Anyone who has played Tetris or anything like that already knew it.
posted by empath at 7:45 PM on April 20, 2006


What? Tetris-induced orgasmic loss of self-awareness?

Where's your evidence for that?
posted by 0bvious at 7:47 PM on April 20, 2006


self-link removed.
posted by mathowie at 7:51 PM on April 20, 2006


I'm suspicious of the current fashion for explaining the functions and related parts of mind with MRI, and then extrapolating back from those theoretical functions. Maybe it's just bad reporting, but a lot of the stuff I'm reading on the subject seems to be making a few too many assumptions about the validity of the conclusions drawn from MRI experiements.

I hope this post isn't deleted for self-linking. If it is a problem, may I suggest the self-link be removed/moved to a comment, to spare an interesting topic.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:54 PM on April 20, 2006


I don't know that I agree with this ( prolonged concentration on a difficult task actually switches off a person's self awareness ) at all.

It turns out that most of my life, I've done things that require a VERY high degree of concentration. Things like racing cars and racing downhill skateboards, and working in live TV production and such.

I have a large number of friends that are racers & skaters and the like.

Also, I've known or are related to or work with people that are surgeons, watchmakers, big wave surfers, test pilots, snipers, Coast Guard rescue swimmers, ballet dancers, motorcycle racers ... you know, the quasi-nut cases in life.

And one thing that I've personally noticed, and that they've noticed (or alluded to in conversation) is the LAST thing that happens when you're really, really concentrating because your ass is on the line is that you become less self aware.

If anything, I've noticed heightened awareness of almost everything around me.

Time becomes stretched and and much more malleable.

Things like "close enough" or "enough room" take on a whole new meaning.

But I always, always know where I'm at.

If I didn't know, I'd be screwed.
posted by Relay at 7:57 PM on April 20, 2006


Also, this article seems to conflate introspection to 'self-awareness' which seem like very different things to me. Moreover, I disagree with the suggestion that being absorbed in a task removes introspection or self-awareness.

When engaged in very absorbing tasks, for example playing Tetris, I find the very opposite, that introspection often occurs on 'higher' level. I may be cherry-picking memories, but I can recall many experiences of playing games/sports or whatever when in a highly absorbed/flow state and gaining insight/introspection into any number of things I had been recently pondering.

What I mean by 'higher' level of introspection is, while perhaps the pedestrian, logical kind introspection is removed, there is another kind of non-verbal/associative introspection which takes over when the rest of the brain is engaged in a consuming activity.

Indeed, this introspection may be reasonably described as a higher-state of (self) awareness, for example being actutely aware of muscles, nerves, breathing and so on when absorbed in a sport, or being acutely aware of the processes of the mind when engaged in solving a very difficult problem.
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2006


A common theme in theories of subjective awareness poses a self-related “observer” function, or a homunculus, as a critical element without which awareness can not emerge. Here, we examined this question using fMRI.

Stop right there. Introspection != "observer function".
posted by Gyan at 8:08 PM on April 20, 2006


What shitty reporting.
posted by odinsdream at 8:12 PM on April 20, 2006


Granted, the articles do not outline the distinctions of selfhood and awareness very clearly, but they are mere introductions to much wider topics.

It definitely brings into question what people usually associate as their selfhood. That tiny portion of introspection sitting atop a seemingly infinite variety of experience is not necessary for the conherent construction we know as reality. Possibly self is one of the least significant aspects of consciousness, what is interesting to me is not whether this is the case or not, but rather, how such a position can be distiniguished from epiphenomenalism. The danger in getting too philosophical about selfhood is that one can tend to remove the need for it completely.

[Sorry for the original self-link. For anyone who is interested here it is again]
posted by 0bvious at 8:21 PM on April 20, 2006


relay and metamonkey: That's interesting, I've had exactly the opposite experience. Playing high-pressure gigs, for example, I generally remember almost nothing about them. Just the beginning, the end, and a few flashes in the middle. It's all on auto-pilot.

That's the mind/no-mind state that zen philosophers and martial artists talk about. When you stop 'deciding' and simply 'do'.

I just re-read the article, btw, and they took the wrong conclusion. It's rapidly repeating a simple task that makes self-awareness go away, not a 'difficult' task. If they were in a truly difficult and disorienting situation, they'd become more self-aware, not less.
posted by empath at 8:26 PM on April 20, 2006


It gets into the semantics of the issue, I think one needs to dissociate the awareness we have when performing highly automated and overlearned motor tasks from the type of self-referential processing we engage in when maging judgments about our self.

These studies are more interested in the higher cognitive aspects of self processing, such as judging how similar I am to a series of personality characteristics; very declarative tasks that require one to think about oneself as a person with an identity, quirks, likes and dislikes. The authors are arguing that this sort of thinking, which some people think is the default cognitive style of the brain when it's "at rest"/"just daydreaming", is what is shut off when you're doing attentionally demanding tasks.

And I concur! (disclaimer: I'm a grad student in social cognitive neuroscience)

Personally, I'm curious why this is considered breaking news. It seems a little old hat, functional neuroimaging of self referential processing is 5-6 years old now and has generated at least 30 articles, many of them with more interesting findings than this (IMHO).
posted by Smegoid at 8:27 PM on April 20, 2006


On preview, I should clarify that the finding that medial prefrontal cortex (I have no idea why they're saying superfrontal, that's a term hardly ever used, I had to google it to make sure they didn't make it up) is involved in aspects of self processing is so well established, that the authors don't even need to have their subjects engage in self processing. It's assumed that this is what you're doing at rest (a big assumption, but with a lot of data to back it up) this has become so dogmatic that people infer their subjects are no longer engaged in self referential thinking by the abscence of ativity in MPFC. (god forbid we ask them what they were up to).

It is circular and tenuous, but it passes peer review!
posted by Smegoid at 8:34 PM on April 20, 2006


Metafilter: It is circular and tenuous, but it passes peer review!
posted by JekPorkins at 8:37 PM on April 20, 2006


empath: I've had exactly the opposite experience. Playing high-pressure gigs, for example, I generally remember almost nothing about them. Just the beginning, the end, and a few flashes in the middle. It's all on auto-pilot.

Ah, but I wasn't talking about your memories of the experience, but the nature of the experience itself. For example, I've ridden motorbikes in some large Asian cities, which, for a westerner used to driving a car in a clearly defined system with rules, takes a lot of getting used to. When I first starting doing this I would be 100% focused, and as you say remember little afterwards. But when actually in the middle of it, the experience for me is something similar to a 'flow' state, where although my mind seems to be devoted to the task at hand, at the same time time slows down and some other part of the mind is simultaneously thinking all kinds of interesting and crazy shit.

I just re-read the article, btw, and they took the wrong conclusion. It's rapidly repeating a simple task that makes self-awareness go away, not a 'difficult' task. If they were in a truly difficult and disorienting situation, they'd become more self-aware, not less.

Are you refering to 'they' as in myself and Relay, or the researchers?
posted by MetaMonkey at 8:40 PM on April 20, 2006


It would be interesting to see the experiments altered so that they necessarily made reference to the participant's 'self'.

Imagine a repetitive and difficult task that included a 2nd person narrative (i.e. "you wake up and get out of bed. you make a moral decision etc.). By forcing the participant in the task to question the 'I' part of their response perhaps a kind of subjective control group could be created.

Anyone know of such studies?
posted by 0bvious at 8:41 PM on April 20, 2006


Very interesting, Smegold. You addressed all the questions I was thinking of. Thanks.
posted by painquale at 9:09 PM on April 20, 2006


Yeah, it's a lot of fun at work when I just finished a barrage of information calls and suddenly realize how badly I have to pee. There goes my productivity level.
posted by deusdiabolus at 9:36 PM on April 20, 2006


Ah, but I wasn't talking about your memories of the experience, but the nature of the experience itself.

I am interested to know how you distinguish between the two (assuming you're not having the experience as you write)
posted by vacapinta at 9:43 PM on April 20, 2006


women cannot enjoy sex unless they are relaxed and free from worries and distractions (second article)

Isn't it the other way around? I thought the release of endorphins made you happy and relaxed. Think about the night before you have a big presentation or exam; you get off to relieve stress, right? You certainly aren't stress-free when you start.

My experiments, although extensive, don't involve MRIs -- so I could easily be wrong.
posted by booksandlibretti at 9:46 PM on April 20, 2006


Ah, but I wasn't talking about your memories of the experience, but the nature of the experience itself.....

I am interested to know how you distinguish between the two (assuming you're not having the experience as you write)

I think I was distinguishing between general impressions, and specific recollections. So I may remember the general nature of the thought that occurs (i.e. non-verbal introspection), but not any individual thoughts, or even the general area of the thought. Perhaps a bit like how you may remember dreams - you remember you had an interesting dream, but not any of the events, or why it was interesting.
posted by MetaMonkey at 10:44 PM on April 20, 2006


This is the basis of all forms of meditation.

That's why time flies when you're concentrating on something outside of yourself, and you also forget your problems, which is bliss. I think it's a perfectly valid state, and something to be strived for, because I think it's a healthy state.

All productive workers in any field describe this state, and it is what contributes to one enjoying one's job. People who really love what they do often find that their biggest regret is that their life is going by too fast.
posted by Nicholas West at 8:37 AM on April 21, 2006


Smegoid, thanks for the info. May I ask if the terms used by the researcher in the 'self-awareness' experiment is using well-defined terms in neurology?

For example, from the article (first link),
“The regions of the brain involved in introspection and sensory perception are completely segregated, although well connected,” says Goldberg, “and when the brain needs to divert all its resources to carry out a difficult task, the self-related cortex is inhibited.”
And from the abstract Gyan linked to,
"A common theme in theories of subjective awareness poses a self-related “observer” function, or a homunculus, as a critical element without which awareness can not emerge.... The results support the notion that self-related processes are not necessarily engaged during sensory perception and can be actually suppressed."
Are these terms; 'self-related', 'introspection', 'awareness', well defined? Or are they used in a general sense, to mean something along the lines of 'this part of the brain kinda has something to do with thinking about your self.'?

Is the "self-related 'observer' function, or homunculus", really the dominant theory of awareness in neurology right now?

This is what I find hard to swallow about a lot of the news stories I read about fMRI. It seems reasonable (IMHO) to say, 'we have found an area of the brain which is active when subjects are at rest, but less active when they are busy'. But to go from this evidence to talk of awareness and a specific self-related cortex seems a tad fustian to this ignoramus.

I have little faith in these theories that the brain can be neatly divided up into pieces with specific functions, as if it were a reducible machine, most especially when regarding self-awareness. The empirical results of these experiments are very interesting, but seem to me far removed from the theories that attempt to explain them. Seems to me there needs to be a far more solid philosophical/linguistic theoretical basis before we begin to attempt to guess what these results actually mean.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:08 AM on April 21, 2006


Oh, if anyone would like to correct whatever nonsense I have spouted above, I would very much appreciate some links which would help me educate myself about current thinking in neurology.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:10 AM on April 21, 2006


It seems this cuts both ways and depends on the nature of the task at hand. For example, when I'm "juggling eggs" in front of the computer, hours can pass and I lose all sense of self-awareness. It's like my whole existence is cast in terms of the problem I'm working on and there's no room left for physicality at all. When I snap out of it, I feel woozy, need to pee, and am basically done for the day. When I'm playing piano, on the other hand, I am in a kind of super-aware state about my body that seems to correlate with the "flow" people talk about up-thread.

It sounds like it's the nature of the task - physical or intellectual - that separates the two states.
posted by ny_scotsman at 9:14 AM on April 21, 2006


The problem is that PET scanners measure activity over two minutes - and in men it is all over in a few seconds.

For the writer, maybe.
posted by squirrel at 9:49 AM on April 21, 2006


It's like my whole existence is cast in terms of the problem I'm working on

Along these lines, I find it interesting how such work seems to take the form of a kind of mental "noise". I can be listening to music. Then, shutting it off, find things too quiet. I pick up a book and start reading, and five or ten minutes in, realize that, without any explicit internal dialogue, my head feels "full" of noise again.
posted by dreamsign at 2:51 PM on April 21, 2006


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