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Neuroscience Locates Meta-Consciousness


fMRI studies of lucid dreamers point to the area of the brain that generates self-awareness

In the midst of a fierce debate over whether consciousness is solely a product of the brain and its processes, or is distributed throughout the body, neuroscience is trying to locate the exact areas where cognition and other reflexive and emotional phenomena arise.

Never before have we been able to locate the minute spot that generates meta-consciousness (the awareness of being conscious) which differentiates us from other animals. This elusive area in the brain has proved hard to pinpoint because it requires a very meticulous detection of the areas specifically tied to consciousness, something that can’t be determined simply by measuring the difference in brain activity between a state of consciousness and a state of unconsciousness. For example, activity is greatly diminished in many parts of the brain, not just one, while we are sleeping. This makes it virtually impossible to know which of the hypoactive areas are specifically related to consciousness. A similar pattern of increased activity in multiple areas of the brain can be observed in people who are awake.

The subtle tracks of consciousness, however, are revealed by the brains of people capable of lucid dreaming. Lucid dreamers remain conscious of their dream state within the unconsciousness of sleep.

Scientists at the Max Plank Psychiatric Institute in Munich conducted a series of studies using EEG and functional magnetic resonance imaging on the brains of sleepers who are able to attain this state of “meta-consciousness.”

Investigators compared brain activity during normal sleep with that of lucid sleep and noticed increased activity in the right dorsolateral area of the prefrontal cortex and the frontopolar regions, structures linked to self-assessment and the capacity to evaluate our own feelings and thoughts, and in the precuneus, which has been linked to self-perception.

These findings have, for the first time, made visible the neural web of conscious awareness. Perhaps they will soon lead to unraveling the enigma of personal identity.

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