Tuesday, November 24, 2009

In Search of Self

In The Remembered Present Gerald Edelman suggests that the fundamental problem of consciousness is how the mind, presumably as embodied by the brain, establishes a sense of self and, in particular, how the distinction between self and other is established. Since I tend to agree with this premise, I was interested to discover this morning a piece on the BBC News Web site by Nick Higham, a presenter for the Today program on BBC Radio 4. The report concerns experiments by Professor Sophie Scott of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London based on scanning the brains of actors. It is important to remember that scanning technology is still restricted to creating static images, each of which takes significant time to compose. Thus Scott has to face the limitation that she cannot effectively capture the "active" brain in a time-based data stream, which can then be analyzed. Nevertheless, Higham's report indicates that Scott is coming up with some imaginative ways to make the best of her limitations.

Her basic approach was to identify areas of brain activity in two different tasks. The first was a simple counting task; and the second involved a "performance." The subject was a professional actress, given the following as the second task:

For the experiment, Fiona Shaw performed snatches of T S Eliot's poem The Waste Land. (Appropriately enough, given the circumstances, Eliot's original title for the poem was He Do the Police in Different Voices.)

The poem's second section, A Game at Chess, includes a dialogue between a married couple, and a passage in which a Cockney woman gossips in a pub near closing, interrupted by the voice of the landlord shouting "Hurry up please it's time!".

The text was cut up into sections lasting just a few seconds each. Fiona read them in character, then stopped while the machine scanned her brain.

Scott's hypothesis that different brain regions would be involved for the different tasks appears to have been confirmed. For the counting task she identified activity in three regions: control of lip and tongue movement, hearing, and planning speech activities. These were all regions that have been identified by previous scanning experiments. For the second task, however, new regions come into play:

Towards the front of the brain there is a part associated with "higher order" control of behaviour. Towards the top of the brain is a section which controls the movement of the hands and arms - even though she wasn't waving her arms about, she was apparently thinking about doing so.

And towards the back of the head is an area associated with complex visual imagery, even though she wasn't performing a complex visual task.

Higham's conclusion is a bit simplistic:

Perhaps it's just this: that convincing people you're someone you're not by changing your voice is hard work - a lot harder than simply being yourself.

My own opinion is that the interesting parts go deeper than this. It seems as if the brain is working to synthesize, both visually and kinesthetically, another "self" to "be." In other words, it is, in a sense, still a matter of "being yourself;" but the self is an alternative one. My own conjecture is that sense of self is always a matter of role-playing. Experiments with actors can help us identify what the brain is doing in the course of that role-playing; but, where what Higham calls "simply being yourself" is concerned, those activities may be enabled through routines under some sort of "automatic pilot" control. Shaw's second task, however, involved a less routine level of control.

This may also tell us something about the "method" approach to acting. The experiment was designed in such a way that Shaw would be more aware of the acting task as an acting task. This would contrast with a situation in which a "method" actor gets "into character" before performing for an audience. Getting into character may well be a matter of substituting one set of routines (those of the character) for another (those of "everyday self").

Regardless of how the data are interpreted, Scott's results point the way towards a variety of directions for further study; but, unfortunately, they also emphasize how limited our current data acquisition technologies are for such subsequent study.

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