The Introspection Nucleus
A study in today’s issue of Science concludes that the size of a small area of the right prefrontal cortex correlates with “introspective ability.” I wonder if, in the coming years when meta-irony is bound to be king, whether “prefrontal cortex-gazing” will replace “navel-gazing” as an epithet for introspection.
There are certainly limitations to the study, but there is also a kind of charming quixotic quality to it. The researchers very cleverly designed a task to measure subjects’ introspective abilities. Basically, they were given a challenging visual task and then asked to estimate their accuracy on the task. The more closely their self-perceived accuracy matched their actual accuracy, the higher their meta-cognitive or introspective ability was rated. This is certainly a type of meta-cognition, but I don’t think it’s what most people would think of as introspection. It’s more narrow. I also wonder whether they were really measuring simple estimating ability: it would have been illuminating to ask participants to make other estimations as well. Perhaps this area of cortex is also responsible for weight-guessing or estimating how many gumballs are in a jar.
That being said, it’s tempting to think of this discrete prefrontal region being a kind of self-judge, like a little demon watching the rest of the brain chug along and clicking his tongue at all the foolishness. If there is a single area associated with introspection, it would make sense for it to be in the prefrontal cortex. Anybody who’s worked with patients with frontal lobe injury knows that “self-aware” is about the last term that would come to mind to describe them. I have a hard time imagining how this study will benefit my head injury patients, although I know that somewhere down the road, this will have contributed to a useful treatment. It’s hard, though, to share in the excitement of the researchers. This is typical of the differing perspectives often seen in research/basic science compared to clinical practice. Researchers often are so focused on obtaining a bit of information that it becomes the entire goal. Successfully obtaining the data, no matter how arcane, is the victory: “OK, we found it. Now we know. Done.” The clinician, however, is sitting in a small exam room with someone who is suffering, and often just wants something that will help this poor soul, whether anybody understands how it works or not. We are taught to avoid academic data-gathering in order to avoid over-testing, exposing patients to risk, and driving up health care costs. The mantra becomes “If it’s not going to change what I do, then I don’t even want to know.” These are two different cultures with different values, customs, and languages. This is why bringing research to the clinic is known as “translation.”
Aside from the issues of practicality and methodological nit-picking, I have a hard time taking studies like this at face value. It is hard to imagine that something as complex and elusive as “introspective ability” could be caught and bottled so easily. Not only is it daunting from a neuroscience point of view, but it’s also kind of anti-poetic. But at the same time, I do believe that introspection, along with the rest of consciousness, is a brain function. Holding that belief requires accepting that these things are all describable and reducible to individually meaningless neuronal firing. So although it pains me in a vague and slightly embarrassing way, I am happy and grateful that somebody is doing these studies.