Research into brain science and the mind has historically had to navigate between two conflicting assertions. The first arose in ancient Greece – “Know Thyself”, as inscribed at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. The second comes from Zen teachings – “Mind trying to know itself is like a sword trying to cut itself”. These contradictory views have been mirrored in the diverse disciplines that have tried to untangle the mysteries of mind and brain, such as the biological sciences, philosophy and psychology.
Recent research at the Aristotle Teaching Foundation (ATF), part of the University of Thessaloniki, has gone some way towards resolving these conflicts. Researchers have identified a discrete nucleus of cells in the orbital-lateral region of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) that appear to play an important role in self-awareness. A longitudinal study of undergraduate students – following them throughout their degree courses – showed that there was a statisistically significant (p < 0.001) increase in the size of this nucleus in students of psychology. This growth was not found in the students of any other discipline, although there was tantalising evidence that this area may actually shrink in size for those studying mathematics and medicine. Further research is currently attempting to explore these differences more fully.
The researchers have described the nucleus of cells as the brain’s “auto-focus” (AF). The AF works by making individuals sensitive to self-referential information, facilitating rapid assimilation of salient data in social settings to gain an interactive advantage. A simple example would be a group of people having a chat at a party. Someone might mention a recent activity they undertook, and the person with a highly developed AF (such as a psychology graduate) would quickly be able to relate a similar tale, even if the activities in question were widely different (e.g., running a marathon and getting drunk while watching TV).
There is clearly a lot more research to be undertaken in this area, and it raises important possibilities for developing pharmacological interventions to improve functioning of the AF (for example, among mathematicians and medics). A more immediate effect may be a significant increase in the number of students studying psychology. I just don’t want to be in the Student’s Union bar when that happens.