Existential neuroscience and autonoesis

I read a remarkable article by Marco Iacoboni in Social Neuroscience entitled “The Quiet Revolution in Existential Neuroscience”.  Instead of ‘quiet’ I wish it would be quite loud.  It makes for some dense reading but worth every nerve impulse to do so.  His main argument seems to be that instead of doing neuroscience based on the assumptions that the subjective and objective worlds are clearly delineated and that the subjective world is based upon representations which have been constructed through the accretion of analyzed elements (some pragmatic truth in that), our neuroscience should be based upon “the view of a human brain that needs a body to exist in a world of shared social norms in which meaning originates from being-in-the-world”.  What is important to our minds is not so much the analytic synthesis but the embodied context of experience.  Hey now, I can get behind that one.

Iacoboni marshals evidence for this view from a variety of research, especially studies into the frontoparietal mirror system.  (The frontal lobe has motoric functions that light up when we see someone doing something and the parietal lobe has perceptual and body schema functions that contribute to this mirroring).  Some studies show that mirroring emotions both incidentally and intentionally invokes not just the mirrored expressive actions but also the emotional processes themselves in the limbic system.  We mirror each other automatically on an almost continuous basis and that this leads to (I really like this next part) “a process according to which a certain intimacy is achieved . . . . . What is this intimacy if not the interdependence of both parties”.  What is emphasized here is not our separateness but our communal feelings. Mirroring helps us identify with and understand the other’s intention and emotional state.  This plays, of course, an important role in ‘mentalizing’ about others, what I call EC for Empathy Central and others label it ToM for Theory of Mind.

There is a lot more about this to be said but I want to explore another remarkable idea.  Iacoboni sees our minds interpreting much of our experience in context.  The same actions occur in many situations, so that to understand the other’s acts requires the inclusion of context in our deliberations.  (Be still, O my heart).  If I read him correctly, one major feature of any context is the degree of personal relevance; some situations are impersonal, i.e., without emotional engagement or involvement (think of doing things as a matter of course), and some are more personal, i.e., their emotional involvement leads to episodic memories (the experience is important enough to remember as an autobiographical episode of your life).  Experiences that are important to the self are autonoetic, as was discussed in my recent post 8/22/18, and autonoesis has many implications.


DMPFC=dorsomedial prefrontal cortex MPC=medial parietal cortex. Illustration provided by Georg Northoff – Georg Northoff  Brain and self – a neurophilosophical account Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 2013, 7:28.

Most amazingly, Iacoboni identifies two structures relevant to the mirroring system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and the medial parietal cortex, that light up when the experience is autonoetic (my interpretation).  For example, these two areas are silent during artificial laboratory tasks that have little ecological validity but they become more active when the task is social in a meaningful way.  Iacoboni says our ‘default state’ is to think socially and these two areas help in the ongoing social thinking needed to relate in a authentic, i.e., not rote or cant, manner.  To refer back to his earlier notion, these areas light up more when the situation’s import is based upon intimacy, i.e., engagement with the other, than when the situation is socially sterile.

Now, if you have followed my blog somewhat closely for more than a few months, you may already have a sense of how my dorsomedial prefrontal and medial parietal cortices are fired up.  Consider one of Iacoboni’s preliminary research finding that these areas light up when political aficionados discuss politics and grow dark when politically naïve or disinterested people do so.  I take this to mean that some of us feel politics is relevant to our lives and some do not.  Some do because they are cognitively engaged in issues and some do only because of the chameleon effect, i.e., they are responding by fitting in through social imitation and emotional contagion.  If you have done any phone canvassing for a candidate you might recall conversations based on positions, conversations based upon an emotional identification, and some when the person could care less.

Now consider a study posted about here on 4/18/18 that demonstrated that the closer you are, i.e., developing intimacy, with colleagues and friends, the more your neural responses to watching a movie are congruent with each other.  Also consider (and it may help to re-read my 8/22/18 post) the role of autonoesis in art. My empirical question is when someone ‘gets into’ a work of art, e.g., reading a novel that is hard to put down or seeing a movie that you love, do these areas indicative of autonoesis or personal engagement, i.e., dorsomedial prefrontal medial parietal cortices, light up? If you used an instrument to assess one’s aesthetic response such as the AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17), would this correlate with activity in these areas?  A very interesting study there wants to be done—oh to be a younger man in a research setting.  But go one step further with me.

Aristotle in talking about drama but it applies, I think, in some way to art forms in general, says that since we know the art is not ‘factual’, i.e., couldn’t be relevant to our ‘real’ life, to engage emotionally (and aesthetically, I would say) we must have a willing suspension of disbelief.  So I wonder if such a suspension allows what I am calling these autonoetic areas to fire up, and if we find art uninvolving, e.g., we could care less about the characters or the plot of a stupid movie, do these areas remain dark?  Oh my, that is seeking the deep aesthetic in life and mind.  Travel on.


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