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The Science of Identity

For all that scientists have studied it, the brain remains the most complex and mysterious human organ — and, now, the focus of billions of dollars’ worth of research to penetrate its secrets.

This article from the New York Times takes an interesting look at an age old question. Some philosophers refered to it as the "Mind-Body conundrum". The problem, at it’s most simple level is, "how can some thing tangible, organic and objective [the brain] produce something intangible, inorganic and subjective [the mind]?".

This article probes this issue from a different angle as it asks, "How and where does our sense of ‘self’ come from"?

A small group of brain scientists is now investigating misidentification syndromes, as the delusions are called, for clues to one of the most confounding problems in brain science: identity. How and where does the brain maintain the “self”?

What researchers are finding is that there is no single “identity spot” in the brain. Instead, the brain uses several different neural regions, working closely together, to sustain and update the identities of self and others. Learning what makes identity, researchers say, will help doctors understand how some people preserve their identities in the face of creeping dementia, and how others, battling injuries like Adam’s, are sometimes able to reconstitute one.

Ultimately, what researchers are looking into, specifically in the field of neuro-biology, is an understanding of what it means to be human. Recently, researchers have begun utilizing very advanced neuro-imaging of the brain as it processes information related to personal identity. What they have noticed is that certain areas of the brain are particularly active during these process, in particular, the cortical midline structures – the areas which "run like an apple core from the frontal lobes near the forehead through the center of the brain".

What this tells us is that when we have injury to these frontal lobes [which is very common in auto accidents], often times, our ability to be aware of not only "who" we are but "who" the people around are, is diminished.

Ultimately, damage to this frontal lobe area affects our ability to not only understand who we are, but what is an is not appropriate, from a behavioral standpoint, as we related to the world around us.

Most importantly, what experts are discovering is that the brain is "plastic" and it can heal itself. But, how exactly does it do this?

Essentially, the damaged sections of the brain can re-route electronic signals around the damaged parts to achieve the same result. But, scientists and researchers are telling us that for the brain to learn how to re-route these signals, to circumvent the damaged sections of our brain, we need to be actively engaging TBI survivors through communication, problem solving and helping them meet different social expectations.

For people recovering from a severe brain injury, several recent experiments suggest that there is some promise in hitting it hard with what it has lost, contact with its familiar, social environment. In one 2005 brain imaging study, neuroscientists in New York found that the sound of a loved one’s voice activated widely distributed circuits in the brains of two severely brain-injured patients who were only occasionally able to respond to commands. Last year, a team of Spanish neuroscientists duplicated the finding.

For those InjuryBoard readers that are dealing with this issue, click through to the NY Times article here. It’s definitely worth the read.

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