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Lost in the Moment

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Athletes find themselves “in the zone.” Professors become “lost in thought.” Meditators get absorbed “in the moment.” Can humans really lose their awareness of self when they are powerfully caught up in an experience? Neurobiologists Ilan I. Goldberg, Michal Harel and Rafael Malach of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, assert there is neural evidence to answer in the affirmative.

The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging to compare brain-activation patterns of nine people engaged in tasks involving either intense sensory stimulation or self-reflection. Surprisingly, report the researchers in Neuron, they found a “complete segregation between the two patterns of activity.” They noticed that brain regions active during introspection were largely suppressed during perception, and vice versa. When people are busily sensing or doing something, the region involved in self-monitoring quiets down. In contrast, introspection stimulates regions involved in self-monitoring and suppresses regions active in perception.

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