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.

These findings counter the claim by some philosophers and neuroscientists that the brain utilizes a type of homunculus, or observer, during self-awareness. The theory suggests that the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-monitoring, and the sensory cortex, active during perception, engage in an interplay that gives rise to subjective awareness and perception—as if part of the forebrain were observing sensory activity in the hindbrain.

Malach and his colleagues argue that the data show otherwise. Converging neurological and psychological evidence, they note, indicates that internal representations of the self are associated with distinct brain structures. Indeed, they believe a distinct neural state underlies the experience of “losing yourself in the act.”