Understanding how the brain processes internal experiences

Internal experiences like memory and empathy are the results of several mental processes becoming active at the same time.

Internal experiences are an important part of daily life. Whether it’s remembering a distant childhood memory or simply recalling what you had for breakfast this morning, self-generated cognitions are key brain functions and also extend to our ability to empathize with others or become emotionally attached to a fictional character.

Not much is known about how the brain achieves this wide range of phenomena, but researchers have hypothesized that self-generated cognitions are the results of several mental processes becoming active at the same time.

A new study, published in the journal Human Nature Behavior, tested this hypothesis and isolated the parts of the brain that were active during memory recall and other similar internal mental processes.

“When we recall a recent birthday party, for example, the brain likely activates a number of different systems, such as a system that is responsible for retrieving memory of events, a system that is responsible for building a vivid scene in our mind, and a system that is responsible for moving back in time,” said  Dr. Axelrod, the lead author of the paper.

For the study, the researchers had 41 participants take part in four different experiments. The participants were asked to recall their personal lives inside of an MRI scanner so the researchers could identify the different brain systems that were activated during internal mental processes.

The first three experiments gave the researchers time to isolate three different systems in the brain, and the fourth experiment showed that these three systems were all active at the same time.

The results of the experiment matched the earlier hypothesis that when we recall personal memories or even plan a vacation, different cognitive systems are all activated simultaneously.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to better understanding the processes behind self-generated cognitions.

The researchers note that even though the results of study identified three different systems, there is likely a much more complicated process of mechanisms at play.

“Obviously, our internal experience is mediated by much more than three cognitive systems. We hope that the approach we used will help in the future to identify additional systems,” say the researchers.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer