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July 2, 2006

'Our grip on reality is slim'


So says University College London (England) Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience investigator Dr. Paul Burgess, whose research on whether we can tell if we actually witnessed something or simply imagined we did so was published earlier this year in a paper in the journal Neuropsychologia.

An interview with Burgess follows.

    Our grip on reality is slim, says UCL scientist

    The neurological basis for poor witness statements and hallucinations has been found by scientists at UCL (University College London). In over a fifth of cases, people wrongly remembered whether they actually witnessed an event or just imagined it, according to a paper published in NeuroImage this week.

    Dr Jon Simons and Dr Paul Burgess led the study at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. Dr Burgess said: "In our tests volunteers either thought they had imagined words which they had actually been shown or said they had seen words which in fact they had just imagined - in over 20 per cent of cases. That is quite a lot of mistakes to be making, and shows how fallible our memory is - or perhaps, how slim our grip on reality is!


    "Our work has implications for the validity of witness statements and agrees with other studies that show that our mind sometimes fills in memory gaps for us, and we confuse what we imagined occurred in a situation - which is related to what we expect to happen or what usually happens - with what actually happened.

    "Most of us, though, have a critical reality monitoring function so that we are able to distinguish well enough between what is real and what is imagined and our imagination does not have too great an impact on our lives - unless the reality check system breaks down such as after stroke or in cases of schizophrenia."

    The study found that the areas that were activated while remembering whether an event really happened or was imagined in healthy subjects are the very same areas that are dysfunctional in people who experience hallucinations.

    Dr Burgess said: "We believe that hallucinations are caused by a difficulty in discriminating information present in the outside world from information that is imagined. In schizophrenia the difficulty you have in separating reality from imagined events becomes exaggerated so some people have hallucinations and hear voices that simply aren't there." These results indicate a link between the brain areas implicated in schizophrenia and the regions that support the ability to discriminate between perceived and imagined information.

    In the tests, healthy subjects were shown 96 well-known word pairs from pop culture such as 'Laurel and Hardy', 'bacon and eggs', and 'rock and roll'. The participants were asked to count the number of letters in the second word of the pair. Often the second word wasn't actually shown and the subject had to imagine the word – such as 'Laurel and ?'.

    Participants were then asked which of the second words they had actually seen on screen and which ones they had only imagined. The subjects' brain activity was observed using fMRI scans while they remembered whether words had been imagined or seen on screen.

    When people accurately remembered whether they had actually seen a word or just imagined it brain activity in the key areas increased – many of which are found in brain area 10, which is involved in imagination and reality checking, develops last in the brain and is twice as big in humans as in other animals. In the people who did not remember correctly, activation in brain area 10 was reduced.


You can see the abstract of the Neuropsychologia paper here or read it below.

Or live large and do both.

    Differential components of prospective memory? Evidence from fMRI.

    Two of the principal components of prospective memory (i.e., remembering to carry out delayed intentions) are recognizing the appropriate context to act ("cue identification") and remembering the action to be performed ("intention retrieval").

    In this experiment, the demands on these components were manipulated while measuring brain activity using fMRI to explore whether the two components share a common neural basis.


    The results showed significant behavioral differences between the cue identification and intention retrieval conditions.

    However, a consistent pattern of hemodynamic changes was found in both prospective memory conditions in anterior prefrontal cortex (BA 10), with lateral BA 10 activation accompanied by medial BA 10 deactivation.

    These effects were more pronounced when demands on intention retrieval were high.

    This is consistent with the hypothesis that anterior prefrontal cortex (area 10) supports the biasing of attention between external events (e.g., identifying the cue amid distracting stimuli) and internal thought processes (i.e., maintaining the intention and remembering the intended actions).

    Together, the results suggest that whilst cue identification and intention retrieval may be behaviorally separable, they share at least some common neural basis in anterior prefrontal cortex.


The great 19th-century English neuroscientists Gilbert & Sullivan anticipated these results when they penned the following lines for "H.M.S. Pinafore," sung by Little Buttercup and Captain:

Things are seldom what they seem,
Skim milk masquerades as cream;


[via Matt Penning]

July 2, 2006 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Did you spot the gorilla?

Posted by: Skipweasel | Jul 3, 2006 4:46:34 PM


Count how many times the white team pass the ball. Do this before reading the next comment.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Jul 3, 2006 4:46:03 PM

You got that right...things are very seldom what they seem. Yet I do believe there is a connection between real and imagined. SEE,HEAR,TOUCH,TASTE,SMELL. Those abilities are what makes everything REAL in life. When we lose one or something happens to impair those abilities then we sometimes have the insight to imagine what it would be like. We walk a fine line between sanity and reality. I love it...don't you? Think we are seeing things?? Hearing things we shouldn't? I got an answer to all of it...MYOB. Mind Your Own Business.....=)) Then you don't have to worry about what is real and what is imagined. Smile and let everyone wonder what your doing. Live, Love, Laugh often. Makes life worth living. oh and another thing. Why worry about what is real and what is imagined? Everyone has their own side of the story. And nine times out ten..none of them will match.

Posted by: Rhonda | Jul 3, 2006 10:53:33 AM

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