The Neural Correlate of Ignorance

The following is an article from the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

Figure1. A reflex hammer. It was used to mechanically stimulate the subject’s skull.

An fMRI Study
by Kai M. Schreiber
Dept. of Physiology, University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

In 1796, Franz Joseph Gall described the cerebral organs that he believed were responsible for certain character traits.1 Since then, thanks to neural imaging studies, we have acquired detailed knowledge of the parts of the brain engaged in many cognitive functions.

So far, however, no one has attempted to locate the cortical seat of ignorance. Ignorance is arguably the most pervasive, mental attribute, and the one that makes us truly human. Unfortunately, ignorance is difficult to measure using common, imaging techniques, because the sophisticated machinery tends to saturate the ignorance system even before any stimuli are presented.

Here, I use functional mechanic resonance imaging, a technique developed specifically for this study, to locate the seat of ignorance in the human cortex.

First, I present evidence that there is a well defined neural ignorance system.

“General Ignorance,” Objectively Determined and Measured

While comparing the scores of random Joe Shmoes on a set of personality measures I had devised over the last few hours, I noticed strong positive correlations between some of them. I discarded the non-correlated ones and came up with the table shown here as Figure 2.

Experts tell me that the positive correlations of these measures must mean that there is some underlying general principle behind them, effected by some physical body. I call this underlying general principle General Ignorance (GI). The following set of numbers demonstrates how simple it is to assign numerical measurements that correspond to General Ignorance:

Figure 2. This set of numbers demonstrates how simple it is to assign numerical measurements that correspond to the qualitative quantity called General Ignorance. For an interpretation of the numbers, consult Figure 3.

It is unnecessary to assign labels to the chart, as the meanings and significance of the numbers are obvious.

Functional Mechanic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

To overcome the aforementioned problems in imaging ignorance, I employed the following strategy. First, the subject was seated with a friend in the university cafeteria. During that first stage the conversation of the subject was recorded from a neighboring table using an HB pencil and letter-sized blank paper (80g/m). The subject then was brought into the experimental room.

For the fMRI experiment, the subject was seated comfortably and one of two texts—either her original conversation (baseline) or lines from a Shakespeare play (signal) —was read to her. It can be assumed that the subject was non-ignorant regarding her own previous utterances, whereas the Shakespeare quote had a high probability of eliciting an ignorance signal. This was confirmed by the subject’s self-report. [For some details about the procedure, see the accompanying article box called “fMRI on the Go - Try It Yourself!”]

While the subject was listening, her head was mechanically stimulated with short pulses delivered using a reflex hammer (see Figure 1). The locus of stimulation on the skull was varied systematically between trials. The subject’s response (verbal, body movement, threats) to each of these pulses was recorded quantitatively on a scale ranging from one to ten. A stronger response in the signal condition indicates a greater excitability of the ignorance system at this skull location. Figure 2 shows the typical result from the subject.

Figure 3. Activation of cortical areas due to mechanic stimulation of the skull. This image was created by overlaying two-dimensional gaussian patches centered on the locus of stimulation. The amplitude of the gaussians reflects the difference in strength of response between the signal and the baseline condition in each location.


Figure 3 clearly shows that during perception of stimuli selective for the ignorance system, ignorance was most strongly enhanced by mechanical resonance stimulation over the frontal cortex. Therefore I conclude that the frontal lobe is the seat of General Ignorance.

It is interesting to compare GI across groups. Since the ignorance system is located in the tissue of the frontal lobe, its design must be specified in the genome. This could help explain certain phenomena of decision-making that related to politics and economy, which are a mystery otherwise. I have made up preliminary evidence, showing that bureaucrats are relatively more ignorant than Buddhist monks. If this result holds, we would have to drop all efforts to educate bureaucrats, since the effort will be demonstrably futile.

fMRI has proven to be a powerful new experimental technique, allowing the visualization of human cortical processing in vivo. While its temporal and spatial resolution both appear improvable, the simplicity and affordability of the equipment, and the continuing flow of published studies based on its output, easily justify purchase and use of the equipment.


1. For details, see “Phrenology and the Neurosciences: Contributions of F.J. Gall and J.G. Spurzheim,” Donald D. Simpson, ANZ [Australia and New Zealand] Journal of Surgery, vol. 75, no. 6, June 2005, pp. 475-82.


fMRI on the Go - Try It Yourself!

The great advantage of the fMRI [functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging] method (as described in the main text) is its flexibility. It could even be used at the bedside with clinical patients. To elicit an fMRI signal from yourself, read the following lines out loud while hitting yourself on the forehead with the open palm. If you feel dizziness or anger, you have successfully stimulated your ignorance circuits.

This double worship,
Where one part does disdain with cause, the other
Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom,
Cannot conclude but by the yea and no
Of general ignorance,—-it must omit
Real necessities, and give way the while
To unstable slightness: purpose so barr’d,
It follows, Nothing is done to purpose.

—William Shakespeare,


This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2007 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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