Where in Your Head?

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

What happens where in your head? The answers to this simple question are pouring in. Study after study, using modern imaging techniques, points out what happens specifically where in the brain. If all of these studies are correct, we now know what earlier generations only thought they knew about what to think about where thinking happens.

Beginning in the early nineteenth century, researchers analyzed measurements—the size and location of bumps on people’s heads—to infer what specific functions were located precisely where inside the skull. This branch of research came to be called “phrenology.” Though now thought to be mostly based on guesswork, almost all of it wrong, phrenology at least made use of some hard data.

The new techniques—most prominently fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and PET (Positron Emissions Tomography) scanning—produce much harder data, of a different kind, and with vastly more detail, than the old head-bump measurements. This wealth of data, much of it in the form of strangely beautiful pictures from a small number (typically about ten) of brains, is inspiring confidence in thousands of researchers. Their happy confidence is the basis of our new insights into what happens where inside our heads.

Here are a very few highlights from the many recent studies of the brain. They tell us the specific locations in the brain of: reading; writing; arithmetic; creativity; persistence; self-reflection; empathy and forgiveness; guilt and embarrassment; neuroticism, extraversion, and self-consciousness; racism; ethical decision-making; self-reflection; moral judgment; honesty and dishonesty; happiness and sadness; disgust; aesthetic preference for paintings; aesthetic judgment of beauty; and sense of humor.

Brain images from the study “Cortical Localization of Reading in Normal Children: An fMRI Language Study.”

“Cortical Localization of Reading in Normal Children: An fMRI Language Study,” W.D. Gaillard, M. Pugliese, C.B. Grandin, S.H. Braniecki, P. Kondapaneni, K. Hunter, B. Xu, J.R. Petrella, L. Balsamo and G. Basso, Neurology, vol. 57, no. 1, 2001, pp. 47–54. The researchers, who are variously at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC; at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH, Bethesda, Maryland; and at Université de Louvain in Belgium, report:

The authors found strong activation in the left middle temporal gyrus and left midfrontal gyrus and variable activation in left inferior frontal gyrus.

“A Functional MRI Study on the Neural Substrates for Writing,” Kota Katanoda, Kohki Yoshikawa
and Morihiro Sugishita, Human Brain Mapping, vol. 13, no. 1, 2001, pp. 34–42. The researchers, at the University of Tokyo, report:

Our main finding was that such common activation was observed in the anterior part of the left superior parietal lobule, the posterior part of the middle and superior frontal gyri, and the right cerebellum.

“The Calculating Brain: An fMRI Study,” T.C. Rickarda, S.G. Romerob, G. Bassoc, C. Whartonc, S. Flitmand and J. Grafmanc, Neuropsychologia, vol. 38, 2000, pp. 325–35. The researchers, at the University of California, San Diego, at the National Institutes of Health, and at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, report:

For [performing simple arithmetic tasks], results for all eight subjects revealed bilateral activation in Brodmann’s area 44, in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (areas 9 and 10), in inferior and superior parietal areas, and in lingual and fusiform gyri.

“Study of the Brain Organization of Creativity: II. Positron-Emission Tomography Data,” N. P. Bekhtereva, M.G. Starchenko, V.A. Klyucharev, V.A. Vorob’ev, S.V. Pakhomov and S.V. Medvedev, Human Physiology, vol. 26, no. 5, 2000, pp. 516–22. The researchers, at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, report:

This work was aimed at studying the brain organization of creative thinking (creativity). By means of positron-emission tomography (PET)... Brain correlates of creativity were obtained. They were represented by the regions of activity changes localized in the prefrontal cortical areas of both hemispheres (Brodmann’s fields 8–11 and 45–47).

“Persistence and Brain Circuitry,” Debra A. Gusnard, John M. Ollinger, Gordon L. Shulman, C. Robert Cloninger, Joseph L. Price, David C. Van Essen and Marcus E. Raichle, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 100, no. 6, March 18, 2003, pp. 3479–84. The researchers, at Washington University School of Medicine, report:

In a functional MRI study, we show that individual differences in Persistence... may be linked to specific areas in the lateral orbital and medial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum.

“Neural Correlates of Self-Reflection,” Sterling C. Johnson, Leslie C. Baxter, Lana S. Wilder, James G. Pipe, Joseph E. Heiserman and George P. Prigatano, Brain, vol. 125, 2002, 1808–14. The researchers, at the National Institutes of Health, and at Barrow Neurological Institute, report:

[Our results] suggest that the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortex are part of a neural system subserving self-reflective thought.

Empathy and Forgiveness
“Investigating the Functional Anatomy of Empathy and Forgiveness,” Tom F.D. Farrow, Ying Zheng, Iain D. Wilkinson, Sean A. Spence, J.F. William Deakin, Nick Tarrier, Paul D. Griffiths, and Peter W.R. Woodruff, Neuroreport, vol. 12, no. 11, August 8, 2001, pp. 2433–8. The researchers, at the University of Sheffield, report:

Little is known about the anatomy of empathy and forgiveness. We used functional MRI to detect brain regions engaged by judging others’ emotional states and the forgivability of their crimes.... Both empathic and forgivability judgements activated left superior frontal gyrus, orbitofrontal gyrus and precuneus. Empathic judgements also activated left anterior middle temporal and left inferior frontal gyri, while forgivability judgements activated posterior cingulate gyrus. 

Brain images from the study “Brain Activation Associated with Evaluative Processes of Guilt and Embarrassment: An fMRI Study.”

Guilt and Embarrassment
“Brain Activation Associated with Evaluative Processes of Guilt and Embarrassment: An fMRI Study,” H. Takahashi, N. Yahata, M. Koeda, T. Matsuda, K. Asai et al., Neuroimage, vol. 23, 2004, pp. 967–74. The researchers, at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University, report:

Both guilt and embarrassment conditions commonly activated the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), left posterior superior temporal sulcus (STS), and visual cortex. Compared to guilt condition, embarrassment condition produced greater activation in the right temporal cortex (anterior), bilateral hippocampus, and visual cortex.

“The Effects of Skin Tone on Race-Related Amygdala Activity: An fMRI Investigation,” Jaclyn Ronquillo, Thomas F. Denson, Brian Lickel, Zhong-Lin Lu, Anirvan Nandy and Keith B. Maddox, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 2, no. 1, 2007, pp. 39–44. The researchers, at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and at Tufts University, report:

Eleven White participants viewed photographs of unfamiliar Black and White faces with varied skin tone (light, dark). Replicating past research, greater amygdala activity was observed for Black faces than White faces... amygdala activity was observed at equivalent levels for light- and dark-skinned Black targets, but dark-skinned White targets elicited greater amygdala activity than light-skinned White targets.

Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Self-Consciousness
“Personality from a Controlled Processing Perspective: An fMRI Study of Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Self-Consciousness,” Naomi I. Eisenberger, Matthew D. Lieberman and Ajay B. Satpute,
Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, vol. 5, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 169–81. The researchers, at the University of California, Los Angeles, report:

In response to an oddball task, neuroticism was associated with increased dorsal anterior cingulate cortex reactivity, typically associated with discrepancy detection, whereas extraversion and selfconsciousness were associated with lateral and medial frontoparietal networks, respectively.

Data from the study “Personality from a Controlled Processing Perspective: An fMRI Study of Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Self-Consciousness.”

Ethical Decision-Making
“An fMRI Study of Simple Ethical Decision-making,” H.R. Heekeren, I. Wartenburge, H. Schmidt, H.P. Schwintowski and A. Villringer, NeuroReport, vol. 14, no. 9, July 1, 2003, pp. 1215–9. The researchers, at Charite in Berlin, Germany, at the National Institutes of Health, and at Humboldt-University in Berlin, report:

Simple moral decisions compared to semantic decisions resulted in activation of left pSTS and middle temporal gyrus, bilateral temporal poles, left lateral PFC and bilateral vmPFC. These results suggest that pSTS and vmPFC are a common neuronal substrate of decision-making about complex ethical dilemmas, processing material evocative of moral emotions and simple ethical decision-making about scenarios devoid of violence and direct bodily harm.

“Neural Correlates of Self-Reflection,” S.C. Johnson, L.C. Baxter, L.S. Wilder, J.G. Pipe, J.E. Heiserman and G.P. Prigatano, Brain, vol. 125, 2002, pp. 1808–14. The researchers, at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, report:

The overall activity... occurred in anterior medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate.

Moral Judgment
“The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment,” Joshua D. Greene, Leigh E. Nystrom, Andrew D. Engell, John M. Darley and Jonathan D. Cohen, Neuron, vol. 44, October 14, 2004, pp. 389–400. The researchers, at Princeton University, report:

Several regions of frontal and parietal cortex predict intertribal differences in moral judgment behavior, exhibiting greater activity for utilitarian judgments.

Data from the study “The Neural Bases of Cognitive Conflict and Control in Moral Judgment.”

Honesty and Dishonesty
“Telling Truth from Lie in Individual Subjects with Fast Event-related fMRI,” Daniel D. Langleben, James W. Loughead, Warren B. Bilker, Kosha Ruparel, Anna Rose Childress, Samantha I. Busch and Ruben C. Gur, Human Brain Mapping, vol. 26, no. 4, 2005, pp. 262–72. The researchers, at the University of Pennsylvania, report:

We used a paradigm balancing the salience of the target cues to elicit deceptive and truthful responses and determined the accuracy of this model in the classification of single lie and truth events. The relative salience of the task cues affected the net activation associated with lie in the superior medial and inferolateral prefrontal cortices.

Happiness and Sadness
“Functional MRI Changes Before and After Onset of Reported Emotions,”  I. Prohovnik, P. Skudlarski, R. Fulbright, J. Gore and B. Wexler, Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, vol. 132, no. 3, December 30, 2004, pp. 239–50. The researchers, at Yale University School of Medicine, and at Vanderbilt University, report:

Significant differences between happy and sad conditions were evident in multiple brain regions both before and after the reported onset of emotional response, including the middle and superior temporal gyri, the middle frontal gyrus, the caudate, and the hippocampus.

“The Moral Affiliations of Disgust: A Functional MRI Study,” Jorge Moll, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, Fernanda Tovar Moll, Fatima Azevedo Ignacio, Ivanei E Bramati, Egas M Caparelli-Daquer and Paul J Eslinger, Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, vol. 18, no. 1, March 2005, pp. 68–78. The researchers, at LABS-Hospitais D’Or in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil, at Universidade do Rio de Janeiro, at Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at Pennsylvania State University, and at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, report:

pure disgust and indignation recruited both overlapping and distinct brain regions, mainly in the frontal and temporal lobes.

Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust
“Neuroanatomical Correlates of Happiness, Sadness, and Disgust,” R.D. Lane, E.M. Reiman, G.L. Ahern, G.E. Schwartz and R.J. Davidson, American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 154, no. 7, July 1997, pp. 926–33. The researchers, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, report:

Happiness, sadness, and disgust were each associated with increases in activity in the thalamus and medial prefrontal cortex (Brodmann’s area 9). These three emotions were also associated with activation of anterior and posterior temporal structures, primarily when induced by film. Recalled sadness was associated with increased activation in the anterior insula. Happiness was distinguished from sadness by greater activity in the vicinity of ventral mesial frontal cortex.

Data from the study “Separate Neural Circuits for Primary Emotions? Brain Activity During Self-Induced Sadness and Happiness in Professional Actors.”

Happiness and Sadness in Actors
“Separate Neural Circuits for Primary Emotions? Brain Activity During Self-Induced Sadness and Happiness in Professional Actors,” Mario Pelletier, Alain Bouthillier, Johanne Levesque, Serge Carrier, Claude Breault, Vincent Paquette, Boualem Mensour, Jean-Maxime Leroux, Gilles Beaudoin, Pierre Bourgouin and Mario Beauregard, Neuroreport, vol. 14, no. 8, June 11, 2003, pp. 1111–6. The researchers, at Centre hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal, and at Universite Concordia, report

Both the Sad and the Happy states were associated with signi¢cant loci of activation, bilaterally, in the orbitofrontal cortex, and in the left medial prefrontal cortex, left ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, left anterior temporal pole, and right pons.

Happiness and Sadness in Music
“Brain Regions Involved in the Recognition of Happiness and Sadness in Music,” Stéphanie Khalfa, Daniele Schon, Jean-Luc Anton and Catherine Liegeois-Chauvel, Neuroreport, vol. 16, no. 18, December 19, 2005, pp. 1981–4. The researchers, at the INSERM Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Neuropsychology in Marseille, France, report:

Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging to test for the lateralization of the brain regions specifically involved in the recognition of negatively and positively valenced musical emotions.... The minor mode (sad excerpts) involved the left orbito and mid-dorsolateral frontal cortex..

Aesthetic Preference for Paintings
“Neuroanatomical Correlates of Aesthetic Preference for Paintings,” Oshin Vartanian and Vinod Goel, NeuroReport, vol. 15, no. 5, April 9, 2004, pp. 893–7. The researchers, at York University in Toronto, Ontario, report:

Our primary results demonstrated that activation in right caudate nucleus decreased in response to decreasing preference, and that activation in bilateral occipital gyri, left cingulate sulcus, and bilateral fusiform gyri increased in response to increasing preference.

Aesthetic Judgment of Beauty (1)
“Neural Correlates of Beauty,” Hideaki Kawabata and Semir Zeki, Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 91, 2004, pp. 1699–1705. The researchers, at University College, London, report:

A comparison of ugly versus beautiful produced activity in the motor cortex bilaterally, whereas the contrast ugly versus neutral produced no activity. Thus the areas that are involved in these contrasts are the medial orbito-frontal cortex, the anterior cingulate, the parietal cortex, and the motor cortex.

Data from the study “Neural Correlates of Beauty.”

Aesthetic Judgment of Beauty (2)
“Brain Correlates of Aesthetic Judgment of Beauty,” Thomas Jacobsen, Ricarda I. Schubotz, Lea
Hoefel, and D. Yves v. Cramon, NeuroImage, vol. 29, 2006, pp. 276–85. The researchers, at the University of Leipzig, and at the Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, in Leipzig, Germany, report:

Direct contrasts showed specific activations for aesthetic judgments in the frontomedian cortex (BA 9/10), bilateral prefrontal BA 45/47, and posterior cingulate, left temporal pole, and the temporoparietal junction.

Sense of Humor
“Humor Comprehension and Appreciation: An fMRI Study,” Angela Bartolo, Francesca Benuzzi, Luca Nocetti, Patrizia Baraldi and Paolo Nichelli, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 18, no. 11, November 2006, pp. 1789–98. The researchers, at the Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia in Modena, Italy, and at Azienda Ospedaliera di Modena, report:

Our findings demonstrate activation of both the left and the right hemispheres when comparing funny versus nonfunny cartoons. In particular, we found activation of the right inferior frontal gyrus (BA 47), the left superior temporal gyrus (BA 38), the left middle temporal gyrus (BA 21), and the left cerebellum. 


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!

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