New Worlds: Lose yourself [pg. 6]

Can one literally "lose oneself" in an experience? Many theoretical models of the mind reject this notion, proposing that awareness is dependent on the mediation of areas involved in self representation - a vigilant, self-aware "observer" network in the human brain. Prof. Rafael Malach, Ilan Goldberg and Michal Harel of the Weizmann Institute's neurobiology department found a means of addressing this question by scanning the brains of volunteers performing various tasks. The results, published recently in the journal Neuron, were unanticipated: When subjects were given outwardly-focused tasks that demanded their full attention, areas of the brain that relate to the self were not only inactive - they appeared to be actively suppressed. The brain scans were done with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which maps brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow and oxygenation. Volunteers either viewed photos or listened to short music segments. For each stimulus, however, participants were asked to perform two different tasks. In one "introspective" assignment, they were asked to think about themselves and how the image or musical selection made them feel. In the second, which was a "sensory-motor" task, they performed quick recognition exercises such as identifying pieces that included a trumpet. The scientists were particularly interested in certain regions in the prefrontal cortex, known to be involved in personality and self-knowledge, among other things. Indeed, the fMRI confirmed that these regions were active during introspection, but when subjects were absorbed in recognition, activity in these areas was silenced. RARE IRAQI BIRDS BREED IN HULA The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has announced with "excitement" that it discovered breeding Basra reed warblers in the Hula Valley. This is the first such discovery in Israel, and thus was "extremely significant," because the species is endangered and its breeding grounds have been shrinking rapidly. Yoav Perlman, a researcher at the SPNI's Israel Ornithological Center, said there are many other types of reed warblers in Israel, but the basra type is rare. "They are not the most beautiful, because their feathers have colors that camouflage them in the bush." Until now, Israeli bird watchers have sighted the insect-eating Basra reed warblers about 10 times, but this was the first time that they were seen nesting. "We found three males, one of them young, and one female. We don't know yet who the father is, but we caught them, ringed them and took a few feathers for DNA samples." Perlman predicted that the birds would soon migrate to Africa, where they will spend the winter, "but we hope they will come back here in the spring." The species is named for an Iraqi city, and there are believed to be some 5,000 couples in Iraq. "But their numbers are declining all the time because the marshes where they live are being drained." In Israel, the Hula Valley protects these and other species.