Studying the Self Scientifically

Whether their work is in human genes, dwarf planets, or computer chips, many scientists have this in common: What they study is tangibly out there, somewhere. But 27-year-old Swiss neuropsychologist Bigna Lenggenhager chose to step into the world of illusions for her doctoral research.

Intrigued by the experiences of some neurological patients, Lenggenhager decided “to study how flexible and how prone to illusion even the very self is,” she says in an interview with Science Careers. Lenggenhager works on bodily self-awareness and multisensory integration by the brain, using out-of-body experiences–the disturbing feeling of having one’s self and body detached from each other–as a model for investigation. It’s not a common subject for scientific research, she admits, but she sees that as an advantage. “For me, it is especially interesting for that reason. It’s very exciting to do an early step” in an emerging area of science.

Lenggenhager was in the second year of her Ph.D. at the Brain Mind Institute of the (EPFL) in Switzerland when her work was published in(subscription required) in August of this year. The story was picked up by many public media outlets. “The topic is quite novel and timely,” says Olaf Blanke, Lenggenhager’s Ph.D. supervisor. The field remains small, but “the self and how it is related to body perception is a hot topic.”

Manipulating the self and the body

Topics such as these are always hot, largely for religious or esoteric reasons. But what makes it a hot scientific topic right now is recent clinical evidence that patients with certain neurological conditions tend to have out-of-body experiences more often than others. Lenggenhager heard first-hand accounts of various kinds of bodily illusions while doing internships at Zurich university hospitals as she trained to become a neuropsychologist. The accounts piqued her interest in how the brain affects the perception of self and body.

One year into her Ph.D. in Blanke’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, Lenggenhager helped develop an experimental concept aimed at recreating out-of-body experiences in healthy subjects as a way to study distorted self-consciousness. She collaborated with a philosopher to discuss “questions about how we perceive our body and what is relevant for bodily self-consciousness,” Blanke says. Most of the discussions aimed to come up with adequate concepts and definitions. “He helped, among other things, to define and relate to various philosophical questions concepts that we think to have investigated or manipulated with our experiments, like, for example, selfhood,” Lenggenhager says.

Lenggenhager also partnered with Tej Tadi, a Ph.D. student in Blanke’s lab with a background in electronic engineering and virtual reality, to create a virtual environment in which the volunteers could see a projection of their own backs, but in front of them. Researchers stroked the back of the volunteers while showing 3-dimensional images of their virtual backs being stroked simultaneously. None of the volunteers reported the sensation of leaving their bodies or seeing themselves from the perspective of the other location, as reported in out-of-body experiences. However, after the researchers took the volunteers back or forward a few steps and asked them to return to their original locations, all of them were confused enough to think that they had been standing somewhere between where their real and their virtual bodies had been standing before.

“Further research still has to show how much [these results] can be extended,” Blanke says. But they do suggest that the relation among the brain, the self, and the body can be studied experimentally.

Inhabiting the body of a young researcher

Lenggenhager has been interested in the brain and its workings for as long as she can remember. She studied psychology at the University of Zurich and earned a master’s degree in neuropsychology, a discipline that aims to understand how the brain mechanisms underlie psychological functions.

In the course of her studies, Lenggenhager approached neuropsychology from several perspectives. From clinical neuropsychology, she learned about neurological disorders and their treatments. From cognitive neuropsychology, she learned how clinical observations are used to relate brain and mind. She incorporated neurophysiology, other neurosciences, and pharmacology into her training and did several internships, both clinical and research-focused, in local university hospitals. During her master’s research project, Lenggenhager studied the sensation of “being there” that some people get while watching movies, using both psychometric and physiological approaches.

After finishing her master’s degree in 2005, Lenggenhager joined EPFL to investigate neurological processes that mediate bodily self-consciousness, under Blanke’s supervision. Before starting on the work that would be published in Science, she studied the contribution of the inner-ear balance system to how the brain processes information related to body location. The work was published in on the same day her Science paper came out.

Not your usual subject

“We look at these [out-of-body] experiences because they provide hints as to how we might experimentally study self-consciousness,” Blanke says. The brain mechanisms underlying self-consciousness are interesting from both neurological and clinical perspectives. Yet they make for “a challenging project in the sense that [there is] not [much] evidence we could base our experiments upon,” Blanke says. “[We had] to read across other disciplines and see what could best apply to our questions.”

Lenggenhager says her success is due in large part to the supportive environment she found. Blanke’s lab is multidisciplinary, employing psychologists, biologists, medical doctors, physicists, engineers, and computer scientists. Multidisciplinarity is “one of the most important things … because it opens a lot of thinking,” Lenggenhager says. She also discusses her ideas outside the lab during conferences and networking workshops as part of the European Platform for Life Sciences, Mind Sciences, and the Humanities.

Finishing, and its consequences

“Our study is rather small but to write the paper … took … a year or so” of on-and-off writing and draft exchanges with her supervisor, Lenggenhager says. She believes that there is an element of luck to publishing in a top journal. But Blanke gives her credit for more than good luck. “It is always easy to start a study but it’s more difficult to pull [it] all the way through to the end,” Blanke says. “What she does well is finishing things.”

Lenggenhager’s research on out-of-body experiences attracted a lot of media interest. “For me, it was a great experience,” she says. But adds, “I was also frustrated since the journalists put my results in a wrong way.” She also found it “a little scary” to suddenly be under everyone’s scrutiny. “You know that you could have done certain things in your study better,” she says.

A small but growing field

Traditionally, parts of the scientific community have been sceptical about research like this. “A lot of scientists don’t take it seriously,” Lenggenhager says. Out-of-body experiences may seem “very mystical,” Blanke adds, but he’s confident that eventually this will become mainstream. “Phantom limbs … used to seem very strange but now are very accepted.”

The field is already growing thanks to new tools such as virtual reality and neuroimaging techniques. One difficulty is that “we need to establish a sophisticated approach to the body. … It’s not as easy as for other fields, but if we manage to do it, it can be very interesting,” Blanke says.

Working in an emerging field can be risky, but it also has advantages. There may be fewer jobs than in other, more traditional neurosciences, but there are also fewer people seeking them, Lenggenhager notes. And because the field taps into basic and social neurosciences and may have applications in clinical disorders such as autism, Blanke expects research funds in the area to increase.

Another advantage, at least for someone with Lenggenhager’s background, is that her neuropsychology degree and clinical experience provide her with some career alternatives. Her credentials allow her to start working as a clinical neuropsychologist in hospitals and rehabilitation institutions, although employers often like to see some additional postgraduate training for these positions. She very much enjoys being in contact with patients, finding out about their diseases and their life stories, and misses her time in the clinic. So what’s the next step? “Ideally, it would be a position where I have both the clinic and research,” Lenggenhager says.

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