You already know it’s hard to balance your checkbook while simultaneously reflecting on your past. Now, investigators at the Stanford University School of Medicine — having done the equivalent of wire-tapping a hard-to-reach region of the brain — can tell us how this impasse arises.
The researchers showed that groups of nerve cells in a structure called the posterior medial cortex, or PMC, are strongly activated during a recall task such as trying to remember whether you had coffee yesterday, but just as strongly suppressed when you’re engaged in solving a math problem.
The PMC, situated roughly where the brain’s two hemispheres meet, is of great interest to neuroscientists because of its central role in introspective activities.
“This brain region is famously well-connected with many other regions that are important for higher cognitive functions,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program. “But it’s very hard to reach. It’s so deep in the brain that the most commonly used electrophysiological methods can’t access it.”
Ιn a study published online Sept. 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Parvizi and his Stanford colleagues found a way to directly and sensitively record the output from this ordinarily anatomically inaccessible site in human subjects. By doing so, the researchers learned that particular clusters of nerve cells in the PMC that are most active when you are recalling details of your own past are strongly suppressed when you are performing mathematical calculations.