Insula reality

As a perfect follow-up to recent news that damage to an area of the brain called the insula makes it easier to kick an addiction, The New York Times has an article looking more generally at the function of this fascinating neural structure.

The article is by science writer Sandra Blakeslee who has a history of teaming up with cognitive scientists to make their work accessible to a wider audience.

Two of her most notable books have included the strikingly original On Intelligence with Jeff Hawkins, and Phantoms in the Brain with V.S. Ramachandran.

[There’s a wonderful typo on Blakeslee’s site where she’s listed him as ‘VR Ramachandran’, which makes me think that in the future, everyone will have own virtual Ramanchandran’s to pose neuroscience questions to]

The NYT article looks at what is known about the insula, and why it seems to have been relatively neglected by cognitive neuroscientists until recently.

According to neuroscientists who study it, the insula is a long-neglected brain region that has emerged as crucial to understanding what it feels like to be human.

They say it is the wellspring of social emotions, things like lust and disgust, pride and humiliation, guilt and atonement. It helps give rise to moral intuition, empathy and the capacity to respond emotionally to music.

Its anatomy and evolution shed light on the profound differences between humans and other animals.

The insula also reads body states like hunger and craving and helps push people into reaching for the next sandwich, cigarette or line of cocaine. So insula research offers new ways to think about treating drug addiction, alcoholism, anxiety and eating disorders.

Of course, so much about the brain remains to be discovered that the insula’s role may be a minor character in the play of the human mind. It is just now coming on stage.

Link to NYT article ‘A Small Part of the Brain, and Its Profound Effects’.

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