Monday, June 20, 2011

Exploring Self-perception: Zakaryah Abdulkarim

[Last month, I volunteered for a study at the department of neuroscience at Karolinska Institute, if just out of curiosity to see the place. Eventually it didn't work out with my participation, but I got to meet Zakaryah, a student at the Institute, who kindly agreed to tell us a little about his work there. I certainly learned some new vocabulary. Enjoy!]

I read that you are looking for volunteers for a project. Can you tell us what this is all about?

Yes. The project that I am currently involved in is one in the field of cognitive neuroscience. It is part of the research conducted in the lab of Dr. Henrik Ehrsson at the Department of neuroscience, Karolinska Institute. In this project we use an established perceptual illusion called ‘the body swap illusion’ (Petkova & Ehrsson, 2008) in which healthy participants experience the body of a shop mannequin as their own body to understand the behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying the self-attribution of a whole body to oneself. In particular, we are interested in understanding the neural mechanisms underlying the unitary experience of owning an entire body rather than a set of fragmented body parts. My project will contribute important behavioral and physiological data in support of a neuroimaging study conducted by my direct supervisor PhD-candidate Valeria Petkova.

In my experiment the participants wear head-mounted virtual reality displays, through which they see the mannequin’s body. They then receive simultaneous visual and tactile stimulations of various body parts and fill out a questionnaire regarding their experience. Alternatively they might see a knife approaching the mannequin, in which case the sweating of their palms, the so called galvanic skin response, which is a measurement of the sympathetic nervous systems response to dangerous stimuli is measured via electrodes attached to the fingers of the participant. Since the knife is approaching the mannequin and not the body of the participant, the sweating of the palm is used as an objective measurement of the perception of the body ownership illusion.

What is that sort of research good for?

Understanding the perceptual and neural mechanism involved in how we perceive our own body might be useful in the development of neuroprosthetics. Further, understanding the mechanism underlying the healthy perception of body ownership can help develop diagnostic and therapeutic tools in the treatment of pathological disturbances of the bodily self perception in different groups of patients (i.e. stroke, paraplegia, schizophrenia, anorexia etc.). Finally, the results of this type of research are beneficial for some industrial applications, for example in the field of virtual reality, telerobotics or telepresence.

What future studies would you like to do?

I would probably want to investigate more exactly which areas of the brain are involved in producing this feeling of body ownership and various ways to manipulate this. In particular, it would be interesting to see if one could affect this illusion pharmacologically, and how the illusion is correlated to the features of the subjects, because interestingly, not everyone experience this illusion.

What are the presently most pressing open questions in the field?

Here are some examples:

- What are the exact characteristics (i.e. type, receptive field etc) of the neuronal population involved in the neural computation of body ownership?

-What is the exact role of each node in the neural network indentified to be associated with the sense of owning a body. With other words what is the specific role of the ventral premotor cortex, the intraparietal cortex, the putamen, and the cerebellum?

- What is the interplay between body ownership and the sense of agency in the mechanism of self-awareness?

Do you see any relevance for physics or a role for physicists in that kind of research? If so, what?

Of course! Aside from all the technical equipment that is needed to perform these studies, e.g. MRI-scanners, galvanic skin electrodes etc., this research brings up a lot of fundamental questions about how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings, how we make decisions, how effects on different scales interplay, and I believe physics can contribute a lot to those discussions.

For somebody interested in this research, what further reading can you recommend?

One could read some scientific articles about it, however those can be hard to understand if you do not have a background in medicine or neuroscience. I would recommend those who are interested to read bookchapters about this kind of research, which exist in most of the new books in cognitive neuroscience, for example this.

If I'm in Stockholm and interested volunteering for your or similar research, how do I get in contact?

If you are in Stockholm and interested in participating, the best thing to do would probably be to send me an email, my email-adress is: zakaryah.abdulkarim[at] The requirements differ depending on the study, but usually there is some experiment in our lab that one can participate in.

Zakaryah is a medical student at Karolinska Institute. In his free time, when he isn’t at Alba Nova taking some evening course that is, he likes exercising, hanging out with friends, and enjoying what the vegetarian cuisine has to offer.


  1. Hi Bee,

    Interesting piece and a topic I have some familiarity with. I don’t think many are aware for instance that brain injury or disease can have people to reject recognizing limbs as being their own. In fact they will consider them so alien at times that their mere presence can have them so greatly traumatized as to insisting they be removed. On the flip side of this people who have had limbs severed will insist that they still sense their presence and actions (phantom limbs) even though they no longer exist. It’s one of those things that has one stop and wonder about how fragile and mysterious our image of self is and how logic alone seems not to decide what we consider as self.



  2. Our aware consciousness is depending on sensory inputs from perceptions. So these inputs are disturbers of a balance seen in EEG. This means our awareness depends on stress.

    Damasio showed on the closed loops in brain, which he called as...if-loops. We can direct much of our awareness through thoughts alone, but these are never as deep as real perceptions.

    What happen to a patient that is totally paralized? This is one of the big questions for Damasio.

    He has also looked much on the phenomenon described by Phil. The brain injury is always in the right hemisphere, and gives a more global loss of consciousness, if I remember right. The difference between hemispheres is behind the phenomenon. This is really a most fascinating problem to study (not to live with).

    Body feedback can also be used to learn writing with the thoughts etc. I guess this is how babies learn to use the body, and experience the 'self'.

  3. Nice Piece Bee,

    It must be your interests coming through from Arizona?

    Jill Bolte Taylor was interesting Phil, and the perspective during the stroke she had had on her Cardio Glider? Something primitive about perspective views and how she looked at her body. You remember?

    So transference, to producing the illusions sort of sounds like setting up the person "to frame the person outside of them self" the ideas of body parts, being manipulated. "Their methodology" as if looking at the routes of neuronal mapping taking place in the brain, to arm, to leg,and something as vague as consciousness?

    I wonder if one can see any relation to "certain writer's techniques" with the characters involved as part of that research? Projection.

    The idea of presence sort of correlates what I had seen of Persinger's work. The idea of presence is of interest to me, not only of the self, but of "other things" as well.

    At that time I was looking at the progress of manipulating cursors on the computer page.

    Monkey Moves Computer Cursor by Thoughts Alone, By E.J. Mundell

    In Pioneering Study, Monkey Think, Robot Do By SANDRA BLAKESLEE

    So yes with current technologies and internet one can become very proficient with understanding these things....never the expert though Bee? But always of interest?


  4. The point is - when we think, we always project our thoughts into the future (frontal lobe) first. We calculate the possibilities. And one factor is our body. But it is important to realize this happen all in the possible, virtual world. This is the most energy demanding activity humans do.

    All the time we use past, present and future in that computation.

    Do we have on true self, or two? Or maybe many?

  5. "Other things" might be geometrical space. The idea of "the space around you," other then "Damasio's point of view?"

    Damasio's First Law-The body precedes the mind.

    Damasio's Second Law-Emotions precede feelings.

    Damasio's Third Law-Concepts precede words.

    The assumption here is you see other then the point of view by Damasio

    Persinger's research forays are at the very frontier of the roiling field of neuroscience, the biochemical approach to the study of the brain. Much of what we hear about the discipline is anatomical stuff, involving the mapping of the brain's many folds and networks, aperformed by reading PET scans, observing blood flows, or deducing connections from stroke and accident victims who've suffered serious brain damage. But cognitive neuroscience is also a grab bag of more theoretical pursuits that can range from general consciousness studies to finding the neural basis for all kinds of sensations.

    Bold added for emphasis.


  6. Michael Persinger has a vision - the Almighty isn't dead, he's an energy field. And your mind is an electromagnetic map to your soul.

    It is necessary to look at the space around you understanding self awareness can extend itself into that space.

    I want science of course and all we are doing is playing with mind, and mapping the condensation result of mind at work in the biological system?

    You see how one can change parameters, one can see things differently?

    The inductive/deductive phase is really "an interaction" with the world around you. A topological change? Toposense?

  7. One perceives a remarkable approach to torture otherwise condemned for inflicting physical damage. MK ULTRA was physical damages seeking psychological results. Nobody accuses the tax man or US Homeland Severity of torture, for their techniques are virtual - a violation of perception.

    Virtual reality offers a loophole in torture: damage inflicted onto a mannequin ( as the subject voluntarily tortures itself by misplaced perception.

    Quietly spin open the valves on wide bore Pentagon, DARPA, CIA, Black Ops funding piplelines. The MIT Media lab could be waterboarded by an ocean of benjamins. Total immersion vidoegaming suddenly has a new national security application - the physiological analogue of pilotless remote-controlled military aircraft. So what if the occasional wedding party gets splattered? Hit "reset."

  8. I like what you say, Plato. Although I am a biologist I have studied TGD, and they fit. Also neurobiologists say it is impossible to understand the brain by looking at structure alone. The structure can be interpreted in different ways, and the visible structure is not everything.

    Neurosignaling is much about different electrostatic effects from the different molecules, but also (secondary) coherence and synchrony, that is time, is important. So brain is a 4-D structure oscillating to and fro.

    Damasio AND Persinger are both right, it is only about interpretation. Only Damasios first law should be mind precedes body.

  9. It seems to me that I already saw Zakaryah Abdulkarim... but it's hard for me to say where or when this happened...

  10. Calling Rudy Rucker. Are you there, Rudy? Calling Dr. Rucker.

    Yes this stuff is interesting but as we can see this sort of stuff is just getting started. Two or three hundred years from now, humans will be mechanically evolved into something else as neural brain implants make us God-like super-intellectuals (when they'll look back and call us all dummies). No field is advancing as swiftly as medical science/biology and astrophysics.

    For a neat way to combine those two and see where this may lead by some incredibly creative minds, I recommend the wonderful sci-fi novels Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling then Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds.

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  12. Hey Steven, how you doin'? Been a long time since we last talked. It's always great to meet you again and again, it's like having a friend, then another, then another ;)

    Hi Bee, wie geht's dir/deinen zwei Süssen? Schwer jetzt, sich mit der Physik gründlich zu beschäftigen, wenn die zwei gestillt werden müssen, oder?

    Now back to the topic:

    How can this be that my brain perceives my body as a whole? Quite an unexpected kind of study... and to me a risky one... Zakaryah should take care of not scaring people when explaining what he is working on, some people may think he is no longer studying real facts in the brain, only ideas of facts in the brain...

    One drug which he may probably need to use in his experiments is phencyclidine, better known as "angel dust". The drug let you think you are out of yourself, and some may cut their own arm as a playing trip on themselves after taking it, even tear off the skin of their own face and give to their dog (it happens lately in US).

    Any volunteers?

  13. An own body is for the brain that part of the external world which yields expected feedback. It is clear that a brain gains sensitive inputs from the external world and produce outputs (motion, hormone secretions, etc.) to repond to them.

    The wind on your face is not controlled by the brain, so the corresponding input should be uncorrelated with its own activity, whereas in case of someone flapping his hands before his face, the wind on the skin is correlated with the hand, which is correlated wiht the brain activity.

    The existence of such correlation loops is to me the very definition of self-perception by the brain.

  14. I'm a neurobiologist who reads your blog to learn something outside my field. With this post of yours, I have learnt something interesting in my field!

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  17. Hi, Jérôme !

    Well this is a field right up your alley so to speak as you're a Physical Biologist or Biological Physicist or whatever label you describe yourself. I thought you'd died, man! So good to you're reborn. Just like Jesus. :)

    Which reminds me of my favorite French joke ...

    Is it it true Jerome that the only time a French man sees the inside of a Catholic Church is at his baptism, his wedding, and his funeral ? :-)

    My apologies if that offends, but I have a long-standing policy of teasing ONLY my friends, because who the heck hangs out with their enemies?

    Hi Andrew,

    Good point. Well Bee, and Stefan are multi-dimensional, obviously, which makes this my favorite website they're so awesome, but also YOUR field is taking off like a rocket, and in so man6y different directions, and I don't see how anyone in your field can keep up! Good luck, sir.

  18. Hi Jérôme,

    danke, uns geht es allen gut. Ja, die Kinderbetreuung ist sehr zeitintensiv.

    My interest in these studies lies in the question of extension. I'd think what your brain perceives as 'whole' what it's used to. Have you ever been roller skating? You know how funny it is to take off the skates because you've gotten so used to the motion? Can you imagine then having 4 arms? I believe our brain can deal with that. Best,


  19. At least if y have twins :)

    I agree with Jerome that the motoric loop and feedback is absent in this story. Self is not only sensory. So I would not draw too many conclusions from it. But nice story. Thx.


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