Agency Pt. 1—Neurology, the Temporal Lobe and the Self

How Games Help Explain Today’s Headlines Con’t.

Games deliver.

Adults get something from playing games, something far too scarce in “real life”: A sense of Agency, the feeling that one can have a desire, decide to realize it, act on that decision and have that action affect the world in some real way, successfully closing a loop of thought, action and response.

The effect need not be as consequential as The Enlightenment, or as paradigm shifting as creating the General Theory of Relativity, nor even necessarily successful. It needs only to have meaning to the actor. Such as when you goad a friend, ribbing him or giving her grief for no other reason than to get a rise out of him, or get her to pay you a bit more attention. Think of children who start life powerless and how they love to throw pebbles into water to make it ripple, or to stomp in puddles to create splashes, or do things they’ve been repeatedly forbidden to do, and then, as they are scolded, the merest of smirks rises the corner of young lips: he has shown he could affect the world. Being scolded is doubly sweet: he’s affected someone who exerts so much control over him.

Misbehaving in anticipation of a scolding works on both broad levels of agency: the more direct root level, the simple ability to think, act and get sensory feedback as a person in the world, and the more complex social level in which desire is murky, what action to take is not always clear and feedback is usually less certain and often difficult to interpret. The child leaves his coat on the floor for the umpteenth time this week; the parent’s voice rises in admonishment, yet the child wonders: will I really get punished? Will it be worth it anyway? Or is this serious? Here, a complex calculus requires on the fly interpretation of the specific circumstances, including the adult’s tone of voice and body language, and the child’s own urge to respond, all within a dynamic, ever shifting relationship, where what’s at stake grows more serious over time.

With root level Agency though, outcome and feedback are usually more direct and clear. With recent advancements in neurology, especially the ability to see, real time, what areas of the brain are activated when humans experience specific feelings, neurologists have shown that agency is active most strongly in the parietal lobe. This area of the brain plays important roles in integrating sensory information from the various sense organs of the body, controlling body movement as well as dealing with the comprehension of numbers and their relations. One specific area of this lobe, the posterior parietal cortex (PPC), processes information relating to the manipulation of objects. It handles the where of sight and spatial relations, and the how of controlling the movements of the body through motor signals, in particular of the arm, hand, and the eyes, enabling the self to take action based on how the body senses it’s physically positioned in relation to the objects around it.

Further, accumulating evidence from newer studies suggests that a specific junction between parts of this lobe play a critical role in distinguishing between self-produced actions and those of others. Injuries to or disease of this region can produce a variety of disorders related to body knowledge and self-awareness such as anosognosia (the inability of a person to recognize a deficiency he or she has—this is not the psychological defense mechanism of denial, but a physical inability); asomatognosia (loss of recognition or awareness of a body part: this is expressed both verbally and through lack of care); in an extreme situation, somatoparapherenia, a limb is claimed to belong to another person. Some studies have also reported that electrical stimulation of this area can cause out-of-body experiences—the feeling that the self is no longer a part of its physical body.

Some brain injuries, particularly to the frontal, temporal, parietal lobes further demonstrate that ownership does not always imply agency, nor even control. In alien hand syndrome, the hand acts without the person’s conscious direction, or sometimes, even awareness that it’s acting at all. The person understands that it is his or her hand, but feels no sense of control over it. Some sufferers claim that someone else is moving his or her hand.

Teasing apart the elements of agency’s relation to self even further, experiments in 2009 by Marc Jeannerod have shown that self recognition in taking action has two levels: one is automatic, the recognition that one’s self is controlling body movements to do something; the second is self-reflexive, the conscious recognition of one’s own self as the originator of the desires, intentions and purposes for taking an action—the thinking about an action itself; these experiments have also shown that even though both of these levels rely on the “principle of congruence of the action-related signals”, these manners of self recognition can be sundered. For example, a person can open a door and enter a room, fully recognizing that it is he or she who opens the door and walks through, but be unable to identify him or herself as the origin of the desire to open the door and step through, nor understand what the purpose of doing so is, nor what is intended while extending a hand to grasp the door knob in the first place.

This experience is common in schizophrenia. Schizophrenic patients can act and understand they are the actor, but cannot “own” the thoughts that gave rise to the action. These inserted thoughts and the dissonance between their own awareness, inserted thoughts and actions all become material for delusions and delirium, including that of alien control: of being controlled by someone or something else. This loss of the ability to attribute thoughts and actions to themselves is in fact a major symptom of the disease, and lies primarily in a disturbed sense of agency.

At least one experiment suggests that the feeling of alien control is associated with increased activity in one part of parietal cortex: the area of the brain that has already been seen as centrally important not only for coordination of movement, but of a person’s sense of agency and so of sense of self. In effect, one’s sense of self—the ability to recognize oneself as a self at all—is hardwired to the same place that one feels agency, which is also a locus for motor control and sensory input from the body.

So far, we’ve primarily explored the brain itself, using neurology and changes caused by disease and injury. But even in perfectly healthy people, hindering a body’s physical ability to move or restricting the sensory inputs a brain receives at all can profoundly affect one’s sense of self.

Next up in the scientific study of Agency are the effects of manipulating the body, mining what Korean War era brainwashing attempts can tell us about Agency and the creation of self.

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