You say lateral frontal pole, I say that little devil/angel that whispers in my ear

Without recognising it, Oxford scientists appear to have located the consience

Share
Related Topics

Scientists at Oxford University have made a startling discovery: they’ve found a region of the brain that makes you wonder if you’ve done something wrong, and whether you’d have been well advised to do something better.

There are several things that you should know about this region, which is inside your head, and the head of the lady sitting beside you on the Tube, and the heads of David Cameron and Lady Gaga and Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of the Royal College of Heralds. One, it's called the lateral frontal pole. Two, it's unique to humans - they ran tests on monkeys in the course of the research at Oxford and, nope, they don't have it. Three, it's the size of "a large Brussels sprout". And four, it's a leap beyond current scientific knowledge into realms that can only be described as spooky.

We already knew (he says, hastily consulting his copy of Popular Science for Dimwits) that the brain can monitor decisions it has made. It tells itself: "I  have chosen to follow this track in the  forest and it's turning out to be a sunlit pathway/sodden jungle", but it registers no more nuanced reaction than that. What this newly discovered region does, however, is to identify other paths that it might have been better to take, and register what a dolt the brain feels for getting it wrong.

"This region monitors how good the choices are that we don't take," said Professor Matthew Rushworth, who led the research, "How green the grass is on the other side."

What the professor doesn't mention is the emotional trauma that the brain must register for having made a crap decision.  Like the split-second after you've tweeted what you meant to be a direct message to a friend, voicing the view that a recent guest on your TV show was a crashing bore - only to realise, too late, that you've informed your entire Twitter following about the lady's snoringness. Or the moment you sail past your turn off on the M3, horribly aware that it's 40 miles to the next exit and you're almost out of petrol. Or that creeping sensation when you realise that you should have chosen some other song than "YMCA" to hum while dealing with passport control at Sochi airport.

The lateral frontal pole, in short, is like a spouse who is quick to inform you that you've blundered and bungled it when it would have been so easy to get it right. It's the kindly-but-firm voice of authority that tells you to go to your room and mull over what you've done, so you'll be sure not to do it again in future...

Intellectual ability consists of short-term memory, reasoning and verbal agility. Although these interact with one another they are handled by three distinct nerve 'circuits' in the brain Hang on. This isn't some minor breakthrough of cognitive neuroscience. This is about good and bad, right and wrong. This is about the brain's connection to morality. This means that the Oxford scientists, without apparently realising what they've done, have located the conscience. 

For centuries we thought that the conscience was just some faculty of moral insight in the human mind, an innate sense that one was behaving well or badly - although the great HL Mencken once defined it as, "the inner voice which  warns us that someone may be looking". It's been used by religions as a numinous something-or-other, kindly bestowed by God, to give humans a choice between sin and Paradise.

Now, thanks to neuroscience, we've found the actual, physical thing itself. It's a shame that it resembles a Brussels sprout: something so important and God-given should look more imposing, like a pineapple. But then it wouldn't fit in our heads.

Henceforth, when told to "examine our conscience", we won't need to sit for hours cudgelling our brains to decide whether we're feeling guilty about accessing YouPorn late at night; we can just book into a clinic and ask them for a conscience-scan, to let us know for sure.

But wait, what's this final detail I read about the lateral frontal pole? Humans have two of them! One above and behind each eyebrow! But why would we need two consciences?  Unless (my hands are shaking just writing this) they're the Good Conscience and the Bad Conscience, the angel and devil traditionally thought to reside on human shoulders, to tell us either a) it's absolutely fine to steal that money/pinch that bottom/kick that beggar; or b) it's absolutely wrong even to think about any of them.

Science has suddenly become exciting. By next week they'll probably have discovered the exact whereabouts of the soul. Can you imagine the look on Richard Dawkins's face if they did?



 

Beware talk of Eugene Onegin

Speaking of angry poets, did you read about the row between two friends in the Sverdlovsk district of Russia last week? A former schoolteacher, aged 53, visited his pal, 67, in the town of Irbit. They had a few drinks and discussed whether poetry or prose is the more important form  in literature.

Things, naturally, got heated. Is Pushkin more significant than Gogol? Things were said that should have remained unsaid. Eventually the schoolteacher whipped out a knife, stabbed his friend to death and fled. He was later captured and faces 15 years in the gulag.

What's weird is that, only last September, two men in a south Russian bar had a barney about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. They started trading blows over his categorical imperative, then one man pulled a gun and shot the other, though not fatally.  Jeez, these Russians.

I hope that, amid the delicate talks on the future of Ukraine, neither Mr Klitschko nor the President starts quoting from Eugene Onegin, or it'll be fire extinguishers all over the civic chamber.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior DBA (SQL Server, T-SQL, SSIS, SSAS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior DBA (SQ...

Business Anaylst

£60000 - £75000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: Business Anal...

Senior Project Manager

£60000 - £90000 per annum + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Global leading Energy Tra...

Associate CXL Consultant

£40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation on the country's Independence Day in New Delhi, India  

With Modi talking tough and Sharif weak, the India-Pakistan love-in could never last

Andrew Buncombe
At the time of the investigation Patrick Foster published a statement on Twitter, denouncing the “unnecessarily heavy-handed police investigation”  

Long-term bail allows lazy police and prosecutors to leave cases to gather dust

Oliver Wright
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment