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Empty mind — a brain disorder?





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A French neurological team has described a surprising new brain disorder — a deficit of spontaneous conscious thinking. LaPlane and Dubois describe it as “auto-activation deficit.” (*) People with this problem lose spontaneous conscious feelings, thought and actions — until they are asked to do something. Then they act perfectly well.         […]

Posted May 22, 2002 by thomasr

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article_image-21.jpegA French neurological team has described a surprising new brain disorder — a deficit of spontaneous conscious thinking. LaPlane and Dubois describe it as “auto-activation deficit.” (*) People with this problem lose spontaneous conscious feelings, thought and actions — until they are asked to do something. Then they act perfectly well.


Maybe it should be called Standby Disorder The neurologists write, “They tend to stay in the same place all day long, sitting on a chair or lying on their bed, taking no initiatives and asking no questions, although they answer questions appropriately. They do not move around or engage in spontaneous activity.” But “the most enigmatic symptom encountered in these patients is mental emptiness. Their mind is ‘empty, a total blank,’ they say. In most typical cases, they have no thoughts and no projections for the future.”

For example:

  • An active businessman became dramatically inactive when stung by a wasp. Brain damage developed (perhaps due to an allergic reaction). “He did almost nothing all day long and expressed no sign of interest in anybody. Later he became capable of buying a newspaper, reading it quickly, and watching TV, but he remained inactive most of the time. When stimulated, however, he was able to perform more complex activities, such as playing high level bridge. He was not bored by his condition, but it surprised him.”
  • Another patient “stayed in bed for half an hour with an unlit cigarette in his mouth. When asked what he was doing, he responded, ‘I am waiting for a light.’”
  • A third victim “spent 45 minutes with his hands on a lawn mower, totally unable to initiate the act of mowing. This blockage disappeared instantaneously when his son told him to move.”

“In conclusion,” the authors say, “it might be said that the mind of patients is on stand-by when they are alone, but recovers almost all of its capabilities when stimulated by social interactions.”

Maybe it should be called Standby Disorder, as if the mind is on stand-by, idling — ready to go but with no impulse to do anything, think anything, or feel anything.

What is going on?

Such tragic cases can help us learn about consciousness.


LaPlane and Dubois are careful to point out that auto-activation deficit (or AAD) does not affect movement as such. Patients move perfectly well when asked to do so. They show no signs of coma or drowsiness. They even seem to keep the same level of intelligence as before, as in the case of the businessman who could “play high-level bridge.” The emotions of AAD victims are appropriate when they hear good news or bad. But their emotions are short-lived, and they quickly go back to their neutral state.

Normally, when people have deficits in conscious contents, we would expect damage in cortex. These patients show no such damage. Or if people are in coma, we would expect damage in the brainstem. Again, no such injuries are seen in AAD. Rather, LaPlane and Dubois have found, the problem is in the basal ganglia. Brain imaging studies show injury to an area of the basal ganglia called the pallidum.

Why the basal ganglia? Usually we think of this part of the brain as having to do with automatic action components. For example, you are conscious of this sentence right now, but your eye movements are not conscious — they are automatic. You have had so much practice reading that there is no need for conscious control. Such automatic action elements use the basal ganglia, deep inside the brain.

But if this part of the brain involves automatic, unconscious activities, how could it affect consciousness? After all, conscious contents are handled in cortex, not the basal ganglia. The answer is that there is a circuit between the basal ganglia, the thalamus (the gateway to cortex), and the prefrontal cortex (which handles goals, motor plans, working memory, and much more). The remarkable symptoms of AAD may reflect a disruption of this “striato-thalamic-prefrontal loop.”

Such tragic cases can help us learn about consciousness It is as if major city were paralyzed by blocking a large traffic artery. Nothing may be wrong in the city itself. It is simply not receiving what it needs to keep going.

The endless activity of the conscious mind was already explored in the Upanishads, 2600 years ago. Meditation techniques were devised to calm the mind, to stop it from constantly buzzing with thoughts. The endless activity of the conscious brain can even make it hard to get a good night’s sleep.

But humans with AAD have too much peace of mind. They are frozen in an eternal calm, unable to think or act on their own.

Review by Bernard J. Baars (© 2002)


  1. Dubois Homepage
  2. Laplane, D. & Dubois, B. (2001) Auto-activation deficit: A basal ganglia related syndrome. Movement Disorders, 16 (5), 810-814.





    I am a 16 year old female and I recently found myself not thinking…but hearing…I am concious but unable to think or process anything. I had reference of what normal minds are like, so this new sensation imediatly worried me. I came across this site while searching for an answer to my…problem. I honestly think that this “stand-by disorder” could possibly be this empty feeling in my head. I would much like to learn more about this topic to further my research towards a reason that my head is, metaphorically, empty. Thank you for posting this page on the internet so that myself and others like me can find answers.



    I think i have this problem or something like it.. im just not thinking the majority of the time. I can think if i have to but it doesnt come naturally so i must have a problem.More information on this topic would be helpful


    Sometimes, like now, my mind becomes empty. I cant think well, words dont come. I want to respond to people but i cant (yes im responding now. Im not saying i have this particular problem)…anyway for me though its just every now and then, probably about once every few days and it lasts between 10 minutes and 4 hours, varying in severity. I feel bad for people that have a similar problem constantly


    A man in following link has it…




    Q: May I interrupt you? I was told by people who are around you that when this calamity befell you, you couldn’t recognize even ordinary things. You were asking like a newborn child, “What is this?” Even if there was a flower in front of you, you did not know if that was a flower. Then you would ask, “What is this?” And the Swiss lady who was keeping house for you, who was looking after you, Valentine, [she is here with us], said “This is a flower.” Then you would ask again, “What is this?” You mean to say that at the time when the calamity took place, all recognition was gone?

    U.G. Not only then, but even now, as I said, this is a state of ‘not knowing’. Since the memory is there in the background, it begins to operate when there is a demand for it. That demand is created by an outside agency, because there is no entity here. There is no center here. There is no self here. There is no Atman here. There is no soul here at all. You may not agree. You may not accept it, but that unfortunately happens to be a fact. The totality of thoughts and feelings is not there. But [in you] there is an illusion that there is a totality of your feelings and thoughts. This human organism is responding to the challenges from outside. You are functioning in the sphere — so, thousands and thousands, perhaps millions and millions of sensations are bombarding this body. Since there is no center here, since there is no mind here, since there is nothing here, what is it that is happening? What is happening here [is that] this human organism is responding to the challenges, or to the stimuli, if I may put it that way. So, there is nobody here who is translating these sensations in terms of past experiences. But there is a living contact with the things around. That is all that is there. One sensation after another is hitting this organism. And at the same time there is no coordinator here. This state of not knowing is not in relationship to your Brahman, or your Nirguna Brahman or Saguna Brahman or any such thing. This state of not knowing is in its relationship to the things that are there around you. You may be looking at a flower. You may think that it is a crazy state. Perhaps it is — I don’t know. You do not know what you are looking at. But when there is a demand for that — and that demand always comes from outside, [asking] what is that, and then the knowledge, the information that is there, locked up in this organism comes and says that it is a rose, that this is a microphone, that’s a man, that’s a woman, and so on and so forth. This is not because there is a drive from inside, but the outside challenge brings out this answer. So, I say that this action is always taking place outside of this organism, not inside.

    How do I know that these sensations are bombarding or hitting this organism all the time? It is only because there is a consciousness which is conscious of itself and there is nobody who is conscious of the things that are happening. This is a living organism and that living state is functioning in its own way, in its natural way.


    I have visited your site 594-times


    I have suffered with lots of these symptoms since I was approx 13 years old. I am 57 now and have had anti depressants for most of that time, psychotherapy, counselling, hypnotherapy and visits to psychiatrists. All to no avail. The big question is; does a cure exist???????

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