About the research on “the power to live” by Professor Sugiura

Professor Motoaki Sugiura

Prof. Sugiura is a medical doctor and also is a specialist of brain science. Brain science is a study field where various specialists of different backgrounds, such as psychology, instrumentation engineering, and medicine, work together to explore themes such as relations between human behaviors and brain functions. Brain science often puts a question on humanities and then leads to an answer with scientific technologies, and thus is interdisciplinary by nature. In the area of brain science, however, there were few studies which focused on natural disasters.


Prof. Sugiura stepped into the area of disaster research when he joined a collaborative study held by Tohoku University Research Group on Disaster Prevention and Management which was the predecessor of IRIDeS. In 2011, the Great East Japan Earthquake occurred, whereby he deiced to address the fundamental question, from his brain science standpoint, to explore “the power to live” of human beings which lets people think and act proactively and coexist with others in extreme situations.


Prof. Sugiura conducted a questionnaire survey, with Professors Fuminiko Imamura and Toshiaki Muramoto and Assistant Professor Shosuke Sato, to 1,412 disaster victims in Miyagi Prefecture who were affected by Great East Japan Earthquake. Based on the survey analyses, the research team found that human characteristics, ways of thinking and habits which are useful to survive a disaster can be categorized into eight factors of “power to live,” such as “leadership,” “problem solving” and “altruism,” and that each factor of the power correlates to specific experiences to overcome crises and difficulties at various stages of the 2011 disaster, such as ones in tsunami evacuation, in shelters and on health conditions (see Figure). This finding was published in the international journal of PLOS ONE which is renowned especially in the area of medicine, stirring up discussions.


Figure: Eight Factors of “Power to Live”

Now Prof. Sugiura is developing the research further, to investigate what part of the brain is associated with each factor of the power to live. He began to find, for example, that individuals who have the factor “emotional regulation” may be ones who can control not to let unpleasant information enter his/her brain, though it is still a hypothesis.


According to Prof. Sugiura, it is concluded that amount of each “power to live” is associated with differences in individual brain activities. But he has not discovered yet why the amount of each “power to live” varies among individuals, that is, why there are people for whom a certain part of brain of whom works actively to increase a certain power to live, and why there are people who are not like them. 


“Is the power to live destined by his/her genes from birth, or is it possible to cultivate his/her strong power to live, by providing suitable environment and training?” It is an important question to be explored in science. Prof. Sugiura says that figuring out the relations between the brain and “the power to live” further may contribute to development of human beings who have more power to live and who are indomitable in face of a disaster.


Prof. Sugiura used to be a literary youth as a high-school student and was deeply interested in human truth. As a researcher, he does not want to stop at just finding how human beings are, but he would like to go one step further, proposing how human beings should be, as well as ideal education and resource cultivation for human beings.


“What is a human being?” is the fundamental question which humanities have pursued. Languages and tools to explore that question have developed lately. From the 1980s, with developments of technologies such as PET and MRI, it became possible for brain science to conduct experiments and measurements and its method and data have advanced quickly.


Prof. Sugiura’s merging brain and disaster sciences, and his method collecting data from questionnaire survey for exploration of power to live, are too novel to be understood easily in the traditional academic world, and thus can be a challenge. It is the lifework of Prof. Sugiura, however, to illuminate the whole picture of power to survive a disaster, using brain science.

A Measurement using MRI