Friday, September 08, 2006

What is consciousness?

In a great illustration of how scientific knowledge changes and upsets our preconceptions, an investigation reported in the Chicago Tribune into the so called vegetative state, suggests that at least some vegetative state patients may show higher brain functions characteristic of consciousness. The patient in the study, had been in a coma but then later progressed to a vegetative state. This means, she was awake and not aware of her surroundings and with no obvious "conscious volition."

But MRI studies of her brain activity showed that her brain centers were activated in response to questions and requests in a way very similar to a conscious person.

" 'I was absolutely stunned,' Adrian Owen, a British neurologist who led the research team, told the Washington Post. 'We had no idea whether she would understand our instructions. But this showed that she is aware.' "

So is this patient conscious and totally unable to communicate? Or is awareness not really the same thing as consciousness? At the very least, the study suggests that MRI's may be an important tool in assessing brain states for patients in a vegetative state.

As pointed out in the article, this patient is not comparable to Terri Schiavo, since Ms Schiavo was much more seriously injured.

A tip of the antennae to Jack Krebs for this find.

Other links

Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness:
http://assc.caltech.edu/index.htm

Links from Science to more background material:
http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/313/5792/1395

Consciousness: Entry from the Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~lormand/phil/cons/consciousness.htm

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