What Is Consciousness? The Scientific Pursuit of Consciousness

Scientific Pursuit of Consciousness

A second source of insights are neurological patients from the first half of the 20th century. Surgeons sometimes had to excise a large belt of prefrontal cortex to remove tumors or to ameliorate epileptic seizures. What is remarkable is how unremarkable these patients appeared. The loss of a portion of the frontal lobe did have certain deleterious effects: the patients developed a lack of inhibition of inappropriate emotions or actions, motor deficits, or uncontrollable repetition of specific action or words.

Following the operation, however, their personality and IQ improved, and they went on to live for many more years, with no evidence that the drastic removal of frontal tissue significantly affected their conscious experience. Conversely, removal of even small regions of the posterior cortex, where the hot zone resides, can lead to a loss of entire classes of conscious content: patients are unable to recognize faces or to see motion, color or space.

So it appears that the sights, sounds and other sensations of life as we experience it are generated by regions within the posterior cortex. As far as we can tell, almost all conscious experiences have their origin there. What is the crucial difference between these posterior regions and much of the prefrontal cortex, which does not directly contribute to subjective content? The truth is that we do not know. Even so—and excitingly—a recent finding indicates that neuroscientists may be getting closer.

The consciousness meter

An unmet clinical need exists for a device that reliably detects the presence or absence of consciousness in impaired or incapacitated individuals. During surgery, for example, patients are anesthetized to keep them immobile and their blood pressure stable and to eliminate pain and traumatic memories. Unfortunately, this goal is not always met: every year hundreds of patients have some awareness under anesthesia.

Another category of patients, who have severe brain injury because of accidents, infections or extreme intoxication, may live for years without being able to speak or respond to verbal requests. Establishing that they experience life is a grave challenge to the clinical arts. Think of an astronaut adrift in space, listening to mission control’s attempts to contact him. His damaged radio does not relay his voice, and he appears lost to the world. This is the forlorn situation of patients whose damaged brain will not let them communicate to the world—an extreme form of solitary confinement.

Related: The Six Levels of Higher Consciousness: How to Make the Shift

In the early 2000s Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Marcello Massimini, now at the University of Milan in Italy, pioneered a technique, called zap and zip, to probe whether someone is conscious or not. The scientists held a sheathed coil of wire against the scalp and “zapped” it—sent an intense pulse of magnetic energy into the skull—inducing a brief electric current in the neurons underneath.

The perturbation, in turn, excited and inhibited the neurons’ partner cells in connected regions, in a chain reverberating across the cortex, until the activity died out. A network of electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors, positioned outside the skull, recorded these electrical signals. As they unfolded over time, these traces, each corresponding to a specific location in the brain below the skull, yielded a movie.

These unfolding records neither sketched a stereotypical pattern, nor were they completely random. Remarkably, the more predictable these waxing and waning rhythms were, the more likely the brain was unconscious. The researchers quantified this intuition by compressing the data in the movie with an algorithm commonly used to “zip” computer files.

The zipping yielded an estimate of the complexity of the brain’s response. Volunteers who were awake turned out have a “perturbational complexity index” of between 0.31 and 0.70, dropping to below 0.31 when deeply asleep or anesthetized. Massimini and Tononi tested this zap-and-zip measure on 48 patients who were brain-injured but responsive and awake, finding that in every case, the method confirmed the behavioral evidence for consciousness.

The team then applied zap and zip to 81 patients who were minimally conscious or in a vegetative state. For the former group, which showed some signs of nonreflexive behavior, the method correctly found 36 out of 38 patients to be conscious. It misdiagnosed two patients as unconscious. Of the 43 vegetative-state patients in which all bedside attempts to establish communication failed, 34 were labeled as unconscious, but nine were not. Their brains responded similarly to those of conscious controls—implying that they were conscious yet unable to communicate with their loved ones.

Ongoing studies seek to standardize and improve zap and zip for neurological patients and to extend it to psychiatric and pediatric patients. Sooner or later scientists will discover the specific set of neural mechanisms that give rise to any one experience.

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