Understanding the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Consciousness

By Yusuf Lenfest

Think of the last few times you’ve had a very lifelike dream. Running, reading, or having conversations with others, are all activities that might happen during a particularly vivid dream. But would this be considered consciousness? Surely being in a state of sleep is not the same as being in a waking state; but if you are able to communicate, to attend a lecture, perhaps even to give a lecture whilst you sleep, what does this mean in terms of your brain’s activity? Very deep in the sleep cycle, a person may not respond immediately to touch or sound or any other sensory stimulus. That is, they may not wake up, though it cannot be ruled out that an external stimulus might influence the sub-conscious mind and hence their dream. We’ve all had the experience of hearing an alarm “in our dream” which is really our real alarm, yet our mind re-interprets it and incorporates it into our dream until we regain consciousness, i.e., wake up. What if you couldn’t wake up from your unconscious state? And if so, what would this mean for how your brain processes your thoughts? In effect, what would it mean for your lived reality if you could only live in your mind?

Beyond being a fun thought experiment, these may be some very relevant questions now that doctors have treated a vegetative-state patient with an experimental therapy leading him to regain partial consciousness.

It was reported yesterday in National Geographic, Popular Science, the Guardian, and elsewhere that a 35-year-old man who had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after receiving a pioneering therapy involving nerve stimulation. The French researchers reported their findings to the journal Current Biology. Led by Angela Sirigu, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, a team of clinicians tried an experimental form of therapy called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) which involves implanting a device into the chest designed to stimulate the vagus nerve. It works by giving off miniscule electrical shocks to the vagus nerve, a critical brain signal that interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

So again, what does it mean to be conscious?

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Harvard Effective Altruism: Josh Greene this Tuesday

Emotion, Reason and Altruism
with Professor Joshua Greene

Tuesday, March 11th, 7 PM,
Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall
Why do people have radically different opinions as to who to help and how? How can we get along with people who seem to fundamentally disagree with us about what to want? Professor Josh Greene addresses this and more in Emotion, Reason, and Altruism.
Joshua Greene direct Harvard’s Moral Cognition Lab, which uses cutting edge cognitive neuroscience techniques to study how people actually make moral decisions, integrating thinking from philosophy, social science, and social psychology to address questions of why people disagree as much as they do, and what we can do about it.

“Brains on Trial”: Research on Groups & Concern for Individuals

By Matthew L Baum

What are the implications of advances in brain science for the justice system? This was the topic of a panel discussion held Tuesday at MIT’s McGovern Institute and moderated by Alan Alda in conjunction with the premier of his new PBS special, “Brains on Trial”. The  discussion ranged from using fMRI for lie-detection to using it to help determine the reliability of an eye-witness.

In general, the panel rightly pointed out practical limitations of these technologies. Panelist Nancy Kanwisher highlighted, for example, that research on lie-detection is done in a controlled, non-threatening environment from which we may be unable to generalize to criminal courts where the stakes are high.

While I was sympathetic to most of this discussion, I was puzzled by one point that the panel raised several times: the problematic nature of applying data based on a group of people to say something about an individual (e.g., this particular defendant). To present a simplified example: even if we could rigorously show a measurable difference in brain activity between a group of people who told a lie in the imager and a group of people who told the truth, we cannot conclude that an individual is lying if he shows an activity pattern similar to the liars. Since the justice system makes decisions on individuals, therefore, use of group data is problematic.

To me, this categorical objection to group data seems a bit odd, and this is why: I can’t see how group data is conceptually different from ordinary circumstantial evidence. Continue reading