How Neuroscience Is Changing What We Mean by Consciousness

When patients in vegetative states register higher-order thinking on brain scans, our understanding of consciousness achieves an even subtler shade of gray. 

What's the Latest Development?

New medical experiments involving anesthetics are revealing essential new distinctions in the age-old attempt to define consciousness, giving us a better understanding of ourselves as human beings and creating a new avenue for medical treatment. By scanning the brains of patients who are put under for surgery, neuroscientists have correlated different brain regions with different degrees of consciousness. When patients come out of anesthesia, the brain's most primitive parts wake up first, such as the brain stem and thalamus, while the neocortex, which controls higher-order thinking, becomes active at a later stage. 

What's the Big Idea?

In 2006, Cambridge University researchers reported on a patient in a vegetative state who nonetheless demonstrated higher-order brain functioning, as measured by brain scans, when asked to imagine activities such as playing a game of tennis. This observation struck at the heart of contemporary questions about the relevance of neuroscience. While semi-awake patients, and even vegetative ones, may exhibits traits of consciousness, our understanding of our own self-awareness looks to be caught in more shades of gray than ever. 

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