Wednesday, March 03, 2010

I Am That I Am, or Am I?

My mother and I had an interesting conversation in email yesterday. She sent me a link to an article published by asking the question, "Do We Want Brain Scanners To Read Our Minds?" You can read the full text here. (This is what happens when you proofread college-level science textbooks for extra cash - you are no longer interested in reality TV, late night hosts and guests [unless it's Jason Mraz of course], or CSI-type dramas. Thank God.)

The article covers testing of a new neuro-technology that uses functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to track brain activity in people in an official Persistent Vegetative State (different from a coma). It has allowed doctors and researchers to communicate (or so they believe) with a 29-year-old man that's been vegging out since 2003. (Oh c'mon, how could I not go there?) The disturbing news is that if the communication is real, many people in this state could be conscious and literally unable to move a muscle. The prior belief was that these people were "awake but not aware."

Imagine being buried alive and you'll start getting the idea. You can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything - but you are absolutely unable to communicate or do anything about the sensory input you receive. Actually, being awake six feet under might be preferable since you could at least scratch an itch and scream if you wanted. Those things are not possible if your brain has become this ambiguous. Suddenly rush hour traffic on the 5 pales in comparison to that kind of lesson in patience.

Mom asked for my thoughts on the article, and I thought you might find it interesting too. I wrote back to her:

I actually read something in that book on the brain [I've been reading] just the other day that was relative and also blew me away. Check out this paragraph:

Pain and body image are closely related. We always experience pain as projected into the body. When you throw your back out, you say, "My back is killing me!" and not, "My pain system is killing me." But as phantoms [limbs] show, we don't need a body part or even pain receptors to feel pain. We need only a body image, produced by our brain maps. People with actual limbs don't usually realize this because the body images of our limbs are perfectly projected, onto our actual limbs, making it impossible to distinguish our body image from our body. "Your own body is a phantom," says Ramachandran, "one that your brain has constructed purely for convenience."

If this is true (and I believe it is), think of how that relates to being dead - would the body image still be projected even tho there is no longer a living physical body, and that's why we get "ghosts" that stick around for three days (or more) then finally move on? Does it take some designated time period in this continuum (perhaps specific to the individual) for the projected image to fade? And if so, the million dollar question would be what IS projecting that image then? Cuz at that point it wouldn't be any physical part of us like the brain. This begs the question: What is the (or is there a) difference between mind and soul?

The book goes on to talk about distorted body images, such as how people who are anorexic literally "see" themselves as fat. That leads me to tie into the article you sent me... if the vegetative state means consciousness is still working but the body is not, is that a physical impairment or a body image impairment? Is this why some of them "wake up?" Hmmm!!!! Perhaps the plasticity of the brain finally repairs the neural networks enough to allow them to "wake up" and move?

As for the last couple paragraphs of the article - I love how often Descartes is coming up these days. I think Science is finally shedding the last of the "machine view" skin. There is just too much evidence of the plasticity of not only the brain, but all our functionality here in this realm, both physical and otherwise. I think a more accurate statement these days would be "I am therefore I am."

The dark side of all this info, of course, is the old adage about once you open the door, ANYONE can walk through, good or bad. (Reference the atomic bomb, right?) Therefore, yay for us advancing technology and science, but NOT yay for what the government could then justify using it for.

There was another article I was going to post in a separate blog, but it's kind of related so at the risk of really giving y'all a time sink (if you're interested enough to read both full articles), I will include the link now.

It's published by MIT News and covers another budding technique using MRI sensors to detect dopamine's progress through the brain, thus giving a look into our thoughts regarding motivation, reward, addiction, and possibly even some new clues to Parkinson's disease. The full text is here.

I received the link to this bit of info from a friend that is into nanotechnology and "directed evolution." He was interested in the error-prone PCR methodology, which is WAY above my head, but I found the news interesting nonetheless. As Switchfoot says, those genetic engineers are the most high tech!

All thoughts and comments are welcome. I love discussion on this type of thing!

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