Ok everyone, here’s a paper I’m really excited about. The topic is so “me” — the first project I’ve wholeheartedly thrown myself into since since I came to Wash U. I can see myself wanting to write a dissertation or book on the topic so this paper will likely serve as the basis for a prospectus in the near future. The issue I’m dealing with in the paper is situated at the intersection of a variety of fields ranging from philosophy of mind, philosophy of science, cutting edge neuroscience, clinical neurology and biomedical ethics. I could conceivably “sell” the project to a variety of people. The project is obviously at an early stage of development and the paper is drafty but I have the rest of the semester to work on this so I’m open to any comments, criticisms, or questions. Thanks!
Here’s a tentative abstract:
The standard approach in clinical neurology is to diagnose disorders of consciousness (DOC) on the basis of operationally defined behaviors. Critics of the standard approach argue that it relies on a flawed behaviorist epistemology that methodologically rules out the possibility of covert consciousness existing independently of any observable behavior or overt report. Furthermore, critics point to developments in neuroimaging that use fMRI to “actively probe” for consciousness in unresponsive patients using mental imagery tasks (Owen et al. 2006). Critics argue these studies showcase the limitations of the standard approach. The goal of this paper is to defend the standard approach against these objections. My defense comes in two parts: negative and positive. Negatively, I argue that these new “active probe” techniques are inconclusive as demonstrations of consciousness. Positively, I reinterpret these active probes in behavioral terms by arguing they are instances of “brain behaviors”, and thus not counterexamples to the standard approach.
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
-Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, p. 52
As I mentioned in this post my latest research project involves the measurement of consciousness in patients with brain damage, including the rare case of Locked-in Syndrome. I recently finished reading Bauby’s memoir about being in the locked-in state, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly where Bauby takes you inside what he called his “diving bell”, submerged in the depths of his useless body peering out at the world through the tiny window of his left eye. The memoir is nothing less than riveting, a powerful demonstration of the indefatigable human will.
Bauby dictated the entire book to an assistant with only the use of his left eye. The assistant would read off letters in the alphabet in a pre-established series arranged by frequency in the French language and Bauby would blink when the assistant spoke the correct letter; then they would start from the beginning for the next letter, and so on. You can imagine how laborious this would be. Yet the book reads beautifully, revealing an active, curious, intelligent mind trapped inside a bodily shell.
CLICK HERE to read the latest draft of “Measuring Mental Time Travel in Animals”.
I’ve been working on this paper over the semester, responding to comments and generally cleaning it up. I’ve also added a new sub-section that explores an analogy with–believe it or not–whether Pluto is a planet. I also cut down on some repetitiveness towards the end. I will be turning it in as a Qualifying Paper very soon, so any last minute comments/suggestions/corrections would be greatly appreciated.
Now that I am almost done with coursework — nearly three years later — I am finally beginning to think about something long – a dissertation. To write a dissertation I need a topic, and I think might I have one: measuring consciousness in persistent vegetative state or minimally conscious patients. I got interested in this topic last Fall when I read Nachev and Hacker’s paper “Covert cognition in the persistent vegetative state” for Carl Craver’s class Current Controversies in Cognitive Science. The paper is excellent and raises many fascinating questions. Some questions that I would like to answer in the dissertation include:
- What does it mean to be a PVS or minimally conscious patient? What’s their respective neurology?
- What exactly are we trying to detect in these patients? How is “consciousness” defined?
- What measurement methods are we using and why? How is “consciousness” operationalized? Can it even be measured?
- How can we arbitrate between rival operational measures of consciousness? How can we verify we are detecting what we think we are detecting?
- Is the thing we are trying to detect worth detecting? What should we be looking for?
- How do we determine an acceptable false positive/false negative rate?
This topic is at the intersection of many of my interests: consciousness, philosophy of science, operationalism, behaviorism, and ethics. This semester I am doing directed research with Carl Craver to dive head-first into the topic. I have a long reading list that I will be working my way through and hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my findings as the semester progresses. Stay tuned!
S., a frank and intelligent man, told me as follows how he ceased to believe:-
He was twenty-six years old when one day on a hunting expedition, the time for sleep having come, he set himself to pray according to the custom he had held from childhood.
His brother, who was hunting with him, lay upon the hay and looked at him. When S. had finished his prayer and was turning to sleep, the brother said, ‘Do you still keep up that thing?’ Nothing more was said. But since that day, now more than thirty years ago, S. has never prayed again; he never takes communion, and does not go to church. All this, not because he became acquainted with convictions of his brother which he then and there adopted; not because he made any new resolution in his soul, but merely because the words spoken by his brother were like the light push of a finger against a leaning wall already about to tumble by its own weight. These words but showed him that the place wherein he supposed religion dwelt in him had long been empty, and that the sentences he uttered, the crosses and bows which he made during his prayer, were actions with no inner sense. Having once seized their absurdity, he could no longer keep them up.
~Tolstoy, quoted in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience