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!