Monthly Archives: May 2014

My Biggest Pet Peeve in Consciousness Research


Boy was I excited to read that new Nature paper where scientists report experimentally inducing lucid dreaming in people. Pretty cool, right? But then right in the abstract I run across my biggest pet peeve whenever people use the dreaded c-word: blatant terminological inconsistency. Not just an inconsistency across different papers, or buried in a footnote, but between a title and an abstract and within the abstract itself. Consider the title of the paper:

Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity

The term “self-awareness” makes sense here because if normal dream awareness is environmentally-decoupled 1st order awareness than lucid dreaming is a 2nd order awareness because you become meta-aware of the fact that you are first-order dream-aware. So far so good. Now consider the abstract:

 Recent findings link fronto-temporal gamma electroencephalographic (EEG) activity to conscious awareness in dreams, but a causal relationship has not yet been established. We found that current stimulation in the lower gamma band during REM sleep influences ongoing brain activity and induces self-reflective awareness in dreams. Other stimulation frequencies were not effective, suggesting that higher order consciousness is indeed related to synchronous oscillations around 25 and 40 Hz.

Gah! What a confusing mess of conflicting concepts. The title says “self-awareness” but the first sentence talks instead about “conscious awareness”. It’s an elementary mistake to confuse consciousness with self-consciousness, or at least to conflate them without making an immediate qualification of why you are violating standard practice in so doing. While there are certainly theorists out there who are skeptical about the very idea of “1st order” awareness being cleanly demaracted from “2nd order” awareness (Dan Dennett comes to mind), it goes without saying this is a highly controversial position that cannot just be assumed without begging the question. Immediate red flag.

The first sentence also references previous findings about the neural correlates of “conscious awareness” being linked to specific gamma frequencies of neural activity in fronto-temporal networks. The authors say though that correlation is not causation. The next sentence then makes us believe the study will provide that missing causal evidence about conscious awareness and gamma frequencies.

Yet the authors don’t say that. What they say instead is that they’ve found evidence that gamma frequencies are linked to “self-reflective awareness” and “higher-order consciousness”, which are again are theoretically distinct concepts than “conscious awareness” unless you are pretheoretically committed to a kind of higher-order theory of consciousness. But even that wouldn’t be quite right because on, e.g. Rosenthal’s HOT theory, a higher-order thought would give rise to first-order awareness not lucid dreaming, which is about self-awareness. On higher-order views, you would technically need a 3rd order awareness to count as lucid dreaming.

So please, if you are writing about consciousness, remember that consciousness is distinct from self-consciousness and keep your terms straight.

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Filed under Academia, Consciousness, Random

Quote for the Day – The Dangers of Anthropomorphism

It may seem a benign slip from sad eyes to depression, but anthropomorphisms often slide from benign to harmful. Some risk the welfare of the animals under consideration. If we’re to put a dog on antidepressants based on our interpretation of his eyes, we had better be pretty sure of our interpretation. When we assume we know what is best for an animal, extrapolating from what is best for us or any person, we may inadvertently be acting at cross-purposes with our aims. For instance, in the last few years there has been considerable to-do made about improved welfare for animals raised for food, such as broiler chickens who have access to the outside, or have room to roam in their pens. Though the end result is the same for the chicken — it winds up as someone’s dinner — there is a budding interest in the welfare of the animals before they are killed.

But do they want to range freely? Conventional wisdom holds that no one, human or not, likes to be pressed up against others. Anecdotes seem to confirm this: given the choice of a subway car jammed with hot, stressed commuters, and one with only a handful of people, we choose the latter in a second (heeding the possibility, of course, that there’s some other explanation – a particularly smell person, or a glitch in air-conditioning – that explains this favorable distribution). But the natural behavior of chickens may indicate otherwise: chickens flock. They don’t sally forth on their own.

Biologists devised a simple experiment to test the chickens’ preferences of where to be: they picked up individual animals, relocated them randomly within their houses, and monitored what the chickens did next. What they found was that most chickens moved closer to other chickens, not farther away, even when there was open space available. Given the option of space to spread their wings…they choose the jammed subway car.

This is not to say that chickens thus like being smushed against other birds in a cage, or find it a perfectly agreeable life. It is inhumane to pen chickens so tightly they cannot move. But it is to say that assuming resemblance between chicken preferences and our preferences is not the way to insight about what the chicken actually does like. Not coincidentally, these broiler chickens are killed before they reach six weeks of age; domestic chicks are still being brooded by their mothers at that age. Deprived of the ability to run under her wings, the broiler chickens run closer to other chickens.

~Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Knowp. 16-17

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May 22, 2014 · 9:26 am

The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Wanting in the Vegetative State

Draft of conference-length version of longer project.

The Varieties of Consciousness Worth Wanting in the Vegetative State | Gary Williams –

Abstract: Which kinds of consciousness matter for moral status? According to welfarism, phenomenal consciousness is what matters because of its connection to sentience. A rival view is autonomism, which says that reflective self-consciousness is what matters because of its connection to rational autonomy. Recently, Suchy-Dicey (2009) used the vegetative state to argue for a hybrid view whereby welfare and autonomy both matter for moral status. Suchy-Dicey also argues that the value of welfare and autonomy is asymmetrical: a creature that was sentient without autonomy would have moral status but a creature that was autonomous but not sentient would lack moral status. I argue we should reject asymmetrical ethical dualism in favor of symmetrical ethical dualism: an entity that is autonomous but not sentient would have moral status too in virtue of the intrinsic value of autonomy.

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May 20, 2014 · 10:15 pm

Medically Incompetent Doctors Should Not Diagnose Disorders of Consciousness: The Sad Case of Haleigh Poutre

Politics, ideologies, or other motivations can similarly skew medical findings in the other direction, as the botched case of Haleigh Poutre reveals. This Massachusetts case, which followed on the heels of Terri’s death, involved an eleven-year-old girl who had been the subject of repeated battering and had entered what doctors believed to be a vegetative state. In fact only eight days after she had entered the hospital in a condition of unconsciousness, her doctors declared her vegetative state to be permanent. The state of Massachusetts, through its Department of Social Services, won temporary custody of Haleigh and sought to remove her from all life support. Although not the explicit motive for the state’s petition, if Haleigh died, her step-father, accused of beating Haleigh, could have been charged with murder. The department’s petition was successful in lower court and affirmed by the state supreme court. But the day after the court’s decision, it became apparent that Haleigh was not permanently unconscious; in fact, she was not even unconscious at that moment! Two years later, she has recovered some speech and also communicates through a keyboard; ABC News reported that she might be well enough to testify against her stepfather.

Louis Shephard, It it happened to me: making life and death decisions after Terri Schiavo, p. 33

What makes the bolded sentence so outrageous is that according to conventional medical guidelines a “persistent” vegetative state should be declared 1 month after injury and a “permanent*” vegetative state should be declared 3 months after non-traumatic brain damage and 12 months after traumatic brain damage.

*Many experts recommend abandoning the term “permanent” because it implies a greater degree of epistemic certainty than is warranted. What “PVS” really means is that there is the odds are stacked against recovery because of statistical patterns of patients with similar brain injuries. However, the fact that most DOC patients recover 3-12 months after injury indicates that the most accurate approach is merely to describe the VS state and then specify how long they have been in the state rather than trying to categorically predict their chances of recovery.

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Filed under Consciousness, Neuroethics

Sunday Links, ep. 1


May 18, 2014 · 10:43 am

What It’s Like to Be Locked-In, part 3 – The Willingness to Understand

I had not regressed to infancy, yet, owing to my immobility, the nursing staff tended to treat me as an infant. Does anyone stop to ask a newborn whether he is comfortably installed in his or her bassinet? Nothing is worse than being taken for a baby when you are in your thirties.

I therefore tended to divide all human beings into two categories: those who were willing to understand me and…everyone else.

~Philippe Vigand, Only the Eyes Say Yes, p. 25


Filed under Consciousness, Neuroethics

Quote of the day – Depth of Processing in the Vegetative State

“In the [vegetative state] or [minimally conscious state] the EEG is by definition not flat and typically shows widespread slowing of brain rhythms. Does this mean that nothing is being processed? The answer is a definite ‘no’. A clear analogy is the emerging literature on the depth of processing of environmental input (i.e., the surgeon talking about something in the operating room) while the patient is under anesthesia with widespread EEG slowing akin to that observed in VS and MCS. By this logic it would be surprising if some sensory input were not being processed in all VS patients and certainly in all MCS patients. By extension, one might also propose that some internal thoughts are being generated in these devastating clinical states.

Indeed, the key issue from the neurologist’s perspective is whether the neurological insult, whether prolong hypoxia or severe traumatic brain injury, will leave any meaningful brain function. So, it is not clear if the key issue is ‘consciousness’ or the clinical experience with these patients per long-term recovery of ‘meaningful’ life. Of course, meaningful is as poorly defined as consciousness and herein lies the quandary.”

~ Robert Knight, (2008) “Consciousness Unchained: Ethical Issues and the Vegetative and Minimally Conscious State” The American Journal of Bioethics, 8(9): 1–2

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Filed under Consciousness, Neuroethics