The Ethics of Consciousness Hunting

When Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario, asked Scott Routley to imagine playing a game of tennis, any acknowledgement would have been surprising. After all, Routely had been completely unresponsive for the 12 years since his severe traumatic brain injury. He was thought to be in a vegetative state: complete unawareness of self or environment. But, as Owen watched Routley’s brain inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, he saw a region of the motor cortex called the supplementary motor area—thought to play a role in movement—light up with activity. When he told Routely to relax, the activity ceased. And when he asked Routley to imagine walking around his house, he saw clear activity in the parahippocampal gyrus—a region of the brain that plays an important role in the encoding and recognition of spatial environment.

After dozens of repetitions of these mental imagery tasks, Owen was sure that Routley was conscious. Then Owen went a step further: He asked Routley to answer yes-or-no questions by directing his imagination. Imagining playing tennis stood for “yes,” and walking around his house for “no.” Routely

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