Nautilus

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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus10 min read
Talking Is Throwing Fictional Worlds at One Another: A linguist exposes the inner truths about language.
A few years ago, David Adger was in his office at Queen Mary University of London, where he is a professor of linguistics, when the phone rang. It was a British TV company that wanted him to invent a language for monsters with no lips, just big teeth
Nautilus9 min read
When Words Fail: Where our minds go when words let us down.
In Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable, the anonymous narrator laments, “I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their setting, no sky for their dispersing.” For Beckett’s narrator, words have become unmoore
Nautilus8 min read
Can New Species Evolve From Cancers? Maybe.
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Aggressive cancers can spread so fiercely that they seem less like tissues gone wrong and more like invasive parasites looking to consume and then break free of their host. If a wild