Wednesday, March 27, 2013
BRAIN SCANS, COMAS AND CONSCIOUSNESS
In hospitals and care facilities around the world there are thousands upon thousands of patients lying in a comatose vegetative state, their basic biological functions being maintained by life support systems. After being in such a state for a period of time, the question uppermost in the minds of their relatives, loved ones and care givers is: "Is there still anyone in there?" If there is some voluntary movement that the patient still has control over: the ability to wiggle a toe, to flex a finger, to clench a jaw, etc., then at least yes and no questions can be asked to establish a line of communication and determine whether or not there is still someone in there. Yet for those patients completely paralyzed, the determination of this question, until very recently, has been impossible, even though those closest to the patient often have strong feelings as to whether or not their loved one is still there. An eye that is open but unmoving can appear vacant at one moment and then focussed and present at another; a feeling of extra alertness, a different kind of energy, can be communicated to loved one's even if there is no observable movement. Yet at some point, even if some family members have a sense that he or she may still be in there, because of the enormous costs of maintaining a patient in this condition and the huge emotional strain for loved ones who find no ultimate resolution to this question, a heart rending decision must be made.
As upsetting as this situation is for so many people, it is also, in a way, deliciously ironic. In this age of rigid materialist thinking, with the finest measuring and observing devices for examining the human body and brain inside and out, there was no way of knowing whether or not the person, the being, was still dwelling within that body. And mind you, if, God forbid, a child of uber materialist Steve Pinker or 'man is just a computer' Richard Dawkins, or a child of any of the whole cult of neo-Darwinists, were in this condition, then Pinker and Dawkins and all the neo-Darwinists would be just as desperate to determine if their child (not their child's body but their child) was still dwelling inside that body.
Adrian Owen, a neuro-scientist from the University of Cambridge, UK, now working in Canada, has dedicated himself to finding measurable answers to that daunting question. A patient named Kate Bainbridge contracted a viral infection that had put her into a coma for months. Doctors determined that she was in a vegetative state and the time for answering the 'dreaded question' was quickly approaching. Meanwhile Owen had been using positron-emission tomography in healthy people to show that a part of the brain called the fusiform face area (FFA) is activated when people see a familiar face. When the team showed Bainbridge familiar faces and scanned her brain, "it lit up like a Christmas tree, especially the FFA," says Owen. "That was the beginning of everything." Bainbridge responded quickly to rehabilitation and now in a wheelchair but otherwise active wrote to Owen to thank him for the brain scan, "It scares me to think of what might have happenned to me if I had not had mine. It was like magic, it found me."
What is most intriguing about all this for me, is who and what is this person that all these people are desperately seeking within this comatose body but are not able to directly observe? When Ms. Bainbridge declares that it found 'me' what is the 'me' that was found? The most fanatic of the materialist cult may say that it is her brain, especially her cerebral cortex, capable of complex activity, that was found. But was it Kate Bainbridge's cerebral cortex, especially her FFA, that was excited to see her relatives and loved ones? Does the cerebral cortex get excited when it sees familiar faces? Does it feel lonely when it doesn't? If it does, which part of the cerebral cortex, even which part of the FFA is experiencing these feelings? Is it the electrons that are running through it? Is it the nerve cells or some chemicals within the nerve cells that were feeling so lonely and isolated and longed so deeply to establish contact? When Ms. Bainbridge describes the unspeakable torment of being so completely paralyzed within her body that she could not establish any contact although she desperately wanted to and knew that her loved ones desperately wanted her to as well, is it, once again, the chemicals and electrons in her brain that were feeling all this? And there are hundreds of billions of neurons in the brain and exponentially more electrons. Did Ms. Bainbridge experience all these feelings as if there were many billions of parts of herself communicating this isolation and then this exhilaration at making contact? Or did she experience this experience as we all, all living beings, experience our experience, as a unitary consciousness; as one being, one self? Did she say, "It scares all of us to think of what might have happened to the hundreds of billions of us if our multitude had not had ours (the brain scan). It was like magic. It found the entire horde of us"? Or did she say, "it scares me to think of what might have happenned to me if I had not had mine. It was like magic. It found me". Is the FFA experiencing Kate's excitement, or is it recording Kate's excitement? Are the complex wirings of the FFA assisting Kate in defining and recognizing those familiar faces, or is the wiring recognizing the faces by itself? Can wiring do anything by itself or is wiring merely matter, and like all other matter, can do nothing by itself because it has no self, and must be used and designed by a being that does have a self that desires and experiences things. And is this self the very same self that all of Ms. Bainbridge's loved one's were so anxious to make contact with, an unobservable self, a self that is the context of experience and the milieu of desire, and which expressed her gratitude by writing a letter to Dr. Owen?
Although the positron-emission tomography test was able to show that patients were still alive and present, it did not yield any information beyond that. It was not a method whereby Dr. Owen could ask questions of the patient and find out how they were feeling, if they needed more analgesic medication or less, if they would like to listen to the radio, to listen to a particular channel, etc. He started testing healthy individuals by asking them to imagine playing a vigorous, competitive game of tennis for thirty seconds. Then he asked them to imagine walking through their homes, also for thirty seconds. These imaginings were being done while the patient was receiving an fMRI brain scan.
The brain is, I believe, the only major organ in the body that does not have a way of storing fats in the form of glycogen to be converted to glucose when needed to be burned for energy. So whenever we do mental activity we are directly using the sugar, the glucose, that is already present in our bloodstreams. That is why our thoughts and emotional levels can change so dramatically when our blood sugar level dramatically rises and falls. (That is also why our energy and emotional level becomes much more stable when our diet is rich in complex carbohydrates, such as are found in whole grains, which slowly break down in the digestive system and enter the bloodstream over a period of hours, rather than rely on lots of sugary food and drinks which enter the bloodstream within seconds, creating a huge spike in our blood sugar level and stimulating the production of large amounts of insulin which continues to drive down the blood sugar level for hours after the initial surge, creating the craving for a new sugar hit).
Playing a competitive tennis match and recalling wandering through your house are two very different activities. Tennis requires much more adrenaline, a keen and expectant focus on the ball, and the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system with energy moving into the musculature of the limbs and away from the digestive system. Imagining walking through one's home is not adrenalizing, but requires memory of objects and spatial relations and by recalling various objects and rooms stimulates many connected memories laden with personal meaning. When healthy people imagined playing tennis, more blood would flow to a part of the brain called the premotor cortex or the supplementary motor cortex. When they imagined navigating through their house, more blood would flow to the parahippocampal gyrus, associated with memory and feeling.
By doing the same test with patients in a vegetative state, some of them responded exactly as did the healthy patients. The increased blood flow to the premotor cortex meant not only that they had heard the instructions, but that they had understood the words and remembered something about what the game of tennis was like and what it required. The increased flow to the parahippocampal gyrus also proved their ability to hear, to understand and to remember. In those responsive patients, Dr. Owen followed with further testing. He gave the patients a series of yes and no questions asking them to imagine playing tennis if the answer were yes and wandering through their house if the answer was no. At first they were asked a series of questions to determine beyond any dispute that they were in there and conscious. For instance, "Is your name Harry?," "Is your name Joseph?,""Do you have a brother?," "Do you have a sister?," etc. Then they were asked questions that were relevant to their care: "Are you in pain?," "Would you like the radio on?," "Would you like the window open?," etc.
Dr. Owen is still working on refining his technique so that it can be done more efficiently and economically and become common practice in the care of comatose patients. This is certainly wonderful news for people in so-called vegetative states and their loved ones, but it is also, to my mind, amazing news to anyone who is in the possession of a brain and a body, healthy or otherwise. Let's look at the first part, imagining playing tennis. The subject, whether healthy or paralyzed, at some point decides whether to follow these instructions or not. This decision is probably made before the instructions are given. The healthy patients are either volunteers who have some interest in science and believe in the potential value of the research or are getting paid for their involvement and want to do the job with integrity. The comatose patients, one would guess, would probably be willing, even extremely eager, to follow these instructions because they promise to provide a way of making desperately desired contact. But once the patient decides, he or she commits the energy necessary to do the task and that commitment, in the case of the imagined tennis game, results in a reapportionment of the blood flowing through the brain, a reapportionment that can be measured by the fMRi equipment. And it also results in the precise hundreds of millions of neurons of the premotor cortex that would lead to an actual game of tennis if the circuits going from those initial neurons were allowed to continue moving to the precise muscles that would make all the required movements possible. With the healthy patients those signals do not continue because they are asked to stay still and just imagine the game and in the comatose patients there is some break or damage that connects those circuits leading from the premotor cortex to the actual musculature. In either case there is no outward observable movement. So just by deciding to imagine such a thing, we humans (whether mobile or paralyzed) are able to rearrange the cranial blood supply and cause the firing of the precise millions of neurons that would initiate the activity that we are imagining.
Now you may have heard of psychokinesis or telekinesis. This is the supposed ability of people to move or bend objects just with the power of their minds, with no physical contact between the person and the object. Uri Geller made an entire career of either doing this or tricking people into believing that he was doing this. Whether or not Uri Geller, or anyone else, has such an unusual gift or is really a trickster, is of very little interest to me. I am not concerned so much about unusual people with unusual gifts. I am much more concerned about the amazing gifts that usual people, that all people, that even totally paralyzed people have and exercise, whether they realize it or not, at every moment of their waking existence. Simply by deciding to do something, by wanting to do something, we immediately rearrange the blood flow to the brain to energize the exact pattern of millions of neurons that enable us to do, or to imagine doing, what we want to do. Now I said that 'we' rearrange the blood supply to the brain, but, of course, we have no direct involvement in this process at all. It is being done for us. We cannot appear on the Jay Leno show to show off this amazing gift, because everyone has it and no one, unless they are in the possession of very sophisticated medical equipment, can observe it. Never the less it is no less amazing, in fact, far more so, than Uri Geller bending a key from five feet away. On a microscopic level millions of utterly precise changes are being initiated just by our decision. Whether you call this process which takes place every moment we decide to do anything, whether we are deciding to imagine playing tennis, deciding to go to war with Iraq, or deciding to scratch our nose, whether you call this psychokinesis or telekinesis, it doesn't matter. But what is going on is that merely your decision, prior to any force, prior to any movement, prior to any re-arrangement of energy, just your decision, made without any physicality what so ever, engenders millions of utterly precise physical processes.
Ready! Get set! Go! Go is the actual burst of muscular energy that begins a race and unfortunately, of course, it is beyond the ability of a totally paralyzed person. Get set is the movement into the exact physical position that the runner wants to be in to commence the race, and this too is beyond the purview of the paralyzed. Ready is the inner preparation, the sharpening of the focus (you are the focus), the distribution of the blood supply, the re-arrangement of energy and the stimulation of the precise array of millions of neurons of the pre-motor cortex, prior to any external movement at all; and all of this, thanks to the findings of Dr. Owen, is, through the instrument of their will alone, within the purview of even the totally paralyzed.
The common modern day view of the human body is that it happens to be there as a result of an enormous series of freak accidents that gradually took place over billions of years in the random interplay of physical forces, and that the purpose of the human body is to conduct basic biological tasks to insure its survival and its replication. This view of how our bodies arrived, particularly from the perspective of the mind boggling level of complexity and syncrhronicity that we now know exists, a very small part of which we are now just beginning to understand, is ludicrous for many, many reasons which are elucidated in several other posts of this blog. Also, and importantly, the body, by itself, does not want to survive. The body, even the brain, does not want to survive and does not want to replicate. The body, even the brain, are matter, are molecules and electrons, and proteins and fats and sugars, and like all matter, they do not want anything, and they do not care about anything. Neurons don't care if they are idle or if electricity is flowing through them. The digestive tract doesn't care if it is empty or full. There is no such singular entity as 'the body.' There are, however, literally quadrillions of parts and simultaneous processes in this body that are all working synchronously with each other. This sychronicity is not the result of an actual unit called 'the body' but of a unitary consciousness. When people say that there is a transcendent conciousness, a cosmic consciousness, they mean that there is a being, not a physical entity, but a being, which, among other things, has designed and evolved your body, each organ of which is the result of an idea to allow the organism to deal more effectively with a changing environment and which allows you, among many other things, to arrange all the precise neurons and alter the blood flow and prepare the energy flow which allows you to do whatever you want to do the moment you decide to do it.
Then there is our consciousnes itself. There are several current scientific theories as to what is the 'cause' of consciousness: the patterns of electricity in your brain, the patterns of magnetic fields surrounding the brain, the patterns of gyruses and sulci (hills and valleys) of the cortex; the patterns of chemical deposits within the neurons, etc. Whichever pattern or combinations of patterns is responsible, what is the organ that allows you to translate those electric or magnetic or chemical or shape patterns into the sunsets and concerts and hot dogs and birthday cakes and complex relationships and the smell of jasmine, and a myriad of other experiences which you experience at every moment of your life and is the real content of your life? allows you to translate these electrons, this magnetism or these cortical shapes into your life? There is no such physical organ. It is again, the cosmic consciousness that is the translator; that enables you to experience your experience.
What of the genes, which, by themselves, are merely codes for the manufacture of strings of amino acids. What or who makes sure, or sets up the fantastically precise and intricate mechanisms to make sure, that the genes are fired at the precise time they are needed (the timing system being far more complicated than the genome itself), that these coded strings of information are transcribed into movable messages and delivered to the precise place they need to go to be translated into amino acids,(again both the process of transcription and translation being fantastically precise and complex), makes sure that these strings of amino acids are folded in an absolutely precise way with the absolutely precise addition of sugar and fat molecules when needed, into the absolutely precise protein molecules, each of which, and there are many quadrillions of them at work in your body at this very moment, are utterly precise microscopic machines designed to perform an utterly precise and specific function; takes these protein machines, many of which are structural, and forms these structural protein molecules into all the shapes and shapes within shapes and shapes within shapes within shapes, that form the contours of your body, your organs, your organelles, your bones, your cappillaries, your villi, etc., etc., etc.
It is this very same cosmic consciousness that adds new genes to an existing organism (Darwinian evolution has no explanation for the addition of a new gene) which entails the rearrangement of a gene firing system which is far more complicated than the genome itself, entails the re-arrangement of the blood supply and the nervous system to supply and support whatever new organs or adjustment to old organs are engendered by this new gene, requires the reapportionment of the real estate of the brain, and often the reapportionment of the structure of the whole body to maintain the same equilibrium with the addition of new organs and the modification of old ones, and is undertaken not because of a random collision of molecules or a 'mistake' in the replication of genes, but because of a cosmic decision that a new material is needed in order to execute the new ideas that cosmic conciousness wants to introduce; these ideas including new organs, enhanced brain capacity, and whatever improvements to existing organs are envisioned (a new gene providing, by itself, not a new organ, but a new raw material which is used in all cases in the body for many new applications and requires the unfathomably precise and unfathomably synchronous adjustment to all these organs and systems and firing patterns). Not the body, but the cosmic consciousness wants you to survive, and either supervises the growth and development of your body and the evolution of all bodies, either directly, or by creating the fantastic equipment of transcendent complexity and synchronicity that breathes us, that allows us to digest food, to replicate ourselves, to eliminate wastes, to maintain our metabolism and our body temperature, and provides us with a set of biological desires, so that, with no biological knowledge of our own, we are able to survive simply by eating what we want when we are hungry, drinking what we want when we are thirsty, sleeping when we are tired, warming ourselves when we are cold, cooling off when we are hot, and partnering with the being that we want to partner with when we are horny. And on top of all this, and especially with humans, this equipment provided by the cosmic conciousness, allows us to do, at every moment, what we want to do, which is the real purpose of our body brains, of evolution. The purpose of our bodies is not just to survive, but the survival of our bodies and brains is provided for us so that we can have an experience of doing what we want to do when we want to do it.
Not that we all enjoy perfect freedom, far from it. Others impose their will upon us and force us into situations which we had no part in choosing and would never have chosen for ourselves. The world is plagued by people who exploit their power to force others to do what they want with no regard to what the rest of us may want. Yet even in these forced situations we do, certainly with no eagerness, what we choose to do. We perform a slave wage grindingly dull job because we prefer that to starving. We are forced at gunpoint to do things which are abhorrent to us, again because we would rather endure that indignity than get shot, etc. Yet still, although we may not have chosen the situations that we find ourselves in, within the limits of the options those situations provide us, we still do what we want to do; or prefer to do over even less desirable options.
What we desire is a certain kind of experience, for ourselves or for others. Desires come from the non-material world of beings, and the goal of desires is, by somehow using or manipulating the world of matter, to be able to enjoy for ourselves or provide for others, a certain experience in the non-physical world of spirit. The material world is the intermediary between desire and experience.
It is because we have bodies and brains that are instantly responsive to our wishes, that we, the human race, has enormous freedom, to make what we want to make with our own lives, with our societies and with our planet. Will we create a world of shared happiness and mutual provision, or will we destroy our world by pitting ourselves against imagined competitors (thank you Charles Darwin) and ruthlessly pursuing goals that are antagonistic to the happiness of others? This is the great experiment. This is the drama that all of life, including brilliant and purposeful biology and brilliant and purposeful evolution has created with infinite care, patience and transcendent intelligence, to prepare us for.
Dr. Owens work with comatose patients is a remarkable step forward in the care of these patients and in improving the quality of the existence of those who still abide in those paralyzed bodies, and it so clearly shines a light on who we are and who and what we are not.
Your comments are always welcome.