October 22, 2013
What is the difference between being conscious and unconscious? Is it that you are aware of your surroundings? No, as even when we are unconscious, there is a part of us that is still able to react in some small way to various stimuli. Is it purely defined by the level of brain activity that is going on inside of our heads? Perhaps that is a better method. Even so, science is still at something of a loss as to nailing down just what it is that, biologically, differs from the two states. For us, it is an obvious difference, though explaining that difference can be a lot trickier than you might originally suspect.
Recently, Martin Monti, an assistant professor of psychology and neurosurgery at UCLA who focuses on cognitive neuroscience and the effects of severe brain injury, led a study in which he and a number of other psychologists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI for short) to study the flow of information through the brain during periods of consciousness and unconsciousness. Their results were not what they expected. As it turns out, there is not a single region of the brain that controls our conscious awareness, but rather it is more of an amalgamation of the various regions of our brains working together, efficiently processing and transferring information between them. When we are unconscious, the various regions of our brains have a more difficult time passing information back and forth. In many ways, it is almost as if the areas of our brain grow more distant from one another. Monti himself described it as “In terms of brain function, the difference between being conscious and unconscious is a bit like the difference between driving from Los Angeles to New York in a straight line versus having to cover the same route hopping on and off several buses that force you to take a ‘zig-zag’ route and stop in several places.”
And so how does this new discovery help us? Well, it means that now that we know that conscious is not locked in a single part of the brain, we can better monitor how various medical treatments for those patients who are in a comatose state are working. Treatments that help the brain to transmit data throughout itself will likely help more than other methods which rely on other means. We can also, potentially, better monitor which patients are the most likely to recover, how severe any possible brain damage they might suffer due to being in a coma might be, and how soon they are likely to regain consciousness. Sure, a lot of this is hypothetical, but that is what often comes from any new discovery, the hopeful ideas as to how this can be used to improve the lives of others. Because consciousness cannot be easily defined, at least in terms of science, it is a very difficult thing to study, but this new revelation is definitely a step in the right direction.
Is science not incredibly amusing? We can discover a cure for a disease thought to be incurable, create cars that can drive themselves, and even replace lost parts of our bodies with bionics, but we still cannot define the scientific difference between being conscious and unconscious.
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