Mysteries of the Human Mind

An article by Zimmer published yesterday in The New York Times, Sizing Up Consciousness by Its Bits, discusses the theories of Dr. Tononi on consciousness. Dr. Tononi is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin. Tononi is not the first to develop theories on the mysteries of human consciousness. Consciousness has been explored by philosophers and scientists throughout history, beginning in the 1600s when Descartes first used the term “conscientia” in the way modern speakers use the term “conscience.”

Robert Fludd (1574-1637). Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, physica atque technica histori. Oppenheim, 1619.

In the medical world, the concept of consciousness is of particular interest for patients who are in a vegetative state. Are these patients truly conscious? Do they feel pain? Is an internal thought process preserved? The idea of consciousness is also important for patients undergoing surgery. Although rare (approximately one to two in 1000 cases), there are patients who are effectively paralyzed but not sedated while they are under anesthesia. As a result, although they are awake, they are unable to speak or move, and are thus unable to communicate. This concept is referred to as “anesthesia awareness.”

Needless to say, the experience is quite traumatic. Although patients do not feel pain (only pressure receptors remain activated), they can often recall most if not all the details of their experience, including the conversation in the room and the particular details of the surgery. A recent article in CNN, Awake during surgery: ‘I’m in hell’, discusses the personal experience of Carol Weiher. This story follows the 2007 release of Ri-Teon, a Korean film (Return orWide Awake in English translation) that increased national awareness of awake anesthesia.

Whether Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory is groundbreaking or will change the course of consciousness research in years to come – I cannot say. But his work is a constant reminder of how little we really know about consciousness – and about the human brain. Our mappings of it are increasingly complex, but what triggers it to work – and think – in different ways still cannot be well explained.

Dreams never cease to amaze me. For the last couple of nights, I have been plagued by nightmares – vivid, intense, and seemingly endless dreams that I am taking care of a dying child in the intensive care unit. I wake up in a cold sweat, just as the child is taking her last breaths and I am preparing to intubate her. I wake up to the ring of my alarm clock and feel as though I have worked the entire night in the hospital.

A recent movie, Inception, addresses the concept of lucid dreaming. It is a technique by which people try to make themselves aware, while in a dream, that they are in fact dreaming. The idea is fascinating. Many philosophers and artists have attributed their inspiration to dreams. The world of dreams provides us with a way to tap into our mind from a completely different angle – these parts of our consciousness are often not reachable by the awake mind. They can allow us to better understand ourselves. This is only a preliminary conglomeration of thoughts – just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the fascinations of consciousness,  dreams, and the human mind.

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