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A New Method to Measure Consciousness Proposed

It's an important new tool for doctors, but what is it actually measuring?
By Partha Mitra
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=a-new-method-to-measure-consciousnessdiscovered

Leonardo Da Vinci, in his Treatise on Paintin !Trattato della Pittura", advises painters to pa# particular attention to the motions of the mind, moti mentali. $The movement which is depicted must %e appropriate to the mental state of the fi ure,& he advises' otherwise the fi ure will %e considered twice dead: $dead %ecause it is a depiction, and dead #et a ain in not e(hi%itin motion either of the mind or of the %od#.& )rancesco *el+i, student and friend to Da Vinci, compiled the Treatise posthumousl# from fra mented notes left to him. The vivid portra#al of emotions in the paintin s from Leonardo,s school shows that his students learned to read the moti mentali of their su%-ects in e(.uisite detail. /ssociatin an emotional e(pression of the face with a $motion of the mind& was an astonishin insi ht %# Da Vinci and a surprisin l# modern metaphor. Toda# we correlate specific patterns of electrochemical d#namics !i.e. $motions&" of the central nervous s#stem, with emotional feelin s. 0onsciousness, the su%strate for an# emotional feelin , is itself a $motion of the mind,& an ephemeral state characteri+ed %# certain d#namical patterns of electrical activit#. 1ven if all the neurons, their constituent parts and neuronal circuitr# remained structurall# the same, a chan e in the d#namics can mean the difference %etween consciousness and unconsciousness. 2ut what 3ind of motion is it? 4hat are the patterns of electrical activit# that correspond to our su%-ective state of %ein conscious, and wh#? 0an the# %e measured and .uantified? This is not onl# a theoretical or philosophical .uestion %ut also one that is of vital interest to the anesthesiolo ist tr#in to re ulate the level of consciousness durin sur er#, or for the neurolo ist tr#in to differentiate %etween different states of consciousness followin %rain trauma. 5ecentl#, 0asali et al have presented a .uantitative metric. 6t provides, accordin to the authors, a numerical measure of consciousness, separatin ve etative states from minimall# conscious states. The stud# provides hints of %ein a%le to identif# the eni matic loc3ed-in state, in which the su%-ect is conscious %ut is una%le to communicate with the

e(ternal world due to motor deficits. 4hat is most interestin Their metric, li3e other e(istin

is the claim that the

measures provide scientific insi ht into consciousness, %# providin an o%-ective measure. clinical measures of consciousness, is %ased on 1lectroencephalo raph# !117", where volta es recorded from electrodes placed on the scalp provide a coarse picture of neural activit# in the %rain. 117 can %e used to measure either on oin %rain activit#, or that evo3ed %# an e(ternal stimulus. 6n 0asali,s case, the activit# in .uestion is evo3ed directl# in the %rain usin !Transcranial *a netic 8timulation". This involves appl#in a transient ma netic field a transient ma netic field,

which enerates an electric field in a particular re ion of the %rain due to )arada#,s law, a %it li3e attachin a %atter# to the neural circuitr#. This causes currents to flow in the %rain, not -ust in the stimulated re ion, %ut in other re ions connected to it as well. The spatial and temporal patterns of these currents in the %rain are then inferred from the 117 measurements and .uantified to produce the metric. The novelt# in the stud# lies in the method used to .uantif# the spatiotemporal distri%ution of current, which is also the %asis of the theoretical claims. The idea is that when the %rain is unconscious, the evo3ed activit# is either locali+ed !the authors call this $lac3 of inte ration&", or widespread and uniform, as mi ht %e e(pected durin slow wave sleep or epileptic sei+ures !$lac3 of differentiation&". The conscious state on the other hand is supposed to correspond to a distri%uted, %ut non-uniform spatiotemporal pattern of current sources. The authors appl# a standard data compression scheme !the Lempel-9iv al orithm, which is used for e(ample in the 76) ima e format" to distin uish %etween the two scenarios. The de ree of compressi%ilit# of the current distri%ution as inferred from 117 is the consciousness metric the# propose. The scientists report that their measure performs impressivel# in distin uishin states of consciousness within su%-ects, as well as across su%-ects in different clinicall# identified consciousness sta es. These promisin understandin concretel# results will no dou%t attract further stud#. rounded in a conceptual to thin3 that a :owever, the claim that the measure is theoreticall#

of consciousness deserves a closer loo3. 6t is temptin

rounded clinical stud# of consciousness naturall# advances our scientific

understandin of the phenomenon, %ut is this necessaril# the case? 6t is common in medicine to see en ineerin -st#le associative measurements, measurements which aid pra matic actions %ut do not ori inate from a fundamental understandin . Ph#sicians in anti.uit# were a%le to dia nose dia%etes mellitus

!et#molo icall# $sweet urine&, a reference to this ori inal dia nostic method", without an# particular insi hts into the underl#in uarantee of scientific understandin . There is reason to %e cautious even in clinical terms. 8ome previous attempts to numericall# .uantif# consciousness have proven pro%lematic, a serious matter since awareness durin sur er# could lead to real sufferin . /n anesthesiolo ist cautions in a commentar# not to $trust the 268 or an# other monitor over common sense and e(perience.& / human e(pert still remains the ultimate ar%iter of the state of consciousness of another human. This is unli3el# to chan e soon. There are %oth practical and conceptual hurdles to developin a $consciousness metric.& 6n practical terms, we have ver# little access to the details of the neuronal d#namics in the human %rain. D/5P/, not sh# of am%itious technical challen es, has limited itself to ;<< electrodes in a recent call for proposals to directl# record from and stimulate the human %rain for deep %rain stimulation therap#. That is a%out one %illionth of the estimated num%er of neurons in the %rain. The 117 provides a ver# low capacit#, indirect measurement channel into the %rain. 6f we can,t measure the d#namics of the %rain neurons in an# detail, this could limit an# attempt to .uantif# consciousness. :owever, it is theoreticall# possi%le that even a limited measurement channel could carr# the necessar# information. 4e are loo3in for a cate orical -ud ment %etween conscious and unconscious states, a sin le %it of information that can %e solicited from a conscious and communicative su%-ect in an e#e-%lin3 or a nod of the head. The conceptual hurdle is the more si nificant one. The definin characteristic of the conscious state is that of su%-ective, first person awareness, which fundamentall# militates a ainst o%-ective measurements %# an independent o%server, who can have no access to the primar# phenomena e(cept throu h the su%-ective report of the conscious individual. 6t ma# %e possi%le !and useful" to o%tain %etter and %etter correlative measurements of this su%-ective report' %ut do the measurements themselves shed an# li ht into the phenomenon of consciousness? To clarif# the underl#in issues, consider a Turin -li3e test for consciousness metrics. 6f a measure of consciousness is to have scientific status, it should not ascri%e a hi h de ree of consciousness to a passive, inanimate s#stem at thermod#namic e.uili%rium. =therwise we are left with some 3ind of pan-ps#chic notion of consciousness. >evertheless, a simple thou ht e(periment shows that it would %e eas# to construct such a s#stem for the metric under discussion. patholo #. 0linical utilit# is not automaticall# a

The measure in .uestion relies on the spatiotemporal patterns of currents invo3ed %# a transient ma netic field. :owever, *a(well,s e.uations dictate that a transient ma netic field will enerate a pattern of currents in an# chun3 of matter ? matchin up some distri%ution of those evo3ed currents is simpl# a matter of the material properties. 0onsider for e(ample a networ3 of resistor, capacitors and inductors with circuit time-constants tuned to %e in the hundred-millisecond ran e !to match 117 timescales". / radio antenna could %e used to detect the chan in ma netic field and a%sor% its ener #. 6t should not %e difficult to produce a circuit arran ement that produces a transient, spatiotemporall# nonuniform current distri%ution that is ade.uatel# incompressi%le, and therefore fools the device into producin a hi h consciousness score. =ne could also as3 if the metric helps us answer a %asic evolutionar# .uestion: can it differentiate or anisms into $conscious& and $non-conscious& cate ories? 4hile most neuroscientists would not hesitate to ascri%e consciousness to verte%rate animals or to inverte%rates with comple( %rains !thin3 =ctopus or :one#%ee", the# would hesitate when it comes to the inverte%rates with simpler nervous s#stems !/re @ell#fish conscious? :ow a%out the 8pon es?" 8ince the methodolo # under discussion has %een prepared with humans in mind, and ultimatel# depends on correlatin with su%-ective reportin , it is difficult to see how it could %e e(tended across the ph#lo enetic tree in a wa# that would help resolve these %asic science .uestions a%out consciousness. 4here to loo3 for measures of consciousness that advance our scientific understandin ? *ost neuroscientists would a ree that consciousness is associated specificall# with animal nervous s#stems !not trees or roc3s". 5ather than loo3 enericall# for a%stract mathematical descriptions of consciousness, we ma# need to specificall# stud# the detailed architecture of %rain s#stems involved in arousal, attention, and so on. 0omple( animal nervous s#stems have presuma%l# evolved consciousness %ecause it has some important utilit#. 6f the architecture of %rain s#stems involved in arousal shows conver ent evolution %etween inverte%rates and verte%rates, this could ive us important scientific insi hts into consciousness as a %iolo ical phenomenon. 2etter neuro%iolo ical insi hts into consciousness could in turn enerate advances in clinical measures. 4e have come a lon wa# since Da Vinci, %ut human o%servers, in the form of teams of e(pert ph#sicians, remain essential to -ud in the su%tleties of the $motions of the mind& that we call consciousness. >o matter how sophisticated our tools, consciousness is still a core m#ster# with ample scope for conceptual %rea3throu hs and creative thin3in .

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S) Partha *itra is 0ric3-0la# Professor at 0old 8prin :ar%or La%orator#. :e o%tained a PhD in Theoretical Ph#sics at :arvard and was a mem%er of the Theor# 7roup at 2ell La%oratories. :e has written a %oo3 on anal#+in %rain d#namics and is currentl# en a ed in mappin mouse %rain circuits. Aou can follow him BparthaCmitra