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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

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 .

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning ournalist and regular contributor to !ew"orker#com# Gareth is also the series editor o$ 2est /merican 6nfo raphics, and can be reached at garethideas A% gmail#com or %witter &garethideas#
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