Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Awareness and...?

I may have more to say yet on life, death, and the internet of things. But this post is about awareness. And maybe a bit about the internet of things.  I came across an article about awareness and its continuum a few days ago but was too engaged at the time to blog about it here.

One problem is that the word has more than one meaning. Trying to plumb the nature of self-awareness or self-consciousness leads down one infamous rabbit hole. But what if the subject is simply the difference in brain activity between being conscious and being unconscious?

 I think we Zen folk actually focus more on the issue of not so much the nature of awareness but in our practice of being aware. 

In studies using anesthesia, the paralytic effects of drugs used during surgery were blocked from one forearm, and then attempts were made to communicate with the patient. Dr. Alkire wrote, “Patients under general anesthesia can sometimes carry on a conversation using hand signals, but postoperatively, they deny ever being awake. Thus, retrospective oblivion is no proof of unconsciousness.”
The recent research by Dr. Scheinin and Dr. Langsjo and colleagues, including Dr. Alkire, looked for proof of consciousness. The researchers used brain scans in combination with two drugs, propofol, which helped cause the death of Michael Jackson, and another anesthetic drug, the many-syllabled dexmedetomidine.
The standard measure of unconsciousness is that a subject or patient does not respond to commands. By that standard, when a subject responds, he’s conscious. What makes dexmedetomidine an ideal drug is that people who are completely under can be brought back from oblivion by gentle shaking and loud speaking, even if they are still on the regular dose of the anesthetic.
In Dr. Scheinin’s study, when unconscious subjects on this drug were told to open their eyes, they responded. Then most of them drifted back into apparent unconsciousness, without their brain’s neocortex turning on. Only the brainstem, the thalamus and one part of the cortex were active.
The subjects under propofol were not waked up, but as the drug was withdrawn, the pattern of their awakening fit well with the other data.
Questions remain. What level of consciousness exists without the neocortex? Does this mean the subjects understood what was happening with more primitive brain regions?

 It's may be even more complicated than that, since the above is detailing a particular response to a verbal command.   The issues raised here - and the issue of memory and its determinant of awareness means that in terms of science and technology, we simply do not understand yet the ways in which our own biology is related yet to awareness and really memory.  We're just beginning to get ideas on these fronts, as well as the idea of what it means for the awareness of self as self to exist biologically.   It's partly why I cringe when I see people going woo about the internet of things, technology, etc. and putting some kind of metaphysical spin on them.   They misuse science's purpose, or misunderstand it, or don't care. 

Now don't get me wrong - technology is certainly influencing our biology in terms of our diets, our modes of transportation, and such.  The ubiquity of computing, memory, and  communications devices is no doubt contributing to an atrophy of our own cognitive and expressive skills.  But that's not anywhere near saying that my iPhone is primitively aware of anything.  Hell, I don't know what else can be aware of anything, strictly speaking.

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