A recent comment in the journal Nature makes a bold proposal – to form a true multi-lab cooperative to perform collective research into the deep questions of neuroscience. There are two aspects of this proposal that are extremely interesting: the potential to make significant progress in answering the biggest questions in neuroscience, and the collaborative approach to research being proposed.
How does the brain work?
It is often difficult to answer questions about the current state of scientific knowledge to the general public because there is a lot of background knowledge about science itself that is necessary. As a result I find two common tropes – that scientific knowledge is binary (we either understand something or we don’t) and that we “have no idea” how something works, even when we have lots of ideas. Communicating about the brain almost always falls for these tropes.
Scientific knowledge is better understood using a metaphor of depth. The real question is not whether or not we understand how the brain works, but how deep is our knowledge about brain function. Because the brain is so complex we can simultaneously say that we know a great deal about brain function and there is a great deal we don’t understand.
A new study shows that 42 really is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. OK, not really, but it does show that 42% of healthy brain activity is the minimum threshold for consciousness.
Disorders of consciousness, also referred to as coma when severe enough, can be a difficult situation to assess sufficiently to make reliable predictions about outcome. Part of the problem is that once someone is not able to maintain consciousness, we lose much of the neurological exam, and therefore it becomes more difficult to assess brain function other than to say that they are not conscious.
Types of coma
Two types of coma in particular are of interest: the persistent vegetative state, also called unresponsive wakefulness syndrome (UWS), and the minimally conscious state (MCS). Both are severe impairments of consciousness. In UWS, by definition, the patient may have sleep-wake cycles, open their eye, have roving eye movements, and grimace, but they do not have any interaction with their environment. They do not respond to voice, look at faces, or move in response to stimuli.
In his first book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Wrong, neurologist Robert Burton showed that our certainty that we are right has nothing to do with how right we are. He explained how brain mechanisms can make us feel even more confident about false beliefs than about true ones. Now, in a new book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves, he investigates the larger question of how a brain creates a mind. There is no alternative to the scientific method for studying the physical world, but Burton thinks there are essential limitations to science’s ability to investigate conundrums like consciousness and free will. Brain scientists fall into error because:
…our brains possess involuntary mechanisms that make unbiased thought impossible yet create the illusion that we are rational creatures capable of fully understanding the mind created by these same mechanisms.
He has a bone to pick with neuroscientists. They are discovering fascinating information, but their interpretations often go beyond what the data can really tell us. They often draw questionable conclusions from imaging studies that could have other explanations. (more…)