Looking At Consciousness From The Outside

by Tracy R. Walsh

Researchers are inching closer to identifying states of consciousness just by examining brain waves:

Marcello Massimini’s team from the University of Milan found that people in different states of consciousness will respond to a non-invasive electromagnetic pulse with distinctive patterns of brain waves. If other groups confirm that these waves are reliable markers of consciousness, it would be a huge help to doctors who treat people with brain injuries. Many of these patients look the same from the outside — they don’t respond to doctors or loved ones with words, say, or eye blinks, or hand squeezes. But they are not the same. Some 68 percent will recover consciousness within a year, and 21 percent will lead independent lives, according to one study. What’s more, some people gain consciousness one, two or even five years after their injury. With current technologies, however, it’s extremely difficult for doctors to predict which patients will have positive outcomes and which will never break through.

Hughes says the study illustrates “essential point” about human awareness:

“Doctors assume that after clinical death, the brain is dead and inactive,” the rat study’s lead investigator, Jimo Borjigin, told Ed. “They use the term ‘unconscious’ again and again. But death is a process. It’s not a black-or-white line.” Right, death is a process. But consciousness, too, is a process — a very slippery one.