nos-trum. pronunciation: \nos'-trum\. noun. Etymology: Latin, neuter of noster our, ours.
1. a medicine of secret composition recommended by its preparer but usually without scientific proof of its effectiveness.
2. a usually questionable remedy or scheme.
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Saturday, February 6, 2010

If a Few Neurons Fire, Am I a Person?

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine this week reports a small subset of patients in a persistent vegetative state who exhibit "willful" brain activity when given "mental imagery tasks."  If you want the technical gobbledy-gook, they "used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess each patient's ability to generate willful, neuroanatomically specific, blood-oxygenation-level–dependent responses during two established mental-imagery tasks", blah, blah blah...  There's a lot of technical detail in this report, which I will spare you, so read it and decide for yourself.

There are some problems with how this study was designed.  I'll mention only one:  the researchers measured responses in the patients that were "reproducible but inconsistent."  Huh?  I assume they mean that they got a specific response, but sometimes didn't get anything.  If they mean that sometimes they got a different response, then it undermines the specificty.  Even if the explanation is the former, does this mean that the patients were aware only some of the time?  Anyway, let it go, Jim, let it go...

Remember the Edgar Allen Poe horror story "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar?"  A hypnotist puts a man into a suspended hypnotic state at the moment of death, so the mind lives on in the deceased body.  I saw this story in a Vincent Price film as a kid and it scared the crap out of me.

The stituations aren't really parallel but the ridiculous notion that you can make the mind live on, makes the point that we can't really know what's going on in someone's head.  Further, every time I hear somebody discussing how animals have language because they can do matching task with colors, (Bobo is red, hungry is green, therefore red-green means "I'm hungry"),  I get confused. Who knows what a gorilla is really thinking,  if anything?

And finally, who knows what reproducible neuronal firings imply about being conscious?  It's going to take a few more hundred studies to bring this one in from The Twilight Zone.

Doc D

Opinions are entirely my own

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