The Puzzle of Consciousness Continues
From a scientific prospective, the mechanism by which consciousness arises and thought processes take place is still not understood. Recently, one of the major areas of research that has been providing incredible insight into the brain based mechanisms that mediate consciousness is the study of people who have been assumed to be in a permanent vegetative state.
Until quite recently, the general paradigm was that people who are in a vegetative state do not appear to have any consciousness or awareness of surroundings. Newer research that was published last week in one of the most well respected medical journals, the "New England Journal of Medicine," appears to shed light on this intriguing aspect of the study of consciousness:
"He emerged from the car accident alive but alone, there and not there: a young man whose eyes opened yet whose brain seemed shut down. For five years he lay mute and immobile beneath a diagnosis — “vegetative state” — that all but ruled out the possibility of thought, much less recovery." Read more in the New York Times article,
"Trace of Thought Is Found in ‘Vegetative’ Patient."
From the February 4, 2010, New York Times news blog, Robert Mackey wrote:
Scientists in the UK and in Belgium studied people who had been in a vegetative state for many years and incredibly found that they actually have some degree of awareness and were able to respond to scientists. The mechanism by which scientists were able to identify the state of awareness in people who appear to be completely locked in a vegetative state was to use special brain scans that could identify areas of the brain that were becoming active in response to specific questions. This raises the intriguing possibility that people who appear to be in a coma or in a vegetative state may still have a degree of awareness of their surroundings.
Although this kind of research does not answer the fundamental question of how conscious awareness and thought processes may arise from the brain, it does nevertheless highlight some of the areas of the brain that may be involved with mediating aspects of awareness and consciousness. It will also allow scientists and physicians as well as nursing staff to deal with patients who are in a vegetative state or in a coma.