Unconscious Science

In a recent study on brain activity in an epileptic patient, a research team in a neuroscience lab at George Washington University discovered that in stimulating a region of the brain known as the claustrum, they were able to affect the consciousness of the study’s subject – turning it “off.”

Though to most, this may seem like a rather interesting study, perhaps shedding some light on a topic that has been widely debated within science and philosophy for centuries while also studying a devastating disorder, to others it immediately raised some alarms.

To some Redditors, possibly discovering the neural basis how to “turn off” one’s consciousness immediately brought about fear – perhaps forgetting that there many other ways to shut down one’s conscious state, many of which can be found in the hunting section of Wal-Mart. One feared that this method might be broadcast over a large city for governments to use in large-scale mind control, while another, though he feared not, thought that “electrocuting” the brain was a terrible attempt at “pass for neuroscience.”

I’ve heard unfounded speculation like this before in reference to neuroscience, in particular neuroimaging studies leading to government mind reading devices (even though we grant consent to certain entities who attempt a similar thing). Statements like this concern me as it demonstrates an ignorance for how this type of research is carried out and what its results mean. It is totally acceptable for a lay person not to know what the claustrum is, or why Nobel laureate Francis Crick and his colleague, the distinguished neuroscientist Christof Koch, were very interested in its possible role in human consciousness. What is unacceptable is automatically associating neuroscience research – which is indeed complicated and hard to understand – with mind control and government conspiracy simply because one doesn’t understand it.

Remember, in this study, the stimulation was carried out in a lab setting with brain stimulating technology. These devices are often placed over the head like a hat or helmet, or in some instances surgically implanted in the brain to treat disorders like Parkinson’s disease. So I wouldn’t worry about brain stimulation being carried out on an entire city any time soon as it would have to accurately target only the claustrum in every single brain. Not to mention how useless this would be. Yes, those affected would be unaware of what’s going on and have no memory of the event, so you could perhaps run around stealing everyone’s shoes during this impossible occurrence, but why not just give them scopolamine and have them help you?

The other thing to remember about this study is that the stimulation was carried out in a lab setting with brain stimulating technology – just like countless other neuroscience experiments. When a researcher wants to determine the function of a brain region, they either shut it down or ramp it up (will go into more detail in the future). Communication between neurons is both chemical and electrical. For a very long time, research involving stimulation and inhibition was carried out chemically using drugs, much like a college freshman who, in attempting to have fun at a rave, stimulates his/her serotonin (the “happy” neurotransmitter) circuit with ecstasy. As technology has improved and become so highly sophisticated, researchers can now stimulate or inhibit regions with a much higher spatial and temporal specificity by use of electrical manipulation than is possible with drugs which can produce hazy results.

Does it sound like I’m being ridiculous by picking on a Redditor who has never conducted a neuroscience experiment for not knowing how they’re carried out? Maybe. Remember, however, that a similar misunderstanding was voiced (in a similar tone) by a semi-recent vice presidential candidate. Sarah Palin mocked scientific research that uses fruit flies as a model, despite these being an extremely effective research tool (more on scientific models in the future). This level of misunderstanding in someone who has this level of influence and who came very close to being next in line to run the U.S.’s affairs is dangerous as it can negatively impact the perception of the goals and motives of scientific research, which despite being a substantial driver of economic development (as in the specific cases of the National Institutes of Health and the Human Genome Project), is extremely underfunded. This level of misunderstanding has hurt the U.S. before and hindered scientific progress, as in the case of the Superconducting Super Collider, with would have dwarfed the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Keeping this nonsense up will cause us to fall behind as the rest of the world will certainly pass us by.

So, please think before lazily reaching unfounded and ridiculous conclusions about something you don’t understand. Moreover, try to understand the purpose and implications of this kind of research. Here, the researchers are interested in the neural activity related to this woman’s epilepsy. This type of understanding is very important both when entering a voting booth and in keeping me from becoming sad.

Thanks!

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2 comments

  1. Fascinating article! Admittedly, I know next to nothing about neuroscience, so I’m looking forward to upcoming articles from you.

    In defense of Sarah Palin, however, I would add that she, like me, is ignorant on the subject of neuroscience research and the use of fruit flies, but it doesn’t mean she’s ignorant of everything. I would likely have made the same comment before reading your piece today.

    That said, I thought this was a very well-written and informative article. I’ll be watching for more from you.

    Like

    1. Thanks TC! I appreciate the interest!

      My concern really has to do with knocking science without knowing about it. If you see that scientists are doing experiments with flies, you don’t need to accept it as a good idea right away, that would be ridiculous. But not as ridiculous, in my opinion, of making such a comment in such a rude way. Rather, ask us why we do the research we do. If we can convince you that’s rational, then support it. If not, then call us out.

      My other major concern is the level at which this is occurring. I would never blame you, as a non-scientist, for saying, “Fruit flies? That sounds riciulous!” However, if you were a politician discussing the nation’s budget and one of your ideas was to cut vital research, and you didn’t have a single person around you to tell you how dangerous it is, then I’m incredibly concerned.

      For an illustration over there in the UK, see Marc Scott’s article on coding2learn.org:
      http://coding2learn.org/blog/2013/07/29/kids-cant-use-computers/

      Our lawmakers NEED science advisors.

      But again, thank you very much for the read. Looking forward to more discussion in the future.

      Like

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