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The Ethics of Consciousness Hunting

By Mackenzie Graham

Crosspost from Nautilus. Click here to read the full article

When Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the University of Western Ontario, asked Scott Routley to imagine playing a game of tennis, any acknowledgement would have been surprising. After all, Routely had been completely unresponsive for the 12 years since his severe traumatic brain injury. He was thought to be in a vegetative state: complete unawareness of self or environment. But, as Owen watched Routley’s brain inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, he saw a region of the motor cortex called the supplementary motor area—thought to play a role in movement—light up with activity. When he told Routely to relax, the activity ceased. And when he asked Routley to imagine walking around his house, he saw clear activity in the parahippocampal gyrus—a region of the brain that plays an important role in the encoding and recognition of spatial environment.


One question that Owen didn’t ask Routley was if he wanted to die. It’s easy to imagine how Routley’s life might not be worth living. It might be painful, for example, or mean he could no longer do the things that he wanted to do in life, or involve the loss of his relationships. On the other hand, people who sustain debilitating injuries often report a level of well-being that approximates that of healthy people. Even patients in a locked-in state—total paralysis with the exception of eye-movement—have reported that they are happy with their lives.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. The quality quandary! From Self’s novel The quantity theory of insanity through to Henri Bergson’s philosophical quality is a quantitative conception, the ethics of these balancing acts reveal more of the existing political necessities creating a common social answer arising from the jelly forming the ground upon which it stands than any fully broad recognition of life. Considering the different language and thought processes involved in both the qualitative and quantitative worldviews the parameters within which any eventual political answer would come to rest should surely be as much about the resulting motivational forces as any immediate ethical outcome. Perhaps the answer should be to keep measuring the quantity, but refrain as much as possible from analysing quality until that is completely understood, otherwise any judgement, much like some Australian sports, becomes nothing more than a reflection of ones own knowledge or prejudices.

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