Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Would a Thought Look Like?

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Would a Thought Look Like?

Article excerpt

For the last couple of years The Hastings Center has been running a research project with the title, "On the Uses and Misuses of Neuroimaging Technology." The central purpose of the project is to understand what really can be learned from neuroimaging. What does an image of changes in blood flow in a person's head actually tell us?

This question is also the driving concern in two essays in this issue of the Hastings Center Report. Recent and much-publicized research into disorders of consciousness, such as the persistent vegetative state, seems to suggest that cases of conscious persons buried inside inert bodies may be somewhat more common than we thought, and that we might be able to devise strategies for communicating with these people even though their bodies remain inert. The research depends on functional magnetic resonance imaging scans that purportedly allow one to recognize when a person has certain patterns of thought.

The problem is that, if one is impressed by the technology's power and potential benefit at all, then it seems all too easy to be overimpressed by it. People looking at a scan of blood flow changes tend to believe they're seeing a thought. As the authors in the first essay observe, "some interpretations of the fascinating new fMRI studies seem to conflate findings associated with willful consciousness with the actual occurrence of willful consciousness. …

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