Of Lab Rats and Men

Scientific research answers some questions–and raises many more–about brain function and consciousness

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Understanding the human brain is one of the last (or at least most challenging) frontiers of science. While the field of neurobiology has started to unravel the mystery of consciousness a strand at a time, we still don’t have a well-defined or agreed-upon theory as to how consciousness exists or how exactly it works. In that aspect, religion and philosophy have historically filled this knowledge void with more mystical interpretations of consciousness.

Today, I learned of two recent scientific breakthroughs in understanding brain function that, depending on your perspective, either work to demystify consciousness or simply serve to raise more questions about its origins. The first study used a mathematical model to analyze MRI brain scans of several test subjects and essentially ‘read’ the thought expressed in the scan. In this case, the thought was a particular letter of the alphabet that the test subject was looking at when the MRI scan was taken. Amazingly, the model was able to identify which letter the subject had looked at simply by reading the scan. The researchers who ran this study hope to develop similar models that will one day be able to re-construct and ‘read’ memories and even dreams! Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, anyone? Or maybe Total Recall? Not so far fetched anymore.

Of course the type of complex modeling required to reconstruct whole memories is awhile off yet, but each small step of progress or discovery has the potential to lead to eventual massive changes in technology and society. The most interesting aspect of the brain scan study (at least from my perspective) was that they programmed the model to ‘learn’ what letters look like, so it could better identify them. Just like by learning to read, a person is more likely to identify and remember a word than if it was just a series of random lines, the model was given ‘knowledge’ that helped it recall and correctly label letters from the scans. By using models and programs, we can actually gain a better understanding of how our own minds learn and retain information.

While the motives or implications of scientific research are sometimes ambiguous (if not morally questionable), it is undeniable that through science we are able to learn a great deal about ourselves as well as the workings of the world, at least through a particular lens. What science doesn’t necessarily provide is the appropriate frame for the lens. In other words, we may understand how neurons transmit signals to each other and which chemicals correspond to emotions of love, anger, and sadness. But we still do not know, from a scientific standpoint, how this all translates to self-awareness, or whether consciousness is firmly grounded in the physical body or can be found independent of it.  Science asks many questions, but doesn’t always consider whether these questions are the right questions, or whether we are pursuing knowledge in a positive, constructive way. Again, it has traditionally been through non-scientific perspectives that theories pertaining to consciousness and morality at a holistic level have permeated society, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

The second breakthrough that hit the news today confronts this duality head on: a team of researchers from the University of Michigan claims to have identified a neurological basis for near-death experiences. Several news sources picked up this story (it definitely made for more grabbing headlines than the brain scan study  above), and a read through a few of them makes for an interesting study in itself—a study of human nature, and how individuals can interpret science to fit the mold of their varying personal beliefs.

The University of Michigan study used rats to study brain activity after cardiac arrest (i.e., after death). The researchers found that for up to 30 seconds after the heart has stopped beating, brain activity not only continued, but was actually heightened beyond normal levels. This data, according to the researchers, suggests that the near-death experiences many people claim to have are the result of the brain going into hyper-drive in a last ditch effort to ‘save’ itself, resulting in such things as tunnel vision (the white light at the end of the tunnel), unreliable sensory perception (out of body experiences), and abnormal brain activity associated with memory (reliving moments of one’s life).

Such strong conclusions are not without objections. From a purely scientific standpoint, many critics have argued that studying rats is not a reliable proxy for understanding the human brain, as we don’t even know if rats or other animals even experience anything like near-death experiences. Personally, I feel that there is enough congruence between human physiology and that of other mammals to gain insight about ourselves in this manner. What I find more troubling is the way in which we often choose to conduct scientific inquiry—in this case, by inducing cardiac arrest in rats (albeit only 9 for this particular study) through injection, drowning, or asphyxiation. Unfortunately, moral objection doesn’t always hold much weight in the realm of science, where studies on animals, for better or worse, have resulted in a myriad of medical and technological advancements.

Animal ethics aside, the results of the study have thus far only fueled the fire of controversy between those who believe in an afterlife and those who belief that consciousness is purely a manifestation of the physical brain. According to Aril Seth who covered this story for the The Guardian, the University of Michigan study provides further evidence against paranormal or supernatural explanations of consciousness. He seems to believe unquestionably that science holds the answer to all of life’s mysteries, arguing that this shouldn’t prevent us from admiring the beauty of how it all fits together.

On the other end of the spectrum lie people such as Dr. Persaud and Dr. Bruggen, whose blog in the Huffington Post argues that despite scientific evidence for a neurological basis for near-death experiences, there are still many unexplained and extraordinary accounts of such experiences that don’t fit in any current scientific models or theories. According to them,

The spiritual understanding of what happens to us differs from the scientific view because it places greater faith in human experience, and these death-bed stories. Science demands proof that comes from brain scanners, replication and precise measurement.

But because these extraordinary accounts will always exist, does that mean religion will forever survive the onslaught of science? Or could it be that our first proper glimpse of heaven will instead shortly arrive from a brain scan?

From these authors’ perspective, religion is currently filling a void in human experience that science is not, and until we can understand the mystical through a scientific lens, other worldviews will persist. But will science ever fulfill such a vast desire to understand not only the world, but also why it exists and why we are part of it? Perhaps not for everyone. There will likely always be those that prefer the mystical to the scientific, and this story proved no exception.

For many, the power of personal stories (or anecdotes, or however you want to label them) will always be stronger than impersonal scientific data, and of course there is no substitute for one’s own personal experience. But even through direct perception there is a margin of error—we all see and interpret events differently, and therefore cannot truly know the world through our eyes alone. We constantly rely on the accumulated knowledge of others, whether sourced from parents, friends, teachers, astrologists, or books and articles. In this sense, science tries to sift through accumulated knowledge, weed out the false or un-substantiated claims, and focus on evidence and repeatability to understand and organize the world. I personally value the structure and reputability that science offers.

That said, I do not fail to see the limitations and flaws of the scientific worldview, which seeks to explain so much of the world through probabilities and averages. Science is one of countless imperfect ways to try to understand the world. Besides, just because something is proven ‘scientifically’ does not mean that other understandings of said topic are rendered untrue. We are able, for example, to understand love from both a chemical/physiological standpoint, a philosophical standpoint, a psychological standpoint, a religious standpoint, or all of the above (at least in a democratic state).

Mathematics may arguably be closer to a ‘pure’ interpretation of how the universe works, but even math is based on human-constructed assumptions and rationalities that may not be congruent with the world beyond our perception. As Mark Twain wryly quoted, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Humans are imperfect; but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to better understand our world through multiple lenses. Having a partial understanding is not the same as living a lie, as long as each of us strives to find truth, and isn’t afraid to question the status quo. All of our varying perspectives may just add up to one holistic understanding of the nature of existence.

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