An extended concept of consciousness and an ethics of the whole brain

Pär SegerdahlWhen we visit a newly operated patient, we probably wonder: Has she regained consciousness? The question is important to us. If the answer is yes then she is among us, we can socialize. If the answer is negative then she is absent, it is not possible to socialize. We can only wait and hope that she returns to us.

Michele Farisco at CRB proposes in a new dissertation a more extensive concept of consciousness. According to this concept, we are conscious without interruption, basically, as long as the brain lives. This sounds controversial. It appears insensitive to the enormous importance it has for us in everyday life whether someone is conscious or not.

Maybe I should explain right away that it is not about changing our usual ways of speaking of consciousness. Rather, Michele Farisco suggests a new neuroscientific concept of consciousness. Science sometimes needs to use familiar words in unfamiliar ways. For example, biology cannot speak of humans and animals as an opposition, as we usually do. For biology, the human is one of the animals. Just as biology extends the concept of an animal to us humans, Michele Farisco extends the concept of consciousness to the entire living brain.

Why can an extended concept of consciousness be reasonable in neuroscience? A simple answer is that the brain continues to be active, even when in the ordinary sense we lose consciousness and the ability to socialize. The brain continues to interact with the signals from the body and from the environment. Neural processes that keep us alive continue, albeit in modified forms. The seemingly lifeless body in the hospital bed is a poor picture of the unconscious brain. It may be very active. In fact, some types of brain processes are extra prominent at rest, when the brain does not respond to external stimuli.

Additional factors support an extended neuroscientific concept of consciousness. One is that even when we are conscious in the usual sense, many brain processes happen unconsciously. These processes often do the same work that conscious processes do, or support conscious processes, or are shaped by conscious processes. When we look neuroscientifically at the brain, our black and white opposition between conscious and unconscious becomes difficult to discern. It may be more reasonable to speak of continuities, of levels of the same consciousness, which always is inherent in the living brain.

In short, neuroscience may gain from not adopting our ordinary concept of consciousness, which makes such an opposition between conscious and unconscious. The difference that is absolute when we visit a newly operated patient – is she conscious or not? – is not as black and white when we study the brain.

Does Michele Farisco propose that neuroscience should make no difference whatsoever between what we commonly call conscious and unconscious, between being present and absent? No, of course not. Neuroscience must continue to explore that difference. However, we can understand the difference as a modification of the same basic consciousness, of the same basic brain activity. Neuroscience needs to study differences without falling victim to a black and white opposition. Much like biology needs to study differences between humans and other animals, even when it extends the concept of an animal to the human.

The point, then, is that neuroscience needs to be open to both difference and continuity. Michele Farisco proposes a neuroscientific distinction between aware and unaware consciousness. It captures both aspects, the difference and the continuity.

Michele Farisco’s extended concept of consciousness also has ethical consequences. It can motivate an ethics of the whole brain, not just of the conscious brain, in the usual sense. The question is no longer, merely, whether the patient is conscious or not. The question is at what level the patient is conscious. We may need to consider ethically even unconscious brains and brain processes, in the ordinary sense. For example, by talking calmly near the patient, even though she does not seem to hear, or by playing music that the patient usually appreciates.

Perhaps we should not settle for waiting and hoping that the patient will return to us. The brain is already here. At several levels, this brain may continue to socialize, even though the patient does not seem to respond.

If you want to know more about Michele Farisco’s extended concept of consciousness and his ethics of the whole brain, read the dissertation that he recently defended. You can also read about new technological opportunities to communicate with patients suffering from severe disorders of consciousness, and about new opportunities to diagnose such disorders.

Pär Segerdahl

Farisco, Michele. 2019. Brain, consciousness and disorders of consciousness at the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy. (Digital Comprehensive Summaries of Uppsala Dissertations from the Faculty of Medicine 1597.) Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis.

This post in Swedish

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