Test: what the brain is capable of with minimal consciousness

I came across new research suggesting that people in a state of minimal consciousness can learn a rudimentary form of a language, or at least a string of previously unknown syllables. spent his career studying disorders of consciousness. White is the perfect person to talk to about this sort of thing and has so many mind-blowing ideas and anecdotes.

Early in our conversation, he told me that in many ways the brains of minimally conscious people behave the same way as the brains of conscious people, despite the fact that they cannot constantly communicate or be aware of their surroundings. He also told me about some fascinating – and tearful – attempts to bring people in this state back to consciousness. I’ll be back to them in a minute.

It is really difficult to conduct such a study on people who are in minimal consciousness or in an unresponsive wakeful state, formerly known as a vegetative state. Both are different from coma. Minimally conscious people show unreliable glimpses of consciousness and can communicate, but inconsistently. But people in the non-receptive waking state cannot communicate at all.

People in any of these states experience periods of sleep and wakefulness, while people in a coma show no signs of being awake.

amazing brains

In this study I saw, Nai Ding of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, used a cap of electrodes to record the brain activity of people in a state of minimal consciousness. When his team played back an audio recording of familiar words, the participants’ brains showed waves of activity for whole words as well as their individual syllables, suggesting they recognized each word.

But when the team played the new, made-up words, the activity model suggested that they only processed the words as single syllables.

To “teach” the participants the words, Dean and his colleagues repeated new words over and over, thousands of times. By the end of the experiment, participants showed waves of brain activity for whole words, as they did for familiar real words.. This suggests that they have learned new words.

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