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Brain fires



Duke University has recently given me two major headaches. The first came on last month while I was strapped and encased in an MRI scanner, having the insides of my brain "photographed" while viewing images of human carnage: war casualties, close-ups of tumors and burns, the bloody, bludgeoned faces of accident victims.

I had all-too-innocently volunteered (OK, I was paid), to take part in a study to determine which parts of the cerebral cortex are activated during strong, negative emotions. For the record, a headache looks like several tiny brush fires along the twisted hills and valleys of the forebrain.

Then last week, in the same science building on Duke's West Campus, I burned out a neuron or two while attending the fifth annual meetings of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness. The ASSC is an interdisciplinary group that promotes research aimed at understanding the nature and function of human awareness. More than 200 of the world's leading neuroscientists, psychologists and philosophers gathered to take water samples, as it were, from what that old scientific philosopher, William James, so aptly termed, the "stream of consciousness."

Early in the day, I heard papers with such titles as, "Function and Adaptation: Providing a Bridge Between Biology and Psychology for an Evolutionary Account of Consciousness" and, "Of Zombies, Color Scientists, and Floating Iron Bars."

Then, I watched a PowerPoint presentation by Robert Coghill on pain experience and brain imaging. As soon as Coghill pulled up a scan showing those little flames of sensation in the cerebral cortex of a monkey, one especially heinous image from my own time in the scanner flashed through my mind. I started digging in my bookbag for Tylenol.

At times, the debates over emotion, memory and the psychophysical phenomenon of pain smacked of medieval theologians arguing over how many angels can dance on a pinhead. (The philosophers showed a fascination for the aforementioned zombies, since the "living dead" show all the hallmarks of being human except for self-consciousness.)

Still, I got the impression that these intellectual pioneers are not only working to further human knowledge, but also to find practical applications. Perhaps the most relevant recommendation to come from the meetings was a push to insure that caregivers--especially those who toil in the trenches of hospitals, hospices and emergency rooms--more fully understand the nature of pain as it is experienced and communicated by their patients, and thus become better equipped to alleviate it.

Throughout the conference, what pushed my mind to the flashpoint was the three-way conversation between neuroscientists fresh from planting electrodes and making precise calculations in their laboratories; psychologists scribbling in notebooks while listening to their clients; and philosophers questioning the assumptions and arguments of their more hands-on colleagues.

Like Hamlet of old, this eclectic gathering stood peering into the skull of poor Yorick, searching for some dark glimpse of what it means for us humans "to be." The only question I'm left with is: Do zombies get headaches?

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