Buried alive in your own skull.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 12 2006 5:46 PM

The Unspeakable

Buried alive in your own skull.

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Try stretching your mind to comprehend that reality: a technology that stretches reality to comprehend your mind. Outside the scanner, your thoughts are invisible, immeasurable, meaningless. Inside it, they're visible, measurable, real. One minute, you aren't there. The next, you are.

Now scientists are debating what goes on in the English patient's head. Some call her performance a "decision"; others dismiss it as a mere "response." They ask why her body doesn't move, since her motor pathways appear to be preserved. The analysis in Science concludes that she has a "rich mental life" but may not be "conscious." What in God's name does that mean? Would you pull the plug on a 24-year-old relative with a rich and responsive but unconscious mental life? Go ahead, raise your hand. Or just think about raising it, and we'll record your vote by brain scan.

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Most hospitals don't have equipment that can find trapped souls like the English patient. Does the reality of your mental life depend on which hospital you're taken to? Does it depend on which tests your insurance covers or your family can afford? The Bible says it's harder for a rich man to get into heaven. Is it harder for a poor man to get out of hell?

In the forest, the old question goes: If a tree falls, and nobody hears it, does it make a sound? Does a vegetable not matter if no animal perceives it? In the city, the puzzle is different. What falls when a car jumps a curb is a person, not a tree. If nobody sees her thinking, is she a vegetable? Or should the rest of us animals look harder?

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