Why Robots Can't Play Tennis: A New Consciousness Signature

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Originally posted on May 20, 2014.

Three years ago, I gained a new appreciation of consciousness. My mom had an accident that caused her brain to bleed. It seemed to rip away her consciousness. As I slept next to her bed before she died, I wondered, “Is she conscious of what’s happening?”

New research suggests that the brain can give us a clue. Prior to this research, you had limited options to know if someone had consciousness. You could ask them. That’s easy. But what about those cases, like my mom’s, when a person hasn’t experienced brain death but is still unresponsive?

To find out, researchers scanned the brain of a woman who was in a vegetative state. They asked her to imagine playing tennis, along with several other activities. The results, published in Science, made a big splash. Although the woman couldn’t answer the questions, her brain did. When she imagined playing tennis, her brain reacted by increasing blood flow to the motor cortex. She was immobile, but her brain acted as if she was playing on Wimbledon’s Centre Court.

To watch a wonderful video of the researcher leading this effort, click here. It might change the way you think about consciousness. I know it helped me.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”