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Neuroscience Questions of Zombie Consciousness

February 6, 2013

Popular Science “FYI: Do Zombies Experience Consciousness?” by Shaunacy Ferro uses “Warm Bodies” as an opportunity to ask about the neuroscience of consciousness.

Are zombies hopeless automatons who should be killed without hesitation? Or do zombies experience consciousness?

Ferro say this is “an interesting philosophical question” but answers with Zombie Research Society’s Dr. Schlozman, a medical neuroscientist not an academic philosopher.

Steven Schlozman, author of The Zombie Autopsies and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “We would never say that somebody that is sick with another kind of disease isn’t conscious.”

In Schlozman’s view, zombies are much like a crocodile. They may not be conscious in the same way humans are, but they are aware of their surroundings and respond to their environment.

Ferro briefly mentions “qualia” before going on with the neuroscience propaganda:

“We can establish — as we largely have done already — which parts of the human brain are critical for the kinds of consciousness that we have and see if they are intact in a zombie,” says Daniel Bor, a scientist at the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. “If we could ever get a zombie in a brain scanner.”

If we could see that they didn’t have a thalamus, for example, scientists would agree that zombies probably wouldn’t be conscious. If there were a lot of complex interactions between regions of their zombie brain, that would imply a high level of consciousness.

So a thalamus is required for consciousness? … And then a mirror test:

it might be tough to wrestle a zombie into an MRI. One way we test for consciousness in animals is by having them take a good look in the mirror. Most primates, dolphins, elephants and even magpies can recognize their own reflection.

“If a zombie could recognize themselves in the mirror, if it was to pass that test, we’d have to assume that zombie had self awareness, which is an advanced form of consciousness,” Bor says.

Or if that doesn’t work let’s try another popular buzzword like neurogenesis and neuroplasticity:

Schlozman says the brain could potentially regenerate through neurogenesis, the creation of neurons, and neuroplasticity, the changes in neural pathways and synapses after injury.

And meta-cognition:

We could also test whether zombies were capable of what’s called meta-cognition — if they were aware of their own thoughts. When testing for advanced forms of consciousness, scientists give animals perceptual tasks, like picking which dot is slightly bigger in a set or choosing which picture they’ve already been shown. Then the zombie would be asked to gamble on their answer. Great apes, monkeys and possibly even rats seem to be able to track their own accuracy — betting high on answers they are confident about. If zombies were to do the same, it would suggest that they are conscious beings.

Recall that these are not new questions. Some of the brain science is new but the questions have a long history in academic philosophy. See Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers – and Nagel on bats, and also Güzeldere’s 2006 overview in Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science on zombies.

Consider also Dr. Schlozman’s “drunk crocodiles” – zombies related to alcohol and to invasive species in the everglades.

From → Academics

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