I read in the papers today that doctors have managed to communicate (or establish contact) with a patient who has been in a vegetative state for five years!
Apparently, they just told the patient to think of tennis if he wanted to communicate yes, and to think of walking through the rooms in his home if he wanted to communicate no. These thoughts use different parts of the brain. They scanned the brain and sure enough, as they asked the patient questions, activity showed up in either the “yes” or the “no” part of his brain. Apparently, they asked fact-based questions to which they knew the answers, and so could be sure that the replies were correct, not random.
It’s horrifying! People who have been vegetative for five years can still think! They can hear, they can understand, and they can direct their thoughts. After five years – an eternity! – of nothingness, of being “brain dead” they remember what tennis is and can visualize what their home looked like. They can attempt to communicate!
How many such people have we killed in years gone by, on the basis that they can’t think, that they practically don’t exist? Without having asked them whether they wanted to live or die?
That’s horrifying too – if you couldn’t move, couldn’t (I’m guessing) open your eyes, couldn’t breathe without a machine… if all you could do was to think, if you were nothing more than a brain, and one that had no means of communication (well, practically none), would you still want to live? Or would you want to be “put out of your misery”? Is it misery? Or is it, maybe, some weird kind of freedom? What is it like, to be all brain with no way in or out? What do you think of, after having had five years to think and no fresh input, no exchange of ideas? If you can hear sound and understand language (which this patient must have, or how would the doctors have explained the process to him?) does your whole world revolve around what you hear, who comes in, who goes, out, the things people say? Is that enough to keep a brain going? Or do you just go out of your mind with sheer boredom?
Yesterday, for some strange reason, I stumbled upon a list of ten people who had been buried alive, whose coffins were later opened up to discover all that they had done in their efforts to get out. If I that thought was gruesome and horrifying, this, today’s news, is much, much worse. In a coffin, a fellow only has a few hours of agony to endure before dying, presumably of suffocation. In a vegetative coma, you have to endure for years and years and you can’t so much as flicker an eyelid.
And if you can hear and understand, how does it feel when you hear people talking about pulling the plug on you?