Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trapped in a non-functioning body

An amazing story appeared in the news this week (November 2009). A Belgian man who was thought to be in a coma for 23 years was reported to be fully conscious but totally paralysed for all that time. Rom Houben was misdiagnosed to be in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. Since the accident, he is believed to have been aware of everything that was going on around him, but was unable to communicate in any way.

It sounds like something from a horror film or a nightmare, but Mr. Houben seemed to have come to terms to some degree with his situation. Following a decision by a doctor to check his brain activity, he has received proper treatment and is now able to communicate using a keyboard.

He describes developing his ability to meditate and "travell[ing] with [his] thoughts into the past, or into another existence altogether". In a very telling statement he says "sometimes, I was only my consciousness and nothing else".

It is an extremely moving story, and makes me think about what consciousness is and where it really resides. If your body stops functioning, does it just become a prison for your conscious self? Could most of us survive without the ability to communicate with others?

One thing bothered me when I first posted this video. I couldn't help thinking that Mr. Houben's helper had at least some control over where his finger was landing on the keyboard. As he couldn't communicate in any other way, it seems a bit strange that he was able to type so quickly. My favourite sceptic, Ben Goldacre (Bad Science) recently posted the same doubts on his blog, where he refers to the practice of 'facilitated communication':
"... it doesn’t seem unreasonable to look at what is known about facilitated communication. Many have compared it to ouija boards, in the sense that facilitators may fully believe they are following an external force, when in reality they are generating purposeful movements themselves."

This does pose some questions about how his experiences were related in the press, but doesn't necessarily mean any false claims were made. I do think that his helper thinks she is relating his ideas but may have inadvertantly being 'putting words into his mouth'.

If you are interested in seeing the article on the BadScience website, and the discussion it provoked with the readers, you can find it here.

In a more recent development to this story (20th February, 2010), Rom Houben's doctor admitted that there is now no evidence that he was actually able to communicate through his keyboard. He does appear to gave regained conciousness, though not fully. However, the belief of his helpers that they could interpret pressure from his muscles and direct his fingers to the correct keys has now been shown to be false. The BBC story is here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Explaining mathematics

Here is a good example of why the explanation of a mathematical problem is not always as easy as you think it is going to be:


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The oldest new mothers in the world

In 2006, a 63-year-old child psychiatrist became the oldest woman in Britain to have a baby. Patricia Rashbrook of Lewes gave birth to her baby by caesarian section in the Sussex County Hospital (where, incidentally, I was having my appendix taken out at about the same time). The baby was a healthy boy and was named Jay Jay.

She has received a lot of critisism for having her baby at such a late age. Jay Jay was not her first child. She already had two grown up children from her first marriage, but this was her first child with 60 year-old husband John. They travelled to the former Soviet Union to receive in vitro fertility (IVF) treatment from Italian doctor Severino Antinori. Medical ethics in Britain prevent a woman over the age of 50 from receiving IVF treatment (although it is not illegal). During the treatment a donar egg from another woman was fertilised with her husband's sperm and implanted into her womb. She was of course post-menopausal and her body was not producing eggs.

She appears to be a devoted mother, and perhaps you could argue this is all that matters. In Britain, as in many developed countries, there is a huge problem of unwanted children growing up in unloving families (or without a family at all). Is it fair for Dr. Rashbrook to be singled out purely in terms of age? On the other hand you might think that her decision was a selfish one, and Jay Jay has therefore become a commodity to satisfy his parent's needs (or their desire for publicity?).

This subject was in the news again very recently (May 2009) when 66-year-old buisness woman Elizabeth Adeney, of Lidgate, Suffolk, announced in a British newspaper that she was eight months' pregnant after undergoing IVF treatment in Ukraine. As far as I know, before that, the world's oldest new mother was Spanish woman Maria del Carmen Bousada de Lara, who gave birth to twins also aged 66. She recieved fertility treatment after lying about her age. She died of cancer a few months after the birth of her children.

The following clip was taken from British TV news at the time of the announcement of her pregnacy and features interviews with experts on pregnancy and fertility treatment: