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.

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