In life and death: proving you still exist

When I first heard the story of Rom Houben, a Belgian man who had spent 23 years in a coma before doctors realised that he was conscious, it struck me that their efforts to prove he could communicate were very similar to those of researchers studying afterlife communications.

What the medical specialists appeared to be overlooking, when they announced to the world this remarkable breakthrough, was that Rom’s communications were being facilitated by his speech therapist. This can be clearly seen in one of the television interviews he gave in November last year. And that opens the door to her possible influence, which needed to be eliminated.

Houben, 46, was deemed to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) until neurologist Steven Laureys of the University of Liege re-evaluated his case. Scans showed that his brain was still functioning almost completely normally despite the fact that other tests, which look for eye, verbal and motor responses, were negative.

Having decided that Houben was conscious and trapped in his body they began to explore ways in which he could “talk” to them. The method that seemed to work was fixing a pointer to his index finger and allowing a speech therapist to “pick up” his responses to questions and direct the finger to the appropriate keys.

In this way, Houben appeared to become a very proficient communicator and was even reported to be writing a book. “I shall never forget the day when they discovered what was truly wrong with me – it was my second birth,” he “wrote”.

“All that time I just literally dreamed of a better life. Frustration is too small a word to describe what I felt.”

This story caused a sensation around the world. But it left a few questions unanswered.  How important was the “medium” (therapist) to this process? Was she the only one through whom he could communicate?

Sceptics were quick to criticise the methodology. In a video report of this remarkable case, for example, Houben appeared to be typing with his eyes closed. Although Dr Laureys initially claimed to have performed controlled experiments and was convinced Houben was communicating, he later expressed some doubts and planned new tests. But by then the “news” had spread around the world.

To their credit, the neurological team allowed Houben’s communications to be tested on 4 February, with the Belgian Sceptics group SKEPP present as advisors. These tests – which included showing him objects while the therapist was out of the room then asking him the name them, with her help, when she returned – showed that Houben was not producing the writing, as this statement, issued by SKEPP on 18 February, reveals:

“His answers to our simple test questions were intelligible and sometimes elaborate, but when the facilitator did not know the questions, his answers were all completely wrong. Most of the time he typed with his eyes closed, but as soon as the keyboard was shielded from the facilitator’s view the typing produced gibberish and halted. There clearly was no communication with the patient, only with the facilitator. We wonder what world-shaking news there would have been to communicate if it hadn’t been for the spectacular answers the facilitator produced.”

Dr Laureys now accepts that the facilitated communications were false. And professor of bioethics at University of Pennsylvania, US, commented: “It’s like using a ouija board. It was too good to be true and we shouldn’t have believed it.”

But there’s still hope that Dr Laureys and his colleagues will find a way to communicate with Rom Houben and others like him. Research just published using brain scans has apparently demonstrated that PVS victims, who show no outward signs of awareness, can comprehend what people are saying and also answer simple questions.

Dr Adrian Owen, of the Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who is co-author with Dr Laureys of a study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, says the findings have enormous philosophical and ethical implications. Research was carried out on a 29-year-old man who had suffered brain damage in 2003 and slipped from a coma into PVS two years later.

The patient was asked to visualise himself playing tennis, if the answer to a question put to him was “Yes”, and moving around his house if the answer was “No”.  Different parts of the brain are activated by “spatial” and “motion” thoughts.

The patient was then asked six simple biographical questions including what was the name of his father and whether he had any sisters. In each case, his thoughts were picked up by the hi-tech functional magnetic resonance scanner (fMRI) scans within five minutes. In each case he is reported to have been 100 per cent accurate.

Dr Owen comments: “We were astonished when we saw the results of the patient’s scan and that he was able to correctly answer the questions that were asked by simply changing his thoughts.

“Not only did these scans tell us that the patient was not in a vegetative state but, more importantly, for the first time in five years it provided the patient with a way of communicating his thoughts to the outside world.”

These experiments have a familiar ring to them for Spiritualists and parapsychologists, for these attempts to establish the existence of consciousness in living patients are strikingly similar to those seeking evidence of consciousness surviving death.  The hospital tests are similar to automatic writing or asking for answers with one rap for Yes and two for No.

It is difficult to imagine the frustration of being trapped in one’s body and unable to communicate with anyone. For Rom Houben, there was the added anguish of having his hand controlled by someone – with the best of intentions – who thought she was receiving his instructions, but instead was conveying thoughts that were not his.

His mother, however, is not so sceptical. According to SKEPP, “she still believes in facilitated communication, because ‘sometimes it had produced answers that only her son could have known’. She is convinced that Dr Laureys will ultimately find a method to communicate with her son. His team is experimenting with other methods. Let’s hope her wish comes true.”

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