More than five years ago, I sat by a hospital bed where my Aunt Kay lay dying. Unlike my father, she was completely uncommunicative on her deathbed. She never made any purposeful physical movements, and despite repeated requests, she never indicated that she was aware of what was going on around her. I remember sitting there wondering whether or not she was “in there.” Was she able to hear the words of love people were sharing with her, or was she, for all intents and purposes, already gone? While I am here on this earth, I will never have the answer to that question, but a recent scientific paper indicates that in at least some cases, completely uncommunicative people really are still “in there.”
In this case, the study was done on four patients with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Their cases are so severe that they are described as being in a complete locked-in state. This means that they cannot make any voluntary movements at all. They can’t even move their eyes. As a result, they have no way of letting others know what they think or feel. One of the patients had been unable to reliably communicate with anyone for six years prior to the study. Two of them had been in a similar uncommunicative state for two years, and one of them for several months.
The researchers outfitted each of the patients with a cap similar to the one pictured above. It could communicate with a computer that recorded measurements related to the physical workings of their brains. The researchers then instructed the patients that they would be asked several yes/no questions over the course of the study. Some would have answers that could be verified. Some would be “open” questions for which only the patient knew the answer. The patients were asked to strongly think “yes” or “no” (actually, “ja” or “nein” since the study was done in Germany) in response to each question. They were specifically told not to “picture” their response. They were told to only think it.