Convinced that the son they know and love is still “in there,” Chris’s parents have spent the past three years searching for a way to bring him back out. So far, their best hope has come from an unlikely source: Ambien. A growing body of case reports suggests that the popular sleep aid can have a profound — and paradoxical — effect on patients like Chris. Rather than put them to sleep, both i and its generic twin, zolpidem, appear to awaken at least some of them. The early reports were so pronounced that until recently, doctors had a hard time believing them. Only now, more than a decade after the initial discovery, are they taking a closer look.
The image of Daphne the nymph changing into a plant while running away from Apollo to save her virginity, is often used to illustrate the vegetative state: the notion of being a responsive, conscious human being at one moment and not being one the next. We either are or we aren’t. The idea that once we are in a vegetative state, we are no longer ‘here’ has been assumed for a long time, in fact up until recently we might have been declared dead:
Little more than 40 years ago, a partially functioning brain would not have gotten in the way of organ donation; irreversible cardiopulmonary failure was still the only standard for determining death. But during the 1970s, that began to change, and by the early 1980s, the cessation of all brain activity — brain death — had become a widely accepted standard. Via
Recent time specifications have been assigned psychological states defined as disorders of consciousness such as coma, permanent vegetative state (PVS), persistent vegetative state and brain dead, making each a distinctive diagnosis, are especially relevant in neurolaw applications. But even if someone is diagnosed in a PVS, or ‘brain dead’ does that mean that person is no longer in there, somewhere? How do we show someone is aware? The legal definition of brain dead is:
Brain death is considered an irreversible coma. A patient is diagnosed as brain dead when there is no detectable brain activity. (…) Brain death is not the same as a vegetative state, but the two are often confused. A vegetative state is when a person can seem to be awake, have their eyes open, yet they are not aware of anything and their brains are not functioning. Via
In the case of a 23 year old woman that was in a PVS after a car accident, which means she was “awake but unresponsive”, researchers were able to determine she was still ‘in there’. By using fMRI and asking her questions about playing tennis and to think about walking around her house, the same areas were active as with control healthy brains, showing she could hear and respond to the question.
The healthy brain (l) showed the same activity as the patient’s (r) via
Marvin Minsky, Professor of Cognitive Science at MIT and one of the pioneers of artificial intelligence states that there are over 26 definitions of consciousness, therefore the word ‘consciousness’ is a wastebasket. We cannot get anywhere in this argument since we are misusing and trying to assign a term to a problem that covers too much area…that the term consciousness is “…a wastebasket for 26 different problems in psychology that [we] do not understand.” Via.
So, instead of it being black or white, consciousness or unconsciousness, it turns out to be a multitude of states, a multitude of little psychological mysteries.