The papers are full of a story about a Belgian man who was thought to be in a vegetative state for 23 years and who has been found to be fully conscious but almost completely paralyzed. An expert called Steven Laureys has been working on ways to determine whether someone is in a coma or conscious. He uses many different scanning methods to, in effect, map the patterns within the brain. From these patterns he can categorize the brain’s degree of coma from permanently vegetative to fully conscious. Of 44 patients that he examined with the vegetative state diagnosis, he found 18 of them responded to communication under his methods. He is a respected expert and it seems that those in this field of medicine do not doubt his diagnoses.
The Belgian man, R. Houben, according to press reports, intends to write a book about his life using his one finger on a touch pad. This news, unlike the news that he is conscious, is not that reliable. Laureys himself is very noncommittal on this communication and does not want it associated with his work. The point is that Houben does not use the touch pad but instead his therapist uses something similar to the controversial ‘facilitated communication’ method popular with some therapists supposedly communicating with profoundly autistic children. This method has been discredited. So if anyone says that Houben said this, that or the other, you can bet that this was largely the words of the therapist and not Houben, without much fear of losing your money. Facilitated communication therapists tend to be well meaning but fool themselves more that they fool others.
It is unfortunate that a very effective new method to measure conscious activity has been put in a confusing relationship with a ineffective and probably unethical method of communication.