Is she there? Who can say where there is? What are the consequences if we get it wrong?
A recent CBC Ideas podcast – Open Minds explores these questions, and challenges widely-held assumptions about the nature of consciousness. Even if a person with a traumatic brain injury does not respond to an MRI scan, she may in fact be conscious on another level. The researchers have found that intensive behavioural assessments at the bedside, actively involving family and friends, reveal activity not detected by the machines.
Unfortunately, the results of MRI scans are often used to justify critical decisions. For instance, the person is labeled “vegetative,” and shuttled off to a long-term care facility, where there is little or no chance of recovery. In the worst case, there can be pressure to harvest the organs, as a gift to people who still have the possibility of a “useful” life before them. So it’s really important to make the best possible diagnosis before making any decisions, especially irreversible ones!
One surprising aspect of the research is the development of 2-way MRI processes that enable the subject to respond to simple questions with MRI signals. This opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for communicating and building relationships with people who were previously thought to be “brain dead.”
The podcast concludes with a discussion about the “philosophy of disability” – the practice of thinking through issues without giving privilege to able-minded or able-bodied perspective. Lots of breakthrough possibilities!