Into the Gray Zone

The Walrus - - VISUAL ART - By Adrian Owen

adrian owen’s Into the Gray Zone is not a book to read be­fore bed, as the mind drifts. Owen, a neu­ro­science re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Western On­tario, ex­am­ines the cases of peo­ple who suf­fer from brain in­juries or de­gen­er­a­tive dis­eases and ap­pear un­re­spon­sive. But through clever ex­per­i­ments — for ex­am­ple, ask­ing pa­tients to imag­ine play­ing ten­nis, thereby ac­ti­vat­ing a part of the brain in­volved in move­ment even in im­mo­bile pa­tients — and ad­vances in brain-imag­ing tech­niques, Owen and his col­leagues have demon­strated that as many as 20 per­cent of those deemed to be veg­e­ta­tive are ac­tu­ally con­scious: they sim­ply have no way of ex­press­ing that.

It is hard to tell whether this de­vel­op­ment should be seen as en­cour­ag­ing or hor­ri­fy­ing. On the one hand, fam­i­lies who have be­lieved that their loved one is still in there may be vin­di­cated. On the other, there are cur­rently few ways to im­prove qual­ity of life for these pa­tients. Owen ends his book on an op­ti­mistic note, cit­ing ad­vances that he be­lieves will lead to a clearer un­der­stand­ing of the mind and bet­ter lives for those trapped in­side it. For now, how­ever, his re­search only deep­ens the mys­tery of hu­man con­scious­ness.

— Alexan­der Te­sar

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