All Ears

One dark October night in Wallonia, two neuroscientists were talking to a vegetable.

Not any old cucumber, Patient 23 had been in a ‘vegetative state’ for five years following a tragic accident.

Comatose and unresponsive, Patient 23 had been declared dead to the world. But the researchers believed otherwise.

Using an fMRI to scan his brain activity, they asked Patient 23 to imagine walking around his house to communicate “no” and playing tennis to communicate “yes.” These would produce distinct brain patterns.

They asked the first question, “Is your father’s name Alexander?”

The man’s premotor cortex lit up. He was thinking about tennis — Yes.

“Is your father’s name Thomas?”

Activity in the parahippocampal gyrus showed he was imagining walking around his house — No.

They continued to ask questions about Patient 23’s life before the accident. Every answer was correct. He had been completely aware of the last five years; Buried alive in his body.

They asked the final question on their list:

“Do you want to die?”

For the first time that evening, there was no clear answer.