The eponymous character of the film Patrick (1978) sure is in a tough spot-- until he decides to kill his mother and her lover by electrocuting them in the bathtub! But this doesn't solve much, as he soon finds himself deep in a coma without a chance of recovery, kept alive only by the most advanced technology and by the grand scientific aspirations-- or sadistic machinations-- of a doctor interested in the moment living things stop living. With no hope of recovery, many of us might abhor the idea of living as a vegetable for three years, probed and prodded endlessly for science; but then again, most of us will not develop telekinetic powers with which to torment our science-minded overlords, tossing them from windows or drowning them in their own pools!
In 1978, diagnosing a vegetative state was difficult in the best of cases, and it continues to challenge doctors today. Interestingly, recent advancements in neuroscience are revealing that people might posses more awareness than was historically thought. Misapplication of a ‘vegetative state’ diagnosis can be serious, and may potentially result in the treatment of coma patients as vegetative when they are actually capable of some degree of perception or awareness, including understanding speech.
Researchers have recorded electrical changes in coma patients' brains and while giving them commands to imagine motor movements of their right-hand or toes. Surprisingly, in some of the patients tested (19%), the electroencephalogram (i.e., the measurements of brain activity) showed that these patients were indeed imagining the motor movements, and they were responding to verbal commands in ways similar to neurologically healthy control participants. Importantly, by looking at the brain’s response to different commands, the researchers were able to determine that some vegetative patients are aware, retaining some aspects of normal cognitive functioning. Does this change the way we think about comas? Certainly. Alas, however, the development of telekinetic powers has not been detected in coma patients (or in patients that are completely aware for that matter – but see our post on “Red Mist” for a fun fake neuroscientific explanation of telekinesis!).
More on Patrick (1978)
More on awareness in vegetative state
Cruse, D., Chennu, S., et al. (2011). Bedside detection of awareness in the vegetative state: a cohort study. The Lancet, 378(9809), 2088-2094.
Franklin, R. & Ginnane, A. (Producers), Franklin, R. (Director). (1978). Patrick [Motion picture]. Australia: Filmways Australasian.