Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How dead is dead?

Sometimes, you really have to wonder about people. At least, here's an article in The Economist that really makes me wonder.

Researchers were wondering how people perceive those in a persistent vegetative state, and they stumbled across something rather shocking:
They first asked 201 people stopped in public in New York and New England to answer questions after reading one of three short stories. In all three, a man called David was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. In one, he recovered fully. In another, he died. In the third, his entire brain was destroyed except for one part that kept him breathing. Although he was technically alive, he would never again wake up.

After reading one of these stories, chosen at random, each participant was asked to rate David’s mental capacities, including whether he could influence the outcome of events, know right from wrong, remember incidents from his life, be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions. Participants used a seven-point scale to make these ratings, where 3 indicated that they strongly agreed that he could do such things, 0 indicated that they neither agreed nor disagreed, and -3 indicated that they strongly disagreed.

The results, reported in Cognition, were that the fully recovered David rated an average of 1.77 and the dead David -0.29. That score for the dead David was surprising enough, suggesting as it did a considerable amount of mental acuity in the dead. What was extraordinary, though, was the result for the vegetative David: -1.73. In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead than the version who was dead.

Weird, huh? So they ran a follow-up study:
To investigate that, they ran a follow-up experiment which had two different descriptions of the dead David. One said he had simply passed away. The other directed the participant’s attention to the corpse. It read, “After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground.” No ambiguity there. In this follow-up study participants were also asked to rate how religious they were.

Once again, the vegetative David was seen to have less mind than the David who had “passed away”. This was equally true, regardless of how religious a participant said he was. However, ratings of the dead David’s mind in the story in which his corpse was embalmed and buried varied with the participant’s religiosity.

Irreligious participants gave the buried corpse about the same mental ratings as the vegetative patient (-1.51 and -1.64 respectively). Religious participants, however, continued to ascribe less mind to the irretrievably unconscious David than they did to his buried corpse (-1.57 and 0.59).

This seems to indicate that the "irreligious participants" were not entirely rational themselves, though more rational than the religious. I mean dead people - embalmed or not - are at least as dead as those in a persistent vegetative state, wouldn't you think?

And I can at least vaguely understand the justification for the religious in this. They want to believe that there's life after death - more life even than before death, apparently - and a person in a persistent vegetative state is probably a difficult gray area for them.

Of course, the evidence indicates that our thought processes, our memories, our personalities, our emotions - all are firmly linked to our flesh and blood bodies. An injury to your brain can damage all of these, so how can you imagine that they'd still exist when your brain was completely destroyed?

Really, there have been plenty of examples - for more than a century now - of people with brain injuries whose personalities were changed completely by the event. If an injury to your brain can change you from a pleasant, good-natured person to a nasty, disagreeable one, where is there room for a "soul" in that?

And if you can lose memories - permanently - due to a brain injury, how can you have any memories at all without a brain? Well, I've never understood this kind of thinking.

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