UPDATE: The Capacity of The Vegetative State

Yesterday I posted about an October 15, 2007 article from the New Yorker entitled, “Silent Minds”, that addressed what (fMRI) scanning techniques are ostensibly able to tell us about patients in a vegetative state. I spoke at some length with a friend of mine who has a great deal of knowledge in field of cognitive neuroscience and he urged caution.

Specifically, he spoke to a researcher’s ability (or inability) to “know” things with certainty especially where one is studying cognitive processes. With regards to the scanning techniques discussed in the article he said (and I’m paraphrasing) that so much is still unknown about the brain and the very nature of human consciousness, that statements of such certainty like those made in “Silent Minds” simply are not credible.

Though certain areas of the brains of individuals in a vegetative state and otherwise healthy individuals may respond similarly to external stimuli doesn’t mean that the individual in the vegetative state is “thinking”, “comprehending” or “aware of” that stimulus in the same way that a healthy person is. The brain’s hardwired (my word) pathways through which information travels may be fully intact in both the brains of individuals in a vegetative state and the otherwise healthy but the leap from such a physical correlation to a cognitive conclusion is simply not warranted. He also said:

“In the realm of cognitive neuroscience, statements of certainly should be treated with healthy skepticism. In a field in which entire bodies of knowledge are supplanted on a regular basis, accepting as absolute what is believed today can make planning for tomorrow difficult.”

And his quote is particularly apt for us estate planners. This subject is of such great import that sensitive treatment should be the norm and the watchword for all who work in our field.

Thanks again Mr. Hendershot for posting to this article.

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