It has been easy to tell between the living and the dead. However, modern medicine has created a new option: persistent vegetative state (PVS). People in such a state have suffered serious brain damage as a result of accident or stroke. This often means they have no hope of regaining consciousness. However, because parts of their brains that run activities such as breathing are intact, their vital functions can be prolonged indefinitely.
It is always a traumatic decision whether to let people in such a state to die. It depends in part, however, on how the fully alive perceive the mental capacities of the vegetative – an area that has not been explored much. Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland and Annie Knickman and Dan Wegner of Harvard University, conducted an experiment designed to find exactly how people perceived those in PVS, results of which were published in the journal Cognition.
In interviews with researchers about hypothetical car-accident victims, study participants attributed less “mind” to those left in a PVS than to those who had “passed away” or lay in a coffin in a cemetery. As the title of the study puts it, people in a PVS are “more dead than dead.” People trapped in this state are not actually dead, of course. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, these people are “alive but unable to move or respond to his or her environment.” Further:
“Individuals in such a state have lost their thinking abilities and awareness of their surroundings, but retain non-cognitive function and normal sleep patterns. Even though those in a persistent vegetative state lose their higher brain functions, other key functions such as breathing and circulation remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur, and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli. Individuals may even occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. Although individuals in a persistent vegetative state may appear somewhat normal, they do not speak and they are unable to respond to commands.”
The most famous example of a person in a PVS is Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who spent 15 years in a PVS before her husband, Michael Schiavo, was able to have her feeding tube removed. She died of dehydration in 2005. ~ Economist, Aug 20; Los Angeles Times, Aug 20