To find out whether a simple conversation was possible, the researchers selected one of the four – a 29-year-old man who had been in a car crash. They asked him to imagine playing tennis if he wanted to answer yes to questions such as: Do you have any sisters? Is your father’s name Thomas? Is your father’s name Alexander? And if the answer to a question was no, he had to imagine moving round his home.
The man was asked to think of the activity that represented his answer, in 10-second bursts for up to 5 minutes, so that a strong enough signal could be detected by the scanner. His family came up with the questions to ensure that the researchers did not know the answers in advance. What’s more, the brain scans were analysed by a team that had never come into contact with the patient or his family.
Now that’s some good effort to do experimental controls. After the team analyzing the scans came up with the answers they thought were indicated, those answers were then checked with the family.
I’m also pretty impressed by the caution, because it’s easy to become excited about something like this. It seems really huge, but there’s also only so far you can get with the ability of someone to answer yes/no questions:
One problem is that while the brain scans do seem to establish consciousness, there is a lot they don’t tell us. “Just because they can answer a yes/no question does not mean they have the capacity to make complex decisions,” Owen says.
Still, very exciting stuff, I think. It makes an interesting comparison to the Rom Houben case that Dr. Novella refers to in the post that I linked to. What you get out of ‘facilitated communication’ which I suppose sounds a lot better, versus a yes or no response.