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Vegetative patients are judged as 'more dead than dead'

August 20, 2011|By Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times/For the Booster Shots blog
  • Patients like Terri Schiavo who are in a persistent vegetative state were judged as being "more dead than dead" by study participants, especially those with strong religious beliefs, according to a study in the journal Cognition.
Patients like Terri Schiavo who are in a persistent vegetative state were… (Reuters )

Here's a no-brainer: People who are alive have more mental capacity than people who are dead. They are more aware of their environment, they have more personality, they have more capacity for emotion, and they have more working memory.

These findings, reported in a recent study published online by the journal Cognition, are hardly surprising. But here's the twist: The dead scored higher in these traits than people who are in a persistent vegetative state.

That's right. In interviews with researchers about hypothetical car-accident victims, study participants (on average) ascribed less "mind" to those who were left in a persistent vegetative state than to those who had "passed away" or were laying in a coffin in a cemetery. As the title of the study puts it, people in a persistent vegetative state are "more dead than dead."

People trapped in a persistent vegetative state are not actually dead, of course. As explained by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, these people are "alive but unable to move or respond to his or her environment." In addition:

"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 persistent vegetative state 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, causing her to die of dehydration in 2005. The case became a national obsession that pitted some activists against supporters of the right to die.

In the study, the researchers -- from Harvard University and the University of Maryland's Mind Perception and Morality Lab -- found that people who were not religious viewed those in a persistent vegetative state as on a par with the dead. But those who were "highly religious" made a distinction -- in favor of the dead.

The researchers were able to show that the gap was due, in part, to belief in the afterlife. That was ironic, they noted, since those with strong religious beliefs are generally more resistant to withdrawing nutritional support from patients such as Schiavo to hasten their death.

Less surprisingly, study participants said they would rather die than have to live in a persistent vegetative state.

An abstract of the study is available here.

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