Perception of People in a Persistent Vegetative State

A recent article in The Economist discusses the rather surprising results of a psychological study conducted by Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland, and Annie Knickman and Dan Wegner of Harvard University. In the study, the researchers asked people that they stopped at random in public in New England to evaluate the mental capacities of those that were living in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) or dead. First, respondents were read one of three different stories, selected at random. In all of the stories a person named David had gotten into a car accident and suffered serious injuries; in one story he had recovered fully, in another he died, and in the third his "entire brain was destroyed, except for the one part that keeps him breathing" (or he had entered a PVS). Respondents were then asked to what extent David could "influence the outcome of situations," "know right from wrong," "remember the events of his life," "have emotions and feelings," "be aware of his environment," and "have a personality." They then rated each of these 6 mental capacities on a scale of -3 to 3 where -3 was "strongly disagree," 0 was "neither agree nor disagree," and 3 was "strongly agree." The graph (right) shows the average ratings of respondents that were read each of the three stories. As the graph indicates, respondents on average rated "dead" David as more mentally capable than the David in a vegetative state across all 6 categories of mental awareness. As the author of the article put it, "In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead than the version who was dead." One hypothesis the researchers had for these results was respondents' religious belief in an after-life, which they found did in fact influence responses in a follow-up study.

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