I’ve come across a new study that suggests that people in a minimally conscious state can learn a primitive form of language, or at least a series of previously unknown syllables. His career is in the study of disorders of consciousness. Whyte is the perfect person to talk to about this sort of thing, and he has so many amazing ideas and anecdotes.
Right at the beginning of our call, he told me that in many ways the brains of minimally conscious people behave similarly to those of conscious people, despite their inability to constantly communicate or perceive their surroundings. He also told me of some remarkable – and tearful – attempts to bring people in this state back to consciousness. I’ll get back to those in a moment.
This kind of research is really difficult in people with minimal or minimal consciousness An unresponsive waking state, formerly known as the vegetative state. Both are different from being in a coma. People with minimal awareness show unreliable flashes of consciousness and can communicate, but inconsistently. But people in the waking, unresponsive state cannot communicate at all.
People in both conditions experience periods of falling asleep and awake, while people in a coma do not show signs of awakening.
In this study I saw, Nai Ding of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, used caps of electrodes to record the brain activity of people in a minimally conscious state. When his team played a sound of familiar words, the participants’ brains showed waves of activity for entire words as well as their individual syllables, indicating that they recognized each word.
But when the team played new and made-up words, the activity patterns suggested that they only treated the words as single syllables.
To “teach” the participants the words, Ding and his colleagues played the new words over and over, thousands of times. By the end of the experiment, Participants showed waves of brain activity for entire words, just as they did for real, familiar words. This indicates that they have learned the new words.