I came across a new study suggesting that people in a minimally conscious state can learn a rudimentary form of language, or at least a series of previously unknown syllables. It sounded fascinating, so I called John Whyte, who has spent much of the time. his career studying disorders of consciousness. Whyte is the perfect person to talk to about this sort of thing, and has lots of mind-blowing insights 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, even though they cannot communicate coherently or be aware of the your environment He also told me about some fascinating—and tearful—attempts to bring people in this state back to consciousness. I’ll come back to these in a moment.
This type of research is really difficult to do in people who are minimally conscious or in an unresponsive waking state, formerly known as a vegetative state. Both are different from being in a coma. People with minimal awareness show unreliable flashes of awareness and can communicate, but inconsistently. But people in an unresponsive waking state cannot communicate at all.
People in any state experience periods of sleep and wakefulness, while people in a coma show no signs of being awake.
In this study I had seen, Nai Ding of Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, used a cap of electrodes to record the brain activity of people in a minimally conscious state. When his team played audio of familiar words, the participants’ brains showed waves of activity for whole words as well as their individual syllables, suggesting they recognized each word.
But when the team played new, made-up words, the patterns of activity suggested they were only processing the words as individual syllables.
To “teach” the words to the participants, Ding and his colleagues played the new words over and over, thousands of times. At the end of the experiment, the participants showed waves of brain activity for all the words, just as they did for known real words. This suggests that they had learned the new words.