23 November 2009

The man "alert while locked in" to a vegetative state appears to be a farce

Many news sites have been carrying a story today about a man who allegedly for 23 years has been "locked in" to a paralyzed body while being "fully alert" but misdiagnosed as being in a vegetative state.

The James Randi Educational Foundation has published a rebuttal -
The "facilitated communication" process consists of the "facilitator" actually holding the hand of the subject over the keyboard, moving the hand to the key, then drawing the hand back from the keyboard! This very intimate participatory action lends itself very easily to transferring the intended information to the computer screen. In the video you have just viewed, it is very evident that (a) the "facilitator" is looking directly at the keyboard and the screen, and (b) is moving the subject's hand. The video editing is also biased, giving angles that line up the head of the subject with the screen, as if the subject were watching the screen...
Watch the first 30 seconds or so of the video embedded above to see what James Randi is talking about. He explains the "clever Hans" effect more at the link.

Via Reddit, where commenters are equally outraged at this travesty.


  1. Clever Hans!!! I haven't thought of that name since my childhood! I remember reading a short story by Marguerite Henry about him. Thanks for the flashback!

  2. The AP story says:

    "Over the years, Houben's skeptical mother took him to the United States five times for tests. More searching got her in touch with Laureys, who put Houben through a PET scan.

    "'We saw his brain was almost normal,' said neuropsychologist Audrey Vanhaudenhuyse, who has worked with Houben for three years.

    "The family and doctors then began trying to establish communication. A breakthrough came when he was able to indicate yes or no by slightly moving his foot to push a computer device placed there by Laureys' team. Then came the spelling of words using the touchscreen."


    I can't access the Randi article; either it's a bad link or the site is down. But if Randi's only basis for thinking the man is not actually fully conscious is the problems with the touchscreen, color me dubious.

  3. Also, BTW, some commenters on Reddit are outraged; others are raising the same question I just did: i.e., the "facilitated communication" may be bogus, but there seem to have been other indications that the poor chap is conscious.


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