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Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state

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Hospital patients (iStock)Hospital patients (iStock)Hospital patients (iStock)

A persistent vegetative state (PVS) occurs when patients, often the victims of brain trauma, remain in a profound state of unconsciousness. While PVS remains extremely rare, continuing improvements in medical technology have allowed doctors to keep patients alive who may never recover consciousness.

To better understand perceptions of PVS, researchers at the University of Maryland and Harvard University interviewed 201 people from New England and New York. The resulting 2011 study, “More Dead Than Dead: Perceptions of Persons in the Persistent Vegetative State,” was published in the journal Cognition.

The study’s premise hinges on a curious phenomenon, the authors state: “The dead have a certain presence in our perceptions and thoughts, whether they are imagined as ghosts, residents of heaven or hell, or memories. In contrast, a person in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) seems to be popularly understood has having no presence at all — the PVS patient is viewed simply as a body supported by machines, lacking in mental capacities. These competing images suggest that although PVS may fall biologically between life and death, it is possible that PVS patients may be perceived, oddly, as more dead than dead — with lesser mental capacities than the dead.”

The study’s findings include:

  • Individuals were first presented with the story of a car crash victim and three possible outcomes: life, death or PVS. They then evaluated the patient’s likely awareness, emotional state and personality on a scale of -3 to 3. According to those responding, a victim of PVS scored on average lower (-1.79) than in the “dead” state (-0.29).
  • When the story emphasized the body of a deceased accident victim, those who considered themselves as religious scored the PVS victim lower than both “dead” and the corpse, while irreligious people scored the corpse lower than “dead” or PVS.
  • When respondents were asked what their choice would be between death or PVS, with all other factors being equal, PVS was seen as being “worse” than death.

“These studies suggest that people perceive the minds of PVS patients as less valuable than those of the dead — ironically, this effect is especially robust for those high in religiosity,” the researchers write.

Keywords: medicine, science, religion, cognition, ethics

    Writer: | Last updated: September 28, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the study-related Economist article titled "How Dead Is Dead?"

    1. Reporter's use of the study: Evaluate what the reporter chose to include and exclude from the study. Would the audience have acquired a clear understanding of the study's findings and limits from this article?
    2. Reporter's use of other material: Assess the material in the article that is not derived from the study. For example, does the reporter place the study in the context of other research and to what effect? Does the reporter include reactions to the study from other researchers or interested parties (e.g., political groups business leaders, or community members) and are their credentials or possible biases made clear?

    Read the full study titled "More Dead than Dead: Perceptions of Persons in the Persistent Vegetative State."

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.