I came across new research that shows that people in a minimally conscious state can learn a rudimentary form of language, or at least a previously unknown sequence of syllables. His career researched disorders of consciousness. Whyte is the perfect person to talk about this, and he has a ton of insights and anecdotes.
Right at the beginning of our call, he told me that in many ways the brains of minimally conscious people function similarly to the brains of conscious people, even though they cannot communicate. perceive or perceive their surroundings consistently. He also told me about some fascinating – and sensational – attempts to bring people in this state to consciousness. I’ll get back to those in a moment.
This kind of research is really hard to do in people with low consciousness or in unresponsive waking state, formerly known as vegetative state. Both of these are different from being in a coma. Those with minimal consciousness showed unreliable cognitive flicker and were able to communicate, but inconsistently. But people who are in a non-reactive state of consciousness cannot communicate at all.
People in both states experience periods of sleep and wakefulness, while those in a coma show no signs of wakefulness.
In research I’ve seen, Nai Ding at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, used an electrode cap to record the brain activity of people in a minimally conscious state. When his team played the sounds of familiar words, the participants’ brains displayed waves of activity for the whole word as well as their individual syllables, suggesting that they recognize each word.
But when the group played the newly formed words, the performance models suggested that they only process the words as individual syllables.
To “teach” the words to the participants, Ding and his colleagues played the new words over and over again thousands of times. At the end of the test, participants showed waves of brain activity for whole words, just as they did with familiar real words. This shows that they have learned new words.