Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Helping to make covert cognition less covert
I was recently informed by Kendrick Frazier, editor of Skeptical Inquirer, that they would like to publish my feature article, "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience." He sent it to an outside expert, who also liked it, and replied amazingly quickly, as well. I was very pleasantly surprised that the expert had no suggested changes whatsoever. I did exhaustive research for the article, but I'm not a neuroscientist, nor do I play one on TV. Plus, it was the first article I've ever written. The earliest the article could come out would be in the July/August issue, appearing in June. That's a lot earlier than I expected!
This, of course, will help my non-fiction writing career immensely. All my previous publications were fiction. But I hope the publication of the article will also educate the public about covert cognition. Though covert cognition is somewhat controversial because some hide-bound neuroscientists have had trouble accepting the findings, there is a wealth of very solid empirical evidence to back it up. I'm not going to give too much detail about the article, but it's part personal essay about my experiences, part exploration of the implication of covert cognition for near-death experiences (NDEs).
My research helped me to understand what happened to me a great deal. Being a card-carrying skeptic, I didn't understand the dichotomy between what my doctors perceived as my hopelessly damaged brain and my rich mental life during my coma. It was no miracle; I was simply experiencing covert cognition. I also did quite a bit of research about near-death experiences. It's often claimed that the people undergoing them were incapable of imagining their NDEs because they're unconscious. It's also alleged that they couldn't hear the things going on around them. But I did. Even as the doctors were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of awareness, I was telling them in my coma-dream to leave me alone so I could get back to sleep.
They told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. That even if I woke I up, I would never regain my full mental faculties. How many people like me are out there? According to researchers, that could be as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders. How many of them are having their plugs pulled even though they're experiencing their own coma-dreams?
Not too long ago, I asked my neurologist if she was familiar with the work of Dr. Adrian Owen and his lab at the Brain and Mind Institute. They're pioneers in the study of covert cognition. She was not. I would like to change that.
The first vegetative patient Dr. Owen studied turned out to be covertly aware. That was fortunate, both for Kate Bainbridge and Dr. Owen, whose career took a new turn after that discovery. Kate received therapy after Dr. Owen's astonishing findings and she recovered. She's severely disabled today, but like me, she retained her mental faculties completely.
I hope the publication of my article will help inform the public about these recent findings and enhance the cause of those one in five patients. Dr. Owen's lab has had some recent success detecting covert cognition with EEGs. I had an EEG. Though it showed I wasn't brain dead--it's a good thing they didn't test me first thing in the morning!--the EEG couldn't show them that I was still aware, I wasn't fully aware, but I was still "in there," as Kate Bainbridge put it.
Somebody needs to speak out for the people in my situation who aren't as fortunate as I was, because they certainly can't speak for themselves.
- In July of 2013, I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died. When I awoke from the coma, I could barely lift my head. It has been a hard road to recovery. The doctors advised my loved ones to give up all hope for my full recovery, but while they were shining lights in my eyes to gauge my level of consciousness, I was telling them grumpily to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep...in my coma-dream. I was experiencing covert cognition, and the coma-dream was my version of a near-death experience. I'm a skeptic, so I saw surreal images instead of spirits or dead loved ones. According to my research, as many as one in five people with consciousness disorders have covert cognition.
Not a miracle recovery, but a miracle of modern medicine
In 2013 I fell into a six-week coma and nearly died after I contracted legionella. The Legionnaire's disease was in turn triggered by immunosuppression caused by the prednisone I was taking for my rare autoimmune disease, dermatomyositis.
I suffered a series of strokes on both sides of my brain when the sepsis caused my blood pressure to plummet. I fell into a deep coma. My kidneys and lungs began to fail, as my body was began dying one organ at a time. My doctors told my loved ones to give up hope for my full recovery. They expected me to die, and even if I somehow lived, I would remain a vegetable or at best left so hopelessly brain-damaged that I would never be same. But unbeknownst to them, while they were shining lights in my eyes and shaking their heads, I was telling them in my coma-dream--my secular version of a near-death experience--to leave me alone because I was trying to get back to sleep. I was experiencing what is known as covert cognition, the subject of my Skeptical Inquirer article "Covert Cognition: My So-Called Near-Death Experience," which appeared in their July/August issue.
But it wasn't a miracle--despite what so many continue to believe--that I recovered so fully. I owe my life not to God, but the miracles of modern medicine, as well as the nature of the watershed-area brain damage I suffered, as I detailed in my article and in this blog.