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.


  1. How do chuck, congratulations. Caught your comment on Skepchick and had to follow up Covert Cognition. I was pretty sure what it was from the context but I have learned a lot more. Reading up here certainly puts the latest intra-community internet atheist spat in perspective! Glad you are on the road to recovery and recognition. Catch you again.

  2. Thanks, Steve! I suddenly realized after I sold the article that I needed to become more active in the skeptical community. I applied to become a blogger on Skeptability, but I haven't heard back about it yet. Anyway, I want to be an advocate for those potentially one in five people with disorders of consciousness who have covert cognition because they can't speak for themselves (obviously). Plus, as my article argues, I think covert cognition is an important piece of the puzzle of near-death experiences. NDEs can't be evidence of mind/brain separation if the brains experiencing them are still conscious. I'm gratified to hear that my efforts to publicize covert cognition has been successful, at least in your case. TTFN, T (too)!

  3. Hiya again, what do they call that transient state where your consciousness is awake and aware but your body is asleep and immobilised? That analogous state is already recognised, it isn't a great leap to concieve getting stuck in it for one reason or another. An in-law of mine recounted to me being on the operating table and aware of everything going on in the theatre. He had the confabulation of experiencing it from the corner of the ceiling. That sort of thing is part of our mythology. That level of processing doesn't know the difference and it is a less preposterous and frightning misinterpretation to think your soul has left your body than that you might be trapped in a tale from Edgar Allen Poe. They had not quite got the anaesthetic right. Again rare but it happens often enough.

    This always flabegasts me: theists are atheists about every other god but their own. They are ninety nine point nine percent there and they can't connect the last dot? But they are human like doctors, who seem to be making the same sort of cognitive and reasoning errors that lead to gods about what you are seeking to warn, publicise and get investigated. There are quite a few more fields of human enquiry were you get the same thing. We seem to have great difficulty making those final cross-connections.
    TTFN again,

    1. Hi again, Steve! You're talking about sleep paralysis. It's a form of REM intrusion, which is an important part of my thesis about NDEs, which I talk about in the article. I have a form of REM intrusion because I'm a lucid dreamer. According to Kevin Nelson's study, people who are prone to REM intrusion are far more likely to have NDEs. I have to reread the relevant section of his book, "The God Inpulse," because I'm really bad at remembering statistics, but 40% more likely sticks in my mind. It's not coincidental that NDEs are so dream like. I call mine my coma-dream, and it was even more dream-like than usual, since I didn't see angels, demons, or heaven. Instead, I saw things inspired by stuff that influenced me, like old 50s sci-fi films. I was raised an agnostic, so those images are what my geeky mind is filled with instead.

      In any case, you're dead right about theists not seeing that their beliefs are just as mythological as the Greek and Roman pantheons. Being raised without religion, it seems particularly hard to believe for me. How can they not see that? Those ancient beliefs were ridiculous, but Adam and Eve really happened? I wrote a short story that was an atheist's eye-view of God. I had some fun with the whole apple thing. There's an excerpt from the story in this video taken at the Beverly Hills Library's New Short Fiction Series (https://youtu.be/z2Uf-Klc2Xo?list=FL3wdiUvO4dCJf-FwTkUbPPA), in which four actors read my short stories. All of the stories had skeptical themes, though you can argue that the Santa spoof doesn't really count, since adults don't really believe in him. On the other hand, God is the Santa for most adults.

    2. Oh, and I meant to add that I've been trying to spread the word about the REM intrusion theory, mostly on Facebook when I see Skeptical Inquirer posts about NDEs. It's not as much as a personal crusade as covert cognition, but I think it's also an important part of the NDE puzzle.

    3. I'd not be suprised if Alien Abductees had REM intrusions either. Our brains sure like making things up!
      I have recurring dreams that often that some of the content is half fixed as memory of the real waking world; sufficient that I can wake and go through the day depressed. Which is just great when I have oft times scuttled under the covers to escape the depression in the first place. It isn't funny but I have to laugh.
      Bysie Bye

    4. Hi again, Steve--I missed your last comment! The reigning theory is that most alien abductees (at least the one that say they felt paralyzed when they were abducted) are indeed experiencing sleep paralysis. I've always found it funny that so many abductees were in bed when they were abducted. Um, did it occur to you that you might've dreamed it, seeing as you were in bed at the time? I think their usual response is that it felt too real, but REM intrusion can feel like that, as well. I once dreamed that aliens tunneled through the upstairs apartment to abduct me in my ground floor one, yet the upstairs neighbors noticed nothing!


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Coma Girl

Coma Girl

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.