Kurt Gray of the University of Maryland, and Annie Knickman and Dan Wegner of Harvard University, conducted an experiment designed to ascertain just how people perceive those in a persistent vegetative state. What they found astonished them.
They first asked 201 people stopped in public in New York and New England to answer questions after reading one of three short stories. In all three, a man called David was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. In one, he recovered fully. In another, he died. In the third, his entire brain was destroyed except for one part that kept him breathing. Although he was technically alive, he would never again wake up.
After reading one of these stories, chosen at random, each participant was asked to rate David’s mental capacities, including whether he could influence the outcome of events, know right from wrong, remember incidents from his life, be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions. Participants used a seven-point scale to make these ratings, where 3 indicated that they strongly agreed that he could do such things, 0 indicated that they neither agreed nor disagreed, and -3 indicated that they strongly disagreed.
The results, reported in Cognition, were that the fully recovered David rated an average of 1.77 and the dead David -0.29. That score for the dead David was surprising enough, suggesting as it did a considerable amount of mental acuity in the dead. What was extraordinary, though, was the result for the vegetative David: -1.73. In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead than the version who was dead.