Insights into the Vegetative State Using Humor

A few days ago I stumbled upon an article talking about Adrian Owen's work with vegetative state patients, and in an instant I was mentally transported to my sophomore year of college, when I first read one of his papers. I remember it like it was just yesterday; an unseasonably warm and humid May afternoon in my cognitive psychology class; just outside the window, you could hear the whine of the midges intermingling with the screams of children, and everywhere the Minnesota foliage was pullulating into life, those emerald prairies and celadon canopies of the Arboretum soaking up as much water and air and oxygen as they required. And in front of us at the head of the classroom stood imperious Professor Brockton, his left hand bepurpled with a chemical burn from an unknown wetlab incident, that crazed stain traveling up his palm and disappearing within the cuff of his neatly pressed Stafford shirt, leaving us to wonder exactly how far it went before terminating.

But above all, I remember discussing in class that day how neuroimaging had provided some evidence that patients supposedly in comas and vegetative states could still process information from the outside world, such as being asked to imagine playing tennis, which, to me, was astonishing. It was at that moment I had an epiphany and realized what I wanted to do with my life; I wanted to be - a professional tennis player.

No, wait! I meant, a cognitive neuroscientist. Kind of like a regular neuroscientist, except with an additional term to set us apart and let everyone know how special we are.

In any case, Owen has gotten a lot of press in the past few years conducting these types of experiments on people in vegetative states. Specifically, he uses paradigms where he scans individuals while asking them to imagine doing different tasks, such as playing tennis, going around different rooms of their house, and neuroscience blogging. The results were striking: subjects in a vegetative state, who otherwise have no way of communicating with anyone else, showed similar patterns of brain activity to healthy controls who imagined the same scenarios, suggesting that they actually could understand what was going on around them, even though they couldn't talk or move their limbs. A similar procedure was then used to ask yes/no questions to the patients, and see whether they could respond by selectively increasing blood flow to certain regions of the brain through thinking about specific things; and now, the next obvious step - at least in my mind - is to use this to figure out which part of the patient's body is itchy. (Seriously, think about it; you talk about helping people, this is where you start.)

More recently, Owen has investigated whether these same subjects are able to understand and appreciate humor. For example, he scanned the subjects while presenting them with humor - puns, wordplay, reading Andy's Brain Blog - and observed whether the patients responded similarly to how normally functioning individuals process humor. Elevated levels of activity were found in the frontal lobes and limbic system the funnier the joke was; and once you start throwing around terms like "limbic system", you know it's gotta be true.