September 10, 2006

Weekend Question 3: Why Are You So Adamant about Keeping Vegetative-State People Alive?

Filed under: Marvels,Positivity,TWUQs — Tom @ 2:35 pm

ANSWER: Because there’s someone in there, and there is always a chance they might recover.

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A subscription-only piece in Friday’s Wall Street Journal lays out what “surprises” scientists, even though they happen from time to time:

There May Be More To a Vegetative State Than Science Thought
September 8, 2006; Page B1

After a 23-year-old woman sustained a severe brain injury in a car accident in July 2005, she fell into a coma, lying unresponsive in her hospital bed. Even when she eventually opened her eyes and resumed a normal sleep-wake cycle, she didn’t respond to sights or sounds, and never showed as much as a hint of doing anything intentionally. She fit the medical criteria for being in a “vegetative state.”

But the vegetative state isn’t what it used to be. A new study promises, or threatens, to overturn medical dogma about what is happening in the minds and brains of at least some patients in such a state. It also raises new questions about the meaning of consciousness, one of the deepest mysteries in all of science.

Patients in a vegetative state open their eyes and seem to be awake, yet show no sign of being aware of themselves or their surroundings. ….. in a vegetative state, the mind is thought to be AWOL.

In a startling new report in today’s issue of the journal Science, however, scientists describe how the young accident victim in a vegetative state shows brain activity consistent with conscious awareness.

When the scientists spoke to her, advanced imaging showed, her brain registered activity in regions responsible for decoding language, just as the brains of normal volunteers do. When they used sentences with homonyms, which require more complicated semantic processing, the appropriate parts of her brain lit up, again just like healthy brains.

Either response might be dismissed as automatic and therefore unconscious.

….. That’s why simply responding to speech, admits neuroscientist Adrian Owens of the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, who led the new study, is “not unequivocal evidence that [the woman] is consciously aware.”

So they asked her to imagine playing tennis. Remarkably, this made neurons fire in the premotor cortex, a region that hums with activity when you mentally practice sophisticated movement, from a jump shot to a backhand. Then they asked her to imagine walking through each room of her house. This time her parahippocampal gyrus, which generates spatial maps, became active, again just as in healthy volunteers.

“We know from extensive research that brain responses of this type do not occur automatically,” says Prof. Owens, but “require the willed, intentional action of the participant.”

….. Lionel Naccache of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Orsay, France, calls the woman’s response to the tennis and home tasks “quite spectacular” and evidence of “a rich mental life.” But he notes that consciousness, according to neuroscience, requires engaging “in intentional actions or interactions” with the outside world. If she is conscious, why does she show no spontaneous intentional behavior, especially since there is no damage to parts of the brain that control moving or speaking?

Although the woman fits the diagnosis of being in a vegetative state, her brain activity raises the intriguing (or disturbing) possibility that there is a fully conscious being locked in that unresponsive body after all.

….. The hints of consciousness in someone so seemingly unaware and unresponsive underline how squishy science’s understanding of consciousness is, starting with how something so sublime can arise in the three pounds of tofu-like glop within our skull. Most scientists believe that consciousness means knowing that you know, even being conscious that you are conscious. Figuring out how to determine that has only just begun.

Earlier this year, there was the story of Terry Wallis:

Nearly two decades after suffering a severe brain injury, Terry Wallis was able to speak out. The incident is being dubbed as nothing short of a miracle by doctors who say that his brain, which was badly damaged when his pickup truck went over a cliff, was able to rewire itself.

There were two important lessons from Wallis’s remarkable recovery. The first was that we simply don’t know all there is to know about what is going on is a minimally-conscious or vegetative-state person. Unfortunately, the second was that there is a euthanasia-oriented mindset, as evidenced in the Associated Press story on Wallis’s recovery, that wishes to limit who can be permitted the opportunity to get better.

The AP’s article pointedly told us that:

Wallis’ sudden recovery happened three years ago at a rehabilitation center in Mountain View, Ark., but doctors said the same cannot be hoped for people in a persistent vegetative state, such as Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who died last year after a fierce right-to-die court battle. Nor do they know how to make others with less serious damage, like Wallis, recover. (Aside: It wasn’t a “right-to-die” battle at all; it was about someone’s right to continue living. — Ed.)

The news above pointedly shows that there IS hope for people in vegetative states, as those of us who have faith in the Almighty and the eventual ability for science to find a way have always instinctively felt.

As science advances, we will of course learn that someone really IS still in there, and eventually we can begin the painstaking work of getting them back. That work won’t be done if we as a society head further down the road of euthanasia and “futile care,” and simply decide that such work isn’t “worth it.”

Weekend Question 2: What’s More Offensive Than Profanity to a TV Network Exec?

ANSWER: God and the Bible.

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Brett Bozell has the story at his Townhall column (HT Pro Ecclesia). Nothing need be added:

Maybe you’re familiar with the computer-animated cartoon “Veggie Tales,” a video series targeted at children ages 2 to 8, and which features moral and religious tales hosted by Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. Beginning in 1993, the series was distributed on VHS tapes, telling biblical stories like the Battle of Jericho, David and Goliath and the tale of the Good Samaritan. Each show ended with a Bible verse.

And it’s been a marketing phenomenon. Without any broadcasting or syndication on television, “Veggie Tales” has sold more than 50 million “Veggie Tales” DVDs and videotapes — primarily, but quietly, through big chain stores like Target, Wal-Mart and Family Christian Stores. As their popularity spread, so did “Veggie Tales” T-shirts, plush toys and other products.

….. Eventually, someone in Tinseltown saw the commercial possibilities. Now, the news breaks that NBC (as well as NBC-owned Telemundo) will begin showing “Veggie Tales” cartoons on Saturday mornings for the new fall season.

….. But here is what should be news. The early word from producers is that NBC has grown increasingly fierce about editing something out of “Veggie Tales” — those apparently unacceptable, insensitive references to God and the Bible.

So NBC has taken the very essence of “Veggie Tales” — and ripped it out. It’s like “Gunsmoke” without the guns, or “Monday Night Football” without the football.

Think about this corporate mindset. NBC is the network that hired a squad of lawyers to argue that dropping the F-bomb on the Golden Globe Awards isn’t indecent for children, but invoking God is wholly unacceptable. Or, as one e-mailing friend marveled: “So, saying ‘F— you’ is protected First Amendment speech on NBC but not ‘God bless you.’”

The cartoon’s creator, Phil Vischer, posted on his personal Web log the news of NBC’s increasing creative stranglehold.

….. He said, “We’re having to do a little more editing.” How much? So much so that Vischer implied that the God talk is landing on the cutting-room floor. Now, he’s merely hoping that people will “maybe wander into Wal-Mart and buy a video with all the God still in.”

This is one of those moments where you understand that networks like NBC are only talking an empty talk and walking an empty walk when it comes to the First Amendment, and “creative integrity,” and so on. They have told parents concerned about their smutty programs like “Will and Grace” that if they’re offended, they have a remote control as an option. The networks have spent millions insisting that we have a V-chip in our TV sets. Change the channel. Block it out.

But when it comes to religious programming — programming that doesn’t even mention Jesus Christ — just watch the hypocrisy.

Positivity: Pope Delivers Homily Extemporaneously

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 7:01 am

In the midst of an article about his 28-year friendship with Pope Benedict, Thaddäus Kühnel tells of a time when Benedict delivered a homily without notes or preparation:

Munich, Sep. 07, 2006 (CNA) – Thaddäus Kühnel is not only the Pope’s “courier,” he’s his chauffuer, friend, and confidant. A 28 year-long friendship unites them and remains to this day, despite a few difficulties.

Kühnel, who is Director of the Bank of Munich, met then Cardinal Ratzinger in 1978 at the home of the Sisters of Mercy at Bad Adelholzen. In an interview with German television, Kühnel explained that he is known as the “Pope’s courier” because when Cardinal Ratzinger was called to work in the Roman curia, he offered to bring “Bavarian things” to him in Rome, which he did and still does to this day.

“The first thing I brought to Rome, in my car, was a paschal candle, as well as some fruit from Adelholzen and mineral water. For Christmas I brought him his Advent wreath, as they can’t be easily found in Italy. Up to now I have brought some 40 different objects,” Kühnel explained. “He likes the Christmas cookies that women from Bavarian parishes bake at home as well as those made at certain monasteries. He also likes the chocolates made in Aachen”, he added.

Kühnel said he’s also acted as Cardinal Ratzinger’s chauffuer and that he often picked him up at the airport and “brought him to Pentling or Ratisbona to his brother’s home. Sometimes I drove the whole family—the cardinal, his brother Georg and their sister Maria. The little trips we took to Mallersdorf, Brixen, Linz, Klagenfurt, and Bad Hofgastein—most of the time with the entire family—were very beautiful,” Kühnel said.

Kühnel said he has always been amazed at the Pope’s great intellect, citing an experience two years ago as an example. “When he was still a cardinal, he came to Germany to celebrate the Ascension of the Lord in 2004. As we were driving he said, ‘I have to think now about what I am going to say.’ After he finished his homily, several people asked to have a copy. They could not believe that the cardinal had not written down a single word and had simply preached from the podium.”

I suspect it’s not the only time.