Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Book Review: 'Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death' by Adrian Owen

Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death

By Adrian Owen

Review by David Wineberg

There are endless ways to damage ourselves. There are endless ways to damage our brains, possibly the most frightening condition of all. Because We Are Our Brains – our awareness, our consciousness, our personalities. In The Gray Zone examines those minds trapped in their unmoving bodies, still able to observe, retain and exist. But on the outside, no one knows that. Without intending to, neuroscientist Adrian Owen has spent a lifetime discovering how to penetrate those immobile presences, and actually communicate with some of them. It is a very upbeat voyage of discovery, emotionally told. Owen makes it not just bearable but fascinating. It is very difficult to stop reading.

His own relationships were fraught with brain damage – that of his mother and his ex. His own childhood was marred by the medical torture of cancer. But the unshakeable enthusiasm, joy at discovery and excitement of at achievements large and small have made for a breakthrough career, and a clear acceleration towards the day when brains will be able to communicate.

The stories are of men and women of all ages, seemingly vegetative. Owen’s early research on the brain led him to the realization that different thoughts are processed in different areas, because our brains are that specialized. There is a place in the brain that does nothing but process places, and another that does nothing but process actions. If you think of a place where you took action, your brain will hand off the thought from one section to the other. Owen’s breakthrough idea was to put vegetative patients in an fMRI scanner and tell them to think of an action (playing tennis) for “no” or walking through their home for “yes”. The live scans now possible show the various areas of the brain light up in response to yes/no questions, proving these inanimate people are still in there, still aware, still fighting. Possibly one in five is conscious enough to provide this sort of “conversation”.

More remarkable, perhaps, is that some recover. Owen has had face to face conversations with patients who remember his experiments. Their experiences, their observations, and their trials are beyond gripping – they are heart-rending.

The lesson, if there is one, is to treat vegetative patients with total respect. They want to know names, titles and roles. They want explanations of what treatment they are about to receive. The pointless chatter and undeserved reinforcement are very much appreciated if not critical to their potential appreciation and quality of life.

Into the Gray Zone is a shock and an inspiration. There are surprises at every turn. There is suspense, success, failure and reward. It is a book of life.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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