Questions at the Edge of Consciousness: A review of “Into the Grey Zone”

Imagine (and I hope this is a theoretical scenario rather than a real experience) that a friend is involved in a road traffic accident. The collision leaves them in what neuroscientist Adrian Owen terms the “grey zone”; the patient is alive (and does not require artificial ventilation) but they are in a “vegetative” state. Their body has periods when they appear to be awake, but they do not demonstrate any awareness of their circumstances. In the absence of intentional movement, how can we be sure that they are not, in fact, conscious – hearing the conversations next to their hospital bed, maybe even experiencing pain?

ITGZFor a long while this question seemed unanswerable. However a flurry of scientific papers, published about a decade ago, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that it was possible to communicate with some patients in an apparently vegetative state. Now Professor Owen has published a memoir Into the Grey Zone capturing his experience at the heart of that groundbreaking work. (I couldn’t wait for publication of the Anglicised version, so I actually have “…Gray Zone“, but am assured that aside from spellings and the occasional idiom, the contents are the same. I notice on social media that Owen himself refers to the book at ITGZ which not only saves a few characters but neatly side-steps the issue of the different title.)

Whatever we choose to call it, this is a remarkable and moving read – I cannot think of any other book that has simultaneously thrilled me with the clear and logical presentation of scientific experiments and moved me to tears with their implications of the experiments for patients and their families. What follows is my rather lengthy summary of the book, followed by some specific reflections. If you want to skip directly to the latter, click here.

The book follows a general pattern in which each chapter introduces us both to the individuals who had slipped into the grey zone, and to the emerging tools of neuroinvestigation which enabled Owen to demonstrate that many of these patients, perhaps 15 to 20% of those previously considered as “vegetative”, do in fact retain some level of consciousness.

The first chapter The Ghost That Haunts Me is slightly different. It features two central characters who slip into the grey zone, but neither is a patient of Owen. Instead they are his mother, who developed a brain tumour, and his former lover Maureen who suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage that left her in a vegetative state. Continue reading

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Review of “Biological Determinism”

The forthcoming edition of The New Bioethics has a review of Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility in which it is described as “informative and engrossing”.

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Another great review for Where Science and Ethics Meet

CQcoverThe July 2017 edition of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has recently gone live. It contains a lovely review of our book Where Science and Ethics Meet, written by Tom Cole of the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics, University of Texas.

Cole generously calls this “the best introduction to the topic I have ever seen”.  Commenting on the fictional case studies that introduce each chapter, he notes “These scenarios are far more imaginative and narrated than most bioethics cases: they are so well written that readers will inevitably want to turn the pages”.

Interestingly, he also draws attention to the fact that both my co-author Salvador Macip and I have “dual training”; Sal is a qualified medical doctor and an author of both popular science and science fiction in Catalonia (as well as conducting research into ageing and cancer… busy man!) and I have an MA in Ethics alongside my PhD in Biochemistry. This, Cole suggests, may place us in an especially strong position to discuss the underlying science in an appropriate manner for a lay audience.

This link takes you (I believe) to a preview of the first page of the article which, since this is a one-page review, actually constitutes the full text.

More plaudits for Where Science and Ethics Meet

The February edition of The Biochemist (magazine of the Biochemical Society) included another very positive review of our book Where Science and Ethics Meet: Dilemmas at the frontiers of medicine and biology. The review notes that “Willmott and Macip fulfil their promise of providing epistemologically balanced tools to the reader” and concludes that the book “certainly represents a valuable tool for teaching ethics at the undergraduate level and for engaging a wider audience in the challenges arising from scientific and biotechnical developments” which is gratifying since this was exactly our ambition in writing the book.

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Another great review for “Where Science & Ethics Meet”

The February 2-8th 2017 Edition of Times Higher Education (number 2291) carried another enthusiastic review for Where Science and Ethics Meet.

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Review of Neurolaw text

neuroloaw1b.jpgThe October 2016 edition of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics has a special focus on Clinical Neuroethics. It contains a review of my Neurolaw book Biological Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility: Insights from genetics and neuroscience.

I’m thrilled that the review is hugely positive about the book. Quotable quotes include:

  • “…a very accessible explanation of the need to reconsider notions of free will and moral responsibility in an age of scientific breakthroughs in genomics and brain science…”
  • “…an insightful philosophical account of the apparent stand-off between free will and the evidence of determinism…”
  • “…a remarkably lucid account of the relevance of science for the debate on free will and determinism…”
  • “…an impressive prudential approach, balancing the reliability of scientific achievement with caution about its applicability to criminal courts…”
  • “…an extraordinary resource for engaging moral responsibility in the age of genetics and neuroscience…”.

One day in Alzira…

It seems that November is shaping up as a bit of a European tour for me. Trips later in the months to Naples and Edinburgh have been on the cards for a while, but my friend and colleague Salvador Macip and I ended up popped to Alzira, Spain on November 8th for 24 hours. This unusual behaviour was prompted by our success in winning the European Prize for the Popularization of Science.

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This was the 19th year that the European Prize for the Popularization of Science has been awarded

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