On Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009, valentine Filipov, a handsome and energetic manager at a refrigeration factory in Pazardzhik, Bulgaria, decided to change a burned-out lamp in his garden. His daughter Anna refers to what happened next as "my father's ridiculous accident." Filipov lost his balance on the 3-ft. (0.9 m) stepladder and fell, hitting his head on the pavement. The blow put him in a coma for five days. When he opened his eyes, doctors determined that the damage he sustained had left him in a vegetative state, a condition defined by unresponsive wakefulness, in which patients follow a normal sleep-wake cycle, breathe without assistance and make reflexive movements such as swallowing, yawning, grunting and fidgeting but have no awareness of their environment and can't respond to commands.
After Filipov spent a month in the hospital, the doctors discharged him. They told his family there was nothing more they could do, that he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.
But Filipov, who was then 45, seemed less lost to the world than the doctors assumed. He would sometimes laugh with family members. He would sometimes cry with them--especially with Sofiya, his wife of 23 years. Vegetative patients have been known to cry, but their outbursts are typically spontaneous and not associated with external stimuli. Filipov's seemed triggered by things going on around him.
Desperate for a reappraisal, his family took him to see Dr. Steven Laureys, head of the Coma Science Group at the University of Lige in Belgium, one of the few centers in the world that study vegetative patients. Laureys asked the Filipovs if they could make Valentine cry. They circled his bed, and Sofiya approached him. She bent over him, cradling his cheeks in her hands. "Will you cry with me, my love?" she whispered. "Will you weep with me, my dear?" His face began to contort. His eyes fixed on his wife's face. He started crying, loudly.
The Consciousness Conundrum
There's an odd circularity to studies of consciousness--a curious exercise in the brain investigating the brain. Nobel laureate Francis Crick took a reductionist view of things in the 1970s, coining the term "the astonishing hypothesis": the idea that all feelings, thoughts and actions are just the products of a mass of brain tissue and that we all exist only one well-placed head trauma away from the irrevocable erasure of the self. Most people choose to see things more lyrically; consciousness is the ineffable ghost in the machine that distinguishes us from plants and bacteria and perhaps even other animals--the quality that makes us wondrously special. But scientists aren't lyricists, and Crick's mechanistic view has prevailed, with scientists treating the brain as merely another organ, albeit a highly complex one.