Religion in the minimally conscious

Donald Herbert, a fireman, suffered brain damage during a fire, was in a coma for 2½ months, then emerged into a period of “faint” or “minimal” consciousness, where he stayed for more than nine years until “waking up” and reconnecting to his family and friends on May 2, 2005.

“Minimal consciousness” is defined as being aware, but unable to communicate.

See MSNBC report.

Damaged brains like Herbert’s have provided us with many clues about neural functioning (perhaps to the extent that we are overly dependent on that type of analysis). Neurologists will be certainly studying him in an attempt to understand what mechanism could account for his recovery. (Three months earlier, he had been started on a cocktail of three medicines usually used to treat Parkinson’s, ADHD and depression, intended to stimulate neurotransmitters.)

Our interest, though, is neurotheological. How did Herbert’s brain damage, his period of minimal consciousness, and his recovery affect his religiosity, if at all?

We know that loss of consciousness occurs in epileptic seizures, which in turn have been tied to religious or pseudo-religious experience.

In Herbert’s case, as the neurons in the higher levels of his brain were regenerating and weaving themselves together for nearly a decade, while he lay in bed mutely watching TV, finally reaching the critical mass necessary for the restoration of consciousness, did they also recreate the cortical pathways necessary for religious belief and experience? Is Herbert more or less religious now than he was before his accident?

One Response to “Religion in the minimally conscious”

  1. winsailor Says:

    I would imagine Mr. Herbert may not really know yet, because when he woke up, he thought he had only been unconscious for a few days. Finding out it was close to ten years must have been quite a surprise.

    I think it would be understandable at this point for Herbert to be feeling somewhat ambivalent. Should he be thanking God unequivocally for bringing him back, no matter how long it took? Or might he be feeling a little bitter for having ten years taken away from him?

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