The story of Rom Houben who woke up from a 23-year-long 'coma' is making waves in medical circles. But is it all facilitated communication - some guiding hand behind his statements? That is the question being raised by some experts now.
In 2006, a full 23 years after a horrific car accident left him paralyzed and apparently unconscious, tests run by the University of Liege's Coma Science Group showed that Houben's brain was active, and almost normal. He wasn't a vegetable, but aware, and trapped silently in the prison of his ruined body.
The Coma Science Group leader Steven Laureys is suggesting that as many as four in 10 people considered utterly comatose may be misdiagnosed.
Houben has indeed been able to answer yes-or-no questions with slight movements of his foot.
The man could be sentient today, many acknowledge. MRI scans perhaps attest to that. But the problem is with the interviews, over the videos aired by TV channels across the world, in which a woman is seen guiding him across the keyboard of a laptop.
James Randi, described as a "tireless investigator and demystifier of paranormal and pseudoscientific claims," calls it all a cruel farce.
He wrote - "The "facilitated communication" process consists of the "facilitator" actually holding the hand of the subject over the keyboard, moving the hand to the key, then drawing the hand back from the keyboard! This very intimate participatory action lends itself very easily to transferring the intended information to the computer screen. In the video you have just viewed, it is very evident that (a) the "facilitator" is looking directly
at the keyboard and the screen, and (b) is moving the subject's hand. The video editing is also biased, giving angles that line up the head of the subject with the screen, as if the subject were watching the screen.....
"Facilitated Communication" [FC] represents anything other than a fantasy that was begun back in 1977, when an Australian woman named Rosemary Crossley came up with the idea that autistic persons could express their thoughts via a keyboard when their hand was "supported" by what she called a "facilitator."
"I personally investigated this matter. In March of 1992 I was contacted by Dr. Anne M. Donnellan, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who asked if I would be willing to participate in an investigation of FC as used with autistic children. I was already familiar with FC, and suggested to her that I felt the researchers were perhaps under the influence of the Clever Hans Effect [CHE], also known as the "ideomotor effect," in which the trainer - the facilitator in this case - was unconsciously transmitting the information to the autistic child. This possibility was emphatically denied by Dr. Donnellan, and I was assured that every care had been taken to ensure that the CHE was not in operation. The Clever Hans Effect is notorious in psychology. Early in the last century, a horse named Clever Hans - in German, der Kluge Hans
- was claimed to have been able to perform arithmetic and other simple intellectual tasks. In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst showed conclusively
that the horse was not actually performing these mental tasks, but was reacting to cues provided by his trainer.
"My tests of autistic children at the University of Wisconsin-Madison clearly showed that FC was simply a tragic farce....."
"If facilitated communication is part of this, and it appears to be, then I don't trust it," said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. "I'm not saying the whole thing is a hoax, but somebody ought to be checking this in greater detail. Any time facilitated communication of any sort is involved, red flags fly."
According to Caplan, Houben's apparent lucidity after spending more than two decades in complete isolation — circumstances known to be psychologically and cognitively damaging — is hard to believe.
"You're going to lie for 23 years in a hospital bed with almost no stimuli, and then sound completely coherent and cogent?" he said. "Something is wrong with that picture. The messages are almost poetic. It sounds too lucid, like someone prepared these things to say. I'm not saying it's all a fraud, but I want to hear a lot more."
The James Randi Educational Foundation has offered a million-dollar prize to a valid demonstration of facilitated communication, and Randi invited Houben to participate. "Our prize is still there," he said.