Neuroscience & Mind Icon Neuroscience & Mind

Where Do People “Go” in a Coma?

Elizabeth Whately
Photo credit: NeONBRAND, via Unsplash.

Last week, five animated short films competed for Oscar gold, with the top prize going to the emotionally charged “If Anything Happens I Love You.” The short is a bold examination of bereavement as two parents grapple with the violent loss of their young daughter. It’s a worthy winner. However, my own pick didn’t make the shortlist.

WiNDUP” (2020), written and directed by young creative Yibing Jiang, is also a poignant meditation on parenthood and grief — in this case, for a child in a possibly irreversible coma — as well as a technical gem. Jiang’s company, Unity, uses custom-built software to create shorts in “real-time 3D” on standard computers.

Doing without certain tools that animators take for granted today, like tessellation shader or animation caches, lends the final product a hand-made look that feels at once fresh and old-fashioned. In her bio, Jiang writes, 

We are using techniques from the AAA game production that push the visual bar while rendering 3 million times faster than regular animation films! 3 Million? Yep, you can do the math. 30 frames per second compares with 30 hours per frame.

Close to Home

Jiang earned an AI degree from a Chinese university, then came to America to chase her artistic dreams. But when COVID hit in 2020, it hit close to home, literally: Wuhan is her hometown. As she raced to finish rendering “WiNDUP,” she was haunted with fear. For the first time, she understood what it might have been like for her parents to worry over her when she was a sick child — the image that had inspired the film.

The title, “WiNDUP,” is explained in the first shot. A man is crouched in a closet with light filtering in through the slats, holding a small contraption in his hand that we can’t identify, though we see it has a key. As he winds it up, a haunting lullaby begins to play, and we realize it’s a child’s music box. In the next shot, a little girl runs into her bedroom and looks around. We see now that the closet is her closet. She is playing hide-and-seek with her father. He decides to give his location away by humming along, she finds him, and they embrace.

But a fade transition takes us to the present day, transporting us from a little girl’s bedroom to a hospital room. Now she is lying in a coma, and he is pacing restlessly with a photograph in his hand. He pins it up to a bulletin board, along with a collection of other snapshots with just the two of them, together. Then he sits next to her in the visitor’s chair, holding the music box. As she lies quietly, the faintest breath fogging her oxygen mask, he winds it up and puts it to her ear.

That’s when she opens her eyes. But not in this world.

Where do people “go” when they are lying in a coma? At a certain level of unconsciousness, a comatose person’s loved ones are assured that he is aware of their surroundings and should be spoken to naturally, as if he were awake and present. But, as engineer Robert J. Marks and neurosurgeon Michael Egnor discuss in this interview, evidence shows that even people in a “persistent vegetative state” (viewed by some as “vegetables”) can hear and understand us.

Researcher Adrian Owen found that when he put headphones on one such woman and monitored her activity in response to verbal instructions, there were consistent patterns of activation. “Imagine you’re walking across a room,” he would ask her, or “Imagine you’re playing tennis.” “Think of things.” A favorite food. A face. A photograph.

Read the rest at Mind Matters News, published by Discovery Institute’s Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.