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Nov. 25 2009 - 6:51 pm | 6,468 views | 6 recommendations | 18 comments

Coma Man Hoax

“Communication” by Coma Man is just “ideomotor” Ouija Board effect

It’s a hoax, folks. Sorry to be the spoiler of a feel good story—that of Rom Houben, the Belgian man who allegedly “woke up” from a 23-year long coma—but the hard truth must win out over hopeful emotions. Houben’s “communications,” his “statements” about how he’s been aware all along of his condition, his “talking” to reporters (all descriptive terms used by hardened journalists softened into bleeding heart jelly) is nothing more than the “ideomotor” effect, where the brain subtly and subconsciously guides the hands and fingers over a keyboard, or a Ouija board, or directs the movements of dowsing rods in search of underground water. You think it, the hand will move there. Dr. Sanjay Gupta missed it on CNN, Dr. Nancy Snyderman missed it on MSNBC. And neuroscientists untrained in skepticism and the history of facilitated communication all missed it.

Watch the video again here and here and note what the reporters say about how Houben was speaking, saying, talking, etc. For example:

“described his real-life nightmare”
“’I screamed, but there was nothing to hear,’ said Mr Houben”
“tells of 23 lonely years”

He’s doing no such thing. These reporters who are watching these same videos are reporting something that did not happen. He did not say anything, nor did he describe or tell. Houben is just sitting there in a chair looking like he’s in a coma, with the facilitator standing next to him, his hand firmly gripped by hers, guiding his hand over the keyboard. And yet the reporters report that he is guiding her hand! Watch it again. It’s as clear as can be!

A simple test to prove my claim: show a picture of an object (say, a cat) to the facilitator and show a different picture of an object (say, a dog) to Huben. Don’t let either one see the other photographs. Then see what gets typed: cat or dog? As a control, show them both the same picture and see what gets typed. Prediction: Whatever the facilitator sees is what will get typed. Would someone there please run this simple test?

Such a test was already done in the 1990s when something called “Facilitated Communication” (FC) was all the rage with autistic children who, just like the Coma Man, “suddenly awoke” from their long sleep and began talking up a storm and sounding all the world like perfectly normal bright children, some even returning to school to take classes. Only they weren’t. Normal. Or talking. A facilitator stood next to a child, held his or her hand firmly in a grip with the index finger pointing down over a keyboard, then typed. In controlled tests by experimental psychologists, a photograph of an object was shown to the facilitator and a photograph of an object was shown to the child. Neither one saw what the other one saw. Sometimes the pictures were of the same objects, sometimes they were different. Result: whatever the facilitator saw is what got typed, 100% of the time, and never (0%) did what the child see get typed unless it was also what the facilitator saw. Did that end the travesty of exploitation of these autistic children? No. At least not for many years. Why? Because emotions almost always trump evidence. And, understandably, parents of autistic children want to believe that their children are normal. The tragedy is in the letdown and realization of what is really going on, which in time did happen. That is the power of belief.

Prediction: if the Coma Man story is not thoroughly debunked now, within a short time the families of people in comas will be snapping up these plastic keyboards and facilitating the communication of their loved ones locked up in a broken brain. Only they will be doing no such thing. They will be wasting their time, money, energy, and worst of all their emotions, setting themselves up for being crushed when awareness dawns on them that FC doesn’t work. Please, would someone in the Houben family put an end to this charade before it spreads through the coma community and wreaks emotional havoc.


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  1. collapse expand

    Interesting but are you not jumping the gun yourself? “The doctor, who leads the Coma Science Group and Department of Neurology at Liege University Hospital, found Mr Houben’s brain was still working by using state-of-the-art imaging.” Why do you favor observation over brain scans? What would be Dr Laureys motivation to perpetuate a fraud?

  2. collapse expand

    Yes, but what evidence is there that these brain scans indicate that the patient is communicating?

    In fact, if this man really IS conscious, it makes this Facilitated Communication BS even more objectionable. It would mean they are taking advantage of not only a body but a man.

  3. collapse expand

    “what evidence is there that these brain scans indicate that the patient is communicating?” Neither of us have any evidence that Mr.Houben is/is not communicating (hence jumping the gun). Viewing a video does not tell us anything about the amount of hand pressure that would require for him to be in control (it would not matter whether his hand was held or the reverse). I still wonder what would be gained from a fraud? Did they test Mr.Houben with any other communication technology? Computer control through eye movement? I agree that the reports are kumbaya but that is not the responsibility of the subjects of the story.

    • collapse expand

      “Viewing a video does not tell us anything about the amount of hand pressure that would require for him to be in control (it would not matter whether his hand was held or the reverse).”

      As mentioned on another blog:
      For anyone who still has any doubts this video clearly shows him “typing” with his eyes closed.

      http://news.ninemsn.com.au/world/975121/belgian-coma-man-was-just-awake-for-23-years

      “I still wonder what would be gained from a fraud?”

      He’s ‘writing a book’ about it… publicity stunt anyone???… 23 years of hospital bills add up…

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Let’s talk about observation.

      I originally observed this news letter on the front page of Yahoo about a week ago. I was amazed. I read the article, I didn’t see a video, and was just shocked. I believed it!

      Then I saw the video.

      Observations:
      1) The keyboard is not a QWERTY keyboard, it is in alphabetical order. (5:30 in your video marystack). It is a small (perhaps useless observation) but an observation nonetheless.

      2) I want YOU and everyone reading this to watch HOW FAST she’s moving his hand around. In a previous article I read (I don’t have a source, I’m sure you can find it) it said that she could feel him motioning which direction to go to type.

      Do this: You and a friend, both with your eyes completely open, looking at a paper with ABCDEF etc to Z, have your friend put their hand into your hand and see if you can move to the right letter that they’re wanting to go to. Tell them to use minimal movement. Sure – it’s possible, but NOT NEARLY as FAST as this woman guides this man’s hand. I call BS.

      It’s sad, really. I understand that people like this only want the best for the family & friends, and really – the world. For all of us to see hope, it really is great. But unfortunately, cases like these, psychics, and other things are merely FAKE.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I saw the video but could not ascertain whether his eyes were fully closed. Belgium has universal health coverage but I assume you mean that the doctor is the author? I found “Dr Laureys has published it in a medical journal” but no mention of a book deal. Source? He may have other motives but the jury is still out.

    • collapse expand

      “I saw the video but could not ascertain whether his eyes were fully closed.”

      If you’re referring to the video I posted above, surely you jest!! He’s actually asleep!!! I strongly suggest you watch it again…CLOSELY.

      “but I assume you mean that the doctor is the author?”

      No. Listen to the presenters last sentence!!

      If you’re referring to another video, I apologize. You must watch the link I posted above.

      Can you type with 1 finger with your eyes closed??? Try it for yourself. I can’t and I touch type 80wpm.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Sorry, I watched many videos but I turned off the sound to better observe the process. It is agreed that Mr. Houben is in a vegetative state and it is define as “a condition in which the eyes are open and can move” The question remains does his? I dislike the angle of the camera because it can create the illusion of eyes fully closed. The fact that Mr. Houben is writing a book does not mean he will make any money and seriously what else can he do with his limited ability. I found two persuasive quotes that if true are weighing against skepticism:

        “One of the checks Laureys applied to verify Houben was really communicating was to send the speech therapist away before showing his patient different objects. When the aide came back and Houben was asked to say what he saw, that same hand held by the aide punched in the right information, he said.”

        “The family and doctors then began trying to establish communication. A breakthrough came when he was able to indicate yes or no by slightly moving his foot to push a computer device placed there by Laureys’ team. Then came the spelling of words using the touchscreen.”

        This video was informative as well

        http://cosmos.bcst.yahoo.com/up/player/popup/?rn=3906861&cl=16811817&ch=4226723&src=news

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Let’s talk about observation.

          I originally observed this news letter on the front page of Yahoo about a week ago. I was amazed. I read the article, I didn’t see a video, and was just shocked. I believed it!

          Then I saw the video.

          Observations:
          1) The keyboard is not a QWERTY keyboard, it is in alphabetical order. (5:30 in your video marystack). It is a small (perhaps useless observation) but an observation nonetheless.

          2) I want YOU and everyone reading this to watch HOW FAST she’s moving his hand around. In a previous article I read (I don’t have a source, I’m sure you can find it) it said that she could feel him motioning which direction to go to type.

          Do this: You and a friend, both with your eyes completely open, looking at a paper with ABCDEF etc to Z, have your friend put their hand into your hand and see if you can move to the right letter that they’re wanting to go to. Tell them to use minimal movement. Sure – it’s possible, but NOT NEARLY as FAST as this woman guides this man’s hand. I call BS.

          It’s sad, really. I understand that people like this only want the best for the family & friends, and really – the world. For all of us to see hope, it really is great. But unfortunately, cases like these, psychics, and other things are merely FAKE.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Scott, I have seen the video and agree that the hand movements are brisk. I would undoubtedly be slow and clumsy but Mr. Houbain has had the advantage of operating the keyboard for three years (a comparatively long time). I think we will all know in time if this case was wishful thinking but it does not appear to be fraud on the part of the Houben family.

  6. collapse expand

    I wonder if you did a minimum of research before writing this article. I doubt it – and that throws in my opinion very bad light on you and how you value your own skeptic principles.

    Not only did brain scans clearly show that there is the activity of a conscious man. But also there were several tests done to confirm his writing is real. The tests you suggest.
    Add up to this, that the procedure of him learning to use the device took 3 years (starting with a hard to hoax yes-no device).

    And the main point btw. of the doctors that published the story, is that this happens way more often than people think. A large amount of people thought to be in coma are actually just unable to react strong enough.

    Some basic fact checking would IMO be the minimum before you can seriously pull the work of these experienced doctors into doubt. You might do more harm than good.

  7. collapse expand

    All due respect, but where are these brain scans you’re referring to – reference to them.

    Where are these tests that “confirm” his writing is real – reference to them.

    If you’re going to call out the author of this article about doing research, show the facts, else your argument can be claimed to be just as invalid.

    • collapse expand

      Most of these statements – including the fact that a brain scan was the thing that made them aware of Rom Houbens situation can be found in this article (which is AFAIK the one breaking these news): http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,663022,00.html

      Including this statement: “Naturally, I tested him to rule out the possibility that it’s actually the speech therapist doing the writing,” says Laureys. “We are sure that Rom is conscious.”

      Everything else can be found in there, or via a simple google search. Which is the minimum research that should be expected from the writer.
      Especially judging from a little video and pretending to know better than the people there is extremely unscientific or lets say: unskeptical towards himself.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  8. collapse expand

    I’m not going to join the main debate going on in the comments. Instead, I wanted to note that this phenomenon, the ideomotor effect, often occurs without the “subject” being consciously aware of his/her involvement. It is important to recognize this so that these therapists, if found “guilty” of such an effect, aren’t burned at the stake for fraud. Instead, they themselves earnestly believe they are not responsible for these hand movements (as was the case with the autism facilitators).

  9. collapse expand

    There’s only one way to conduct this in a way that clearly will rule out any foul play. The facilitator must not understand the language used by the previously comatosed patient. The patient will then have to steer the facilitators finger letter by letter. Tha facilitator will not understand anyting that will be written so he/she can not take control over the writing. Rathe basic if you ask me.

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    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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