Religious and Spiritual Dimensions of Disorders of Consciousness

Patients with traumatic brain injury are sometimes diagnosed with Disorders of Consciousness, which encompass comatose, vegetative, and minimally conscious states. Over the course of the last semester, I interviewed religious practitioners and academics to explore what religious traditions have to say about brain damage and the implications it may have on personhood in a medical context. Using the spatial metaphor of being “in there” to structure these conversations, my goal was to aid interdisciplinary communication and explore the religious significance of disorders of consciousness.

Through this work, three core topics emerged. First, we encountered a relational account of personhood—that, although clearly something is lost in cases of DoC, what makes the person a person is undamageable and maintained through relationships with others. Second, we discussed the idea that what must be measured to make this diagnosis is too subtle for metrics. Third, we explored the idea of the inherent sacredness of the individual. The analysis closes with an exploration of the ethical implications raised by these three themes: the relational account of personhood, the immeasurability of consciousness, and the inherent sacredness of the individual.

By starting a conversation between humanistic domains such as philosophy and religious studies and the scientific domain of clinical medicine, I hope to provide a platform for future discussions and to promote collaboration between seemingly disparate disciplines.

Note: Julia's audio essay is available in the sidebar as a podcast episode, as well as on the Institute for Spirituality and Health's podcast series.