Can they Feel? The Capacity for Pain and Pleasure in Patients with Cognitive Motor Dissociation
© 2018 The Author(s) Unresponsive wakefulness syndrome is a disorder of consciousness wherein a patient is awake, but completely non-responsive at the bedside. However, research has shown that a minority of these patients remain aware, and can demonstrate their awareness via functional neuroimaging; these patients are referred to as having ‘cognitive motor dissociation’ (CMD). Unfortunately, we have little insight into the subjective experiences of these patients, making it difficult to determine how best to promote their well-being. In this paper, I argue that the capacity to experience pain or pleasure (sentience) is a key component of well-being for these patients. While patients with unresponsive wakefulness syndrome are believed to be incapable of experiencing pain or pleasure, I argue that there is evidence to support the notion that CMD patients likely can experience pain and pleasure. I analyze current neuroscientific research into the mechanisms of pain experience in patients with disorders of consciousness, and provide an explanation for why CMD patients likely can experience physical pain. I then do the same for physical pleasure. I conclude that providing these patients with pleasurable experiences, and avoiding subjecting them to pain, are viable means of promoting their well-being.