Borderlands of living. Tracing states of (un-)consciousness between the irreversible and the potential

Name of applicant

Mette Terp Høybye


Aarhus University


DKK 2,897,000



Type of grant

Semper Ardens: Accelerate


Half of the people experiencing out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA), who are initially comatose, have uncertain prognosis. In this space of uncertainty, the project explores the high-stake collaboration and negotiation of researchers and clinicians working to break new ground in prognostics of unresponsive patients with uncertain consciousness, as they seek to distinguish between the irreversible vegetative state and the state of potential progression, minimally conscious, in people with anoxic brain injury after OHCA. The project will be asking questions about implications of knowledge making, navigation of ethics of hope, and how the embodied experience of the object of research affects attention and analysis, when investigating potential consciousness.


As unresponsive patients with uncertain consciousness become more prevalent in acute and long-term care, conversations of association and dissociation of responsiveness, personhood and consciousness gain increasing attention. It grips the heart and minds of the public, when diagnostic assessments of consciousness do not align with a family's understanding of personhood leading to disputes over treatment decisions or even litigation. To trace the uncertainties of prognostics, at the intersection of scientific and clinical reasoning, when looking for unambiguous signs of consciousness, this study carves out new trails in the conversations about the ethics of medical technologies and treatment, while critically examining the relationality of knowledge and methodological innovation.


The project is carried out as a multi-sited anthropological fieldwork, using ethnographic strategies of participant observation, conversation and interviews in an interdisciplinary setting, following the experimental fMRI protocol and its interactions with the clinical staff, the patients with severe brain injury, the families, and the researchers, as images materialize, responses are tracked and possible reasoning emerges about the potential for treatment or the lack thereof, despite the purely experimental nature of the protocol. This will inform conversations on being human and add insights into how uncertainties of potential and personhood are negotiated in search of unambiguous signs of consciousness.

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