The Coma Man Hoax: Rom Houben's "Communication" Is "Ideomotor" Ouija Board Effect

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.
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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 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 firmed 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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