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Singer, J.L. (1997). Commentaries. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 45:753-759.

(1997). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 45:753-759

Commentaries

Jerome L. Singer

In a course I teach at Yale on the psychology of consciousness, we begin by watching a videotape of a television interview conducted by Barbara Walters with the actor Christopher Reeve. As readers may recall, Reeve is now (after a horseback riding accident) a quadriplegic, his life and speaking ability sustained by artificial breathing and throat airflow technology. His situation is all the more tragic because his was a tall, muscular, and athletic body so well-proportioned that he came to fame portraying Superman in several very successful films. In effect, in viewing the video, one is observing a “talking head.” The young man seems thoroughly articulate (except for occasional gasps for air), and his face seems appropriately expressive emotionally. In addition to answering questions clearly, he provides detailed differentiated memories, speaks of his hopes for some recovery, his practical plans for the future, and his disappointment at having to forgo acting and directing opportunities scheduled before the accident, and describes his love and appreciation for his family. He goes beyond this to narrate at one point some of his own stream of consciousness when he would awaken during the night from a dream in which he seemed normal to a recognition of his current desperate plight and to the realization that should his mechanical breathing apparatus fail there would be no way he could help himself or summon others. In effect, we see unfolding the varied and complex manifestations of conscious ongoing thought in a man who is at this point little more than a talking head. The living un-injured brain and the sense organs located in his head are sufficient to sustain a complicated, rich personality and to provide evidence of the wide range of conscious experiences of which this courageous and insightful man is capable.

In class we speculate whether, in exchange for restored movement control and physical activity, a man like Reeve would accept even the body of a “nebbish” like Woody Allen. Most felt he would. But would he consider a brain transplant? Not likely.

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