The Edges of Awareness

Imagine this. Following a brain injury you lie in a hospital bed and from the outside you appear to be totally unconscious. You don’t respond to anything the doctors or your family say, you make no voluntary movements, and although you still go to sleep and wake up there seems to be nobody at home. But your ‘inner universe’ of conscious awareness still remains, perhaps flickering and inconsistent, but definitely there. How could anyone else ever know, and how could you ever communicate with your loved ones again? Two new radio dramas, The Sky is Wider and Real Worlds, engage with these critical questions by drawing on the cutting edge of the neurology and neuroscience. I helped develop these dramas, working with writers Linda-Marshall Griffiths (The Sky is Wider) and Jane Rogers (Real Worlds). The dramas, commissioned by BBC Drama, were based on discussions at a Wellcome Trust Experimental Stories workshop (Cambridge, 2014) and were both produced by Nadia Molinari for BBC Radio 4.

In The Sky is Wider, we imagine the inner world of Ella who’s brain injury has left her in a minimally conscious state. The scientific methods that underpin the drama are at the cutting edge of neurology and neuroscience. The drama explores an ‘active approach’ in which the neurologist asks questions of the patient in an attempt to communicate and to ascertain their level of consciousness by examining the brain responses, without relying on the patient’s behaviour.

In Real Worlds, Jane Rogers imagines what life is like for Ella 15 years later, when she is now fully conscious though still behaviorally unresponsive. Projecting forward some emerging technologies, we find that Ella is able to communicate using Virtual Reality (VR) and a Brain Computer Interface (BCI) which controls a speech synthesiser. But Charlie has struggled growing up without the support of her mother and is reluctant to communicate with her mother in VR.

More on the scientific background to these dramas is on my NeuroBanter post Edges of Awareness, and of course the best thing to do is simply to have a listen! The plays were originally broadcast on July 5 (The Sky is Wider) and July 6 (Real Worlds) as BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Dramas. UPDATE: I'm delighted that The Sky is Wider was nominated for the 2016 Prix Europa for radio fiction. (Unfortunately it didn't win.). BUT! It also featured in the BBC Radio 2016 Pick of the Year show, and has been nominated in a variety of categories for the 2017 BBC Audio Drama Awards. Fingers crossed!

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