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I have this sci-fi story concept where patients in a comatose state can have their brains stimulated with VR. For instance, the VR can be a dream "game" that helps the patient process trauma. I can see that this idea is morally questionable and invasive, but I was just wondering about the plausibility of the technology itself.

The only real-world knowledge I currently have is that some patients who came out of their comas said that they had the capacity to dream, while a few of them recounted endless nightmares. Hence, I would assume their brains could somehow be stimulated to dream, despite injury.

Would such a technology be plausible in a sci-fi setting?

EDIT: Thanks for the input, guys! Another point - to explain the complexity of the technology, I think an AI controlling the dream-game would make sense, as it would be able to process the great number of possibilities the patient wishes to take on their "journey", and it can "learn" the patient's brain such that the neural fibers will be easy to navigate. I hope that makes some sense.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding ani ben! A little tip about markdown: you need two spaces at the end of a line before hitting Enter once to get a soft linebreak or you need to hit Enter twice to get a paragraph. Most people on the network prefer paragraphs for readability. There is a little box at the top of where you type that can help you with markdown. You can also "suggest edit" on other peoples post to check their markdown (no need to submit the "edit" in that case). If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$ – Sec SE - clear Monica's name Apr 30 '18 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ This idea seems plausible in case of "Locked-in syndrome", but in case of real coma there (as far as we know today) not enough brain activity to respond to VR. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 30 '18 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander brain activity can be electrically stimulated... I'll add that to my answer, thanks. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 30 '18 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot - if we can get patient's brain to respond to VR, it can respond to "non-dream" communication as well. This makes this scenario technologically possible, but (as the author admits) morally questionable. Even in case of the best intentions ...Average Joe was just very average until he won the lottery and his life took turn for so much better. Little did he know that in reality he got into an accident and there wasn't much left of him... $\endgroup$ – Alexander Apr 30 '18 at 22:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander, The moral and ethical ramifications would be a fascinating component of the story. Would it be OK to use the combination of VR/coma to educate the individual? To reform them of an undesirable behavior? To redirect them to a more productive life? To remove drug dependency? It smacks a little bit of the movie Demolition Man, but it would still make a great story. You could argue moral superiority with prisoners... but coma patients? I love this concept! +1! $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 30 '18 at 23:07
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Depends on tech level

Under our current understanding and technology this is impossible. Things we do not exactly know are:

  • How do dreams work?
  • Why are some people able to enter lucid dreams and others not?
  • How do we stimulate nerves that precisely without turning the brain into mush by inserting too large/too many electrodes?

The last one is kinda important, because current VR systems use our real senses. Comatose patients hardly hear anything, hardly register touch, and hear things, well, hear things or not. They usually don't have enough brain activity to respond to anything, VR included, but brain activity can be electrically stimulated.

Technology you introduce must include:

  • Far greater understanding of brain functioning. To be on the safe side, describe it from a point of view of a regular guy who knows there was breakthrough, but is no neuroscientist. That way it'll be easier for your readers to swallow.
  • Ultra-thin electrodes and a way to insert them without damaging brain cells, or wireless brain stimulation, both to provide VR and to force enough brain activity for the patient to respond to VR.
  • High-power computers to translate between dream and VR in realtime and compensate for any drift between the dream world and VR world. In a dream you can't just tell your user "operation not allowed". Any interaction that the user can dream about (literally) has to be allowed, or the illusion will break. This would require a VR game engine with nearly true-AI power.

With that level of understanding of brain functions and stimulation that precise I guess you could just wake up most of your patients. This is already almost reality. But if you want to say that, for example, the remaining 20% that did not woke up were rewired to VR, yeah, I'd read that novel.

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There is not enough consciousness in the brain to interact with VR. Even if it could, it could be exploited. Such as the question in 2030 about ending someone's life is a crime, but it was thought that the person could be having a bad dream. So the same type of situation, such as a nightmare could be replayed over and over again in the VR, which would not be good for the sanity of the comatose person.

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