In 2001, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel put the mystery of near-death experience in the headlines when a study he co-authored on the topic featured in the top medical journal The Lancet. Surveying 344 patients who survived cardiac arrest, van Lommel and his co-researchers came to the surprising conclusion that "all the reported elements of a Near-Death Experience (NDE) like an out-of-body perception, meeting with deceased relatives or a life review were experienced during a transient functional loss of the cortex and of the brainstem, with a flat line EEG".
In the above recent lecture, Pim van Lommel outlines his ground-breaking research, gives several examples of "veridical perception" during NDEs, and discusses his theory of 'non-local consciousness' that arose out of his research findings.
Link: Pim van Lommel's website
Last week near-death experiencer Dr. Eben Alexander, author of the book Proof of Heaven, was the focus of an exposé by Esquire magazine that claimed, among other things, that he had take some licence with the truth in his book to help sell his story. At one point in the article, titled "The Prophet", author Luke Dittrich describes a scene in which the Dalai Lama cautions against uncritically believing extraordinary tales such as the one told by Alexander.
The Dalai Lama is not a native English speaker, and when it’s his turn to speak, he does so much less smoothly than Alexander, sometimes stopping and snapping his fingers when a word escapes him, or turning to his interpreter for help when he’s really stuck. He is not using notes, and the impression he gives is that of a man speaking off the cuff. He opens with a brief discourse about the parallels between the Buddhist and Shinto conceptions of the afterlife, and then, after glancing over at Alexander, changes the subject. He explains that Buddhists categorize phenomena in three ways. The first category are “evident phenomena,” which can be observed and measured empirically and directly. The second category are “hidden phenomena,” such as gravity, phenomena that can’t be seen or touched but can be inferred to exist on the basis of the first category of phenomena. The third category, he says, are “extremely hidden phenomena,” which cannot be measured at all, directly or indirectly. The only access we can ever have to that third category of phenomena is through our own first-person experience, or through the first-person testimony of others.
“Now, for example,” the Dalai Lama says, “his sort of experience.”
He points at Alexander.
“For him, it’s something reality. Real. But those people who never sort of experienced that, still, his mind is a little bit sort of…” He taps his fingers against the side of his head. “Different!” he says, and laughs a belly laugh, his robes shaking. The audience laughs with him. Alexander smiles a tight smile.
“For that also, we must investigate,” the Dalai Lama says. “Through investigation we must get sure that person is truly reliable.” He wags a finger in Alexander’s direction. When a man makes extraordinary claims, a “thorough investigation” is required, to ensure “that person reliable, never telling lie,” and has “no reason to lie.”
Then he changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts.
The event at which these comments were made was filmed, and you can watch it via the video at the top of this story (the relevant section starts around the 45 minute mark). What is interesting about it is that Dittrich does not directly quote the Dalai Lama after he "wags a finger in Alexander's direction". This might be because the words he would have had to quote were (as best I can make out): "and in this particular case, there seems no reason to lie”. Which would seem to change the entire vibe of that passage in Dittrich's article...
Strangely, also, where Dittrich finishes by saying “he [the Dalai Lama] changes the subject, starts talking about a massive project to translate ancient Tibetan texts” - he doesn’t. The Dalai Lama actually talks for about 10 minutes at that point on the dialogue in recent years between himself/Buddhism and science on the topics of mind and emotions (in which he says the gap between them is due to one being about individual knowledge, the other about universal knowledge). I'm not sure why Dittrich described it differently.
It does seem though that Dittrich certainly made the DL’s comments seem a whole lot more accusatory than they actually were…
(Note: this post isn't meant as a defence of Alexander, and there are many more points to the article worth discussing. Just making clear that 'skepticism' about authors and intent should cut both ways. For his part, Eben Alexander's Facebook page has noted that "a complete response is forthcoming" to the Esquire article.)
For much of this year, a book about near-death experiences has sat close to the top of the bestseller lists: Proof of Heaven, by neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, which tells the story of his encounter with an afterlife realm while suffering from bacterial meningitis. It has sold, it is said, around 2 million copies. I have previously mentioned some quibbles I have with it, even moreso now that it has risen to become the 'poster-boy' for the NDE over the past year. But a new investigative article for Esquire by Luke Dittrich, titled "The Prophet" (*requires a small fee to read), has found much, much more to be concerned about, and is being covered by all the major news outlets: it states that Dr. Eben Alexander has had a number of malpractice suits against him over the years, alleges that he may have actively tried to modify the evidence in some of those, and that he also both fabricated parts of his book and did not mention other relevant details:
From one point of view, the point of view that Fox & Friends and Newsweek and Oprah and Dr. Oz and Larry King and all of his other gentle interrogators have helped perpetuate, Dr. Eben Alexander is a living miracle, literally heaven sent, a man capable of finally bridging the chasm between the world of spirituality and the world of science. From this point of view, he is, let's not mince words, a prophet, because after all, what else do you call a man who comes bearing fresh revelations from God? This point of view has been massively profitable for Dr. Eben Alexander, has spawned not just a book sold in thirty-five countries around the globe but a whole cascade of ancillary products, including a forthcoming major motion picture from Universal.
But there is another point of view. And from this point of view, Dr. Eben Alexander looks less like a messenger from heaven and more like a true son of America, a country where men have always found ways to escape the rubble of their old lives through audacious acts of reinvention.
I have mixed thoughts on the article. Firstly, I think there's certainly a vibe that Dittrich tried his hardest to paint Alexander in a bad light. The malpractice stories are no doubt serious business, but in apparently 'dredging' these up Dittrich gives the feeling that Alexander had swept this unfortunate part of his career under the rug. But while he definitely didn't explicitly point them out in his book, the adopted Alexander did make clear that he had issues that began around 1999, after he had slipped into depression after finding out that his biological sister had died a year before he set out to find her, and his biological parents were refusing his request for contact. He plainly states that an "ocean of sadness", caused by the feeling of being "cut off from my source" had derailed him "both emotionally and professionally", and that his job had suffered as a result ("My depression had ramifications in my work...it killed me that my career in academic neurosurgery was slumping...for much of the next seven years my career, and my family life, continued to suffer"). While it would be nice if all authors were plainly honest about the facts of their life, I am not exactly surprised that there were no precise details within the book's pages about the complaints (and even if he did put it in the manuscript, I'm pretty sure his editor would have stripped that out for commercial reasons). Dittrich himself makes clear that Alexander is hardly a hack or a quack ("four different former residents of Alexander's use the word brilliant to describe him"), so I find it unfortunate that ... Read More »
Something strange is going on at the Manchester Museum, where an ancient Egyptian statue moves by itself. Remaining still at night, the statue can clearly be seen turning in a perfect circle during daylight hours. Dating back to 1800 BC, it was found in the tomb of Neb-Sanu, and has some museum staff speaking in hushed tones of ancient curses. Egyptologist & curator Campbell Price is perplexed:
"I noticed one day that it had turned around. I thought it was strange because it is in a case and I am the only one who has a key. I put it back but then the next day it had moved again. We set up a time-lapse video and, although the naked eye can’t see it, you can clearly see it rotate on the film.
The statuette is something that used to go in the tomb along with the mummy... In Ancient Egypt they believed that if the mummy is destroyed then the statuette can act as an alternative vessel for the spirit. Maybe that is what is causing the movement."
Is it a possessed statue, a very cheeky hoax, or can Professor Brian Cox explain it with science & a Moog synthesiser? The statue has more spin than Zahi Hawass. While you ponder the mystery, we've sent two Grail investigators to the museum for answers. Stay tuned!
Update: Who Forted may have cracked the case. Good work Scooby!
Research projects investigating the near-death experience and the 'life review' component of the NDE are among the first recipients of funding from The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside, selected from among 75 proposals. The Immortality Project was established at UC Riverside in 2012 with a $5 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality.
The funded proposals include:
- “A Multi-Centre Pilot Study of the Mind, Brain, Consciousness and Near Death Experiences during Cardiac Arrest” —Dr. Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation science at the Stony Brook Medical Center, N.Y., will examine the nature of human consciousness and mental processes during cardiac arrest and their relationship with brain resuscitation.
- “The Life-Review Experience: phenomenological, psychological and neuroscientific perspectives” — Dr. Shahar Arzy of Hadassah Hebrew University, Jerusalem, will examine the life-review experience reported in many near-death experiences, including its prevalence and relationship to life events.
- “The Role of Near-Death Experiences in the Emergence of a Movement: A Quasi-Experimental Field Study of IANDS” — Ann Taves and Tamsin German of the University of California, Santa Barbara will examine the role that near-death-experience-related accounts and experiences play in shaping and reinforcing the potency of afterlife beliefs in the near-death-experience movement.
Other recipients include noted skeptics of the survival of consciousness, such as Professor Bruce Hood. According to the Immortality Project's principal investigator John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at UC Riverside:
The research should push forward the frontiers of knowledge about death and immortality in various ways. I expect that we will advance our understanding of the prospects for increasing human longevity and of the ability of certain creatures (hydra) to achieve a kind of immortality by reproducing themselves; that we will achieve a more refined evaluation of the nature, significance, and impact of near-death experiences; and that we will gain a better understanding of the relationship between our ‘commonsense’ or ‘natural’ beliefs about personhood, religion, or the deceased and our views about immortality.
Hamlet famously said about death, ‘No one comes back from that country.’ But one of the projects hopes that we can gain some insights about death and the afterlife from immersion in a virtual reality that depicts a kind of survival after death. The projects thus explore a fascinating and wide range of issues through, broadly speaking, empirical research into the great questions about death and immortality.
Preliminary results of the science research projects will be presented at a conference in June 2014. The full list of funded projects can be found at the University of California website, and more information about The Immortality Project can be found at their official website.
Dr Ian Stevenson's research into the question of the survival of consciousness beyond physical death extended over a number of decades, and covered a number of topics from near-death experiences to reincarnation memories. For those that would like to get a handle on his seminal body of work, look no further than the recently released book Science, the Self, and Survival after Death: Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson, edited by another excellent researcher on these topics, Emily Williams Kelly.
Ian Stevenson was a prominent and internationally-known psychiatrist, researcher, and well-regarded figure in the field of psychical research. Science, the Self, and Survival after Death is the first book devoted to surveying the entirety of his work and the extraordinary scope and variety of his research. He studied universal questions that cut to the core of a person’s identity: What is consciousness? How did we become the unique individuals that we are? Do we survive in some form after death? Stevenson’s writings on the nature of science and the mind-body relationship, as well as his empirical research, demonstrate his strongly held belief that the methods of science can be applied successfully to such humanly vital questions. Featuring a selection of his papers and excerpts from his books, this collection presents the larger context of Stevenson’s work and illustrates the issues and questions that guided him throughout his career.
You can find an informative post regarding the book, along with a detailed table of contents, at the blog of Carlos Alvarado.
Yesterday, three women escaped from a house where they say they were held captive for a decade. One of those women was Amanda Berry, whose mother, Louwana Miller, was told by 'psychic' Sylvia Browne in 2004 - a year after her disappearance - that she was dead:
Miller: Can you tell me if they’ll ever find her? Is she out there?
Browne: She’s–see, I hate this when they’re in water. I just hate this. She’s not alive, honey. And I’ll tell you why, here we go again. Your daughter was not the type that would not have called you... I’m sorry they didn’t find the jacket. I’m sorry they didn’t find, because that had DNA on it.
Louwana Miller died in 2006, without having full closure on the case of her missing daughter - though news reports from that time indicate that Sylvia Browne's comments ended her hopes that Amanda might be found alive. "She was never the same" from that point on, said one person that knew her.
This is not the first time that Sylvia Browne has been horribly wrong about a missing person. In 2007 Shawn Hornbeck was found alive, after Browne had previously told his parents that he was dead. In 1999 she told a missing girl's grandmother that she had been kidnapped and put into slavery in Japan, but four years later her body was found in the U.S. - investigators found that she had been killed shortly after her abduction. The list of terrible gaffes goes on.
I'm not an easy person to anger, but this list of cases gets my blood boiling, and here's why: the incorrect calls I could live with, if it was offered privately just as a "I've got a feeling, but I could well be wrong". But to go on TV, and tell these people outright the fate of their children in public - sometimes even rebuking them when they throw doubt on what you're saying - is just wrong on so many levels. Perhaps some readers of this blog are Browne fans; I can't apologise for my opinion. If there's one skill I have, it's being able to pick a person's character very quickly, and Browne has always sent a shiver up my spine (for all the wrong reasons). The growing list of cases where she hurt families with misinformation only confirms my gut feeling.
And if you are someone who thinks there might be something to psychic powers or mediumship, there's a further reason to dislike Browne. Her ineptitude and callous attitude throws the entire field into disrepute, even though there are some indications that 'something' might be going on that is worthy of scientific investigation. While this woman has (somehow!) made a fortune peddling her nonsense, scientific researchers struggle for funds to research aspects of mediumship properly.
There could well be something to mediumship. Heck, Sylvia Browne may even have some minor psychic powers, who knows? But no medium has ever been shown to be right 100% of the time, and so anything that comes from them should always be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly not told flatly to the parents of missing children on popular TV shows. Browne's track record now offers ample evidence that if she has any psychic talents, they are buried deep and rarely show themselves amongst a farrago of incorrect and harmful statements.
Stop Sylvia Browne. Don't buy her books, watch any TV shows she is on, or reward her in any way for what she does. Enough is enough.
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A popular link doing the rounds at the moment is to a question posed to Redditors regarding their kids: "Parents of Reddit, what is the creepiest thing your young child has ever said to you?" Obviously, some of the answers get a bit paranormal (seeing weird people in rooms/closets etc) so it's a fun read, but there's a also a few that sound very much like reincarnation-type stories. For example:
"Before I was born here, I had a sister, right? Her and my other Mom are so old now. They were ok when the car was on fire, but I sure wasn't!"
He was maybe 5 or 6 years old? It was totally out of the blue..
The reincarnation-style quotes sound very similar to those collected by researchers Dr. Jim Tucker and the late Dr. Ian Stevenson , both from the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. I've embedded a video at the top of this story in which Dr. Jim Tucker describes this phenomenon:
Very young children, usually between the age of 2 or 3, who start reporting that they have memories from having had a past life. Some of them talk about being deceased relatives, but others will talk about being strangers in other locations. And if they give enough details like the name of the other location, people have often gone there and found that in fact someone had died in the recent past whose life matches the details that the children gave.
Given that there were a few reincarnation-type stories in the original Reddit thread, a 'Past Lives' sub-Reddit has been set up for discussion of those specific types of statements.
Not sure how this TEDx talk is still alive, given recent events, but I'm glad it is. Award-winning writer Patricia Pearson describes a strange event that happened to her sister at the time their father died, and how it inspired her to research further into the mysteries of consciousness and the possibility of an afterlife:
When we found out...what had happened to my sister on this particular night, it instantly transformed the narrative of what was a really brutal shock of losing my father, all of a sudden it took on a kind of mythic resonance in fact, and it became the story of how my father somehow went to my sister and reassured her, and then went ahead of her, and was there for her when she died, as she did, two months later.
Now I'm a journalist and so I was immediately extremely preoccupied with the question of what the hell just happened?
Skeptics often say that the near-death experience (NDE) is a type of hallucination, but those familiar with the literature will know that many NDErs describe the phenomenon as "realer than real", rather than some sort of surreal, cloudy dream-like experience. Now, researchers from the University of Liège have backed up the accounts of those near-death experiencers, in a study which found that the NDEs seem to be "unique, unrivalled memories" that "have more characteristics than any kind of memory of real or imagined events". That is, NDE memories seem more real than even memories of actual events.
The researchers compared phenomenological characteristics in reports of near-death experiences with memories of imagined and real events, using three groups: 8 coma survivors who had an NDE (as defined by the Greyson NDE scale), 6 coma survivors who didn't have an NDE but did have memories of their coma, and 7 coma survivors with no memories, as well as an additional control group of 18 age-matched healthy volunteers. Five different types of memories were assessed using a standard memory questionnaire. The results were surprising, to say the least, showing that...
...NDE memories have more characteristics than memories of imagined and real events (p<0.02). NDE memories contain more self-referential and emotional information and have better clarity than memories of coma (all ps<0.02). The present study showed that NDE memories contained more characteristics than real event memories and coma memories. Thus, this suggests that they cannot be considered as imagined event memories. On the contrary, their physiological origins could lead them to be really perceived although not lived in the reality. Further work is needed to better understand this phenomenon.
It's worth noting that by comparing the NDE memories with the memories of other (non-NDE) coma survivors, the researchers uncovered an interesting fact: NDE memories don't seem to be strong simply because of the death component, as has often been surmised, but rather as a consequence of the content of the experience.
So what do we make of this finding that NDE memories seem to be 'more real' than real memories? That obviously depends on the paradigm you're embedded within, as evidenced by press release covering the results and this subsequent LiveScience story about it:
The brain, in conditions conducive to such phenomena occurring, is prey to chaos. Physiological and pharmacological mechanisms are completely disturbed, exacerbated or, conversely, diminished. Certain studies have put forward a physiological explanation for certain components of NDE, such as Out-of-Body Experiences, which could be explained by dysfunctions of the temporo-parietal lobe. In this context the study published in PLOS ONE suggests that these same mechanisms could also could also 'create' a perception - which would thus be processed by the individual as coming from the exterior - of reality. In a kind of way their brain is lying to them, like in a hallucination. These events being particularly surprising and especially important from an emotional and personal perspective, the conditions are ripe for the memory of this event being extremely detailed, precise and durable.
Glad we've swept those pesky results under the carpet...
Read the original paper: "Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as Compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories"