Near-death experiencs (NDEs) were in the news for all the wrong reasons last month, with journalist Luke Dittrich's 'exposé' of bestselling author and NDEr Eben Alexander in Esquire spreading far and wide across the internet. Dittrich painted Alexander as a medical professional of dubious reputation (on the basis of several malpractice suits) who was more than a bit 'creative' when it came to the facts of his case.
In my original story about the Esquire exposé I urged some caution in taking it all at face value, and in a follow-up piece noted one example of how Dittrich himself seems to have a been a bit 'creative' (or at least selective) in quoting the Dalai Lama about Alexander's case. But NDE researcher Robert Mays has gone one step further and put a blowtorch to a number of the claims in the Esquire article (PDF), and discovered that it seems to have distorted the facts of the case. Along with the out-of-context Dalai Lama statements that I covered, Mays gives statements from a number of those involved that corroborate facts which Dittrich claims were fictions by Alexander. Perhaps the most important of which is a statement by Dr. Laura Potter, who was used by Dittrich as the hammer to drive the final nail into the coffin of Eben Alexander's credibility. Dittrich's article squashes Alexander's claim that he was essentially without a mind during his illness in the following words: "I ask Potter whether the manic, agitated state that Alexander exhibited whenever they weaned him off his anesthetics during his first days of coma would meet her definition of conscious. 'Yes', she says. 'Conscious but delirious'." But Mays says that Potter was in fact alarmed by the way her remarks were twisted, with the doctor making the following statement via email:
I am saddened by and gravely disappointed by the article recently published in Esquire. The content attributed to me is both out of context and does not accurately portray the events around Dr. Eben Alexander’s hospitalization. I felt my side of the story was misrepresented by the reporter. I believe Dr. Alexander has made every attempt to be factual in his accounting of events.
In the 15-page article, Robert Mays makes clear his dismay at what appears to be a long list of serious errors and/or misrepresentations made by Dittrich and Esquire, and further aggrieved by the fact that Esquire made a point of asking online readers to pay $1.99 because "great journalism isn't free". Mays concludes:
Dittrich's article was irresponsible because of the impact — the real harm — the resulting distortions have caused. I am sure Luke Dittrich and his editors felt completely justified, based on what they felt was a solid case against Eben Alexander. They probably also considered the negative effect that Dittrich's article and its conclusions would have on Alexander and others, and similarly felt justified. In their minds, Eben Alexander is a complete fraud and deserves to be exposed as such.
But did Luke Dittrich and his editors exercise sufficient care in building their case? In my opinion they did not: the facts presented in the article were distorted or completely wrong and the conclusions are totally unwarranted. And the result has been devastating to those people who know the facts and how utterly wrong they were portrayed in the article. They include all of the people I mentioned two paragraphs above, especially Dr. Laura Potter whose statements were misrepresented and distorted by Luke Dittrich to establish the central fact of his case. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama would be quite dismayed that his warm, supportive statements to Eben Alexander have been so cleverly distorted into the exact opposite of his meaning.
But the person most harmed is Dr. Eben Alexander, whose reputation has been severely damaged on the basis of Dittrich’s erroneous, distorted judgments. From now on, many people will associate Eben Alexander with altering records, embellishment, fabrication and delusion.
Mays goes on to note the irony that Dittrich used the malpractice suits against Alexander to sow seeds of doubt about the surgeon's character in his readers' minds, and yet "Mr. Dittrich's actions in investigating and writing the article and Esquire's unabashed endorsement of it rise to the level of malpractice" themselves.
Link: "Esquire article on Eben Alexander distorts the facts" (PDF)
LOTS of news coverage today (BBC, Discovery, Wired, Livescience, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, io9) for some recent experiments conducted on euthanized rats, which appears to show a coherent "surge of synchronous gamma oscillations" that occurred in the first 30 seconds after cardiac arrest in the animals. According to the paper's authors, this data suggests "the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death". In interviews with news outlets, they put this into layman's terms, noting how their data might be linked to the near-death experience: All the data, they said, "show the fingerprints of neural consciousness at near-death is at a much higher level compared to the waking state. That explains the realer-than-real human experience".
Coverage, of course, concentrated on what this might mean for the mystery of the 'near-death experience' (NDE) - and most of it took Olympic-sized leaps of logic. For instance, the Smithsonian website wrote that the research shows "near-death experiences are most likely a random jolt of activity in our brain just before it shuts down permanently", while some 'skeptic' sites didn't even blush in proclaiming "Goddidit and supernaturalism sidle into the corner of explanatory power as the march of science proceeds".
But has this study done what these sites are claiming (and certainly, to a fair extent, what the study's authors have concluded)? On his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong quotes some cautionary words from Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège:
It’s terribly hard to make strong claims about what these rats actually perceived, or about possible conscious experiences. But the study definitely shows that there is a lot more electrical activity than expected, and it’s very interesting activity. It’s tempting to link that to what we hear in patients, but we need to be very careful.
I think this is exactly the right response at this time. This research provides some fascinating data, and a jumping off point for future research. It also should instill some caution in commentators and researchers into the near-death experience, when they say the brain "flat-lines" almost immediately after cardiac arrest (and, therefore, the NDE is unexplainable by physical sciences). Nevertheless, as long-time NDE researcher and resuscitation expert Dr. Sam Parnia notes on Yong's blog, previous EEG studies of humans during cardiac arrest haven’t found similar patterns to this latest experiment - is this fact a death-blow for the theory, or have we not detected this brain activity before because previous efforts with human subjects had the EEG electrodes on the outside of their skull? Regardless, we should remember that vaguely similar studies in the past have generated exactly the same headline, but have not gone much further.
There are further reasons to be careful in jumping to conclusions. Firstly, the 'correlation is not necessarily causation' argument - is this the brain generating the last moments of 'mind' before it perishes completely, as most people (or at least, newspapers and science journalists) probably assume, or is this 'mind' interacting with the brain as it leaves the physical body for the last time? People will generally read in whichever conclusion suits their particular reality tunnel.
Secondly, as near-death experience researcher Bruce Greyson explained to me recently, explaining the NDE isn't as simple as just finding a neural mechanism for the reports of a bright light, or the tunnel experience. Too often, he told me, skeptics completely ignore other evidential features of the experience, such as accurate out-of-body perception and encounters with deceased individuals not known to be dead. There is no shortage of both types of case, and these are truly what constitute a major part of the mystery of the NDE.
But all in all, an interesting piece of research that could possibly lead us to a better understanding of the NDE. Just let's not jump to conclusions either way at this early stage.
Update: Interestingly, the researcher doing these experiments was a co-author with DMT researcher Rick Strassman on a paper earlier this year regarding the presence of DMT in the pineal gland of rats.
Link: In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness (Not Exactly Rocket Science)
Floating separate to your physical body. A bright light, travel through a tunnel. These are the well-known markers of the near-death experience (NDE), the mysterious phenomenon that occurs to some 10-15% of people who flirt with death. But while the visual aspects of the NDE are quite well known, not so many are familiar with the auditory aspects of the experience: buzzing sounds, the 'tinkling of bells', rushing wind, angelic singing and beautiful symphonies.
One person that has become more familiar with the sounds of the near-death experience is Melbourne artist Saskia Moore. Over recent years, Moore has been working on a sonic art project titled 'Dead Symphony': researching, traveling and talking to scientists, doctors, people of religion, and in particular NDErs themselves, in order to document and try and reconstruct the sounds heard during a near-death experience. So what do we hear as we die?
It’s a digital, synthetic sound – that's how a lot of people describe it. Very beautiful, often like a choral sound but with sustained notes. Some said it was melodic, almost like chimes but not like church bells and not religious.
It has a cascading pattern, almost like a vibraphone duelling with itself in an endless pattern.
One listener told of 'a hum of electricity...silenced by a crack.’
...Transcribing this music has been an interesting process, devising ways and means to talk with non-musical people to describe, hum, and even at times colour and draw the sounds.
What I have heard and transcribed is a profound similarity of sonic atmospheres people hear during a NDE – it’s wild, fascinating and the stuff of goosebumps.
I read many books, documented people’s accounts of their Near Death Experiences and spoke with many scientists, doctors, people of religion, spiritualists and quantum mechanists.
In a short breath in time, my perspective of death has changed irrevocably. And in equal breath I remain wholly fascinated, confused and curious about it.
In the video above, Moore notes that one of the most fascinating things to her has been the commonalities of the sounds and melodies across NDE reports from people of all different ages, from all over the globe.
You can find listen to a sonic sample from Dead Symphony online, or if you're in Melbourne you can attend a performance of Moore's piece in the round at Arts Centre Melbourne from the 7th-10th of August.
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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