Last week I quickly mentioned that the topic of near-death experience had made the cover of Newsweek. I didn't have much time to discuss it then (and I still don't, really) because…I'm writing about near-death experiences (for my book). But at the time, I quickly mentioned on my Twitter account a couple of things that concerned me about the case, and the big publicity it was getting:
- That the Newsweek piece was pitched as 'Proof of heaven/afterlife', but no real evidence was offered in the article.
- That Eben Alexander's experience actually didn't sound overly like a typical NDE…in fact, it sounded a whole lot more like a psychedelic experience via entheogens such as Salvia or DMT.
My latter point was quickly supported by a satirical article on Gawker which asked readers to try and pick whether phrases were from the Newsweek NDE feature, or from internet postings about drug experiences. The former point was, as could be predicted, picked apart by prominent atheists, including P.Z. Myers and Sam Harris.
Now firstly, I'm not as concerned as some that Newsweek ran the story - it's a human story, and fascinating in its own right, something that a lot of peope would want to read. Hardly an "archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations", as Sam Harris would have it (whoah there with the hyperbole Sam!). All the same, I think Harris makes some good points in his critique, most notably:
Everything — absolutely everything — in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.”
Where I would urge caution though, and Sam Harris even quickly mentions this himself, is that we should probably be reserving judgement until the book itself is released (on October 23). Now, some blame should go to Newsweek's headlining department, because I expected some decent evidence to be put forward, when it wasn't. But there are elements to the case that weren't mentioned in the Newsweek article which will obviously be in the book, and which no doubt led Alexander to his conclusion that his 'NDE' was proof of an afterlife. Perhaps the most prominent of which was that the woman he interacted with during the experience was his birth sister whom he had never seen an image of before (Alexander was adopted out), and who had died just a few years previous to his illness. He mentions it in this clip:
Now, from his description of how this all played out, I'm sure skeptics could pull this piece of 'evidence' itself apart enough to show there are scenarios that explain how he saw his dead sister. But it does make clear that there are other interesting elements to the story that convinced Alexander to his way of thinking (and may convince others). So perhaps we should steady down with the criticisms for now.
Though I'm not sure Dr Alexander and his publishers would be overly concerned with more publicity at this stage - his book is currently (as I write) #2 on Amazon, and it's still a week away from official release. Ahem, Newsweek, I have a cool book out soon that you might like to mention…
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 7, which is now available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK (collectors/investors: a Limited Edition hardcover is also available). The Darklore anthology series features the best writing and research on paranormal, Fortean and hidden history topics, by the most respected names in the field: Robert Schoch, Nick Redfern, Loren Coleman, Robert Bauval and Daniel Pinchbeck, to name just a few. Darklore's aim is to support quality researchers, so it makes sense to support Darklore. For more information on the series (including more free sample articles), visit the Darklore website.
by Greg Taylor
In the shadow of Christmas 1908, almost one hundred people sat quietly within a heated hall as another long Icelandic winter’s night began. The sound of scuffing feet and low murmurs dominated the hall, as the tense crowd waited for a glimpse of the young man they had come to see. When he finally emerged from an adjoining room, the handsome 25-year-old strolled with purpose towards the pulpit at the centre of one end of the room. Seating himself at the nearby table – the only one in the room – he nodded to the official already seated and waiting for him. The white noise of the room died a sudden death; another official surveyed the crowd silently, instructed one man to lock the doors to the hall, and then another to put out the lamp illuminating the room.
Suddenly another light source appeared: a candle, lit beside the harmonium player, who launched into a hymn medley, accompanied by several people in the audience. The young man sat motionless on his chair for a long while, his hands clasped at his chest, as if in prayer. Then, suddenly his head and hands fell, as if a puppeteer had loosed his strings. The lead official signaled to the harmonium player, who brought the hymnal accompaniment to a close as the candle was extinguished. As the light died, the assembled group caught one last glimpse of the young man, as the official seated beside him suddenly grabbed his arms forcefully. The whole hall seemed to suck inward through pure weight of the tension in the air, as darkness enveloped all and through the silence only deep breathing could be heard.
And then, a voice sliced through the stillness, simultaneously making one hundred hearts jump. From the general area of the pulpit, with little fanfare, the dead had made their appearance. Talking through the entranced medium, the ‘control’ personality greeted all those present and introduced himself. Then, behind the crowd, another of the dead announced itself, and again, to the side of the hall a woman’s voice addressed the audience in French. From the front of the hall the official called confirmation, “I am still holding his arms!”.
A strong breeze rushed across the hall, confusing those who knew the doors and windows of the hall were locked shut. Cracking sounds were heard in the air, bringing the tension to fever pitch, when the harmonium player began shouting. He had felt the instrument begin lifting off the floor, and had thrust his left foot onto the floor while keeping his right foot on one of the pedals, in order to steady himself. Nevertheless, as the harmonium continued to bob across the floor he was compelled to jump along with it, until it was suddenly snatched away. The official immediately called for the lights to be turned back on, and those present were stunned to find the harmonium had been moved on top of a table on the east side of the hall, though nobody had heard any sound of it moving there or being put onto the table. It took two men to lift the roaming instrument down from its perch, and they did so with some difficulty – and not without some noise.
The young man at the centre of this maelstrom woke from his trance, blinking at the bright lights. Not yet fully awake, he staggered from the hall, barely able to remain upright, apparently unaware of the extraordinary happenings in the hall just minutes before. ... Read More »
It's always good to see coverage of the near-death experience in the mainstream media, and the cover of Newsweek is some pretty decent coverage:
When leading neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander found himself in a 7-week coma in 2008, he experienced things he never thought possible - exclusively excerpted from his upcoming book Proof of Heaven, he shares his journey to the afterlife in this week’s Newsweek. Pickup the issue on newsstands Monday and for your iPad today!
In this fascinating 27 minute video, parapsychologist Barry Taff discusses the beginning of his career and subsequent involvement in the famous 1970s poltergeist case of Doris Bither, the story of which was adapted into the film The Entity (which Martin Scorcese listed as #4 on his list of the scariest horror films of all time). Taff himself experienced paranormal phenomena as a child, but retains skepticism about the majority of cases that he has investigated. But this particular case he describes as one of the highest peaks from his casebook.
(via The Eyeless Owl)
One of the more rational writers out there on the paranormal is Chris Carter (no, not that one, or that one) - his books Parapsychology and the Skeptics (now titled Science and Psychic Phenomenona) and Science and the Near Death Experience are cogent, well-argued explorations of the research into parapsychology and the evidence for an afterlife. So I'm eager to get my hands on his latest book, Science and the Afterlife Experience, released last week. Here's the back cover blurb:
In this book Chris Carter shows that evidence of life beyond death exists and has been around for millennia, predating any organized religion. Focusing on three key phenomena - reincarnation, apparitions, and communications from the dead - Carter reveals 125 years of documented scientific studies by independent researchers and the British and American Societies for Psychical Research that rule out hoaxes, fraud, and hallucinations and prove these afterlife phenomena are real.
The author examines historic and modern accounts of detailed past-life memories, visits from the deceased, and communications with the dead via medium and automatic writing as well as the scientific methods used to confirm these experiences. He explains how these findings on the afterlife have been ignored and denied because they are incompatible with the prevailing doctrine of materialism. Sharing messages describing the afterlife from the dead themselves, Carter reveals how consciousness exists outside the parameters of biological evolution and emerges through the medium of the brain to use the physical world as a springboard for growth. After death, souls can advance to higher planes of consciousness or manifest once again on Earth. Carter’s rigorous argument proves - beyond any reasonable doubt - that consciousness not only survives death and continues in the afterlife but also that it precedes birth as well.
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"There's nothing paranormal about near-death experiences." So said the title of a journal article last year that got widespread, uncritical coverage (e.g. Sci-Am, Boing Boing). I mentioned a few criticisms of the article here on TDG at the time, and just a few weeks ago another academic article labeled it a "prejudicially skeptical review" of the research into the cause of NDEs. And now, some of the heavyweights of NDE research have also had their say.
In a letter that can be found in the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences (the journal that published the original article), Dr Bruce Greyson, Dr Janice Miner Holden and Dr Pim van Lommel - three of the most respected names in the near-death experience research field - have taken the paper to task, most notably for the misleading nature of its title:
In a recent article in this journal entitled ‘There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences’, Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt concluded that ‘[t]aken together, the scientific evidence suggests that all aspects of the near-death experience have a neurophysiological or psychological basis’. We suggest that Mobbs and Watt explained ‘all aspects’ of near-death experiences (NDEs) by ignoring aspects they could not explain and by overlooking a substantial body of empirical research on NDEs. In a subsequent radio interview, Watt acknowledged that they had avoided looking at any evidence for veridical out-of-body perception, resulting in their being unable to evaluate whether or not there was empirical evidence of anything paranormal about NDEs (http://bit.ly/MITeGP). But if Mobbs and Watt did not consider the evidence for possible paranormal features, then their claim that there is nothing paranormal about NDEs is not evidence-based.
Ouch. The researchers suggest that scholars should respond to "all relevant data, not just data supporting the a priori assumption that NDEs must be reducible to known neurophysiology", but also voice their belief that NDEs are "entirely lawful and natural phenomena that can and should be studied by scientific methods, rather than dismissed without investigation."
In the same issue, one of the original authors (Dean Mobbs) has responded to the criticism, saying that while Greyson et al should be "congratulated for their highly respected research in documenting these experiences", they (and others) "have not provided any compelling evidence concerning NDEs that contradicts what we already know about the brain."
Dr Melvin Morse, well-known for his research and books on the topic of near-death experiences in children, was arrested on Tuesday along with his wife, on charges related to the alleged 'water-boarding' of their 11-year-old daughter.
Morse was originally arrested last month after a neighbour reported he grabbed the 11-year-old girl, who is his step-daughter, by the ankle and dragged her across a gravel driveway, taking her inside to spank her. After being released on bail, he was arrested again this week after detectives interviewed the girl at the local Child Advocacy Center, where she had told them that her father had "disciplined her by what he called “waterboarding” — holding the daughter’s face under running water, causing the water to fill her nostrils and over her face", while her mother watched on.
The daughter told police she “could never understand what she did to be punished” and felt scared, court documents reported. Once, she said, her father told her he “was going to wrap her in a blanket and do it so that she could not move.” In another instance, she said Melvin Morse told her that “she could go five minutes without brain damage.”
“Melvin would sometimes look away while he did it and (redacted) would become afraid that he would lose track of time and she would die,” police wrote in court documents.
...After her father did these things, the girl said she would “go outside and cry,” prompting Melvin Morse to come outside and then “hold her nose and mouth with his hand,” police said in court records.
“He would tell her she was lucky he did not use duct tape,” police said in the documents. “He would not let go until she lost feeling and collapsed to the ground.”
The girl’s younger sister was also interviewed and told social workers she saw this happen to her sister, but that “it has never been done to her because she is too young for it.”
The Delaware Attorney General’s Office has since filed a motion for the emergency suspension of Morse’s medical license, while the children are now in the care of the Division of Family Services.
One leading skeptic, Ben Radford, has suggested that Morse's use of oxygen deprivation as a 'punishment' may have been an attempt on his part to induce a near-death experience in his step-daughter.
These charges, making news around the world, certainly throw a dark shadow over the pediatrician's pioneering work on near-death experience accounts by children, as recounted in books such as Closer to the Light.
Update: This Washington Post article quotes Morse's attorney as saying the daughter has previously made false reports about abuse (at that time, a half-sibling). Please remember this is still an untried case at this time, so it's difficult to come to many conclusions at this early stage.
Yesterday we posted a link to a paper calling for serious, open-minded research into the near-death experience. Happily, today we're posting news that this looks very likely to happen.
The Templeton Foundation - set up by Wall Street pioneer John Templeton "as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality" - has awarded a 3-year, $5 million-grant to Professor John Martin Fischer at the University of California to study the concept of immortality, from both a religious and scientific viewpoint (ie. 'heaven' vs physical immortality):
UC Riverside philosophy professor John Martin Fischer will receive $1 million of that to host conferences on campus about the afterlife, to support post-doctoral students and to run a website for research on the topic. Then Fischer will administer competitions to dole out the remaining $4 million to researchers worldwide in the sciences, social sciences, philosophy and theology, he said.
“It doesn’t mean we are trying to prove anything or the other. We will be trying to be very scientific and rigorous and be very open-minded,” he said. Fischer described himself as skeptical about an afterlife but said he believed that “endless life without death could be a good thing.”
Titled "The Immortality Project", the grant recognizes "the present time as an auspicious one" in which to launch a unified, organized, and open-minded research project into questions such as:
- Whether and in what form(s) persons survive or could survive bodily death.
- Whether and to what extent persons’ beliefs about immortality influence their behavior, attitudes, and character
- Why and how persons are (at least pre-reflectively) disposed to believe in post-mortem survival
- Whether it is in some sense irrational to desire immortality
The aims of the project appear to show a real desire to approach this much-neglected topic from a number of angles, from researching the possibility of an afterlife, through to discussing whether belief in immortality of some kind might be irrational.
On the topic of future research into NDEs, Fischer noted that...
We will be very careful in documenting near-death experiences and other phenomena, trying to figure out if these offer plausible glimpses of an afterlife or are biologically induced illusions. Our approach will be uncompromisingly scientifically rigorous. We’re not going to spend money to study alien-abduction reports. We will look at near-death experiences and try to find out what’s going on there — what is promising, what is nonsense, and what is scientifically debunked. We may find something important about our lives and our values, even if not glimpses into an afterlife.
Do near-death experiences (NDEs) offer proof of life after death, or are they just a symptom of a misfiring brain? The debate over this topic has largely become polarized between these two assumptions, but a new paper by two Italian scientists suggests that the NDE remains an unexplained phenomenon, and should therefore be the focus of further unbiased, (truly) skeptical research.
In a new paper published online by the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Enrico Facco and Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova, Italy, work their way through the current set of orthodox explanations for elements of the NDE - including centripetal ischemia of the retina, anoxia, temporal lobe disfunction and psychological expectation - showing how each doesn't offer the answer to these strange experiences had by people facing death.
The authors take issue with the approach of a high-profile scientific paper from late last year that reviewed these same explanations in a far more positive manner ("There is Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences"), labeling it a "prejudicially skeptical review" of the research into the cause of NDEs. "The idea that NDEs are the mere results of a brain function gone awry looks to rely more on speculation than facts", say Facco and Agrillo, "and suffers from bias in skipping both the facts and hypotheses that challenge the reductionist approach".
The paper also notes that while neurobiological correlations between NDEs and brain locations are worth researching, we should be careful not to over-simplify in looking for a conclusive 'NDE part of the brain':
The neurobiological correlations between NDEs, the parieto-temporo-occipital junction, the limbic system, and the temporal lobe are relevant; however, it is widely known that statistical correlations of mental and biological processes do not imply that the former totally derive from the latter and do not prove any cause-effect relationship between the two. Exactly as our legs are the substrate or correlate of walking, neural networks are necessary for mental phenomena, but this does not imply we decide to run because of legs. Even assuming a casual relation, which is not the case, abnormal activity in the temporal lobe or other locations might be sufficient for the occurrence of some features of NDEs, but concluding that such pattern activities are necessary for NDEs is another thing.
Facco and Agrillo suggest more open-minded research is needed into all elements of the NDE, including "odd" aspects that seem "hardly compatible with our present knowledge" (such as veridical OBEs), in case they offer new discoveries regarding as-yet unknown properties of consciousness. In a refreshing take on how science should approach the NDE, they note that "even the oddest facts, if true, should not be neglected but rather received with an open mind and investigated for the sake of coherence with the essence of scientific knowledge."
Read full text of "Near-death experiences between science and prejudice".
One thing I've found while researching the book I'm working on, is that death (and by association, the 'afterlife') is a topic that people don't like talking about, and to all of our detriment. It is one of the biggest, if not *the* biggest moment in our lives (given that it ends it), and there should be far more open discussion of the event and what it means to each of us. So I'm really enthusiastic about the documentary-in-progress Death Makes Life Possible:
What can we learn from the world’s wisdom traditions that helps us understand death and the worldviews people hold? What can science tell us about Life After Death and potential survival of the personality? What about Reincarnation? Heaven and Hell? Do our loved ones wait to guide us across the void at our time of passage? Do dreams help us prepare for our death and beyond? Is it possible to “defeat death” and remove the fear of death so that we may live more freely and more fully? Death Makes Life Possible explores these ideas and shows how contemplation of death may actually result in the achievement of unlimited peace and joy.
The good news is that you can help bring this documentary into the world, and get yourself a copy of the movie in the process, via their freshly-announced Kickstarter campaign. Here's the promo:
Featuring a number of our good friends, including Dean Radin, Stu Hameroff, Rupert Sheldrake, Marilyn Schlitz and Deepak Chopra, I'm sure many readers will be interested in backing this project. If you haven't seen the trailer yet, check it out below...certainly looks like a great feature.
Backing projects such as this helps people create quality content on topics you want to see. So get behind it, rather than enabling the big TV channels and the trash documentaries they are constantly showing.