Scientific investigation of the near-death experience (NDE) seems to be a hot topic lately - earlier this year, Dr Jeffrey Long's Evidence of the Afterlife sold bucketloads with some major mainstream coverage, and just last week I noted that Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life has now been released in the English language. Now there's an addition to that list: the upcoming book by Chris Carter, titled Science and the Near Death Experience:
Predating all organized religion, the belief in an afterlife is fundamental to the human experience and dates back at least to the Neanderthals. By the mid-19th century, however, spurred by the progress of science, many people began to question the existence of an afterlife, and the doctrine of materialism--which believes that consciousness is a creation of the brain--began to spread. Now, armed with scientific evidence, Chris Carter challenges materialist arguments against consciousness surviving death and shows how near-death experiences (NDEs) may truly provide a glimpse of an awaiting afterlife.
Using evidence from scientific studies, quantum mechanics, and consciousness research, Carter reveals how consciousness does not depend on the brain and may, in fact, survive the death of our bodies. Examining ancient and modern accounts of NDEs from around the world, including China, India, and tribal societies such as the Native American and the Maori, he explains how NDEs provide evidence of consciousness surviving the death of our bodies. He looks at the many psychological and physiological explanations for NDEs raised by skeptics--such as stress, birth memories, or oxygen starvation--and clearly shows why each of them fails to truly explain the NDE. Exploring the similarities between NDEs and visions experienced during actual death and the intersection of physics and consciousness, Carter uncovers the truth about mind, matter, and life after death.
Chris Carter is the author of the excellent Parapsychology and the Skeptics (but is not, it should be noted, the creator of a very cool TV show), so I'm looking forward to seeing how he lays out the case for the NDE in this new book. You can download a short excerpt as a PDF here. (Hat tip to Subversive Thinking for the heads-up.)
In 2001 the field of near-death experience (NDE) studies got a huge boost when medical journal The Lancet published "Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands", by a group of researchers including Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel. The surprising results of the study included long-term transformational effects on NDErs, and a tentative conclusion that the NDE might offer a glimpse of "a changing state of consciousness (transcendence), in which identity, cognition, and emotion function independently from the unconscious body, but retain the possibility of non-sensory perception."
As a cardiologist, Pim van Lommel was struck by the number of his patients who claimed to have near-death experiences as a result of their heart attacks. As a scientist, this was difficult for him to accept: Wouldn't it be scientifically irresponsible of him to ignore the evidence of these stories? Faced with this dilemma, van Lommel decided to design a research study to investigate the phenomenon under the controlled environment of a cluster of hospitals with a medically trained staff.
For more than twenty years van Lommel systematically studied such near-death experiences in a wide variety of hospital patients who survived a cardiac arrest. In 2001, he and his fellow researchers published his study on near-death experiences in the renowned medical journal The Lancet. The article caused an international sensation as it was the first scientifically rigorous study of this phenomenon. Now available for the first time in English, van Lommel offers an in-depth presentation of his results and theories in this book that has already sold over 125,000 copies in Europe.
Van Lommel provides scientific evidence that the near-death phenomenon is an authentic experience that cannot be attributed to imagination, psychosis, or oxygen deprivation. He further reveals that after such a profound experience, most patients' personalities undergo a permanent change. In van Lommel's opinion, the current views on the relationship between the brain and consciousness held by most physicians, philosophers, and psychologists are too narrow for a proper understanding of the phenomenon. In Consciousness Beyond Life, van Lommel shows that our consciousness does not always coincide with brain functions and that, remarkably and significantly, consciousness can even be experienced separate from the body.
For a short introduction to the author's thoughts, check out his article "Continuity of Consciousness" over at the IANDS website. Not only does van Lommel speculate about how consciousness might operate separately from the brain, but he also brings interesting (and controversial) questions to the table, noting that such an idea would necessitate "a huge change in the scientific paradigm in western medicine, and could have practical implications in actual medical and ethical problems such as the care for comatose or dying patients, euthanasia, abortion, and the removal of organs for transplantation."
The purpose of this quantitative study was first to investigate the comparative incidence of electromagnetic aftereffects (EMEs) during the past year among near-death experiencers (NDErs), people who experienced a close brush with death without an NDE (CBrs), and people who reported never having experienced a close brush with death (LCErs). The second purpose was to investigate a possible change in EME incidence among the three groups before and after a critical life event. The third purpose was to investigate the relationship between the reported overall depth and specific components of the subjective experiences of people who have had a close brush with death--NDErs and CBrs--and their reported incidence of EMEs.
...Findings from this study show that NDErs have a strong possibility of experiencing electromagnetic interferences when close to electromagnetic devices such as cell phones, computers, lights, and watches after their NDEs. This phenomenon can be a stressor in the lives of NDErs and their families and friends.
You can download the full dissertation as a PDF from here. Note that Nouri's advisor on the dissertation was respected NDE researcher Janice Holden, past-President of the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), who I'd imagine would have provided some good insights and criticism on this particular topic.
Real effect, or just a crazy self-confirming idea that NDErs take to after their experience?
One of the more fascinating facts about near-death experiences is that they are sometimes reported by very young children (somewhat confounding the 'cultural expectation hallucination' explanation). Here's an interesting short clip featuring the near-death experience research of Dr Melvin Morse which focuses on the NDEs of children:
Love the opening quote:
I used to think when you died, you just sort of died...that was it, you just sorta checked out into the darkness.
And when you've had a small child pat you condescendingly on the wrist, like I've had, and say 'You'll see Dr Morse, heaven is fun'...you can't help but be fascinated by these experiences.
And here's the NDE that kick-started Melvin Morse's interest in the topic:
You can learn more at the website of Dr. Melvin Morse, follow @NearDeathDoc on Twitter, and/or pick up a copy of Morse's book Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death Experiences of Children (Amazon US and UK).
Dr Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute has recently joined the Grail as a featured blogger. To get better acquainted with Julie and her research, here's her lecture at last year's SSE meeting, titled "Mediumship Under The Microscope: Science And The Afterlife":
This is a topic that personally fascinates me (all aspects, from the serious science through to techniques of fraudulent mediums) - really appreciate Julie taking time out of her busy schedule to post blogs for us here.
Previously on TDG:
In February 2007 I reported the sad news that Dr Ian Stevenson had passed away, aged 88. Known mainly for his perplexing case studies offering tentative evidence for reincarnation, Dr Stevenson was a pioneering and influential researcher in various 'fringe' fields, from parapsychology through to investigations of near-death experiences (he first wrote about the latter phenomenon in 1959, some 16 years before it was brought to prominence by Raymond Moody in Life After Life).
A year after Dr Stevenson's passing, the Journal of Scientific Exploration (JSE) devoted an entire issue to reflections and commentaries on his influence in a multitude of research fields - a fitting tribute, given his almost 50 years of exploring these topics, not to mention the fact that he was one of the founders of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). The line-up of contributors to this special issue is first-class, a veritable who's who of 'heretical science' researchers: Stephen Braude, Carlos Alvarado, Alan Gauld, Bruce Greyson, Peter Sturrock, Jim Tucker...the list goes on.
The cool thing is: you can now read this issue online (along with the previous 20 issues of JSE) for free! Head on over to the JSE page at the Society's website and you'll find downloadable PDFs of each article - absolutely top shelf stuff, I highly recommend a browse. You'll come away with not only a better understanding of a few of these fields (parapsychology, NDEs, reincarnation, etc), but a real respect for the life work of Dr Ian Stevenson.
Previously on TDG:
Is there such a thing as the human soul - and if so, is it something substantial that can be weighed? Pondering that question, Dr Duncan MacDougall set out to find the answer at the beginning of the 20th century, in a series of experiments that would have no chance of passing ethical boards in the modern day. MacDougall weighed six different patients in the process of dying from tuberculosis on an industrial sized scale. His surprising result: that, at the time of death, the scales measured (on average) 21 grams lighter.
A recent article on the Fortean Times website ("Soul Catcher", by Paul Chambers, originally from Fortean Times #262) outlines the story of Dr Duncan MacDougall, and ends with the summation that the experimental results are largely worthless:
MacDougall’s correspondence reveals a man with an unswerving belief in the existence of a human soul. At every turn he sought to justify his results in these terms, dismissing or ignoring any evidence to the contrary. It is, for example, possible that he ignored the results of the sixth patient because, in his own words, “there was no loss of weight” measured at the time of death. MacDougall explained in a letter that the negative result was probably due to the patient having been on the scales for only a few minutes, which caused him to doubt “whether I had the beam accurately balanced before death”. This seems like an afterthought used to explain an inconvenient result and one wonders what his reaction would have been should the result have been favourable.
This is hardly a shocking conclusion - MacDougall's methods have come under regular criticism since his anomalous results were published. Explanations have ranged from lack of control of moisture loss to air convection and vibrations from breathing and heart palpitations.
Coincidentally though, the recently-released Spring 2010 issue of the Journal of Scientific Exploration (24:1) has an article from Masayoshi Ishida rebutting a number of the claimed refutations of MacDougall's experiment. Here's the abstract:
A critical review was conducted on criticisms expressed in books and on websites of Duncan MacDougall's weight measurement experiment upon the death of terminally ill patients; theoretical simulations of MacDougall's experiment using a modern weighting system with load cells and thermohydraulic analysis were employed. The following conclusions were obtained: (1) the uncontrolled escape of moisture from bodies due to insensible perspiration has practically no effect on the conclusion of his experiment that there had been anomalous losses in the weight of his patients upon death; (2) the speculated effect of convection air currents on MacDougall's balance scales does not exist; (3) vibrational disturbances caused by cardiac and breathing activities, which disappear after the death of the patients, have practically no effect if the change in weight upon death is in the tens of grams rather than a few grams; and (4) the speculative tricky role of buoyant force of air on the body can be denied. Therefore, all the cases of his experiment do remain as pioneering cases published in a scientific journal. Theoretical implications of his experimental result and future perspectives of the experimental approach to this subject are discussed.
I do have to say that I think Ishida shoots his article in the foot somewhat by including some discussion of channeled information from 'Seth' in the final section on the experimental approach. While it does relate to the subject matter (whether correct or not), this mention means that no orthodox scientist is likely to take the rest of the article seriously.
Last week I posted about a new best-selling book concerning near-death experiences: Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Dr Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry. For more information on the book, make sure you have a listen to the latest Skeptiko podcast which features Dr Jeffrey Long discussing his research, and responding to skeptical arguments against the NDE:
While some near-death experience researchers have been reluctant to make the leap from NDEs to proof of the afterlife, Dr. Long is convinced by his research findings, “I’ve gone over every skeptic argument I can get my hands on. At the end of the day, I have no doubt in my mind near-death experience is for real. It’s a profound and reassuring message that we all have an afterlife. Every single one of us. And it’s wonderful. It is probably the greatest thrill of my life to be able to carry forward that important message to the world. I wouldn’t do it if I weren’t absolutely convinced that it’s correct.”
The conclusions of this research will be controversial, but Dr. Long stands ready to take on the critics, “I would be delighted to debate any near-death experience skeptic, any time, any place, on any media, as long as they’re scholarly, well informed, and as long as it can be a very high-level, intellectual debate.”
For those with limited download capacity, note that there is also a text transcription of the interview available.
The Windbridge Institute is an independent research organization dedicated to investigating human potential. One of their lines of research is anomalous information transfer received through 'mediums', and how this may provide proof of the survival of consciousness after the physical death of the body (see my interview with Dr Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute for more).
As part of their on-going research into these areas, the Windbridge Institute is currently seeking volunteers to act as sitters who will receive and score mediumship readings. If this interests you, head to their website for more information, and a secure, on-line pre-screening questionnaire.
Separately, Dr Beischel's former colleague Dr Gary Schwartz is recruiting for the Sophia Project Entity Communications Study:
Numerous individuals in various cultures throughout history have reported an ability to communicate with non-human entities, deceased people, and other-worldly beings. Over the past few years, an increase in the reporting of these types of experiences has been seen in popular American culture including books, websites, and television shows. The rational scientific investigation of this topic is necessary to either validate the experiences or elucidate the psychological mechanisms behind these phenomena. This study is intended to investigate this controversial topic in a thorough and objective manner.
The purpose of this study is to investigate the experiences of people who claim to channel or communicate with Deceased People, Spirit Guides, Angels, Other-Worldly Entities / Extraterrestrials, and / or a Universal Intelligence / God. The ultimate objective is to investigate if these communications can be validated under controlled conditions.
Zener cards seem so quaint by comparison...
The metaphor of science as 'a candle in the dark' originated with Carl Sagan, as the subtitle to his 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World (Amazon US). Since then, skeptics and atheists have adopted the line in force, from simply quoting Sagan through to naming conferences after it. In Chapter 2 of his book, Sagan outlines how he came to adopt the subtitle:
A Candle in the Dark is the title of a courageous, largely Biblically based, book by Thomas Ady, published in London in 1656, attacking the witch-hunts then in progress as a scam 'to delude the people'. Any illness or storm, anything out of the ordinary, was popularly attributed to witchcraft. Witches must exist, Ady quoted the 'witchmongers' as arguing, 'else how should these things be, or come to pass?' For much of our history, we were so fearful of the outside world, with its unpredictable dangers, that we gladly embraced anything that promised to soften or explain away the terror. Science is an attempt, largely successful, to understand the world, to get a grip on things, to get hold of ourselves, to steer a safe course. Microbiology and meteorology now explain what only a few centuries ago was considered sufficient cause to burn women to death.
Ady also warned of the danger that 'the Nations [will] perish for lack of knowledge'. Avoidable human misery is more often caused not so much by stupidity as by ignorance, particularly our ignorance about ourselves. I worry that, especially as the millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us - then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
Given the wide usage of this (rather hyperbolic) metaphor by the skeptical community, I was rather amused to read the following passage in Alan Gauld's The Founders of Psychical Research (page 149), published in 1968, which (pre-emptively) presents a rather different, almost contradictory, usage:
Myers once said that the most important question one could ask was 'Is the Universe Friendly?' and with this view several of his colleagues would in one way or another have concurred. There had lately been much to suggest to them that the Universe was neither friendly to mankind nor yet unfriendly; it was just blankly indifferent. Psychical research seemed to offer a touch of warmth and hope in face of this chilling prospect. It was at least a candle in the darkness which was beginning to loom on every side.
So is science a candle in the dark, or is it the encroaching darkness?