In this TEDx talk, neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick discusses his research into the experience of the dying, including death-bed visions and the like. Fenwick exhorts the audience to listen attentively, because the stories he tell about "our last great adventure" may well help them during their own, inevitable end. He sounds a little nervous and tentative during the talk, but I recommend his book The Art of Dying for a full and detailed exploration of these fascinating topics:
Peter Fenwick is an eminent neuropsychiatrist, academic and expert on disorders of the brain. His most compelling and provocative research has been into the end of life phenomena, including near-death experiences and deathbed visions of the dying person, as well as the experiences of hospice and palliative care workers and relatives of dying people. Dr. Fenwick believes that consciousness may be independent of the brain and so able to survive the death of the brain, a theory which has divided the scientific community. The 'problem with death' is deeply rooted in our culture and the social organization of death rituals. Fenwick believes that with serious engagement and through further investigation of these phenomena, he can help change attitudes so that we in the West can face up to death, and embrace it as a significant and sacred part of life.
Last week Scientific American featured an article titled "The Death of Near Death", by Kyle Hill (who you will not be surprised to learn is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation). I don't want to spend too much time deconstructing the article, but below I'll just point out a few things that irked me:
These criticisms of Alexander point out that what he saw was a classic NDE—the white light, the tunnel, the feelings of connectedness, etc. This is effective in dismantling his account of an “immaterial intellect” because, so far, most symptoms of a NDE are in fact scientifically explainable. [I won’t go into depth here, as another article on this site provides a thorough description of the evidence, as does this study.]
One might argue that the scientific description of NDE symptoms is merely the physical account of what happens as you cross over. A brain without oxygen may experience “tunnel vision,” but a brain without oxygen is also near death and approaching the afterlife, for example. This argument rests on the fact that you are indeed dying. But without the theological gymnastics, I think there is an overlooked yet critical aspect to the near death phenomenon, one that can render Platform 9 ¾ wholly solid. Studies have shown that you don’t have to be near death to have a near death experience.
Who has overlooked it? It's been a mainstay of near-death experience research since not long after Raymond Moody published his seminal book on the topic, beginning with probably Noyes and Kletti's 1976 articles on "Depersonalization in the Face of Life-Threatening Danger". It's been regularly discussed by NDE researchers ever since, and if anything, it actually makes explaining the NDE an even more complex task.
In 1990, a study was published in the Lancet that looked at the medical records of people who experienced NDE-like symptoms as a result of some injury or illness. It showed that out of 58 patients who reported “unusual” experiences associated with NDEs (tunnels, light, being outside one’s own body, etc.), 30 of them were not actually in any danger of dying, although they believed they were . The authors of the study concluded that this finding offered support to the physical basis of NDEs, as well as the “transcendental” basis.
Why would the brain react to death (or even imagined death) in such a way? Well, death is a scary thing. Scientific accounts of the NDE characterize it as the body’s psychological and physiological response mechanism to such fear, producing chemicals in the brain that calm the individual while inducing euphoric sensations to reduce trauma.
Imagine an alpine climber whose pick fails to catch the next icy outcropping as he or she plummets towards a craggy mountainside. If one truly believes the next experience he or she will have is an intimate acquainting with a boulder, similar NDE-like sensations may arise (i.e., “My life flashed before my eyes…”). We know this because these men and women have come back to us, emerging from a cushion of snow after their fall rather than becoming a mountain’s Jackson Pollock installation.
You do not have to be, in reality, dying to have a near-death experience. Even if you are dying (but survive), you probably won’t have one. What does this make of Heaven? It follows that if you aren’t even on your way to the afterlife, the scientifically explicable NDE symptoms point to neurology, not paradise.
No it doesn't follow. It suggests it if you're opinion lies in some particular ideology. A supporter of the idea of an afterlife could just as easily say "it follows" that this shows the afterlife is real, because it shows that consciousness detaches from the physical body when it feels under threat. But, just like the above, it just offers support for their own ideology.
How can I dismiss the theological importance of NDEs so easily? As I said, I fully understand how real and valuable they can be. But in this case, as in science, a theory can be shot through with experimentation. As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.
The experiment is exploring an NDE under different conditions. Can the same sensations be produced when you are in fact not dying?
Really? Which experiments are we talking about? "Although physiological, psychological and sociocultural factors may indeed interact in complicated ways in conjunction with NDEs, theories proposed thus far consist largely of unsupported speculations about what might be happening during an NDE. None of the proposed neurophysiological mechanisms have been shown to occur in NDEs." - "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences", Bruce Greyson, Emily Williams Kelly, and Edward F. Kelly.
It has become clear that the 'skeptical' fraternity have a new favourite article when it comes to the near-death experience: "There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them", by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, published last year. Kyle Hill leans on it in this Sci-Am piece, and other skeptics have also done so recently. This, despite one of the authors of the paper making clear that the paper was a short piece, published in the 'Forum' section in Trends in Cognitive Science, that was simply meant to provoke debate. "The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review," Caroline Watt told told Alex Tsakiris. "It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example. It’s a bit like an opinion piece, like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate."
If skeptics want to continue referencing this article, they really need to combine it with the article I cited above by Greyson, Kelly and Kelly. It deals with each of these topics individually and in some depth. The point that becomes clear is this: "When examined in isolation, the features described in this section may seem potentially explainable by some psychological or physiological hypothesis, even though very little evidence exists that supports any of these hypotheses. When several features occur together, however, and when increasing layers of explanation must be added on to account for them, these hypotheses become increasingly strained." The authors point out that the real challenge facing these these explanatory models is in examining how complex consciousness, including thinking, sensory perception (e.g. veridical OBEs), and memory, can occur "under conditions in which current physiological models of mind deem it impossible", such as under general anesthesia or cardiac arrest.
Barring a capricious conception of “God’s plan,” one can experience a beautiful white light at the end of a tunnel while still having a firm grasp of their mortal coil. This is the death of near death.
What happens when you inject the brains of spirit mediums with radioactive tracers, and then watch their brains? Apparently, you see odd changes in brain behaviour. That's what happened when researchers took ten Brazilian mediums - half experienced, half not - and tracked their brain activity (or at least, regional cerebral blood flow [rCBF], which is closely correlated) using SPECT (Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography).
The researchers firstly did a control experiment, in which the mediums just did some normal writing, and then followed up with another scan while they were practicing 'psychography' - in which spirits allegedly write "through the medium's hand” while they are in a trance.
The finding that surprised the researchers was that the experienced mediums showed higher complexity in their writing while in the trance state, rather than in their control - and yet there was much less activity in the frontal and temporal lobes, the parts of the brain associated with reasoning, planning, generating language...that is, exactly where they should have had more activity for more complex writing.
During psychography, all mediums reported altered states of consciousness, but to different degrees. Experienced mediums spoke of a deeper trance, with clouded consciousness, often reporting being out of the body, and having little or no awareness of the content of what they were writing. Less expert mediums were in a less pronounced trance state and usually reported writing phrases being dictated to them in their minds.
...Subjects attributed their trance writing to “spirits”. Compared to normal writing, less expert mediums showed more activation in the same cognitive-processing areas during psychography, whereas experienced mediums showed a significantly lower level of activation. The less expert ones had to “work harder”, as shown by their relatively higher levels of activation of the cognitive processing area during psychography. Experienced mediums showed significantly reduced rCBF changes during psychography, which is consistent with the notion of automatic (non-conscious) writing and their claims that an “outer source” was planning the written content. Brain regions known to be involved in planning writing were activated less, even though the content was more elaborate than their non-trance writing. These findings are not consistent with faking or role-playing, both of which have been offered as explanations for psychography... studies of cognitive-processing regions involved in reasoning and planning written content showed decreased activity in the experienced mediums, who reported that they were not conscious of psychographed content and had no control over it.
...As the first step toward understanding the neural mechanisms involved in non-pathological dissociation, we emphasize that this finding deserves further investigation both in terms of replication and explanatory hypotheses.
No, it's not a vintage muppet show recording. The high-pitched voice in the above is said to be that of a dead person: 'Feda', a young Indian girl (allegedly) who was the main 'control' personality for the celebrated English medium Gladys Osborne Leonard (1882-1968) while she was in a trance. Feda was said to have died around the year 1800, while the recording here was made on the 17th of November, 1932.
Mrs Leonard was extensively investigated by members of the Society for Psychical Research over a long period, from the First World War till after World War II. In general they came to conclude that the medium exhibited some sort of supernormal ability to receive information. The SPR made this recording of Mrs. Leonard in trance, which was recently released on the album Okkulte Stimmen - Mediale Musik: Recordings Of Unseen Intelligences 1905-2007 (note: the initial image on the video is the album cover, and is not Mrs Leonard – her picture appears around 1:40 in). The track is labeled "Mrs Leonard and Her Spirit-control "Feda" With Reverend W. S. Irving and T. Besterman".
Also on the album is another sitter and 'spirit voice', this one a whole lot spookier sounding. Titled "Mrs Leonard With Reverend C. Drayton Thomas - 'Not To Be Played'", I've embedded it below.
A fair portion of both audio tracks are very difficult to make out - if anyone knows of transcripts out there I'd love to see them.
The Daily Mail is featuring a story on NDEs and quantum physics that is bound for the "if you read TDG, you would have known that ages ago" file:
A near-death experience happens when quantum substances which form the soul leave the nervous system and enter the universe at large, according to a remarkable theory proposed by two eminent scientists.
According to this idea, consciousness is a program for a quantum computer in the brain which can persist in the universe even after death, explaining the perceptions of those who have near-death experiences.
Dr Stuart Hameroff, Professor Emeritus at the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology and the Director of the Centre of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, has advanced the quasi-religious theory.
It is based on a quantum theory of consciousness he and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose have developed which holds that the essence of our soul is contained inside structures called microtubules within brain cells.
They have argued that our experience of consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects in these microtubules, a theory which they dubbed orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR).
Thus it is held that our souls are more than the interaction of neurons in the brain. They are in fact constructed from the very fabric of the universe - and may have existed since the beginning of time.
...With these beliefs, Dr Hameroff holds that in a near-death experience the microtubules lose their quantum state, but the information within them is not destroyed. Instead it merely leaves the body and returns to the cosmos.
Long-time readers of this site would know that this is hardly a new theory - Stuart told us all about it in a Daily Grail interview from back in 2004-2005. When I specifically asked him about the implications of his theory for near-death experiences, Stuart replied that "when the metabolism driving quantum coherence (in microtubules) is lost, the quantum information leaks out to the spacetime geometry in the universe at large. Being holographic and entangled it doesnt dissipate. Hence consciousness (or dream-like subconsciousness) can persist."
We've also mentioned the speculative theory of physicist Henry Stapp, that quantum physics allows for the possibility of an afterlife existence. But that was only 2 years ago, so you may have to give the mainstream media a few years to get onto that one...
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And you thought Hurricane Sandy had gone and ruined the Hallowe'en vibe...
A homeless woman made a spooky Halloween’s eve discovery on the Upper Green: bones from a centuries-old human body unearthed by a giant oak tree toppled by Superstorm Sandy.
The woman, Katie Carbo, made the discovery around 3:15 p.m. near the corner of College and Chapel streets. Visible among the roots of the tree is the back of skull, upside down, with its mouth open (pictured). It is still connected to a spine and rib cage.
Carbo called police, who confirmed the discovery. Detectives headed to the scene to investigate.
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)