"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.
Wow, after my post a few days ago regarding the faltering crowd-funding campaign for my afterlife book project, the Grailers out there have rallied! As I write this we're now only $84 away from reaching the project's original goal - that means we only need to pre-sell *ONE* more limited edition hardcover to cross the line a winner! Anybody want to take the honour? Click here and select the hardcover option to make my day.
Just to make note of the complete 'package' that you get with the pre-ordered hardcover, for those that haven't clicked through yet: it is not only one of a limited edition, but also signed by myself, and also will include your name within its pages (if desired) for posterity. Not to mention, with the package you also get the eBook gift pack - a DRM-free copy of the eBook version which you have explicit permission to give to 10 other friends/family. Some decent value there surely?
And if the hardcover is out of your range, remember you can still contribute by choosing from a number of other packages which all offer various degrees of awesomeness.
The clock is ticking - only 32 hours to go as I write this. Get in!
Update: Achievement unlocked! We've made the funding goal, with a little over 24 hours remaining - thanks so much for all your support! If you haven't already, make sure you grab one of the special deals before tomorrow if you want one (e.g. getting your name in the book, or the 10 eBooks for $20 package).
Grailers, your help is needed! There's less than a week to go on the crowd-funding campaign for the book I'm currently writing, on scientific research and personal experiences offering evidence for some sort of 'afterlife'. We've done amazingly well to get to 70% of the goal, but without a final effort we're going to fall agonizingly short (the promo on the right side of the page is currently lagging, there are actually only 4 days left!). Are you interested in the topic? If so, chip in a few dollars (or more), and get something awesome in return.
You can get THE ENTIRE BOOK as an eBook, DRM-free and in the format of your choice FOR JUST $5. Or, if you're a collector (or investor), you can grab a limited edition hardcover AND GET A PERSONAL THANK YOU PRINTED IN EVERY COPY, there for posterity. Take a look at all the packages on offer and see what takes your fancy. Even if you can't afford the paltry $5 'entry fee', at least help spread the word by posting about the campaign to your friends, on Facebook etc. You will at least have my deep appreciation!
Here's the promotional video once again to get you in the mood:
Mega-thanks to all those who have contributed so far, and for those willing to do so in the next 6 days to help get us across the line. Here's the link again, in case you missed it:
Cheers, and have a good weekend!
If, like me, you're interested in the field of scientific research into strange experiences at the time of death, then the "Final Passages" conference which took place a couple of weeks ago surely would have been a lot of fun to attend, with talks from the likes of Stan Grof, Raymond Moody, Pim van Lommel, Penny Sartori and Marilyn Schlitz:
The 2012 Bioethics Forum offered two days of thoughtful information-sharing and discussion regarding "Final Passages: Research on Near Death & the Experience of Dying." Designed for the general public, it focused on the sharing of scientific research and the consideration of related social and ethical issues. Many questions related to near death experiences (NDE), dying, and consciousness were addressed by global experts
Welp, here's the good news. All of the talks from that conference have now been made freely available online in video format. Woot, dig in!
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 1, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. 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 Bauval, Nick Redfern, Loren Coleman, Jon Downes and Daniel Pinchbeck, to name just a few. Darklore's aim is to support quality researchers, so it makes sense to support Darklore.
Hungry Ghosts: The Dark Side of the Paranormal
by Michael Prescott
Years ago, on a whim, a friend led me into a New Age bookstore in Los Angeles. At the time I was a committed rationalist and knew nothing about paranormal phenomena except what I’d read in skeptical, debunking books. Unlike my friend, who found the bookstore’s atmosphere amusing, and who enjoyed pointing out the bizarre titles and covers, I felt distinctly ill at ease. There was something disturbing about being immersed in all that occult literature. I felt as if I’d ventured into unknown territory – dangerous territory. And I was glad to leave.
Later, as I became interested in the paranormal and began to grasp the extent of the evidence for such phenomena, I chalked up my earlier reaction to a form of culture shock. There I was, a rather repressed rationalist, coming into close contact with ideas I found threatening to my worldview. After all, there was nothing actually dangerous about that little bookstore – was there?
Maybe there was. Over the years, as I’ve studied this subject, I’ve encountered a fair number of cautionary tales. People who become unduly interested in psychic phenomena – interested to the point of obsession – can find their mental health deteriorating, their relationships fragmenting, and their social status undermined. Of course, obsession is a bad thing regardless of its focus, but I suspect that it’s easier to become obsessed with the paranormal than with, say, stamp collecting. Something about this field of inquiry tends to draw people in and make them vulnerable to harm.
The Curious Case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Since I’m a writer, I take particular interest in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was one of the most popular writers of his day, and his Sherlock Holmes stories are still widely read and dramatized. Fairly late in life he became convinced that it was possible to communicate with the dead through mediums. As his interest grew, he neglected his fiction writing and spent most of his time traveling the world to attend séances and deliver lectures on spiritualism. His reputation suffered, and he was the target of ridicule from some quarters. He had a widely publicized feud with the debunking magician Houdini. Editors began to dread getting Doyle’s manuscripts in the mail, for fear that his latest contribution would be yet another essay on the talkative dead. Doyle’s fame was such that his essays were invariably published, but his editors weren’t always happy about that fact.
With the passage of time, Doyle’s critical faculties suffered. He became more credulous, more willing to vouch for even the most dubious phenomena. ... Read More »
Fascinated at the moment by the number of times I've come across two aspects of the near-death experience while researching my book Stop Worrying, There Probably Is An Afterlife: that the appearance of the deceased loved ones meeting the newly-dead is 'assumed' for the experiencer's benefit (a la Ellie Arroway/Jodie Foster's father in the movie Contact), and that communication with these individuals is nearly always explicitly noted as being via telepathy.
These elements are present in what I regard as one of the most 'archetypal' near-death accounts that I've ever come across (mentioned previously in my essay "Death Before Life After Life"), the story of Louis Tucker, a Catholic priest. What makes Tucker's NDE account doubly interesting is that it was described in his 1943 memoirs, Clerical Errors, published a number of decades before the near-death experience was common knowledge. The experience itself took place in 1909, when Tucker was suffering the life-threatening effects of a severe case of food poisoning. With the family physician in attendance, Tucker lost consciousness, and was shortly thereafter pronounced dead by the doctor:
The unconsciousness was short. The sensation was not quite like anything earthly; the nearest familiar thing to it is passing through a short tunnel on a train… I emerged into a place where people were being met by friends. It was quiet and full of light, and Father was waiting for me. He looked exactly as he had in the last few years of his life and wore the last suit of clothes he had owned…I knew that the clothes Father wore were assumed because they were familiar to me, so that I might feel no strangeness in seeing him, and that to some lesser extent, his appearance was assumed also; I knew all these things by contagion, because he did.
Soon I discovered that we were not talking, but thinking. I knew dozens of things that we did not mention because he knew them. He thought a question, I an answer, without speaking; the process was practically instantaneous… What he said was in ideas, no words: if I were to go back at all I must go at once…I did not want to go back; not in the least; the idea of self-preservation, the will to live was quite gone…I swung into the blackness again, as a man might swing on a train, thoroughly disgusted that I could not stay, and absolutely certain that it was right for me to go back. That certainty has never wavered.
There was a short interval of confused and hurrying blackness and I came to, to find myself lying on my bed with the doctor bending over telling me that I was safe now and would live… I told him I knew that some time ago, and went to sleep.
For more fascinating glimpses 'behind the veil' of death, make sure you pre-order a copy/package of Stop Worrying, There Probably Is An Afterlife from the IndieGoGo crowd-funding page - every order helps support the writing of the book, and is greatly appreciated.