Are ghost sightings actually hallucinations caused by magnetic fields? Over recent years, a number of researchers have put forward this explanation for hauntings, perhaps most prominently Dr Michael Persinger (he of the 'God helmet'). A new paper by skeptic Jason Braithwaite casts a critical eye over some of these claims:
The implication from these studies is that some spontaneous haunt-reports may be explained, at least in part, as magnetically induced hallucinations. However, although this view is very popular, it is often misunderstood by scientists, sceptics, paranormalists and the general public. Quite often in the popular literature and on the unregulated non-peer-reviewed internet this 'neuromagnetic' account is cast as one claiming that strong magnetic fields may exist in reputedly haunted locations as metaphorical 'hot-spots' and as such may be responsible for some anomalous perceptions, that any 'blip' on an EMF meter is meaningful, or worse still, that such fields may well be some physical correlate of the paranormality of a haunting. In addition, it appears to be the case that the idea is being accepted somewhat uncritically by some researchers as its apparent basis in physics and biophysics can be quite seductive at first glance. As a consequence of these observations, it appears to be a good time to take a closer and more evidence-based look at an argument that while tantalising, may well be, at the very least, insufficient as it currently stands. The present paper provides a comprehensive examination of the evidence for an against the neuromagnetic account.
Read the entire paper: Magnetic Fields, Anomalous Experiences: A Sceptical Critique".
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This is an excellent 'amateur' YouTube documentary on the near-death experience, pieced together from various sources, and comprised of the testimony of NDErs themselves. Watching them struggle with the ineffability of the experience, be overwhelmed with the memories and emotions, it really does seem to put into the shade scientific efforts to explain the NDE as simply "manifestations of brain functions gone awry":
The video's YouTube page has a list of the source videos for those who would like to explore further.
In her eulogy for her brother Steve Jobs, writer Mona Simpson closes with the technology guru's final words:
Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times.
Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.
Steve’s final words were:
OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW.
When I quickly read through the eulogy yesterday, I assumed that Jobs was referring to his family (and how much he was in awe of them). But Steve Volk pointed out to me that Simpson says he looked at his family and then "over their shoulders past them". Which made me think - did Steve Jobs experience a death-bed vision? This would not actually be all that surprising - in the 2009 paper "Comfort for the Dying" (Fenwick et al), researchers found that almost two thirds of doctors, nurses and hospice carers that they surveyed reported witnessing transpersonal end-of-life experiences such as deathbed-visions. And one of the features of these visions is often looking past 'real' people in the room at 'intrusions' from another realm. For example:
[O]ne lady, about an hour before she died said, "they’re all in the room; they’re all in the room". The room was full of people she knew and I can remember feeling quite spooked really and looking over my shoulder and not seeing a thing but she could definitely see the room full of people that she knew.
I'm also reminded of an account found in Sir William Barrett's Death-Bed Visions - The Psychical Experiences of the Dying (post-humously published in 1926):
A matron was also present, and reported: “Her husband was leaning over her and speaking to her, when pushing him aside she said, "Oh, don’t hide it; it’s so beautiful."
...Her baby was brought for her to see. She looked at it with interest, and then said, "Do you think I ought to stay for baby's sake?" Then turning towards the vision again, she said, "I can't - I can't stay; if you could see what I do, you would know I can't stay."
Probably only Steve Jobs' immediate family would be able to tell exactly whether the words were meant for them, or describing something else that he was experiencing. But it's pretty damn awesome either way.
Update: You can read more about Steve Jobs' death-bed experience, and those of others, in my book Stop Worry! There Probably is an Afterlife
Last month I facetiously noted that skeptics now count anecdote as evidence, after much celebration in the wake of British newspapers claiming that 'Psychic Sally' Morgan had been caught out using an earpiece to receive information. In that post, I noted that a prevailing attitude amongst many skeptics was "if she's innocent, then she can sue". Welp, apparently she's going to do just that:
On behalf of Sally Morgan we would like to confirm that Sally Morgan has instructed Graham Atkins of Atkins Thomson to commence libel action in relation to press allegations that she is a cheat, following her show in Dublin. Thank you for your support and patience in this matter. Sally Morgan Management Team.
At his Jack of Kent blog,lawyer David Allen Green has so far discussed the topic in two parts (one and two). He firstly compares it to the infamous BCA libel case against Simon Singh, and then seems to spend some time trying to point out 'anomalies' in Sally's statements
(though he later updates the post to concede that these statements were probably justified) (personal opinion withdrawn, see statement in the comments below from David Allen Green).
I said plainly at the time this first happened that skeptics and newspapers had gone way too far in their claims in this case, based on the source (a few callers to a radio show) and the counter-claim (the theatre manager said Sally's alleged information sources were actually just light technicians employed by him). From all I have heard, 'Psychic Sally' makes a good living from her performances, and newspapers printed a headline claiming that she had been caught using an earpiece to receive information during her Dublin show. Regardless of what anybody's opinion is on (a) psychic abilities and (b) Sally Morgan's abilities and honesty, I think in this case it simply boils down to whether the newspapers can show their claim to be correct. In the end, this case will have far less to say about the reality (or not) of psychic abilities than it will about poor journalistic standards.
To reiterate what I said in my previous post, I don't have a clue about 'Psychic Sally', I've never heard of her before this. But given she makes her living from her 'ability', I'm not surprised that she's willing to take legal action against news headlines like this. At least we might get an insight into the truth of this matter, if the lighting technicians and radio callers are brought into court (though I think perhaps more likely is that the newspapers will happily pay out a settlement based on the extra sales/eyeballs they got out of the story).
I recently replied to a commenter on Boing Boing (under the story "The Science of Near-Death Experiences") who had asked about so-called 'negative near-death experiences' - ie. NDEs which are marked by visions of hellish domains, darkness and so on. The experiences I cited in that comment were taken from Nancy Evans Bush's chapter in The Handbook of Near Death Experiences, titled "Distressing Western Near-Death Experiences: Finding a Way Through the Abyss".
Coincidentally, a couple of days later I noticed on the IANDS website the news that Nancy Evans Bush has an online blog, Dancing Past the Dark, and also is shopping around a book that she has written on negative NDEs - although that's not a term she likes to use, because negative "suggests bad as opposed to good. And that is just plain misleading... A distressing NDE is emotionally painful, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It hurts, but hurting often leads to discovering the source of a problem and getting past it."
These 'other' NDEs were for a long time ignored by the NDE research community, but are now finally starting to be recognized and discussed. This is an important development, not least for those who have experienced distressing NDEs and subsequently had to process what it means about them as a person. According to Nancy Evans Bush...
[I]f your NDE was frightening, or terrible, or convinced you that you’re going to hell when you die, or left you feeling guilty, you’re probably wondering what’s wrong with you. Does this mean you’re damned? Kicked out of heaven? A wicked, horrible person? Are your sins that terrible–or was that a psychotic episode? Again, the safe answer is, “Probably not.” The bad news is that you’re going to have to work harder than if you’d had a beautiful NDE to figure out the real meaning of the experience in your life.
Here is a most important fact: There is NO evidence that good people get good NDEs and bad people get bad ones. Yes, what is called the “conventional wisdom”–the folklore of just about everybody–tells us that people get what they deserve. But a quick look around tells us that the real world doesn’t work that way. Babies and little children and kindly, helping, delightful people were just as likely to be killed in the recent string of tornadoes as were the drug dealers and child abusers.
What 30 years of study tell us is that nobody knows why people get the NDEs they do. Saints have had terrible experiences, hellish experiences, glimpses of nightmarish scenarios. But they were still saints. People who are generally disapproved of–whoever is on your list of “mustn’ts”–have reported NDEs full of light and love and wisdom.
So what’s the point of being good if it doesn’t make a difference in whether you get punished? And why would you be treated that way if you’re not a bad person? For one thing, because maybe it’s not about punishment. Maybe it’s about learning something you wouldn’t have otherwise. And maybe the point of being “good” is because it’s a happier, more satisfying way to live.
Read more at Dancing Past the Dark.
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Welp, that's one mystery solved. According to Scientific American, "Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations":
Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one's "soul" has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.
...Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences. "Many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained," says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
The article is based on a new journal paper, "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 the aforementioned neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, and co-author Caroline Watt (well-known 'psi researcher' from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh).
I haven't seen the full paper (but given the offers of help regarding the Paul Davies paper last week,
I'm sure a copy might find its way to me soon...*ahem* sorted, thank you!), but my first thought when reading the Sci-Am article was basically "this isn't really news". For years many neurological explanations have been offered for various elements of the NDE, and on their own they are interesting enough. The intriguing aspect to the NDE though is why all these particular elements would combine at the time of death, and then coincidentally just happen to provide 'the illusion' of a glimpse into an afterlife.
I don't know of any researchers that consider the NDE to be 'purely paranormal' - they all seem to agree that the experience would be at least mediated by the brain in some way. As I said, I haven't read the paper at this stage, so am reluctant to say too much about it, but given the title ("There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences"), I will be interested to see how Mobbs and Watts manage to not only point out the brain's involvement in the NDE (which is, as I said, basically a given), but also disprove any paranormal element to the phenomenon.
Focusing on a couple of the things mentioned in the Sci-Am story: firstly, as for expectation creating the experience, I'd note that I've written an article previously on NDEs reported well before there was any public knowledge about its phenomenology ("Death Before Life After Life), and as for Olaf Blanke's "out-of-body experience" research, we've covered that previously as well. For a very detailed counterweight to the Sci-Am article though, I'd recommend the paper "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences", by Bruce Greyson, Emily Kelly and Edward Kelly (found in The Handbook of Near Death Experiences), in which they cover most of the elements mentioned and explain why they don't really work as explanations, as well as bringing up salient points about the non-explained factors - such as enhanced mentation at a time when the brain is supposed to be shut down, as well as the anomalous aspects of the NDE, including reports of veridical out-of-body experiences. From the paper:
Despite shaky foundations for assertions that NDEs are similar to experiences associated with abnormal temporal lobe activity, anoxia, ketamine, or endorphins, several multifactorial theories, based on these foundations, combine these putative causes at will to account for whatever constellation of features is observed in any given NDE...
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.
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For shame New Scientist.
Twitter headline: Serotonin triggers near death experience
Article headline: Near-death experiences may be triggered by serotonin
Article lede: The bright light at the end of the tunnel which some people close to death describe may result from a flood of serotonin in the brain.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are reported by around 1 in 5 critically ill people, and their cause is a mystery. Alexander Wutzler's team at the Charité University of Medicine in Berlin, Germany, wondered if serotonin - a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and processing vision and sound - plays a role.
They gave six rats an overdose of anaesthetic and found that serotonin levels in their brains had tripled by the time they died (Neuroscience Letters, DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2011.04.051).
Wutzler expects to see a similar increase in dying human brains. He says serotonin could be behind NDEs, but Jakob Hohwy at Monash University in Melbourne is unsure. "One thing that you don't want to say is that rats have NDEs," he says.
Coming on the back of the Sheldrake review debacle, seems like New Scientist is aiming at a change of name in the near future, to Stodgy Old Defenders of Orthodox Science...
(I'm not attacking the research here, which is a possibly interesting insight into 'time of death' changes in the brain. I just find the manner in which New Scientist presented it as...misleading.)
One of the strange and baffling aspects of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon is the so-called 'veridical' NDE: that is, an account of the experiencer that seems to contain details that they should not have had access to during their flirtation with death, which they often claim to have 'observed' from a vantage point outside their body (during an out-of-body experience, or OBE). The most famous of these is perhaps the NDE of singer Pam Reynolds which occurred during her brain surgery, in which she described things happening in the operating theatre while she was at death's door.
Now, in an interview on YouTube, pioneering cardiac surgeon Dr. Lloyd Rudy has mentioned NDEs that his patients have told him about, including one that seems to also offer strong evidence of perception from beyond the body:
If these sorts of cases interest you, a handy reference for further research is Janice Miner Holden's article "Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences", which can be found in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences.
(h/t to Michael Prescott's blog)
Earlier this month Science Channel's Through the Wormhole series (hosted by Morgan Freeman) featured an episode on "Life After Death", which touched on a number of topics we've discussed here previously, perhaps most notably 'quantum consciousness' as an explanation for afterlife experiences. This short excerpt below talks to one of our old friends, Dr Stuart Hameroff, about his own theory (proposed in tandem with distinguished mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose):
This echoes what Stuart told me in a Daily Grail interview we did way back in 2004:
TDG: In your opinion, does the hypothesis of 'quantum consciousness' provide a model for anomalous experiences such as Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) and Near Death Experiences (NDEs)?
SH: I would say possibly yes. Under normal circumstances consciousness occurs in the fundamental level of spacetime geometry confined in the brain. But 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.
See the links at the bottom of this post for more reading and viewing on this topic.
You can find out more about Through the Wormhole, which has already asked a number of other fascinating questions in the latest series, at the show's website.
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It's heee-eere! If you like your spirits angry, then make sure you check out a new primer from Public Parapsychology devoted to the poltergeist phenomenon, which they've made available as a free-to-download PDF file. Created by Bryan Williams and Annalisa Ventola, the 30-page primer reviews the current state of parapsychological research and perspectives relating to the phenomenon, and examines "case characteristics, experimental approaches, theoretical aspects, and the similarities and differences between poltergeist and haunt cases".
Poltergeist cases are characterized by a series of apparently anomalous physical phenomena such as the sudden movement of objects without any apparent force acting upon them, and rapping or knocking sounds that do not seem to have any clear source. Like cases of ghosts and apparitions, these occurrences have a long tradition steeped in myth, folklore, and superstition.
...Poltergeists can be confused with haunt phenomena due to their overt similarity in characteristics and the implied suggestion of spirits. However, parapsychologists have found that there are subtle differences between haunt and poltergeist cases that allow distinctions to be made between them. Moreover, field studies of poltergeist cases by parapsychologists have discovered that poltergeist phenomena may have much more of a human, rather than a spirit, element to them. To avoid confusion and aid in the proper interpretation of findings obtained during field investigations, it is important to recognize the distinction between poltergeists and haunts, and to be aware of what has been learned so far about poltergeists through the research efforts of parapsychologists...
We hope that this primer will help clarify any misconceptions about what may be fact and what may be fiction when it comes to such phenomena, and assist paranormal enthusiasts in their approach to any poltergeist cases that they may come across and investigate.
Remember you can also still download the three previous Public Parapsychology primers from the website:
Read through all those and then head out and buy yourself a proton pack - I'll meet you at the Sedgewick Hotel.