Dr Sam Parnia is a British pulmonary care specialist who over the past decade has been actively involved in researching the near-death experience (NDE). In recent years he has led the AWARE study, a "multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians who have joined forces to study the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death". As we've mentioned here on the Daily Grail previously, part of the AWARE study has been a novel experiment in which the researchers test for a veridical out-of-body experience (during the NDE), by placing hidden targets up near the ceiling of the patients' rooms. Much has been made of this experiment: correct identification of the targets would suggest that consciousness can leave the physical body and 'wander', while failure to identify any targets at all might be indicative that the whole experience is simply a hallucination.
Dr Parnia joined Alex Tsakiris as the latest guest on the Skeptiko podcast, clarifying some remarks he made earlier in the year during a presentation at a skeptical gathering, namely that he suspected the NDE was "an illusion, a trick of the mind." His response on Skeptiko was to say that...
I think as a researcher I have to remain neutral and unbiased. The current scientific models that we have - and this is the point I think I was trying to mention in that quote that you said - the current scientific models that we have do not allow for descriptions the patients are providing of an out-of-body experience if they’re real.
So let’s assume for a moment that the patient who claims that they were on the ceiling and able to see things is actually really correct. Well, we have no scientific model to account for it today. So based upon what we understand of the brain and the way the brain works, the most likely explanation that we have today and the knowledge that’s available in 2010 is that this must be an illusion. However, I’m open-minded enough to accept that at any given time and era science is very limited. And it may simply be that this phenomenon is going to be something that will open up a whole new field of science. So that again depends on what the experiments show.
So the point I was making was based on the limitations of science that we have today, this is most likely to be an illusion but I’m very open to experimenting with it and doing an objective study to find out whether it is or not. And that’s what we’re doing.
Alex then pushed Dr Parnia on his stance, leading to the following response:
You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion.
Alex has taken this statement to mean that Sam Parnia is leaning towards the hallucination hypothesis (as the title of the podcast says, "Dr. Sam Parnia Claims Near Death Experience Probably an Illusion"). I can't say I'd go that far - it's clear that Dr Parnia is qualifying that opinion as being based on current scientific knowledge (and its limitations). However, given that (you would imagine) he has access to the ongoing data from the AWARE study, it sounds unlikely that they have come across any striking veridical OBEs thus far.
As I've said before about the AWARE study though, it's still rather likely the conclusion will be either "a few correct cases - interesting, but not conclusive evidence", or "no correct cases - suggestive of the OBE being a hallucination, but not conclusive evidence of that either". Though I still applaud the work being done in delving into this reported anomalous aspect of the near-death experience.
Previously on TDG:
One of my favourite research areas is the subject of near-death experiences. Here's a cool, hour-long documentary titled "Life After Life", featuring the man whose book of the same name propelled NDEs into the public consciousness in the 1970s, Raymond Moody. Despite being a little old, it's still worth checking out to hear the personal testimony of NDErs on their transformative experiences:
For more information about NDEs, check out the IANDS website.
Previously on TDG:
Sorry for the lack of updates recently, I've been laid low by the dreaded lurgy. Here's something worth checking out though: Smithsonian Magazine has a feature on the early 20th century 'channeler', Pearl Curran, amanuensis for the literary output of the (allegedly) dearly departed Patience Worth. Even better, they talk to a good friend (and a featured blogger here on TDG), Professor Stephen Braude:
One cool autumn evening in 1919, a crowd of prominent New Yorkers jammed the parlor of an East Side town house to meet a writing prodigy named Patience Worth. A prolific charmer who was known for her flashy verbal stunts and quick wit, Patience dictated two original poems—about Russia and the Red Cross—in rapid succession, followed by a lyrical tribute to an editor friend. Though she seemed to compose the works on the spot, her words flowed with the quality of messages punched out by teletype. Poet Edgar Lee Masters was among the astonished guests. “There is no doubt...she is producing remarkable literature,” the author of Spoon River Anthology told a reporter, though “how she does it I cannot say.” Nor could he say how Patience looked, though she was thought to be young and pretty, with wavy red hair and large brown eyes. No one, however, actually saw her. She wasn’t real. She was an ambitious, hard-working spirit.
Speaking through a Ouija board operated by Pearl Lenore Curran, a St. Louis housewife of limited education, Patience Worth was nothing short of a national phenomenon in the early years of the 20th century. Though her works are virtually forgotten today, the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a “feat of literary composition.” Her output was stunning. In addition to seven books, she produced voluminous poetry, short stories, plays and reams of sparkling conversation—nearly four million words between 1913 and 1937. Some evenings she worked on a novel, a poem and a play simultaneously, alternating her dictation from one to another without missing a beat. “What is extraordinary about this case is the fluidity, versatility, virtuosity and literary quality of Patience’s writings, which are unprecedented in the history of automatic writing by mediums,” says Stephen Braude, a professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a past president of the American Parapsychological Association, who has written widely on paranormal phenomena.
And as an extra helping, the Smithsonian also has a travel piece on Cassadaga, America’s oldest Spiritualist community. The Smithsonian and Spiritualism...nobody tell Randi, his head might explode.
I'm very interested in the upcoming movie Hereafter, which touches on a few of my favourite research areas - namely, near-death experiences (NDEs) and mediumship. Plus, it's directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood! Here's the trailer:
And the blurb:
Hereafter tells the story of three people who are touched by death in different ways. George (Matt Damon) is a blue-collar American who has a special connection to the afterlife. On the other side of the world, Marie (Cecile De France), a French journalist, has a near-death experience that shakes her reality. And when Marcus, a London schoolboy, loses the person closest to him, he desperately needs answers. Each on a path in search of the truth, their lives will intersect, forever changed by what they believe might - or must - exist in the hereafter.
Wonder if Eastwood's interest in this script is an outgrowth of where he's at in life (having turned 80 this year), although in this recent interview he said he didn't have a theory as to what might (or might not) lie beyond the veil of death.
Hereafter is released on October 22nd in the United States.
The New York Times has an interesting piece on reincarnation and the current hipness of past-life regression. Towards the end of the article they talk to Dr Jim Tucker, who has continued on the work of Dr Ian Stevenson at the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia:
On the fringes of legitimate science, some researchers persist in studying consciousness and its durability beyond the body. Though Dr. Tucker, who directs the Child and Family Psychiatry Clinic at the University of Virginia, has few kind words for regression therapy or its practitioners, he continues to be committed to the scientific study of what can only be called reincarnation.
He is carrying on the pioneering research of his mentor, Dr. Ian Stevenson, who beginning in the 1960s collected more than 2,000 accounts of children between the ages of 2 and 7 who seemed to remember previous lives vividly without the help of hypnosis.
...Dr. Tucker studies American children and in one case found a young boy who started to say, around the age of 18 months, that he was his own (deceased) grandfather. “He eventually told details of his grandfather’s life that his parents felt certain he could not have learned through normal means,” Dr. Tucker wrote in Explore, which calls itself a journal of science and healing, “such as the fact that his grandfather’s sister had been murdered and that his grandmother had used a food processor to make milkshakes for his grandfather every day at the end of his life.”
Dr. Tucker won’t say such cases add up to proof of reincarnation, but he likes to keep an open mind.
“There can be something that survives after the death of the brain and the death of the body that is somehow connected to a new child,” he said. “I have become convinced that there is more to the world than the physical universe. There’s the mind piece, which is its own entity.”
Below I've embedded a little video of Jim Tucker discussing his research into 'spontaneous past-life memories' in children:
For more on the topic, see also this recent TDG story about Ian Stevenson's life work linking to a bunch of articles.
Here's a truly evocative gallery of photoshopped images by Sergey Larenkov, blending photos taken during World War II with images from the present. A reminder that time is all that separates us from the billions that have come and gone before us - we walk amongst temporal ghosts every day, as others will walk with our ghosts in the future.
(via Boing Boing)
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).