We see dead people. In our news at least. NDEs, hauntings and people crossing over...this is the section.

The Tibetan Oracles

Fascinating documentary looking at the use of mediums/oracles in Tibetan Buddhism:

Cloaked in secrecy for over 400 years, the State Oracle of Tibet has been a strange and mystical aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. This ancient spirit, which has inhabited a succession of thirteen human mediums, advises the Dalai Lama on matters of public and religious policy. To witness the eerie spectacle of a medium entering a trance state and being possessed by the Oracle is to confront profound questions about the very nature of human consciousness.

With permission from the Dalai Lama that had never been granted before, The Oracle explores the ancient practice of consulting spirits.

The last 10 minutes of the film features what must be fairly exclusive footage of the Dalai Lama himself consulting with the religion's three main oracles, and then discussing how he uses their 'talent'.

This is Ben's Story

I'm currently writing a book on belief in the afterlife, and came across this wonderful video of a young man recounting his recent near-death experience (of a type) - caused by a heart condition suffered throughout his life - via index cards, accompanied by Gary Jules' lovely rendition of "Mad World". Take a look before reading on:

Such an intriguing story: direct personal experience of something that has led him to an extraordinary belief, which appears to have helped conquer his earlier fears and led him to be sure of a better place beyond death. I immediately resolved to track down the maker of the video, one Ben Breedlove, to talk further with him about his experience and what it meant to him.

But I can't. Because Ben Breedlove died just one week after posting the video on YouTube, on Christmas Day, aged 18. I have to say, this cut me to the bone emotionally. I never knew Ben Breedlove in any sense prior to viewing this video, but his friendly smile, and honesty and willingness to share his strange experience (not an easy thing to do in this cynical world) just made me like him immediately. To just be there, talking about his fear of death and how his recent experience had liberated him, and then almost immediately gone, seemed like a message meant for us all to contemplate. I am so very glad that this experience - no matter what you think of it, reality or hallucination - gave him a personal feeling of peace, and pride in how he had lived his life, before his final encounter with death.

And so beyond that immediate, gut-wrenching moment, what this terrible news brought into sharp relief for me was the simple fact that we are all gifted with something precious: life. Whether you're religious, an atheist, or just of a general spiritual bent, there is far too much to do in our time on this Earth to waste time being negative. Chase your dreams, while appreciating everything you have been given, love and be loved, and perhaps most importantly of all, do good.

Godspeed Ben Breedlove. Thanks for sharing your story.

Documentary on the Scole Experiment

Kamarling notes on his blog that YouTube now has a 90 minute documentary on the Scole Experiment available for viewing, courtesy of UFOTV. During the 1990s a group of mediums and scientists - including Rupert Sheldrake, David Fontana and Montague Keen (who died during filming) - conducted a series of seances in an attempt to document evidence for paranormal events and even, perhaps, the afterlife.

The film is narrated by a well known (at least in the UK) investigative journalist called Donal MacIntyre and contains actual footage plus interviews with participants and investigators. The sceptics are represented (briefly, it has to be said) by Chris French: the British media's go-to guy for scepticism. He doesn't actually address any of the (alleged) paranormal events depicted in the film but he does reassure those who might be tempted to believe that, according to science, none of it is possible (of course).

Ghost in the (Magnetic) Machine

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. Egon Spengler with his PKE MeterHowever, 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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Exploring the NDE

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.

Did Steve Jobs Have a Death-Bed Vision?

Steve Jobs

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:


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

Psychic Sally Sues

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).

The 'Other' Near Death Experience

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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Science Can Explain the Near Death Experience

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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Near Death Experience Nonsense

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.

Actual story:

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.)