Putting Death in the Lab

An interesting article from TimesUK about near-death experiences, their place in modern science, and “regaining out soul.” Follow the link at the end of the excerpt for the remaining portion, which delves deeper into related philosophical issues and quantum mechanics.

By Bryan Appleyard

You are dying. Twenty seconds ago your heart and breathing stopped and your pupils became fixed and dilated. Your brain cells are in a state of panic, trying every trick they know to get hold of oxygen and glucose. An electroencephalogram (EEG) would show no electrical activity in your cortex, the thin outer layer of your brain. You have flatlined.

As usual, a young, inexperienced doctor is first on the scene. They’re fitter and faster. There’s only time to confirm you’re not breathing before starting 30 chest compressions followed by two breaths into your mouth. A cart arrives with a defibrillator, the electric-shock machine, as do a few older, less fit doctors. The machine is not, sadly, one of the sexy, telegenic ones with paddles and George Clooney shouting “Clear!” With this machine the electrodes are stuck to your chest. The paddle variety caused too many shocks to the staff, so they’ve been dropped by the NHS. You are shocked. Nothing. A blood sample is taken and rushed for instant analysis. You’re given repeated injections of adrenaline and, depending on your exact condition, atropine, amiodarine and magnesium. Still nothing. The doctors and nurses work furiously for, say, 10 minutes if you’re an old lady with pneumonia or half an hour or more if you’re a young man who’s fallen into a cold pond. Nothing. Finally, a watching consultant officially announces that you no longer exist. It’s over. The confusing babble known as “your life” has ended. Or has it?

You see, the weird thing is that you may have flatlined, be “clinically dead”, but you’ve been watching the whole thing from the ceiling. As soon as your heart stopped, you just drifted out of your body and found you could float anywhere. You feel incredibly well, bathed in bright light, suffused with a deep sense of peace and knowing that, at last, it all makes sense. Some of your dead relatives are here and, behind you, there is a tunnel from which the light floods down. Perhaps you can see Jesus at the far end of it, or Muhammad or Krishna. The chaos at your bedside is interesting, amusing even, but trivial. Death, you now know with absolutely certainty, is an illusion.

You’re having a near-death experience (NDE). They happen all the time. They may happen to everybody, however they die. Remarkably similar experiences have been reported throughout history in all cultures. Obviously, most are lost to us, because being near death is usually the immediate prelude to being dead. But precisely because high-tech hospital resuscitations are so effective — around 15% of cardiac-arrest victims are revived — we can now regularly hear news apparently from beyond the grave. And it sounds like very good news indeed. You don’t really die and you feel great. What could be nicer?

NDEs are so common, so vivid and so life-transforming — survivors frequently become more compassionate, religious and serene as a result of what they experience — that scientists, philosophers, priests, psychologists and cultists all want a piece of the action. Their problem is that the human mind is unreachable. We can’t see what’s going on in there. Even if we could rush cardiac-arrest patients into an MRI scanner, we’d only see lights in the brain. We wouldn’t know what they meant. But now NDEs are to be scientifically investigated in a US and UK study involving 25 hospitals. This is co-ordinated by Dr Sam Parnia at Southampton University and is designed to find 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrests — “clinical death” — who tell such stories.

“I see no reason why a priest should tell us about death when we have all this technology available,” says Dr Parnia. “Death is a biological process and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t study it through medicine.”

Getting a scientific handle on this phenomenon is fiendishly difficult. Dead people don’t report back, and it is very hard to assess the status of survivor accounts — are they merely hallucinations occurring before the crisis or just after? Perhaps they are no more than the brain’s way of soothing your path to extinction.

Cardiac arrests are a good place to start because they provide a clear-cut moment when the dying process begins and when, clinically speaking, you may be said to be dead. “It might in fact be better,” says Dr Parnia, “to say that experiences after cardiac arrests are actual death experiences rather than near-death experiences.”

Arrests also happen a lot in hospitals, so the experimental conditions are reasonably controllable. But details like bright lights, tunnels and feelings of peace cannot be pinned down experimentally. One aspect of near-death experiences, however, can be: the out-of-body experience (OBE), seeing yourself and your surroundings from outside. When you are looking down from the ceiling, what, exactly, do you see? Many survivors report with remarkable accuracy what went on when they should, in theory, be utterly unconscious. This seems to be hard, testable evidence.

There are thousands of reports of OBEs but the two most famous cases are Pam Reynolds and Maria’s Tennis Shoe. Reynolds, an American singer, watched and later reported on with remarkable accuracy the top of her own skull being removed by surgeons before she moved into a bright glowing realm. But it was Reynolds’s account of the surgical implements used and the words spoken in the theatre that make the case so intriguing.

Maria, meanwhile, underwent cardiac arrest in 1977. She floated out of her body, drifted round the hospital and noticed a tennis shoe on a window sill. It was later found to be exactly where she said it was. The shoe was said to be invisible from the ground and not in any location where Maria could have seen it. Such stories suggest that OBEs should be scientifically verifiable.

Parnia’s study is aimed solely at OBEs in cases of cardiac arrest. It uses a technique known as “hidden target”. In the participating hospitals he is placing pictures on high shelves so that they will be invisible both to patients and staff. But anybody floating near the ceiling would see them. A substantial number of accurate reports of the pictures would seem to establish the reality of OBEs. There are numerous problems with this. Parnia’s study does not have enough money to put laptops on the shelves generating random pictures to ensure that cheating is impossible. Furthermore, previous hidden-target experiments by, among others, Parnia himself and Dr Penny Sartori at Morriston Hospital in Swansea have failed to produce a single positive result. In fairness, this may be because the last thing that a floating dying person, with Jesus behind him and his body being pounded in front of him, will notice is some odd picture left on a shelf. This leaves believers in OBEs with an evidential mountain to climb.

There are plenty of sceptics who will pounce on negative results or even positive ones with any signs of ambiguity. Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuro-psychiatrist who has overseen Parnia and Sartori’s work, admits that, whatever the outcome, there will still be “wriggle room” for sceptics.

“People can say they could have cheated, but if we have 50 or 60 of these cases where people leave their bodies and some see the pictures and some do not, then it looks like from the phenomenology that this does occur,” he says.

Hidden targets are the best key science has for unlocking the true nature of NDEs. If Parnia comes up with positive results, then even the most hardened sceptics will have to pay attention. They will force a serious rethinking of all current ideas about the brain and the mind.

“This is definitely a legitimate scientific inquiry,” says Chris French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College, London, and co-editor of The Skeptic magazine. “Refereed proposals of this kind have my full support. There’s no doubt that people have these experiences, and there is something of great psychological interest to be explained here.”

French’s position is important. He specialises in paranormal beliefs and experiences. In some cases his position is that of outright scepticism. For example, people started reporting alien-abduction scenarios — flying saucers, anal probes — in large numbers only after a single case, that of Betty and Barney Hill, was publicised in Look magazine in 1966. This was clearly a kind of mental virus, made more virulent by the fact that most of the accounts were retrieved under hypnosis. But NDEs were widely reported even before they became known to a mass audience through Raymond Moody’s 1975 book Life after Life. And hypnosis has not been involved in retrieving the accounts. The consistency and clarity of these reports across cultures and time zones convince French that, even if NDEs may not prove the afterlife, they do cast light on the human mind.

“There is a core experience that is essentially the same across cultures. Christians don’t see Hindu gods and Hindus don’t see Jesus, so there is some kind of cultural overlay, but we are dealing with people attempting to put an ineffable experience into words. There’s a common core that has as its basis the fact that we all have very similar brains, so when things go awry we are likely to have similar experiences.”

And, as in all things, it is the human mind that is at the heart of the matter. If we can float out of our bodies, then the mind is separable from, and, perhaps not dependent on, the brain. Twelve years after Tom Wolfe famously announced in Forbes magazine that, as a result of developments in neuroscience, “Your soul just died,” it may be time to say: “No, it didn’t.”

But is such a thing as a separable mind possible or even conceivable? The answer is yes. In explaining why, it will be necessary to plunge into philosophy and quantum mechanics. Bear with me: it will be as painless as a cardiac arrest and much more interesting. And at the end of it, you might just believe you are immortal.

Read the full article, here.

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12 Responses to Putting Death in the Lab

  1. If hidden items were identified by someone having a supposed out-of-body-experience, that would be a great bit of data. However, short of that, we have little reason to believe there is such a thing as a separable mind other than religious fantasies and hopes. In fact, I would love to hear from people, what would that separable mind or ‘soul’ be comprised of? Would it have identity? Would that identity be based on the body identity? Would it have anger and sexuality? It clearly is believed to have awareness or consciousness, but it seems that it also has sense organs of some sort?

    Psychologically speaking it is entirely possible to imagine another person’s perspective. We develop a theory of mind that helps us have an experience of another’s mind or experience. In fact, in dreams we see life through the eyes of others all the time… but few people claim that we are actually inhabiting the bodies of others. It is just as likely that we can project sense-awareness to objects outside of the body; animate and inanimate. In traumatic experiences we also have a tendency to project awareness outside of the body. These can be explained as imaginary experiences.

    Now, when I propose that these are imaginary experiences most people would assume that I am demoting the experiences and relegating them to a lower status. I do not believe I am doing this. I am actually asking us to restructure how we value experience. We value objective objects/reality the most or that which can be verified by the material senses (or the five senses). Otherwise, any experience we have that is more subtle; such as mystical ecstasies, appearances, and epiphanies we ascribe to a supernatural reality (which cannot be verified or disproven). But why do we not value those experiences and objects that are created by the mind? Why are mind objects, experiences of great significance to the emotional life, the cognitive life, and to the fantastical life not considered so valuable? In order to value these kind of natural experiences we have to relegate them to another objective reality, a supernatural-objective reality. In that supernatural-objective reality we consider these experiences valuable. Is it because otherwise we would have to accept losing them when we die? Is it because we would still have to deal with mortality?

    I was discussing this with Gurumaharaja Swami Tripurari once and I realized that one great cost of valuing natural-subjective reality, mind objects, or experiences of the imaginitive-emotional mind, rather than objective-supernatural reality is the inherent loss of the objective other. If we accept that these experiences are productions of the mind –beautiful and powerful experiences of the mind– we have to accept the loss of these experiences at death AND the possibility of losing objective supernatural others with whom we can relate for eternity. In other words, it is asking for a lot because the loss would be the loss of ourselves, our family, and of god.

    However, I do believe there would be a great gain as well. We will begin to value the amazing, beautiful, painful, fantastical, ecstatic, sensorial, philosophical experiences of the mind as natural phenomena. We can have amazing experiences in our lives, we can cultivate amazing mystical experiences and experience them as very real because the are! They are real mental phenomena and I do not see how these senses of perception; consciousness and emotion are less valuable than objective experiences. The possibility of losing them at the end of life does not necessarily render them lessvaluable. Rather, their loss can render them morevaluable.

    • Let’s start here:

      If hidden items were identified by someone having a supposed out-of-body-experience, that would be a great bit of data. However, short of that, we have little reason to believe there is such a thing as a separable mind other than religious fantasies and hopes.

      You write as if neuroscience has conclusively determined that mind and consciousness can be reduced to the brain, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Neuroscience has traditionally looked at the mind brain problem from a classical Newtonian perspective and thus it finds no place for substance dualism, for a doer, will, etc–for anything from outside the theoretically closed system of the world we live in. Newtonian physics posits a closed system, whereas in quantum physics the system is not closed. Looking at the mind brain issue from a quantum perspective one can find scientifically valid reasoning for irreducible consciousness, something that just happens to work well with our every day experience as well as with Vedanta. It’s nice when third person objective evidence corresponds with first person subjective experience. Why not go with that? I will give you an example of what I am talking about below, but basically the net effect of quantum-theoretic developments is to bring consciousness back into both physical science and brain theory at the foundational level. As the highly respected Henry Stapp remarks, his model “makes consciousness causally effective, yet it is compatible with all known laws of physics, including the law of conservation of energy.” This totally deflates the main arguments that have routinely been advanced against interactive dualism. Indeed, far from ruling out dualism, as alleged by Dennett and numerous others, according to Stapp, “Contemporary physical theory allows, and in its orthodox von Neumann form entails, an interactive dualism.” Note that Stapp has been influenced by Gaudiya Vedanta.

      But I do not consider Vedanta to be nothing more than “religious fantasies and hopes.” You seem influenced in your statement by herd mentality and fashion more than science and objective thinking. It is likely that, in your lifetime you will see the paranormal incorporated into naturalism, even when today they are considered diametrically opposed. Note that Vedanta would agree that they fit together, both dealing with the material realm as taught in Vedanta. This stretching of the boarders of materialism is nothing new for science. Still so called scientists of this proposed expanded version of naturalism will doubt the eternal soul. Others like the authors of the abstract that follows will probably not.

      Henry P. Stapp

      Quantum Interactive Dualism: An Alternative to Materialism

      Abstract: René Descartes proposed an interactive dualism that posits an interaction between the mind of a human being and some of the matter located in his or her brain. Isaac Newton subsequently formulated a physical theory based exclusively on the material/physical part of Descartes’ ontology. Newton’s theory enforced the principle of the causal closure of the physical, and the classical physics that grew out of it enforces this same principle. This classical theory purports to give, in principle, a complete deterministic account of the physically described properties of nature, expressed exclusively in terms of these physically described properties themselves. Orthodox contemporary physical theory violates this principle in two separate ways. First, it injects random elements into the dynamics. Second, it allows, and also requires, abrupt probing actions that disrupt the mechanistically described evolution of the physically described systems. These probing actions are called Process 1 interventions by von Neumann. They are psycho-physical events. Neither the content nor the timing of these events is determined either by any known law, or by the afore-mentioned random elements. Orthodox quantum mechanics considers these events to be instigated by choices made by conscious agents. In von Neumann’s formulation of quantum theory each such intervention acts upon the state of the brain of some conscious agent. Thus orthodox von Neumann contemporary physics posits an interactive dualism similar to that of Descartes. But in this quantum version the effects of the conscious choices upon our brains are controlled, in part, by the known basic rules of quantum physics. This theoretically specified mind–brain connection allows many basic psychological and neuropsychological findings associated with the apparent physical effectiveness of our conscious volitional efforts to be explained in a causal and practically useful way. The intent of this paper is to give an updated account of the author’s developing theory that is clearer than before, focused on the positive, and suitable for non-specialist readers.

      • It should also be noted that any experiment, even in classical physics, requires to fix boundary conditions and initial conditions which are not given by the fundamental laws of nature. So the world is only theoretically a causally closed system in classical Newtonian physics, and as mentioned in my earlier post, this causal gap becomes even more challenging in quantum physics. All of this means that reducing consciousness to matter is scientifically problematic in the least.

  2. Gurunistha dasa

    “A great bit of data”?

    Consider the ramifications of that “bit of data”. If it was empirically proven that out-of-body experiences are real, it would completely throw out the window the whole basic framework of the mind/brain understanding that most scientists work with right now. It’s absolutely impossible to go beyond your body if the presently upheld theory of the mind/brain connection was true because there cannot be any sensations or awareness separate from the body.

    You are saying how spiritually-minded people seem to be afraid of mortality and change, but it’s very easy to turn the situation upside down and show how the modern man is actually afraid of metaphysics and the possibility of transcendent realms because it really pees on the scientific parade of coming closer to understanding life in naturalistic terms.

    • Yes. And despite the talk of scientifically based morals, it may be a moral issue—an irrational aversion to or fear of the kind of moral life that fosters self realization—that drives naturalism more than anything else.

      • I believe Gurunistha did catch me in a significant understatement. It would be much more than a “significant bit of data” if it is found that it is empirically verifiable that awareness can exist outside the body. Furthermore, as a psychological theorist myself, I am influenced by more than the “herd mentality” rather by my own experiences in human observation and metapsychology. (I think, however, that being called a part of the herd from Gurumaharaja Swami Tripurari is both a critique and a blessing.) What you hear from me is an informed skepticism… a skepticism that reveals the area of my own primary conflict: Transcendence; to believe or not to believe?

        Gurunistha and Swami Tripurari are right in suggesting that there is a fear of both metaphysical and moral life. To be fair to those of us who are scared: It is damn scary! See, we make life manageable with our beliefs and culture. Our naturalistic beliefs narrow the bigness of life and reduce our anxiety about the unknown and unknowable. So it is actually an important mechanism to make the unknown knowable by developing a model that restrains it. I must say that this is what many religious beliefs do as well; restrain the Absolute into definable boundaries.

        This being said, I myself am scared. I hope that what I share is generalizable enough that others will sympathize. I have been a practitioner of Gaudiya sadhana for 15 years since I first visited the Miami temple at the age of 19. In the spirit of “knowing myself” as Gurumaharaja suggests, I can say that the full acceptance of the ‘moral life that fosters realization’ is frightening. It means letting go of huge parts of my organizing mind and lifestyle. This is one of the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita… but not an easy task to accomplish. Additionally, the possibility of transcendence and the reorienting of the self towards that reality over this manifest reality is very terrifying as well. In fact, I have flown furthest away from Gaudiya life at moments when I came closest to “spiritual” experiences that were profoundly hard to understand. One such experience about 5 years ago when I withdrew the first time and another experience this last year after having rededicated myself to sadhana. The paradox of course is that in my solitary burrow I have no one to whom I can ask, “what was this about? I’m like the groundhog who comes out to see his shadow and then retreats when he finds it. Hopefully, as I conflictually hope, it is only some weeks away from Spring.

        • In your initial post you stated your belief that there is little reason to believe in an objective soul. I disagreed with this and demonstrated in brief that their is scientific evidence leading to reasonable conjecture (which is much of what science ends up being today) that is supportive of the possibility of consciousness being primary (downward causation) and independent of matter. My suggestion was why not embrace such a credibly scientific conjecture that supports our everyday experience that we exist as a unit of consciousness with will, etc.—an evidence based conjecture derived from quantum physics that corresponds with how we lead our lives. We lead our lived based on the subjective sense that we as conscious beings exist, have will, and that things matter in both a relative and ultimate sense. I followed this with the suggestion that the reason that skeptics shy away from this may not be merely empirical evidence to the contrary. It may be fear and aversion to all that is involved morally in experiencing life from the mystics perspective that causes skeptics to read the evidence with a bias. This was in counter to your idea that it was fear of losing the eternal that motivated mystics to cling to their metaphysical interpretation of their experience and look for interpretations of empirical data and conjectures based upon such data that lend support to their metaphysical claims.

          Now in your first post you also put forward the idea that the mystical experience may be that much more meaningful if it is not objectively what the mystics think it is. I disagree with your analysis, but furthermore I doubt that many if any would take the trouble to experience it if it were not thought of as being an objective reality. As you have stated in your second post it takes a lot to arrive at it, a lot of sacrifice.

          Today’s skeptics like to reason as to the value of sacrifice and how such values can be derived from an atheistic perspective. All we are asking them to do is make the ultimate self sacrifice while stating that this will afford the ultimate experience. Why so much objection? It seems to me that as much as one actually values moral life and the principle of sacrifice is as much as one will have interest in the notion of actual transcendence. Granted some people show a lot of interest in transcendence without actually being interested in anything more than talking about it but as many or more talk against it only to rationalize their aversion to a higher standard of moral life. Let’s face it, the genuine Vedantin embraces the limit of morality.

          And regarding science and its mainstream naturalist take on mind/consciousness, why should we think such an understanding of mind is more complete than that of one who has controlled their mind? Does not control of something imply understanding of it? If one can stop the flow of thought, others should think deeply about the implications of such.

  3. Citta Hari dasa

    Additionally, the possibility of transcendence and the reorienting of the self towards that reality over this manifest reality is very terrifying as well.

    This is why yoga is said to be “not for the faint of heart”– we must be willing to endure the in-between state of letting go of our familiar sense of self while not yet having reached the other side. It’s understandable that many would avoid having to deal with such a spiritual limbo, but that is why we look to those who have passed through it as evidence that to do so is also possible for us.

  4. Gopa Kumara Das

    Swami Tripurari asks and states, “Does not control of something imply understanding of it? If one can stop the flow of thought, others should think deeply about the implications of such.”

    My answer would be yes and no. We know that thought control can be used for many ends, such as evading awareness, bypassing emotion, avoiding guilt/remorse, limiting consciousness, etc… This is clear in clinical work. Furthermore, control does imply understanding… But not always understanding of the self, rather understanding of the mechanisms that make thought possible. There is much to understanding the mind and thought… Controlling it can be an oppressive dictatorship. Now, I do not believe Gurumaharaja is suggesting this. I think he is suggesting an expansive aim to mental control and a kind of transcendent curiosity that it makes possible. Something like, “there is so much more to know and love if you regulate your current limited form of knowing and loving.” This is the hypothesis that is in question for some, a hypothesis that is both hoped for and dreaded.

    I do want to emphasize again that the dread of losing mystical contact as well as the fear of gaining it is still dread. It is this dread that, being what it is, likely fuels extreme reactions against the threat: whatever the threat may be.

    • I do want to emphasize again that the dread of losing mystical contact as well as the fear of gaining it is still dread. It is this dread that, being what it is, likely fuels extreme reactions against the threat: whatever the threat may be.

      But one who consistently experiences the mystery of ego transcendence does not dread loosing the experience. He or she feels/experiences attainment of the eternal. And this experience makes them fearless because they feel that they have experienced the extent to which they exist and that their existence is not temporal and moreover it is boundlessly joyful in a way that transcends any measure of material happiness. You have merely conjectured that it is fear that drives one to think the experience is eternal, whereas you have admitted that there is factual dread of attaining an eternal state on the part of skeptics.

  5. Gopa Kumara Das

    Citta Hari says, “This is why yoga is said to be “not for the faint of heart”– we must be willing to endure the in-between state of letting go of our familiar sense of self while not yet having reached the other side. It’s understandable that many would avoid having to deal with such a spiritual limbo…”

    I appreciate this insight very much. I want to add to it that even when the other side is becoming illuminated or at least alluded to, there is still the hesitation to let go of the self we have been. I have worked hard on this self, and have invested much into it. Furthermore, I like it. It is a hard earned selfhood and one that contains many good traits and experiences.

    Gurumaharaja says, “But one who consistently experiences the mystery of ego transcendence does not dread loosing the experience. He or she feels/experiences attainment of the eternal. And this experience makes them fearless”

    See the consistency is the achiles heal here. We are discussing a transition time in which experience is transitory, elusive, and highly inconsistent. What then propels one toward more despite the ambivalence inherant in the gain of transcendence and loss of naturalistic identity?

    • I realize that some people may be driven by fear to an extent to pursue transcendence in the first place. However, the idea that one posits an eternal objective diety out fear of the loss of this deity if he/she were only a subjective temporal experience seems to be saying something else. And this is what you said. I say this because most naturally human consciousness left unto itself feels that it is bigger or more than what meats the eye, as is the world around us. It is then in pursuit of this natural sensibility that one philosophizes about the more and and pursues the means to experience it. So it would seem that the natural, original motive for positing and eternal more is not the fear that one may loose a significant other, but rather the natural sense that there is more and that there is meaning. Fear may come later when others tell us that if we don’t believe such and such will happen to us.

      Now then, what is the origin of the dismissal of this natural sensibility? Is it empirical evidence to the contrary or is it an interpretation of evidence driven by something else? After all, science in the hands of technology has given us many things to hold on to, not just lack of objective evidence of anything “more.” It has fostered in human society in the name of comprehensive knowing attachment to the temporal in various forms and the false promise of “more” here and now if not forever given time and more technology. So it is the drive for more that all are driven by. The question is where the more lies and where there is more meaning.

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