Putting Death in the Lab
Published on May 9th, 2010 | by Harmonist staff12
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.