Monday, September 28, 2009

Very interesting study

Dr. Sam Parnia talks about the AWARE study, which is researching out of body experiences by patients during periods of clinical death. 10 to 20 percent of patients who suffer cardiac arrest report memories of consciousness when no electrical activity was measurable in the brain. Many of them report witnessing events that they "should" not have been aware of given their circumstances. Current neuroscience does not allow for this. Of course, if this study reveals interesting findings, science will follow and adjust.

Many people theorize that Near Death Experiences are "false" memories. Others say that minimal brain activity is maintained, despite not showing up on current instruments, and that oxygen deprivation creates the sensation of tunnels, bright lights and a sense of well-being. Others see it all as evidence of a soul. Still others see it as a combination of things. While the existence of souls and an eternity of love for all (in some form beyond my current ability to comprehend) is certainly my hopeful dream, whatever a near death experience is, I say "thanks brain!"

Devising a study would seem to be difficult. Even if these experiences are objectively real, would people watching doctors and nurses attempt to resuscitate them even notice a picture which can only be seen from the ceiling looking down?

Still, it is a fantastic start, and this study could tell us a lot about consciousness. Because of a new instrument being used to measure oxygen in the brain, it could also tell us lot about which types of resuscitation attempts tend to be the most successful at restoring consciousness and avoiding permanent brain damage.

Unfortunately, it will be a few years before the study publishes findings..


  1. Hi, Steven-

    The problem is that there is no foolproof assay for consciousness yet. The "brain waves" cited in your post are probably taken at the surface. But there is more to the brain than the surface. For instance, the hippocampus, mentioned in the video and the locus of immediate memory storage, is deep in the core of the brain, so would not be measured at all by brain wave assays. Surface brain waves are strongly correlated with consciousness and mental activities, but that doesn't mean that lack of surface brain waves necessarily means zero concomitant consciousness or mental activity. Doctors are not about to stick electrodes into the core of people's brains in the few minutes of death, though perhaps special patients with pre-existing implanted electrodes might be useful for such studies.

    I have no doubt that near-death experiences are real and reflect what the patient experiences in a semi-dream-like state, with extensive real-time input from the ears, not from the eyes. This study is one I have heard about, and of an interesting design. No results yet. Well, my strong prediction is that none of the inaccessible images will be identified by patients above the level of chance. But their hearing (another deep-brain function) could easily tell them a great deal about the ambient situation, into which they can then read a great deal of extra imagined material, as happens in classic religious visions, etc.

    Oh- and with regard to non-realist Christianity, you might be interestred in Don Cupitt also!

  2. Burk,

    Absolutely, and when I say that current neuroscience does not allow for consciousness when there is no measurable electrical activity in the brain, I am quoting Parnia. Just because a certain instrument cannot measure the electrical activity does not mean there is no electrical activity in the brain.

    An interesting thought - While I think it would be incredibly fantastic for people to report seeing these images, I don't see it as overly probable. However, what if they did?

    If they did, a friend said in conversation that it would completely upset science as we know it for him - meaning all science, and that it would have supernatural implications. However, I favor the view that it would reflect a kind of naturalism we don't understand yet.

    It'll be fun to see what they turn up.

  3. I'd agree with your friend. As you can tell from my blog, I hold to a very strong naturalism/materialism, which would be seriously upset by this kind of paranormal phenomenon (assuming the study is fairly done).

    But paranormal phenomena have been studied diligently forever, and nothing serious has come of it, so I wouldn't say that I am worried, either.

  4. Friend who said science would be completely up set here. Upon reading it back, the all just does not sound right. Do I really mean all science? Honestly, I am not sure what that means, so it is probably best not to deal in such absolutes.

    If patients were able to recall the images hidden from light’s physical path after undergoing clinical death to a significant degree, so many theories would be in dire need of major revision. We can have a good guess on which theories would need to be revised by understanding why antigravity-super-eyeball perception-encoding-recall does not fit with our current understanding, but we have no way to say what or if the scientific method could do to accommodate such phenomena. And we have no way to tell how the new revisions of long held theories would affect neighboring theories.

    This experiment is set up to demonstrate the most important find of all time. I for one, won’t be holding my breath. What if it’s true… what if it’s not true…even if it fails to confirm the phenomenon of remote viewing in the absence of blood flow, I suspect most believers in a ‘soul’ won’t see much of a change in their beliefs.

    So I’ll back off from saying all science would be completely upset and restate to say that the upsetting ripple that would flow through science would be greater than anything we have ever seen, we can ever imagine, and anything we are likely to ever see.

  5. I too currently favor a strong naturalist view. And if the study came back with some interesting data I would still favor a naturalist view.

    It seems quite possible to me that there are wholly natural aspects of existence that are outside the scope of our five senses. Anything that doesn't make sense could be ripples of this sort of thing. Perhaps we would learn that consciousness, while dependent on physical processes, functions more like a field which extends weakly outside our bodies. It takes moments of high stress or oxygen deprivation to create a suspension of our "normal" conscious state and to allow for perception of these more subtle states. Just one wild speculation.

    Anyway, I am not holding my breath for the results either. But it's interesting to debate what any unlikely results would mean.

  6. I absolutely love the fact that Parnia and company have the resources available to start testing theories (the pictures near the ceiling in several hospitals).

    People who have had near death experiences seem to describe it generally as a comfortable sensation. That is comforting to me! As far as proving there is a soul/after life -- Wouldn't you agree that even if a test showed that the brain was DEFINITELY dead at the time of these visions, etc., that people who didn't want to believe in an afterlife will always be able to claim that the tests are inconclusive? My point being, does anyone really expect to PROVE anything here? I don't think so. I do believe it will be harder and harder to DISPROVE an afterlife though, if techonology, as it expands, shows a dead brain. either way, i LOVE this topic. Steve showed me the book Life after Life and that is, to me, a very fascinating book full of hope. I hope I am right about the hope!

  7. I wonder how many people actually do not believe in an afterlife simply because they do not want to believe in an afterlife? I would guess this group is a minority within the people who do not hold a belief in a soul/afterlife. Most people who do not believe in souls/afterlives do so not because they don’t like the idea, but because there is no empirical evidence in favor of such a belief. If DEFINITELY dead people were able to reanimate and give details of objects that lie outside the natural causal chain of perception, then only the most dogmatic would remain in their no soul/afterlife position (but this really depends on how one defines soul or afterlife…). I don’t know that I have met a dogmatic asoulist.

    You are right that this experiment does not prove the existence of a soul. What it does is set up an opportunity to reject or fail to reject a claim given specific experimental conditions. Through the scientific method, we are never in a position to actually prove (in mathematical usage), we fail to reject a null hypothesis, and thereby strengthen belief in a hypothesis. After repeated attempts, all resulting in failure to reject, it becomes more and more reasonable to believe (proof in common usage).

    I wonder if many western people believe in a before life? Why or why not?

  8. I have met people who are somewhat "creeped out" by the idea of an afterlife, or who think that if we live forever it negates the value of this life. But generally, I'm sure if you presented the idea of living forever in a way that goes beyond your wildest ability to dream in this life, most people would take it!

    Consciousness is strange because when you are unconscious it seems to me that there is no awareness. Perhaps there is but we cannot remember it, for instance when we wake up after sleeping. So if there were a life after death, I usually envision something where a futuristic society, perhaps a billion years from now, will discover a way to reanimate the consciousnesses of everyone who has ever lived, or I imagine a system of time with a potentially infinite number of futures playing out (one of which would be a duplication of this moment perhaps), or I imagine that in some way we all become united again in a universal consciousness, or perhaps that we actually live in the minds of others. But since unconsciousness loses a sense of time, we could "wake up" a trillion years from now and perhaps we would feel like it was tomorrow.

    If we live forever in the more traditional way, then yes, we must have always lived if the soul is truly eternal. I think with certain views of time this works. I can have a certain instant of my creation and birth that is in the past, from my current perspective, but now I am in the future from the perspective of my birth. Perhaps time is not an entity in itself, but rather an entity of our consciousness in order to take it all in. Sort of like the sky is all around us all the time, but I have to turn my head all around to see it all.

    If this is true, our actions take on even greater importance. Whatever we choose to do will live forever - and of course it already exists, though we still must play the part.

    But if we are unconscious forever, we won't know it. But at some point, given the possibility of infinite scenarios, will we wake up?

  9. Steve, I served as an ICU chaplain for two years and I heard a lot of stories of people dying and coming back. After these events, most of the folks had peace about the whole dying process. I was surprised at how often this came up.

  10. Hey Adrian,

    Man, I hope I can hear some of your stories some time! I was able to speak to a relative about her near death experience once and it absolutely made my year.

    Life After Life is a good read by Raymond Moody - it seems that what you say is the rule. People find a peace in death after an NDE. Religious people become less religious, non-spiritual people become more spiritual. And I particularly liked that the predominant feeling concerning life was that two things were important:

    1. Loving people - as in taking care of your neighbor

    2. Learning things.

    Here's hoping!