Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The living dead, scientists are finally putting the idea to the test

[Thanks to MMRules for this link]

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 poss-ible 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.

The world, on the face of it, is made of two ingredients: thoughts and things. A brick, for example, is, on the one hand, a fact in the world and, on the other, a combination of all my feelings about bricks in general and this brick in particular. This is generally regarded as a very odd state of affairs. My thoughts and feelings are as real to me as the brick, but they don’t seem to be made of the same stuff. Indeed, they don’t seem to be made of any stuff. The belief that they aren’t, that the world is made of two different substances — bricks and thoughts of bricks — is called dualism. Dualism is the default human conviction, embraced by religions, philosophies and, in fact, by everybody in their lives — if we didn’t embrace some degree of it, we’d be constantly worried about crashing our cars into other people’s thoughts. Dualism means that the mind and the brain are not made of the same things and therefore in theory, they can be separated, as in NDEs.

Much of modern science can be seen as an attempt to disprove dualism. In the strictly scientific world view there is only one stuff out of which bricks and brains are constructed. My thoughts and feelings are just what the brain does. The brain gives us thoughts to provide the illusion of control. It’s largely an illusion that the mind has any effect on the world. We’re all imprisoned in the chains of cause and effect that started with the big bang. But in spite of numerous claims, this remains a statement of faith. Neuroscientists may be able to show what happens in the brain when we think or when we exercise “free will”, but this cannot be shown to be proof that dualism is wrong. “Look,” they say, “we’ve proved it. It’s just neurons firing sparks at each other.” Well, no. Those electrical patterns are not thought itself; they may be no more than symptoms of thought. For all our technology, nobody has yet seen a thought, nobody has shown how matter becomes mind. How it does remains one of the most profound questions any human ever asks himself.

Enter quantum mechanics. This started as the study of very small things — subatomic particles. It is the most effective scientific idea ever — it powers your computer, TV, anything dependent on electronics. So we know it’s true enough to work, but it’s also weird enough to defy belief. Everything about the discoveries in this area turned out to be in defiance of reason. Crucially, two things were discovered. First, particles can continue to be connected to each other even though separated by long distances — billions of light years, even: a phenomenon known as non-locality. This is, in our big world, impossible. Second, quantum theory showed that the mind can affect the world. If, for example, you say that light is made of particles, then, obligingly, light will be particles. If you say it is waves, then it will be waves. The questions we ask of nature determine the answers it gives. Anybody who claims to understand why these things should be is lying.

Henry Stapp must come close. He is a distinguished physicist at the University of California at Berkeley. He is convinced that quantum mechanics applies to large as well as small things. The world as a whole is just as weird as the inner workings of the atom. The truth of the world and ourselves is that the whole thing is a chaotic swirl of energy and particles. But we don’t see it, because we make our own reality, our own truth, by only asking certain questions. The brick is a product of our mind; to all-seeing, non-human eyes, it is just a swirl of almost nothing.

“The observer,” Stapp tells me, “is brought into quantum dynamics in an essential way not only as a passive observer but as an active part of the dynamics. He makes certain choices not specified by the physical dynamics which seem to come from the psychologically described realm rather than the physically described realm.

“So what happens when a person dies? Does this psychological part just fade away? That’s what most would think. On the other hand, there are these experiments done by physicians in connection with NDEs which seem to be evidence that brain death or total brain inactivity does not totally put out the psychological aspect. The relationship between the brain and the psychic experience is not as simple as one might have expected.”

On top of that, quantum non-locality could mean the mind is capable of being non-local to the brain, of floating to the ceiling of the room. It can become, as Stapp puts it, “unglued”. His words “certain choices not specified by the physical dynamics” are world-changing. This idea would, if widely accepted, end the reign of scientific materialism, replacing it with a new dualism. It would mean the universe is not a “causally closed” system, locked down since the big bang, as mainstream science has always insisted it is, but open to freedom of choice by the autonomous, floating, matter-altering mind. We would have regained our souls.

Positive results from Parnia’s survey might foreshadow the soul’s return. The effects would be seismic. First, you’d have to accustom yourself to the idea that your mind is not just the little man inside your skull — he really is out there in the world. Second, you’d have to accept that a lot of the things that now seem like products of charlatans and grifters — telepathy, spiritualism, even psychokinesis — will suddenly seem much more credible. Thirdly, you need not anticipate instant oblivion on death but a series of very weird and very illuminating experiences.

This would be a revolution, but it would also be a return to the past. Until the rise of secular mater-ialism over the past 200 years, humans always lived with the conviction that the world was made of far more than brick-stuff, and they also lived with a lively sense of the presence of the dead.

But a bucket of iced water is necessary at this point. Few scientists think any of this is going to happen. Believers in a new dualism — or, indeed, believers that there is anything more to NDEs than a psychologically interesting hallucination — are still in a small minority. The problem is that all the evidence remains anecdotal, and even the most impressive stories, like Reynolds’s, tend to look less convincing on closer examination. “There are many claims of this kind,” writes the prominent psychologist Susan Blackmore, “but in my long decades of research into NDEs I never met any convincing evidence that they are true.”

Sceptics like Blackmore and Chris French may welcome the Parnia study, but others are less tolerant. Attacks have been launched by hard sceptics against all of the most ambitious claims for NDEs. In The Skeptic magazine, Jason Braithwaite of Birmingham University wrote a withering deconstruction of one of the most headline-

generating scientific publications claiming survival of the mind after death, a Dutch paper in 2001 calling for a new science of consciousness as a result of findings from NDEs. “Van Lommel et al provided no evidence at all that the mind or consciousness is separate from brain processes,” Braithwaite concludes. “Their findings are entirely consistent with contemporary neuroscience and are in line with the general dying-brain account of NDE. It appears that the position of the sur-vivalist is still one based on faith.”

That, in a nutshell, is the mainstream position. What Braithwaite means by the “dying-brain account” is simply that NDEs are just what happen when the brain starts shutting down; they may, indeed, be an evolved mechanism to console the psyche by distracting it from the unimaginable and intolerable prospect of its own extinction. They may not even happen when the patient is flatlining but when he is slipping into or out of that state. As with dreams, it is often hard to say when they actually happen. Or, even if NDEs do happen during flatlining, this may be due to deep brain activity undetected by an EEG, which only measures activity on the surface of the brain. Recent evidence from a Cambridge team who used MRI scans to watch the brains of patients in a deep coma, or “persistent vegetative state”, suggests deep brain activity may, indeed, make patients remarkably aware of their surroundings. In other words, the clinically dead may not be quite as dead as we think.

Furthermore, NDE-type experiences may not be such unusual events. Fighter pilots sometimes experience G-Loc — G-force-induced loss of consciousness. This produces high alertness and clarity of thought, pleasurable “dreamlets”, OBE-type floating sensations and sights of family and friends, all very NDE. And, at University College London, the neuroscientist Henrik Ehrsson recently induced OBEs in people by a clever arrangement of head-mounted video displays. In fact, Susan Blackmore argues that we have OBEs all the time. Think about your last holiday. Picture a scene from that holiday. Many will see that scene as if from outside themselves — they will be a character in the picture, as they are in OBEs reported in NDE narratives. It’s just what our brains do, say the sceptics: they secrete mind in all its fabulous variations and with all its incorrigible delusions. There’s nothing there to get all weird about. The soul is not a soul, the brick is a brick and the brain is just a 1.3kg bag of water, fat and carbohydrates, subtly organised to provide us with the illusions of freedom and thought.

But there are, as Peter Fenwick puts it, enough “straws in the wind” to make one wonder. However fierce the sceptical onslaught, fascination at the NDE phenomenon is not likely to be diminished. Survivors are often fundamentally transformed by it, convinced they have been in contact with another world. This has led to NDEs being seized upon as evidence of the truth of religion. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist and counsellor of the dying, popularised this idea, and her conviction that the bright lights of the NDE were precisely what they seemed to be: a revelation of a divine plan. “In this light,” she wrote, “you will experience for the first time what man could have been. In this presence, which many people compare with Christ or God, with love or light, you will come to know that all your life on Earth was nothing but a school that you had to go through in order to learn special lessons.”

NDEs have fired the imaginations of the religious. But they also fire the imaginations of the investigators. Everybody with an interest in this area has been inspired by a personal experience of a confrontation with death and by the startling vividness and transformative powers of the NDE. Whatever it is, it means something.

The hard sceptics will say that this is all nonsense, that whatever happens in your head when Clooney shouts “Clear!” is just another delusion generated by the material workings of that 1.3kg bag. However, in the present state of our knowledge, this is crude and premature. We should not only wait for the results of Parnia’s experiment, we should also consider the deep weirdness of the world revealed by Stapp and quantum theory. Hard materialism is just one more philosophical position, and the authentic sceptical reaction is not a derisive snort but a humble acceptance that there are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in any of our philosophies.

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