NDE Researcher: "Probably an Illusion"?

Dr Sam Parnia is a British pulmonary care specialist who over the past decade has been actively involved in researching the near-death experience (NDE). In recent years he has led the AWARE study, a "multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians who have joined forces to study the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death". As we've mentioned here on the Daily Grail previously, part of the AWARE study has been a novel experiment in which the researchers test for a veridical out-of-body experience (during the NDE), by placing hidden targets up near the ceiling of the patients' rooms. Much has been made of this experiment: correct identification of the targets would suggest that consciousness can leave the physical body and 'wander', while failure to identify any targets at all might be indicative that the whole experience is simply a hallucination.

Dr Parnia joined Alex Tsakiris as the latest guest on the Skeptiko podcast, clarifying some remarks he made earlier in the year during a presentation at a skeptical gathering, namely that he suspected the NDE was "an illusion, a trick of the mind." His response on Skeptiko was to say that...

I think as a researcher I have to remain neutral and unbiased. The current scientific models that we have - and this is the point I think I was trying to mention in that quote that you said - the current scientific models that we have do not allow for descriptions the patients are providing of an out-of-body experience if they’re real.

So let’s assume for a moment that the patient who claims that they were on the ceiling and able to see things is actually really correct. Well, we have no scientific model to account for it today. So based upon what we understand of the brain and the way the brain works, the most likely explanation that we have today and the knowledge that’s available in 2010 is that this must be an illusion. However, I’m open-minded enough to accept that at any given time and era science is very limited. And it may simply be that this phenomenon is going to be something that will open up a whole new field of science. So that again depends on what the experiments show.

So the point I was making was based on the limitations of science that we have today, this is most likely to be an illusion but I’m very open to experimenting with it and doing an objective study to find out whether it is or not. And that’s what we’re doing.

Alex then pushed Dr Parnia on his stance, leading to the following response:

You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion.

Alex has taken this statement to mean that Sam Parnia is leaning towards the hallucination hypothesis (as the title of the podcast says, "Dr. Sam Parnia Claims Near Death Experience Probably an Illusion"). I can't say I'd go that far - it's clear that Dr Parnia is qualifying that opinion as being based on current scientific knowledge (and its limitations). However, given that (you would imagine) he has access to the ongoing data from the AWARE study, it sounds unlikely that they have come across any striking veridical OBEs thus far.

As I've said before about the AWARE study though, it's still rather likely the conclusion will be either "a few correct cases - interesting, but not conclusive evidence", or "no correct cases - suggestive of the OBE being a hallucination, but not conclusive evidence of that either". Though I still applaud the work being done in delving into this reported anomalous aspect of the near-death experience.

Previously on TDG:


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Inannawhimsey's picture
Member since:
14 April 2009
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39 weeks 21 hours

HA! Ya gotta watch out with scientists...their agnosticism doesn't make for spicy copy.

Reporter: "What do you think of Quantum Mechanics?"

Scientist: "Well, that depends...which of the 8+ different versions of it do you want to talk aboot?"

And so it goes...

All that lives is holy, life delights in life.

--William Blake

daydreamer's picture
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21 February 2009
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This 'limitation of science' statement strikes me as a little odd. He seems to be saying that the 'non free-floating' neuro-biological theory of the mind is in opposition to the idea of free floating consciousnesses, that those specific ideas, through their opposites, impart limitations of each others accuracy. Not that the idea of the soul shows that the science of toasting bread is 'limited' or the physics of throwing a ball is 'limited'. We get carried away if we start shouting 'science is limited' in a deep scary voice because someone hasn't thought of an answer to a problem in one field that is possibly/maybe/maybe-not connected to another field.

There are also a great many other mysteries, like the strange slowing down of the Voyager 1 probe, or the rotation rates of galaxies if there is no dark matter. Those and other unexplained oddities with little or no experimentation or theory to explain them, but they are not an example of 'the limitations of science' (said in a deep B movie echoey sort of way) in a grander scheme, just 'incomplete science' - shock horror.

As for the aware experiment - it doesn't seem like the hardest experiment to set up or judge. What is limited in it's methodology or analysis? They either report it, or they do not. A negative doesn't disprove anything (they often don't), and a positive will add solid weight, especially if it is strong and repeatable. Good look to them, if the results are positive then here's to quick retrials elsewhere, if not then lets move on and look elsewhere - or do it all again. Either way, the science involved in interpreting this particular experiment does not sound particularly difficult, or 'limited'. Lets get the results in before we make any decisions about the limitations, of either idea.

jupiter.enteract's picture
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For centuries, science has studied phenomena (like gravity) perfectly well without understanding precisely how they work. The fact that there is no purely materialist explanation for NDEs at this point is of little consequence, as far as whether it's a reality or not. It's important for us to simply go where the evidence leads us, and not succumb to the temptation to prematurely shoehorn that evidence into existing theoretical frameworks, because those frameworks may not hold the answer.

emlong's picture
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31 min 19 sec

Re: NDE's
The phenomenon can be both an hallucination and reality. That is after all what a yage experience is. The hallucination is used to access other realities. Hypoxia can place the brain in an altered state whereby the brain experience alternate realities. There is no conflict concerning "hallucination." Of course this scientist may give no credence to hallucinatory insight in the first place in which case I would advise him to read "The Wizard Of the Upper Amazon." These old fogey rationalists are a bore.

pacificwhim's picture
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Parnia is simply playing the oldest game in the scientific world, the one that goes back to Galileo: trying to be open-minded while not destroying one's mainstream credibility (i.e., being killed by the Church). He's surely cognizant of the fact that the scientific and medical establishment will never accept NDEs as proof of a separate mind and body or the survival of consciousness, even if 1000 people read the pictures as clearly as I'm reading what I type. So he must hedge to remain relevant.

Skepticism and fear of the contradiction of established belief systems was ever so. It's no different than the comment thread in the recent Psychology Today story about Daryl Bem's work on retrocausal effects in the mind, aka precognition or presentiment. Despite the very convincing findings, their strong evidentiary value for the existence of psi, and their publication in a mainstream peer-reviewed journal, many of the commenters immediately launch into the usual pseudoskeptic tactics of fraud accusations, assumption of bad statistics, demands for immediate (and presumably endless) replication, and Ghostbusters jokes. Following the evidence is always the skeptical creed until said evidence contradicts one's neatly tied up, smarter-than-thou worldview.

Greg H.'s picture
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it's still rather likely the conclusion will be either "a few correct cases - interesting, but not conclusive evidence", or "no correct cases - suggestive of the OBE being a hallucination, but not conclusive evidence of that either"

Reminds me of Ingo Swann making that cosmic ray detector buried deep in the ground move with his mind. Skeptics will claim coincidence especially since he was unable to repeat it, and yet it happened as he thought of it in his first attempt, leading to the Army inviting him into their Remote Viewing program - at least that's my understanding. The point is - in the Aware Study skeptics will claim coincidence at any positive identificatsions, or cheating, or simply ignore the result. And of course they will tout the lack of id's as proof NDE's are merly hallucinations. It's a matter of close mindedness versus open mindedness, and of course having an agenda...

Greg H.

emlong's picture
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it has always seemed particularly silly to me that so called rationalists would demnad repeatability when even the psychics will tell you how often fleeting and elusive the phenomenon can be.
By the way, the detector needle underground at Stanford was supposed to "never" move wasn't it? Making it move at all was a triumph such that scientists watching nearby were spooked when the needle moved.