LOTS of news coverage today (BBC, Discovery, Wired, Livescience, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, io9) for some recent experiments conducted on euthanized rats, which appears to show a coherent "surge of synchronous gamma oscillations" that occurred in the first 30 seconds after cardiac arrest in the animals. According to the paper's authors, this data suggests "the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death". In interviews with news outlets, they put this into layman's terms, noting how their data might be linked to the near-death experience: All the data, they said, "show the fingerprints of neural consciousness at near-death is at a much higher level compared to the waking state. That explains the realer-than-real human experience".
Coverage, of course, concentrated on what this might mean for the mystery of the 'near-death experience' (NDE) - and most of it took Olympic-sized leaps of logic. For instance, the Smithsonian website wrote that the research shows "near-death experiences are most likely a random jolt of activity in our brain just before it shuts down permanently", while some 'skeptic' sites didn't even blush in proclaiming "Goddidit and supernaturalism sidle into the corner of explanatory power as the march of science proceeds".
But has this study done what these sites are claiming (and certainly, to a fair extent, what the study's authors have concluded)? On his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong quotes some cautionary words from Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège:
It’s terribly hard to make strong claims about what these rats actually perceived, or about possible conscious experiences. But the study definitely shows that there is a lot more electrical activity than expected, and it’s very interesting activity. It’s tempting to link that to what we hear in patients, but we need to be very careful.
I think this is exactly the right response at this time. This research provides some fascinating data, and a jumping off point for future research. It also should instill some caution in commentators and researchers into the near-death experience, when they say the brain "flat-lines" almost immediately after cardiac arrest (and, therefore, the NDE is unexplainable by physical sciences). Nevertheless, as long-time NDE researcher and resuscitation expert Dr. Sam Parnia notes on Yong's blog, previous EEG studies of humans during cardiac arrest haven’t found similar patterns to this latest experiment - is this fact a death-blow for the theory, or have we not detected this brain activity before because previous efforts with human subjects had the EEG electrodes on the outside of their skull? Regardless, we should remember that vaguely similar studies in the past have generated exactly the same headline, but have not gone much further.
There are further reasons to be careful in jumping to conclusions. Firstly, the 'correlation is not necessarily causation' argument - is this the brain generating the last moments of 'mind' before it perishes completely, as most people (or at least, newspapers and science journalists) probably assume, or is this 'mind' interacting with the brain as it leaves the physical body for the last time? People will generally read in whichever conclusion suits their particular reality tunnel.
Secondly, as near-death experience researcher Bruce Greyson explained to me recently, explaining the NDE isn't as simple as just finding a neural mechanism for the reports of a bright light, or the tunnel experience. Too often, he told me, skeptics completely ignore other evidential features of the experience, such as accurate out-of-body perception and encounters with deceased individuals not known to be dead. There is no shortage of both types of case, and these are truly what constitute a major part of the mystery of the NDE.
But all in all, an interesting piece of research that could possibly lead us to a better understanding of the NDE. Just let's not jump to conclusions either way at this early stage.
Update: Interestingly, the researcher doing these experiments was a co-author with DMT researcher Rick Strassman on a paper earlier this year regarding the presence of DMT in the pineal gland of rats.
Link: In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness (Not Exactly Rocket Science)