Skeptiko is currently featuring an excellent hour-long podcast interview with Dr Peter Fenwick, one of the leaders in research into the possibility of the conscious survival of death. Skeptiko's Alex Tsakiris asks some great questions, and Dr Fenwick provides plenty of information in a calm and rational manner - covering everything from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) to death-bed phenomena and his own recent book, The Art of Dying (Amazon US and UK). Dr Fenwick is a part of the very exciting AWARE project, which aims to study the brain and consciousness during the dying process.
If you want to discuss (or read discussions about) the topics covered, you can also head to the Skeptiko section of the Mind-Energy Forums. I recommend this podcast interview wholeheartedly - one of the best I've listened to for a long while.
Previously on TDG:
A new poll! 2012 is soooo 2008, so I've archived that poll. Here's something completely different: which area offers the best evidence for an afterlife? Mediums? Near Death Experiences? Reincarnation? It's a fairly long list, so let us know which area you think research should be concentrated on if we're to settle the question of life after death. Or perhaps there is no evidence, and this life is it (there's an option on the poll for that too). I'll be interested to see how this one turns out.
I regularly link to Michael Tymn's blog in the weekly blogscans, as he posts fascinating entries on the topic of the afterlife. Mike's an expert on the history of the field of afterlife research, and he's also contributed articles to our anthology Darklore (both Volumes 1 and 2). So I'm very happy to announce that Mike has now written a book, sharing his thoughts on the most interesting facets of the investigation of the 'spirit world'. It's titled The Articulate Dead, and you can pick up a copy from Amazon US. Here's the blurb from the publisher's website:
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were dynamic and evidential forms of spirit communication. A number of distinguished scientists and scholars studied some of the best mediums and concluded they were genuine. Unfortunately, there were also many charlatans and it was difficult for the general public to distinguish between the real mediums and the frauds. Scientific and religious fundamentalists along with a cynical press, were constantly on the attack, driving the genuine mediums underground or forcing them to abandon their gift.
In The Articulate Dead, Michael E. Tymn examines several of the best mediums of yesteryear and the scientific research surrounding them. A number of very intriguing stories unfold, including spirits directing an archaeologist in the uncovering of the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, spirits leading a researcher to crosses buried by American Indians, a deceased author completing his books through a medium, a Titanic victim coming back to tell about his new environment, and an afterlife researcher continuing his work after dying, to name just a few.
I have a copy of the book, and it's certainly chock-full of fascinating evidence. For more information, Michael Prescott has reviewed the book on his blog, and also Alex Tsakiris interviewed Mike on his Skeptiko podcast. Lastly, Mike has written a new blog entry explaining his reasons for writing the book ("Make Dr Death Your Friend in 2009"), which also is worth a read.
Dr Bruce Greyson is one of the world's foremost experts on the Near Death Experience (NDE), having researched and written about the phenomenon for a few decades now. In October last year, he spoke at the IANDS (International Association for Near Death Studies) Fall conference in Durham, N.C., and his hour-long presentation was recorded to video. Here it is for those interested:
Alternatively, there's better quality video of Greyson's presentation on YouTube, though it's broken into multiple parts as is YouTube's want - however, this might suit some of you more, and this page should allow you to track all the pieces down easily enough. Information *plus* options - we take good care of y'all here on the Daily Grail!
A lot of interest (judging by my email Inbox) about a fresh story in Britain's The Sunday Times, regarding the new 'Near-Death Experience' (NDE) research experiment which is testing to see if cardiac arrest patients can view 'hidden targets' while undergoing the out-of-body experience (OBE) component of an NDE:
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.
This story isn't exactly news - Dr Sam Parnia has been working on this angle for a number of years (I think there was an article about it in Issue 2 of Phenomena when I worked for them way back), and I reported on the renewed collaborative effort back in September here on TDG. What is news is the treatment it got in a major newspaper - serious, considered, and balanced coverage! Not surprising though, given the writer is Bryan Appleyard, one of the more intelligent journalists out there when it comes to topics at the edge of science. Appleyard has in the past criticised scientism, and has rightly pointed out that science is just one part of the totality of life (hey, anybody that can get called "a pompous kook" by P.Z. Myers is alright with me).
The article is in-depth and covers a lot of ground - Appleyard even talks to physicist Henry Stapp about the quantum mechanics-consciousness crossover. There's some things I would take issue with (e.g. once again saying Henrik Ehrsson "induced OBEs" in his recent research...err, no), but apart from those few instances it's one of the best presentations of 'fringe' research that you're likely to see in the mainstream media.
Also: Robert McLuhan has discussed the article at Paranormalia, and as usual it's worth checking out.
Which way does Occam's Razor cut? Scientific American has posted an online article, misleadingly titled "Ghost Stories: Visits from the Deceased". The author discusses how bereaved people often experience 'contact' with the recently dead, which they say is quite obviously a hallucination:
Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.
...We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the “ghost” while the reality is, in many ways, more profound. Our perception is so tuned to their presence that when they are not there to fill that gap, we unconsciously try to mold the world into what we have lived with for so long and so badly long for. Even reality is no match for our love.
The article does not mention at all any of the evidence which suggests that these 'hallucinations' may be something more, such as 'crisis apparitions' (where the experiencer is not actually aware of the death, and therefore also not subject to the stress of grief), veridical hallucinations and so-called 'Peak in Darien' experiences. One of the earliest comprehensive reports on the above can be found in Phantasms of the Living (Volume 1 and Volume 2), a publication of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) more than 120 years ago. In the more recent Irreducible Mind, Kelly et al note that...
Although no subsequent study of veridical hallucinations has approached those of the early SPR in scope or thoroughness of investigation, such experiences have continued to be reported (see, e.g., Dale, White, & Murphy, 1962; Green, 1960; Stevenson, 1970, 1995; S.H. Wright, 1999). An ongoing study at our research unit in the University of Virginia over the past several years has identified more than 200 cases of dreams, telepathic impressions, or hallucinations occurring at the time of some crisis (usually death) occurring to a person at a distance.
They go on to point out that "apparitions of people that the percipient already knows to be dead have been reported in all times and cultures... Although most such cases cannot be attributed to anything other than subjectively generated imagery, some cases do suggest a more objective origin, including collective hallucinations of a deceased person; cases in which veridical information unknown to the percipient was conveyed by the apparition; and cases in which the apparition was later recognized by the percipient in a photograph of someone he or she had not known in life."
Previously on TDG:
Are 'haunted' areas able to be investigated scientifically with technology, and if so, are the current crop of 'ghost-hunters' doing it right or are they just glorified tour guides? At SkepticBlog (the home blog for the cast of the fledgling show 'Skeptologists'), Ryan Johnson gives a rather mocking, ascerbic account of his experience with 'paranormal investigators' aboard the Queen Mary:
But first, we had to endure an hour of the lead investigator essentially yelling at us for being there. Really. He did his best: “I’m a skeptic folks! And there’s a lot of bad people in my industry trying to fool you! We’re doing this for real!” It was hilarious, he was trying to be this tough, abrasive, been-there, done-that, seen-it-all type. I got the feeling that he was making it all up as he went along. When pressed by us and others for details of hauntings that he had supposedly witnessed in his “investigations” he suddenly stumbled and then gave a weak answer and then turned to his partner for some sort of assurance. His partner, by the way, took most of the first hour to get suited up into some sort of military black nylon accessory vest. He worked hard at becoming a one-man Radio Shack. He proceeded to stuff every little battery operated handheld device that you’d ever seen onto his person. “Boy we’re in for a real adventure if the ghost hunter needs all that!” I whispered under my breath.
'Cowboy' ghosthunters not withstanding however, there are some people out there looking into the question of environmental correspondences in supposedly haunted areas in a serious manner. I've previously mentioned Richard Wiseman's debunking of the Hampton Court haunting, and 'The Haunt Project' which investigated possible correspondences of EMF and infrasound in paranormal encounters. Public Parapsychology have also discussed the issue of magnetic fields at haunt sites, and now have also written a primer on "Temperature in Haunting Experiences", a short PDF booklet which discusses the matter for the benefit of 'paranormal enthusiasts'. A good download - Public Parapsychology is a blog worth keeping your eye on, there's often interesting investigations and also notices about psi conferences and the like over there.
I have a soft spot for research into the possibility of an afterlife.There's some fascinating evidence out there that deserves closer inspection, and yet it is basically a heresy for any scientist to become involved in doing so. So I was eager to read Mary Roach's book Spook (Amazon US and UK), with its subtitle "Science tackles the afterlife". Roach's previous book, Stiff, had received very good reviews, so it was likely the new book would be perfectly suited to me.
In the introduction, Mary Roach makes clear that she started her research from absolute zero - she knew nothing about the topic. That approach has its positives (less likely to align to one side or the other on pure bias - although no doubt there were some), but also negatives (in that she is bound to miss some important research in the vast literature). During the book, written as a travelogue, she tours through topics such as reincarnation, attempts to weigh the soul, ectoplasm, Dr. Gary Schwartz's mediumship research, technological attempts to talk with the dead, and Michael Persinger's 'sensed presence' research with electromagnetic fields.
It soon becomes apparent when reading the book though that Roach is more interested in the 'follies' of science. The book entertains the reader primarily by laughing at researchers' (and our own) overzealous attempts to find something beyond death. That is not to say that she presents the entire book from a skeptical viewpoint. When visiting the mediumship research program conducted by Dr Gary Schwartz, she takes issue with his overly keen attempts to see 'hits' from mediums. But then she confesses to being gobsmacked when
A New York Times story today - getting in on the Halloween theme - discussed "Supernatural Cleaning Methods", a tongue-in-cheek look at how to get rid of ghosts in your house. While I realise it was light-hearted, it used a journalistic tactic that has always bothered me - using Google stats to portray the Internet audience as a bunch of whackos (which the 'skeptics' will gladly tell you...don'cha know we're a millimetre from sliding into a seething pit of irrationality?):
You don’t believe in ghosts? Then you are either tragically out of step with the times or possibly a slovenly spiritual housekeeper looking for an excuse to avoid tidying up. A recent Google Internet search for getting rid of ghosts yielded nearly two million hits. By comparison, a search for cleaning rain gutters yielded 191,000.
Surprising stat, n'est ce pas? Okay, let's whack "getting rid of ghosts" into Google, without any quotes. Whoah, 3,840,000 results. What about "cleaning gutters"? 414,000. Sounds like the reporter was on the money. But dig down into the "getting rid of ghosts" search results and we fairly quickly end up with pages on "Getting rid of ghost ants", "Getting rid of ghost images" and "Getting rid of ghost emails". All those crazy woo-woos, getting rid of their ghost ants...
Now let's put the search terms within quotes. "Getting rid of ghosts": 2250 results. "Cleaning gutters": 70,600. And the former still includes hits for "ghost emails" and the like. So, basically, it's a nonsense stat. Don't believe the hype.
Where will you be when you're dead? That's the (rhetorical) question posed by high-profile atheist preacher P.Z. Myers at his Pharyngula blog. In actual fact, it's more an opening for Myers to rail about the "belief" in an afterlife, and (rather predictably) how 'parasitic' religions manipulate that belief:
[B]elief in the persistence of the mind is almost certainly a property of normal consciousness, and is hard to escape. I'd agree too that these beliefs are not an invention of religion. As he puts it, the details of specific religious beliefs about an afterlife are produced by "an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief".
However, I'm not going to let religion off the hook. What this means is that it parasitizes intrinsic and ultimately infantile tendencies, and builds on irrational tendencies rather than trying to overcome them. This is not a virtue; it's an exploitation of a psychological weakness.
The post goes into how the belief in an afterlife may be a holdover from the "naive" cognitive traits of childhood. What would have been more interesting is an analysis of the Near Death Experience, which presents a far more lucid and detailed suggestion of a waiting afterlife. Is the NDE the end product of a lifetime working up a psychological defence mechanism against the dying process? Or conversely, does the belief in an afterlife actually arise out of the Near Death Experience, with tales of what awaits us being relayed by experiencers throughout history?