We see dead people. In our news at least. NDEs, hauntings and people crossing over...this is the section.

Immortality Research Projects Funded

Gates to the Afterlife

Research projects investigating the near-death experience and the 'life review' component of the NDE are among the first recipients of funding from The Immortality Project at the University of California, Riverside, selected from among 75 proposals. The Immortality Project was established at UC Riverside in 2012 with a $5 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to undertake a rigorous examination of a wide range of issues related to immortality.

The funded proposals include:

  • “A Multi-Centre Pilot Study of the Mind, Brain, Consciousness and Near Death Experiences during Cardiac Arrest” —Dr. Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation science at the Stony Brook Medical Center, N.Y., will examine the nature of human consciousness and mental processes during cardiac arrest and their relationship with brain resuscitation.
  • “The Life-Review Experience: phenomenological, psychological and neuroscientific perspectives” — Dr. Shahar Arzy of Hadassah Hebrew University, Jerusalem, will examine the life-review experience reported in many near-death experiences, including its prevalence and relationship to life events.
  • “The Role of Near-Death Experiences in the Emergence of a Movement: A Quasi-Experimental Field Study of IANDS” — Ann Taves and Tamsin German of the University of California, Santa Barbara will examine the role that near-death-experience-related accounts and experiences play in shaping and reinforcing the potency of afterlife beliefs in the near-death-experience movement.

Other recipients include noted skeptics of the survival of consciousness, such as Professor Bruce Hood. According to the Immortality Project's principal investigator John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at UC Riverside:

The research should push forward the frontiers of knowledge about death and immortality in various ways. I expect that we will advance our understanding of the prospects for increasing human longevity and of the ability of certain creatures (hydra) to achieve a kind of immortality by reproducing themselves; that we will achieve a more refined evaluation of the nature, significance, and impact of near-death experiences; and that we will gain a better understanding of the relationship between our ‘commonsense’ or ‘natural’ beliefs about personhood, religion, or the deceased and our views about immortality.

Hamlet famously said about death, ‘No one comes back from that country.’ But one of the projects hopes that we can gain some insights about death and the afterlife from immersion in a virtual reality that depicts a kind of survival after death. The projects thus explore a fascinating and wide range of issues through, broadly speaking, empirical research into the great questions about death and immortality.

Preliminary results of the science research projects will be presented at a conference in June 2014. The full list of funded projects can be found at the University of California website, and more information about The Immortality Project can be found at their official website.

Science, The Self, and Survival After Death

Dr Ian Stevenson's research into the question of the survival of consciousness beyond physical death extended over a number of decades, and covered a number of topics from near-death experiences to reincarnation memories. For those that would like to get a handle on his seminal body of work, look no further than the recently released book Science, the Self, and Survival after Death: Selected Writings of Ian Stevenson, edited by another excellent researcher on these topics, Emily Williams Kelly.

Ian Stevenson was a prominent and internationally-known psychiatrist, researcher, and well-regarded figure in the field of psychical research.  Selected Writings of Ian StevensonScience, the Self, and Survival after Death is the first book devoted to surveying the entirety of his work and the extraordinary scope and variety of his research. He studied universal questions that cut to the core of a person’s identity: What is consciousness? How did we become the unique individuals that we are? Do we survive in some form after death? Stevenson’s writings on the nature of science and the mind-body relationship, as well as his empirical research, demonstrate his strongly held belief that the methods of science can be applied successfully to such humanly vital questions. Featuring a selection of his papers and excerpts from his books, this collection presents the larger context of Stevenson’s work and illustrates the issues and questions that guided him throughout his career.

You can find an informative post regarding the book, along with a detailed table of contents, at the blog of Carlos Alvarado.

Buy the book from Amazon US or Amazon UK.

Stopping Sylvia Browne

Yesterday, three women escaped from a house where they say they were held captive for a decade. One of those women was Amanda Berry, whose mother, Louwana Miller, was told by 'psychic' Sylvia Browne in 2004 - a year after her disappearance - that she was dead:

Miller: Can you tell me if they’ll ever find her? Is she out there?

Browne: She’s–see, I hate this when they’re in water. I just hate this. She’s not alive, honey. And I’ll tell you why, here we go again. Your daughter was not the type that would not have called you... I’m sorry they didn’t find the jacket. I’m sorry they didn’t find, because that had DNA on it.

Louwana Miller died in 2006, without having full closure on the case of her missing daughter - though news reports from that time indicate that Sylvia Browne's comments ended her hopes that Amanda might be found alive. "She was never the same" from that point on, said one person that knew her.

This is not the first time that Sylvia Browne has been horribly wrong about a missing person. In 2007 Shawn Hornbeck was found alive, after Browne had previously told his parents that he was dead. In 1999 she told a missing girl's grandmother that she had been kidnapped and put into slavery in Japan, but four years later her body was found in the U.S. - investigators found that she had been killed shortly after her abduction. The list of terrible gaffes goes on.

I'm not an easy person to anger, but this list of cases gets my blood boiling, and here's why: the incorrect calls I could live with, if it was offered privately just as a "I've got a feeling, but I could well be wrong". But to go on TV, and tell these people outright the fate of their children in public - sometimes even rebuking them when they throw doubt on what you're saying - is just wrong on so many levels. Perhaps some readers of this blog are Browne fans; I can't apologise for my opinion. If there's one skill I have, it's being able to pick a person's character very quickly, and Browne has always sent a shiver up my spine (for all the wrong reasons). The growing list of cases where she hurt families with misinformation only confirms my gut feeling.

And if you are someone who thinks there might be something to psychic powers or mediumship, there's a further reason to dislike Browne. Her ineptitude and callous attitude throws the entire field into disrepute, even though there are some indications that 'something' might be going on that is worthy of scientific investigation. While this woman has (somehow!) made a fortune peddling her nonsense, scientific researchers struggle for funds to research aspects of mediumship properly.

There could well be something to mediumship. Heck, Sylvia Browne may even have some minor psychic powers, who knows? But no medium has ever been shown to be right 100% of the time, and so anything that comes from them should always be taken with a grain of salt. Certainly not told flatly to the parents of missing children on popular TV shows. Browne's track record now offers ample evidence that if she has any psychic talents, they are buried deep and rarely show themselves amongst a farrago of incorrect and harmful statements.

Stop Sylvia Browne. Don't buy her books, watch any TV shows she is on, or reward her in any way for what she does. Enough is enough.

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Reincarnation on Reddit

A popular link doing the rounds at the moment is to a question posed to Redditors regarding their kids: "Parents of Reddit, what is the creepiest thing your young child has ever said to you?" Obviously, some of the answers get a bit paranormal (seeing weird people in rooms/closets etc) so it's a fun read, but there's a also a few that sound very much like reincarnation-type stories. For example:

"Before I was born here, I had a sister, right? Her and my other Mom are so old now. They were ok when the car was on fire, but I sure wasn't!"

He was maybe 5 or 6 years old? It was totally out of the blue..

The reincarnation-style quotes sound very similar to those collected by researchers Dr. Jim Tucker and the late Dr. Ian Stevenson , both from the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. I've embedded a video at the top of this story in which Dr. Jim Tucker describes this phenomenon:

Very young children, usually between the age of 2 or 3, who start reporting that they have memories from having had a past life. Some of them talk about being deceased relatives, but others will talk about being strangers in other locations. And if they give enough details like the name of the other location, people have often gone there and found that in fact someone had died in the recent past whose life matches the details that the children gave.

Given that there were a few reincarnation-type stories in the original Reddit thread, a 'Past Lives' sub-Reddit has been set up for discussion of those specific types of statements.

Why Ghosts Are Good For You

Not sure how this TEDx talk is still alive, given recent events, but I'm glad it is. Award-winning writer Patricia Pearson describes a strange event that happened to her sister at the time their father died, and how it inspired her to research further into the mysteries of consciousness and the possibility of an afterlife:

When we found out...what had happened to my sister on this particular night, it instantly transformed the narrative of what was a really brutal shock of losing my father, all of a sudden it took on a kind of mythic resonance in fact, and it became the story of how my father somehow went to my sister and reassured her, and then went ahead of her, and was there for her when she died, as she did, two months later.

Now I'm a journalist and so I was immediately extremely preoccupied with the question of what the hell just happened?

The Reality of the Near Death Experience

Gates to the Afterlife

Skeptics often say that the near-death experience (NDE) is a type of hallucination, but those familiar with the literature will know that many NDErs describe the phenomenon as "realer than real", rather than some sort of surreal, cloudy dream-like experience. Now, researchers from the University of Liège have backed up the accounts of those near-death experiencers, in a study which found that the NDEs seem to be "unique, unrivalled memories" that "have more characteristics than any kind of memory of real or imagined events". That is, NDE memories seem more real than even memories of actual events.

The researchers compared phenomenological characteristics in reports of near-death experiences with memories of imagined and real events, using three groups: 8 coma survivors who had an NDE (as defined by the Greyson NDE scale), 6 coma survivors who didn't have an NDE but did have memories of their coma, and 7 coma survivors with no memories, as well as an additional control group of 18 age-matched healthy volunteers. Five different types of memories were assessed using a standard memory questionnaire. The results were surprising, to say the least, showing that...

...NDE memories have more characteristics than memories of imagined and real events (p<0.02). NDE memories contain more self-referential and emotional information and have better clarity than memories of coma (all ps<0.02). The present study showed that NDE memories contained more characteristics than real event memories and coma memories. Thus, this suggests that they cannot be considered as imagined event memories. On the contrary, their physiological origins could lead them to be really perceived although not lived in the reality. Further work is needed to better understand this phenomenon.

It's worth noting that by comparing the NDE memories with the memories of other (non-NDE) coma survivors, the researchers uncovered an interesting fact: NDE memories don't seem to be strong simply because of the death component, as has often been surmised, but rather as a consequence of the content of the experience.

So what do we make of this finding that NDE memories seem to be 'more real' than real memories? That obviously depends on the paradigm you're embedded within, as evidenced by press release covering the results and this subsequent LiveScience story about it:

The brain, in conditions conducive to such phenomena occurring, is prey to chaos. Physiological and pharmacological mechanisms are completely disturbed, exacerbated or, conversely, diminished. Certain studies have put forward a physiological explanation for certain components of NDE, such as Out-of-Body Experiences, which could be explained by dysfunctions of the temporo-parietal lobe. In this context the study published in PLOS ONE suggests that these same mechanisms could also could also 'create' a perception - which would thus be processed by the individual as coming from the exterior - of reality. In a kind of way their brain is lying to them, like in a hallucination. These events being particularly surprising and especially important from an emotional and personal perspective, the conditions are ripe for the memory of this event being extremely detailed, precise and durable.

Glad we've swept those pesky results under the carpet...

Read the original paper: "Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as Compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories"

New Books on the Paranormal

Three books have been released recently that I thought would be of interest to Grailers out there, but I haven't had time to read and summarise them as of yet so I'm just going to be lazy and post about them without any sort of review. Make your own mind up, dagnabbit!

Among Mediums, by Julie Beischel

Among Mediums by Julie Beischel

Readers of this site should be aware of Julie's work with the Windbridge Institute, doing scientific research into mediumship and related subjects (see her blog here at TDG, and my interview with her). Julie has written a short eBook titled Among Mediums: A Scientist's Quest for Answers which summarizes her research and thoughts in quite a casual manner, 'for the layman'. At only $4.99, it's well worth it. Michael Prescott has reviewed Julie's book over at his blog, check it out.

Why People Believe in Spirits, God and Magic, by Jack Hunter

Why People Believe in Spirits, God and Magic, by Jack Hunter

Jack Hunter is another of our good friends (he contributed an article to Darklore Volume 6) who is at the coalface, researching the paranormal within academia. His eBook Why People Believe in Spirits, God and Magic covers topics including shamanism & spirit possession, witchcraft & magic, ghosts, spirits, gods and demons, providing "an overview of supernatural traditions and practices around the world" as well as exploring "anthropological interpretations of supernatural and spiritual experiences, including the paranormal experiences of the anthropologists themselves when they are doing fieldwork".

Science, the Self, and Survival after Death, by Emily Williams Kelly

Science, the Self, and Survival after Death, by Emily Williams Kelly

Again, a new book from another researcher hard at work doing academic research into the questions related to the paranormal and the possibility of the survival of consciousness. This particular book, from Emily Williams Kelly, is devoted to surveying the life work of Dr Ian Stevenson, from his writings on the nature of science and the mind-body relationship, through to his empirical research into reincarnation and the question of survival. Carlos Alvarado has written up an excellent review of the book on the website of the Parapsychology Association. Unlike the other two books, this one is in hardcover, and you'll be forking out some cash to purchase it - but sometimes you have pay for something that will take pride of place on your bookshelf.

Have Scientists Found Proof That We Leave Our Bodies? Nobody's Telling Just Yet

Near Death Experience

The AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study is a long-term multidisciplinary collaboration between international scientists and physicians, begun in 2008, that aims to study the relationship between consciousness and the brain in patients who undergo cardiac arrest and clinical death. Led by Dr. Sam Parnia, the AWARE project is working with more than 25 major medical centers throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States to investigate the dying process and what we can learn about the fate of consciousness at this time.

One of the most publicised aspects of the AWARE study is the testing of claims of 'veridical out-of-body experiences' during near-death experiences: that is, people claiming to be able to see and hear during cardiac arrest from a point outside their body. The project is investigating these claims by placing randomly generated images within hospital rooms that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above, to see if any near-death experiencers can correctly report back the target image 'seen' during an OBE. To quote Dr Sam Parnia: "If we can objectively verify these claims, the results would bear profound implications not only for the scientific community, but for the way in which we understand and relate to life and death as a society.”

As such, there has been great interest in the project, not least as to whether any targets have been reported back correctly. And not surprisingly, the researchers involved have so far been reticent to share their data before the testing has been completed. But due to the high level of interest, the Horizon Research Foundation has issued an update directly from the research team. Those hoping for something exciting will however be disappointed: the study "is progressing well", but the results so far "suggest more data and larger scale studies may be required", and "owing to the exploratory nature of this study they do not anticipate there to be an end in the near future… Instead the study is likely to evolve into further research projects downstream with time."

One would imagine that if there were any positive results, there might be excited whispers emanating from various corners, but it sounds very much like results have been ambiguous at best, if not completely negative. However, we'll just have to wait until the full data set is released, which they anticipate happening towards the end of this year.

Here's the text of the update:

Many people have sent requests to the Horizon website for more information regarding this project. We have to firstly point out that the Horizon Research Foundation is not directly involved with the running of the study and therefore does not have specific information regarding this. Nevertheless while we know it is not usual for investigators to release results of their studies until their research has been completed, we did nevertheless contact the investigators for a recent update in view of the numerous request that we have received.

The AWARE investigators have explained that owing to the exploratory nature of this study they do not anticipate there to be an end in the near future. Instead the study is likely to evolve into further research projects downstream with time. They are pleased to report the study is progressing well but have indicated that the results so far suggest more data and larger scale studies may be required. At this time, they anticipate being able to release the preliminary results obtained during the first five years of the study in September or October 2013 to mark the fifth anniversary of the launch of the study. This will be done through the appropriate scientific channels such as publications in scientific journals and possibly by means of a lecture, symposium or conference at a suitable venue if there is sufficient public interest. This would allow the data and results to be discussed in further detail.

The AWARE investigators asked us to thank everyone and expressed their deep appreciation for the interest shown in their work. They also apologized and mentioned that they will unfortunately not be able to release any more information until the conclusion of the study but promised to let us know when the results will be released so that we can also post them online for our readers.

Perhaps there may be a little more information in an upcoming book by Dr Sam Parnia, Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death, due for release on February 26. In the meantime, you can learn more about the AWARE study at the Horizon Research Foundation website.

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The Art of Dying

In this TEDx talk, neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick discusses his research into the experience of the dying, including death-bed visions and the like. Fenwick exhorts the audience to listen attentively, because the stories he tell about "our last great adventure" may well help them during their own, inevitable end. He sounds a little nervous and tentative during the talk, but I recommend his book The Art of Dying for a full and detailed exploration of these fascinating topics:

Peter Fenwick is an eminent neuropsychiatrist, academic and expert on disorders of the brain. His most compelling and provocative research has been into the end of life phenomena, including near-death experiences and deathbed visions of the dying person, as well as the experiences of hospice and palliative care workers and relatives of dying people. Dr. Fenwick believes that consciousness may be independent of the brain and so able to survive the death of the brain, a theory which has divided the scientific community. The 'problem with death' is deeply rooted in our culture and the social organization of death rituals. Fenwick believes that with serious engagement and through further investigation of these phenomena, he can help change attitudes so that we in the West can face up to death, and embrace it as a significant and sacred part of life.

(h/t @DavidBMetcalfe)

The Death of Near Death Will Be the Death of Me

Gates to the Afterlife

Last week Scientific American featured an article titled "The Death of Near Death", by Kyle Hill (who you will not be surprised to learn is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation). I don't want to spend too much time deconstructing the article, but below I'll just point out a few things that irked me:

These criticisms of Alexander point out that what he saw was a classic NDE—the white light, the tunnel, the feelings of connectedness, etc. This is effective in dismantling his account of an “immaterial intellect” because, so far, most symptoms of a NDE are in fact scientifically explainable. [I won’t go into depth here, as another article on this site provides a thorough description of the evidence, as does this study.]

One might argue that the scientific description of NDE symptoms is merely the physical account of what happens as you cross over. A brain without oxygen may experience “tunnel vision,” but a brain without oxygen is also near death and approaching the afterlife, for example. This argument rests on the fact that you are indeed dying. But without the theological gymnastics, I think there is an overlooked yet critical aspect to the near death phenomenon, one that can render Platform 9 ¾ wholly solid. Studies have shown that you don’t have to be near death to have a near death experience.

Who has overlooked it? It's been a mainstay of near-death experience research since not long after Raymond Moody published his seminal book on the topic, beginning with probably Noyes and Kletti's 1976 articles on "Depersonalization in the Face of Life-Threatening Danger". It's been regularly discussed by NDE researchers ever since, and if anything, it actually makes explaining the NDE an even more complex task.

In 1990, a study was published in the Lancet that looked at the medical records of people who experienced NDE-like symptoms as a result of some injury or illness. It showed that out of 58 patients who reported “unusual” experiences associated with NDEs (tunnels, light, being outside one’s own body, etc.), 30 of them were not actually in any danger of dying, although they believed they were [1]. The authors of the study concluded that this finding offered support to the physical basis of NDEs, as well as the “transcendental” basis.

Why would the brain react to death (or even imagined death) in such a way? Well, death is a scary thing. Scientific accounts of the NDE characterize it as the body’s psychological and physiological response mechanism to such fear, producing chemicals in the brain that calm the individual while inducing euphoric sensations to reduce trauma.

Imagine an alpine climber whose pick fails to catch the next icy outcropping as he or she plummets towards a craggy mountainside. If one truly believes the next experience he or she will have is an intimate acquainting with a boulder, similar NDE-like sensations may arise (i.e., “My life flashed before my eyes…”). We know this because these men and women have come back to us, emerging from a cushion of snow after their fall rather than becoming a mountain’s Jackson Pollock installation.

You do not have to be, in reality, dying to have a near-death experience. Even if you are dying (but survive), you probably won’t have one. What does this make of Heaven? It follows that if you aren’t even on your way to the afterlife, the scientifically explicable NDE symptoms point to neurology, not paradise.

No it doesn't follow. It suggests it if you're opinion lies in some particular ideology. A supporter of the idea of an afterlife could just as easily say "it follows" that this shows the afterlife is real, because it shows that consciousness detaches from the physical body when it feels under threat. But, just like the above, it just offers support for their own ideology.

How can I dismiss the theological importance of NDEs so easily? As I said, I fully understand how real and valuable they can be. But in this case, as in science, a theory can be shot through with experimentation. As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

The experiment is exploring an NDE under different conditions. Can the same sensations be produced when you are in fact not dying?

Really? Which experiments are we talking about? "Although physiological, psychological and sociocultural factors may indeed interact in complicated ways in conjunction with NDEs, theories proposed thus far consist largely of unsupported speculations about what might be happening during an NDE. None of the proposed neurophysiological mechanisms have been shown to occur in NDEs." - "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences", Bruce Greyson, Emily Williams Kelly, and Edward F. Kelly.

It has become clear that the 'skeptical' fraternity have a new favourite article when it comes to the near-death experience: "There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them", by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, published last year. Kyle Hill leans on it in this Sci-Am piece, and other skeptics have also done so recently. This, despite one of the authors of the paper making clear that the paper was a short piece, published in the 'Forum' section in Trends in Cognitive Science, that was simply meant to provoke debate. "The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review," Caroline Watt told told Alex Tsakiris. "It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example. It’s a bit like an opinion piece, like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate."

If skeptics want to continue referencing this article, they really need to combine it with the article I cited above by Greyson, Kelly and Kelly. It deals with each of these topics individually and in some depth. The point that becomes clear is this: "When examined in isolation, the features described in this section may seem potentially explainable by some psychological or physiological hypothesis, even though very little evidence exists that supports any of these hypotheses. When several features occur together, however, and when increasing layers of explanation must be added on to account for them, these hypotheses become increasingly strained." The authors point out that the real challenge facing these these explanatory models is in examining how complex consciousness, including thinking, sensory perception (e.g. veridical OBEs), and memory, can occur "under conditions in which current physiological models of mind deem it impossible", such as under general anesthesia or cardiac arrest.

Barring a capricious conception of “God’s plan,” one can experience a beautiful white light at the end of a tunnel while still having a firm grasp of their mortal coil. This is the death of near death.