Welp, that's one mystery solved. According to Scientific American, "Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations":
Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one's "soul" has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.
...Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences. "Many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained," says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge's Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
The article is based on a new journal paper, "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 the aforementioned neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, and co-author Caroline Watt (well-known 'psi researcher' from the Koestler Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh).
I haven't seen the full paper (but given the offers of help regarding the Paul Davies paper last week,
I'm sure a copy might find its way to me soon...*ahem* sorted, thank you!), but my first thought when reading the Sci-Am article was basically "this isn't really news". For years many neurological explanations have been offered for various elements of the NDE, and on their own they are interesting enough. The intriguing aspect to the NDE though is why all these particular elements would combine at the time of death, and then coincidentally just happen to provide 'the illusion' of a glimpse into an afterlife.
I don't know of any researchers that consider the NDE to be 'purely paranormal' - they all seem to agree that the experience would be at least mediated by the brain in some way. As I said, I haven't read the paper at this stage, so am reluctant to say too much about it, but given the title ("There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences"), I will be interested to see how Mobbs and Watts manage to not only point out the brain's involvement in the NDE (which is, as I said, basically a given), but also disprove any paranormal element to the phenomenon.
Focusing on a couple of the things mentioned in the Sci-Am story: firstly, as for expectation creating the experience, I'd note that I've written an article previously on NDEs reported well before there was any public knowledge about its phenomenology ("Death Before Life After Life), and as for Olaf Blanke's "out-of-body experience" research, we've covered that previously as well. For a very detailed counterweight to the Sci-Am article though, I'd recommend the paper "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences", by Bruce Greyson, Emily Kelly and Edward Kelly (found in The Handbook of Near Death Experiences), in which they cover most of the elements mentioned and explain why they don't really work as explanations, as well as bringing up salient points about the non-explained factors - such as enhanced mentation at a time when the brain is supposed to be shut down, as well as the anomalous aspects of the NDE, including reports of veridical out-of-body experiences. From the paper:
Despite shaky foundations for assertions that NDEs are similar to experiences associated with abnormal temporal lobe activity, anoxia, ketamine, or endorphins, several multifactorial theories, based on these foundations, combine these putative causes at will to account for whatever constellation of features is observed in any given NDE...
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.
You might also like...
For shame New Scientist.
Twitter headline: Serotonin triggers near death experience
Article headline: Near-death experiences may be triggered by serotonin
Article lede: The bright light at the end of the tunnel which some people close to death describe may result from a flood of serotonin in the brain.
Near-death experiences (NDEs) are reported by around 1 in 5 critically ill people, and their cause is a mystery. Alexander Wutzler's team at the Charité University of Medicine in Berlin, Germany, wondered if serotonin - a neurotransmitter involved in mood regulation and processing vision and sound - plays a role.
They gave six rats an overdose of anaesthetic and found that serotonin levels in their brains had tripled by the time they died (Neuroscience Letters, DOI: 10.1016/j.neulet.2011.04.051).
Wutzler expects to see a similar increase in dying human brains. He says serotonin could be behind NDEs, but Jakob Hohwy at Monash University in Melbourne is unsure. "One thing that you don't want to say is that rats have NDEs," he says.
Coming on the back of the Sheldrake review debacle, seems like New Scientist is aiming at a change of name in the near future, to Stodgy Old Defenders of Orthodox Science...
(I'm not attacking the research here, which is a possibly interesting insight into 'time of death' changes in the brain. I just find the manner in which New Scientist presented it as...misleading.)
One of the strange and baffling aspects of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon is the so-called 'veridical' NDE: that is, an account of the experiencer that seems to contain details that they should not have had access to during their flirtation with death, which they often claim to have 'observed' from a vantage point outside their body (during an out-of-body experience, or OBE). The most famous of these is perhaps the NDE of singer Pam Reynolds which occurred during her brain surgery, in which she described things happening in the operating theatre while she was at death's door.
Now, in an interview on YouTube, pioneering cardiac surgeon Dr. Lloyd Rudy has mentioned NDEs that his patients have told him about, including one that seems to also offer strong evidence of perception from beyond the body:
If these sorts of cases interest you, a handy reference for further research is Janice Miner Holden's article "Veridical Perception in Near-Death Experiences", which can be found in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences.
(h/t to Michael Prescott's blog)
Earlier this month Science Channel's Through the Wormhole series (hosted by Morgan Freeman) featured an episode on "Life After Death", which touched on a number of topics we've discussed here previously, perhaps most notably 'quantum consciousness' as an explanation for afterlife experiences. This short excerpt below talks to one of our old friends, Dr Stuart Hameroff, about his own theory (proposed in tandem with distinguished mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose):
This echoes what Stuart told me in a Daily Grail interview we did way back in 2004:
TDG: In your opinion, does the hypothesis of 'quantum consciousness' provide a model for anomalous experiences such as Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) and Near Death Experiences (NDEs)?
SH: I would say possibly yes. Under normal circumstances consciousness occurs in the fundamental level of spacetime geometry confined in the brain. But when the metabolism driving quantum coherence (in microtubules) is lost, the quantum information leaks out to the spacetime geometry in the universe at large. Being holographic and entangled it doesnt dissipate. Hence consciousness (or dream-like subconsciousness) can persist.
See the links at the bottom of this post for more reading and viewing on this topic.
You can find out more about Through the Wormhole, which has already asked a number of other fascinating questions in the latest series, at the show's website.
You might also like...
It's heee-eere! If you like your spirits angry, then make sure you check out a new primer from Public Parapsychology devoted to the poltergeist phenomenon, which they've made available as a free-to-download PDF file. Created by Bryan Williams and Annalisa Ventola, the 30-page primer reviews the current state of parapsychological research and perspectives relating to the phenomenon, and examines "case characteristics, experimental approaches, theoretical aspects, and the similarities and differences between poltergeist and haunt cases".
Poltergeist cases are characterized by a series of apparently anomalous physical phenomena such as the sudden movement of objects without any apparent force acting upon them, and rapping or knocking sounds that do not seem to have any clear source. Like cases of ghosts and apparitions, these occurrences have a long tradition steeped in myth, folklore, and superstition.
...Poltergeists can be confused with haunt phenomena due to their overt similarity in characteristics and the implied suggestion of spirits. However, parapsychologists have found that there are subtle differences between haunt and poltergeist cases that allow distinctions to be made between them. Moreover, field studies of poltergeist cases by parapsychologists have discovered that poltergeist phenomena may have much more of a human, rather than a spirit, element to them. To avoid confusion and aid in the proper interpretation of findings obtained during field investigations, it is important to recognize the distinction between poltergeists and haunts, and to be aware of what has been learned so far about poltergeists through the research efforts of parapsychologists...
We hope that this primer will help clarify any misconceptions about what may be fact and what may be fiction when it comes to such phenomena, and assist paranormal enthusiasts in their approach to any poltergeist cases that they may come across and investigate.
Remember you can also still download the three previous Public Parapsychology primers from the website:
Read through all those and then head out and buy yourself a proton pack - I'll meet you at the Sedgewick Hotel.
Can mediums really talk to the dead? Or at least gain access information not available via the accepted human senses? It's a debate that has gone on for more than a century, with skeptics generally dismissing the evidence as anecdotal, and any successes achieved through cold-reading or subterfuge on the part of the medium. Over the years there have been sporadic attempts to study the topic, beginning back in the 19th century with the Society for Psychical Research's intensive investigation, through to more recent years with Dr Gary Schwartz and Dr Julie Beischel. All of which have found that there appears to be 'something' odd happening. So a new study, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease this year, may hopefully provide a further shift towards making the subject a more respected area, worthy of ongoing future scientific study.
The paper, by Dr Emily Williams of the University of Virginia (co-author of the excellent book Irreducible Mind) and former hospice chaplain Dianne Arcangel, is titled "An Investigation of Mediums Who Claim to Give Information About Deceased Persons". It describes two exploratory studies, the larger of which gave results which appear to support the validity of mediumistic readings. Kelly and Arcangel employed nine mediums to offer readings for 40 individual sitters - each sitter had just one reading done for them, with two of the mediums doing six each, while the other seven mediums did four readings each. The readings were done without the actual sitter present (the researchers acted as a 'proxy' to guard against cold reading), and audio recordings of the mediums' statements were later transcribed. Each sitter was then sent six readings - the correct reading for them, and five readings done for others in the group - and asked to rate each one on how applicable they thought it was to them.
Thirty-eight of the forty sitters returned their ratings, of which more than a third (14 in total) were correctly chosen - a number significantly above chance. Additionally, seven other readings were ranked second, and altogether 30 of 38 readings were ranked in the top half of the ratings. One medium in particular stood out above the others: all six of this medium's readings were correctly ranked first by the sitters!
Not that this study should be taken as "proof" of the validity of mediumship on its own. The initial, smaller study offered no positive results, and there are certain parts of the protocol of the second study that skeptics will pounce on - not least that the mediums were given a photo of the deceased. Nevertheless, Kelly and Arcangel seem to have controlled for most possible 'advantages' this may have offered to the medium (e.g. removing physical descriptions from the transcribed readings). This does raise some of the difficulties involved in researching mediumship - how to study something that (allegedly) is a personal interaction between two living people, and one deceased, when the two living people must be separated to satisfy experimental protocols.
What I was happy to see was Kelly and Arcangel's rating system based on the complete reading. Some previous studies (such as those done by Richard Wiseman) have resorted to rating sittings based on the number of correct statements - which I think is completely wrong, because the history of mediumship shows that the convincing element to many people is often the one specific 'dazzle shot' that comes amidst other, incorrect information. Rating the reading, rather than the amount of correct information, in my opinion is a better way of trying to ascertain if there is some personal connection being made (though it should say something to anybody who implicitly trusts *everything* a medium tells them). Here's some of the comments made by those who rated their readings correctly:
Most of the 14 people who correctly chose their own reading made comments such as “I don’t see how it could be anything other than (X reading),” “I feel certain this is the correct choice and would bet my life on it,” “one reading stood out from the rest...I just know (it) was correct because it sounded like my mom,” or “it had the most instances that could apply to my son.” In addition to such general statements, however, some did go on to comment on specific details that impressed them. For example, the person who “would bet my life” on his choice cited the medium’s statement that “there’s something funny about black licorice... Like there’s a big joke about it, like, ooh, you like that?” According to the sitter, his deceased son and his wife had joked about licorice frequently. Also, the medium had said “I also have sharp pain in the rear back of the left side of my head in the back, in the occipital. So perhaps there was an injury back there, or he hit something or something hit him.” The deceased person had died of such an injury incurred in a car crash.
In another reading, the medium said “I feel like the hair I see here in the photo is gone, so I have to go with cancer or something that would take the hair away,” and later “her hair — at some point she’s kind of teasing it, she tried many colors. I think she experimented with color a lot before her passing.” The girl’s mother confirmed that she had died of cancer, had dyed her hair “hot pink” before her surgery, and had later shaved her head when her hair began falling out (her hair was normal-looking in the photo.). The medium also said “I feel I’m up in Northampton, Massachusetts...Northampton does have that kind of college town beatnik kind of feel to it.” Although the girl lived and died in Texas, according to her mother “this is where she told a friend she wanted to go to college.”
In another reading, the medium said “she dealt with either numbers or getting the invoices ready or helping with the bills, because she’s showing me numbers around her. So I don’t know if she helped her husband with the bills, or there’s something about working on his invoices. But she’s showing me that she had to become very mathematical. Or deal with the money.” In fact, she and her husband had started a business that became very successful, and she had done all the book-keeping in the early years.
In another example, among many other details the sitter commented especially on the statement “he said I don’t know why they keep that clock if they are not going to make it work. So somebody connected directly to him has a clock that either is not wound up, or they let it run down, or it’s standing there just quiet. And he said what’s the point in having a clock that isn’t running? So, somebody should know about that and it should give them quite laughter.” The sitter did laugh (and cry) over this, because a grandfather clock that her husband had kept wound had not been wound since his death. The medium had also commented that “he can be on a soap box, hammering it”; his children when young had frequently complained about “Dad being on his soap box.”
...the sitter quoted in the previous paragraph also noted the medium’s comment that “I think she collected some small things...either little china or glass things. Like little knicknacks. But I keep seeing an elephant with the trunk up, so this might be a special object or something that people would understand.” The sitter subsequently sent E.W.K. a photograph of a small ceramic elephant with its trunk up, part of his deceased wife’s larger collection and an item sitting on a table in their front hall. Another sitter noted, among other things, 2 especially meaningful items: The medium referred to “Mike, Mikey, Michael.” The sitter’s brother (son of the deceased person) was known as “Mikey” when young, “Michael” as he grew older, and finally “Mike.” Also, the medium referred to “a lady that is very much, was influential in his the deceased person’s formative years. So, whether that is mother or whether that is grandmother... She can strangle a chicken.” The sitter commented that her grandmother (the deceased person’s mother) “killed chickens. It freaked me out the first time I saw her do this. I cried so hard that my parents had to take me home. So the chicken strangling is a big deal... In fact I often referred to my sweet grandmother as the chicken killer.” None of these statements can be considered entirely unique, although no other sitter who received these readings as controls commented on them.
With intended goals of exploring whether mediumship is a phenomenon worthy of further investigation, and identifying any stand-out 'talent' amongst the mediums, the study certainly offers a stepping-stone to further research on this topic. At the very least, Kelly and Arcangel's final words should offer food for though to believers and skeptics alike:
Truly gifted mediums may, like other gifted persons, be rare, and those who can perform under the kinds of conditions necessary for an adequate scientific evaluation rarer still. Nevertheless, if we can identify such persons, and learn more about them and the conditions conducive to their success, such studies may contribute importantly to our understanding of the nature of consciousness, particularly those subliminal aspects of it that we rarely encounter in our normal states of consciousness. In the meantime, we hope that this study might suggest to readers that mediums are neither the infallible oracles that many people in the general public seem to believe they are, nor the frauds or imposters that many scientists assume they invariably are. The history of research on mediumship shows that the phenomenon should be taken seriously, and we hope that the results of our study might encourage other scientists to do so
Great to see some scientists out there who aren't afraid of exploring the edges.
You might also like...
Sometimes I get caught up in the scientific debates for and against the validity of the near-death experience (NDE), and forget what a profound experience it is for those that it happens to. So I always enjoy hearing first-hand testimony - here's a nicely done video with a Los Angeles group of NDErs:
For most of those that experience, there is no debate...and is there any point in doing so for them? (Hat tip)
You can read about the near-death experience (NDE) as much as you want, and analyse all manner of scientific statistics to do with the phenomenon, but in the end the most convincing aspect is often the first-hand testimony of the near-death experiencers themselves. This 15 minute film features six NDErs telling their story, along with the research of Dr Jeffrey Long (author of the 2009 bestseller Evidence of the Afterlife):
For more, remember to check out this excerpt from Dr Long's book that we published here on TDG as a feature article a little while back.
Previously on TDG:
Interested to stumble across this article on 'Celebrity Near-Death Experiences', which includes - among others - the account given by comic legend Peter Sellers (The Pink Panther, Dr Strangelove) of his own NDE:
In 1964, during the first of a rapid series of eight heart attacks, when his heart stopped and he was clinically dead, he had an out-of-body experience and saw the bright, loving light. Sellers stated, “Well, I felt myself leave my body. I just floated out of my physical form and I saw them cart my body away to the hospital. I went with it … I wasn’t frightened or anything like that because I was fine; and it was my body that was in trouble.” Meanwhile, the doctor saw that Sellers was dead and began to massage his heart vigorously. Sellers stated, “I looked around myself and I saw an incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me. I wanted to go to that white light more than anything. I’ve never wanted anything more. I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That’s God.” Sellers’ out-of-body soul tried to elevate itself toward the light, but fell short. Sellers stated, “Then I saw a hand reach through the light. I tried to touch it, to grab onto it, to clasp it so it could sweep me up and pull me through it.” But just then his heart began beating again, and at that instant the hand’s voice said, “It’s not time. Go back and finish. It’s not time.” As the hand receded Sellers felt himself floating back down to his body, waking up bitterly disappointed.
What effect did his NDE have on Sellers? His biographer stated that “The repeated act of dying became for Peter Sellers the most important experience of his life.” (Walker, 158) Sellers himself said of death, ”I’ll never fear it again.” Family and friends found him more spiritual and reflective than before. His biographer stated, “The experience of resurrection intensified Sellers’ spiritual concern and friends discerned the start of a new introspectiveness, a sense of his not “being there” in spirit, though present in body.” According to his biographer, Sellers’ wife, Britt Ekland, found it unnerving that her previously restless husband had now become so quiet. He was now “sitting still over lengthy periods, saying nothing, but staring at her with his thoughts turned inward.”
Sellers' NDE was just one manifestation of an extended fascination with the occult and paranormal - check out this article at Dangerous Minds for more on the topic.
The IONS website has a very nice podcast 'chat' between Dean Radin and near-death experience researcher Bruce Greyson. Greyson is the Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences and Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia Medical School, and is one of the most highly respected researchers investigating the NDE - he was one of the founding members of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS), and has edited the Journal of Near-Death Studies for the better part of three decades. Though it's rather a subdued interview, it does provide some excellent insights into the topic and how Dr Greyson sees the current state of research.