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Sam Parnia on Near-Death Experiences

Medical researcher Dr Sam Parnia has spent the last decade looking into reports that, at the time of cardiac arrest, patients left their body and underwent a ‘near-death experience’ (NDE). In recent years, Dr Parnia – with other interested researchers – has set out to evaluate the reality of the out-of-body experience (OBE) component of the NDE through the AWARE study. Physicians at a number of hospitals will monitor the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest, and the the veracity of any OBEs that occure will be tested through the use of randomly generated images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points in the room.

Dr Parnia gave a talk on death and the NDE back in March at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit (APRU) at Goldsmiths, in London. The lecture was filmed, and is now online for those interested – I’ve embedded it below (approx. 50 mins). I thought it was a great talk with some excellent discussion of such questions as how we can even define the point of death. It would have been nice to have more detail about the AWARE study, but time restraints meant the second half of the talk was a little rushed. All in all though, good stuff and very balanced – which you don’t get too much in this field:

I did have some concerns when I heard that Dr Parnia thinks that it won’t be enough if just a few people correctly report the target, as this will just be explained away as inquisitive hospital staff breaking the rules and looking at the targets, and then somehow passing on information about them to the patients. Even if it was the case that NDEs are truly a separation of the mind from the body, given that ‘veridical OBEs’ are only reported sporadically, I doubt that the AWARE study will turn up hundreds of patients correctly reporting the target. So for all the work involved, it’s still rather likely the conclusion would end up being 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”.

If you watch the video looking for a hint at what the AWARE study has found thus far, you’ll be disappointed. No data are given, and the answer as to why can be found on the website of the Horizon Research Foundation:

Although the network is continuing to expand, we have had the early part of the study in place since the early part of 2007 and therefore the team is working to be able to collect the data for the last three years with a view to making a preliminary publication and releasing the findings towards the end of this year or in the very early part of 2011.

Many people have written to us and have asked to be updated with the study results, however, as I am sure everyone will understand, we are unable to release data in a piecemeal fashion. We therefore look forward to being able to release the results of our study once the study has been accepted for publication in a major Pier[sic] Review Journal.

Sam Parnia’s book What Happens When We Die can be purchased from Amazon US and UK.

Previously on TDG:

  1. mind body
    “Even if it was the case that NDEs are truly a separation of the mind from the body…”

    “separation of the mind from the body” is impossible. The very notion that the mind could somehow separate from the body is a dualistic concept that is simply not real. It’s like saying that the experience of taste is somehow separate from your taste buds, or that the experience of the smell of flowers is somehow separate from your olfactory nerves. The analogy is this: the physical part of the apple touching your taste buds is to your experience of it’s taste in your mouth, as your body is to your mind. They are two different aspects of the same thing.

    NDE’s, astral projection, OOBE’s, are all the same, but nothing is ever separated from anything. The only thing that changes is your perspective. It’s like moving from first person to third person in a video game. You haven’t really changed anything except your point of view. That’s the cool thing about the mind/body…it’s one. Robert Monroe really got it right when he used the electrical engineering term “phasing” to describe the experience of astral projection. It’s a change of phase or perspective rather than a separation of anything.

    It’s like the difference between seeing a movie with your eye’s, and then suddenly becoming a part of it. You only recognize that you are simply watching it when you “snap” out of that state for something…like having to pee, or realizing your popcorn is empty, or hearing the phone ring…it jars you out of one state and into another. Astral projection, OOBE’s, and NDE’s are just like that… a “snap” from one perspective of reality to another.

    It’s really hard to express or explain because the sensation, the “feeling” of the OOBE is just like regular life. You feel “yourself” just as you would in any normal everyday experience…you “see” just like you do with your eye’s except there’s more…it’s bigger.

    The real problem with “verifying” the “reality” of OOBE’s “scientifically” is that it’s not empirical or objective. It is a very subjective experience. Try to explain to a blind person what “red” is…try to explain to a deaf person what your phone’s ring tone sounds like. You can’t, because the experience of it is the same as what it is. It’s just a different perspective of it. You can’t really “explain” it, you just need to “experience” it.


    Trying to “find a target” in an NDE would be like trying to remember that you have to wake up at 6am DURING a dream…and remembering what you saw during an NDE is exactly like trying to remember the details of a dream. During a dream your “waking life” is blurry and almost non existent, and conversely during waking life, your dream life is blurry and almost non existent, but if you keep a journal of both your waking reality and your sleeping reality, after a while it becomes abundantly clear that the two are in sync…they are two different perspectives of the same “reality”.

    It requires personal and continual practice to verify, not just one or two fleeting instances, a person having an NDE or an OOBE during a medical procedure (one who is not an experienced astral projector) is likely to be so freaked out that they’re not going to be thinking, “hmm, I need to have a look around the room here and see if I can find something of interest…” They are more likely going to be thinking, “HOLY CRAP, WHAT THE @#&*! IS HAPPENING TO ME??!?!?!?!!” and aren’t likely to bring back much useful information…

    …and yes, I know that there are cases where people do indeed bring back lots of interesting information, but they are so few and far between that most scientists won’t consider that, “proof” of anything…


    1. Zen & NDEs
      Thanks for the enlightening post, Dustin. Believe it or not, I’ve only just begun seriously reading books on NDEs & OBEs. It’s a subject I’ve skimmed, read the odd online article, but never studied the details & history. Your post reminds me of the old Zen lesson, “it can’t be taught, it has to be experienced”. To paraphrase that in the case of NDEs & OBEs, they can’t be proven, they have to be experienced. However, it can be (& has been) proven scientifically that something *is* going on that should be taken seriously. Enough proof isn’t enough proof for many skeptics, however.

      1. Scientific Onesidedness
        I am frustrated by the scientific reports that say things like “OOBE’s are caused by a chemical in the blood stream” or “we’ve located the part of the brain that triggers OOBE’s, so that when we stimulate that part of the brain, the patient reports floating out of their body”. They always make these statements connected to a underlying theme that since they found the area of the brain or some chemical triggers for the OOBE, then the actual experience of it is somehow not real…as though since they found the physical manifestations in the body/brain complex then the subjective experience is somehow degraded to the level of non-reality.

        It must be some kind of chemical or brain induced hallucination, they say. My response is this: just because we know what chemicals in the body and what parts of the brain are associated with specific emotions and mental states, this means that our experience of them are hallucinatory? Does it mean that we aren’t really experiencing them?

        My guess is “no”, and that we are, in fact, both experiencing them AND having a physical reaction in the body, because the two are really one. They go hand in hand. The chemical reaction or the stimulated brain IS THE SAME as the experience of it. Our eyes transmit the information of the apple to our brain and our mind experiences the color red. Our brain sends out the request for a flood of chemicals triggering emotions such as fear, desire, euphoria, etc, and our mind or sense of self experiences them.

        Again, finding an area of the brain that can trigger an OOBE means that they have found the physical counterpart to a two part experience. One part is the physical happenings in the body, and the other part is the experience we have of it. They try to seperate the two for some reason. It really does not make any sense to me. They seem unable to admit that the experience of an OOBE is just as real as the physiology of it.

          1. That’s the reality of it
            Yep, that’s the typical interaction…a GREAT conversation by the way. I just don’t understand why scientists play down the subjective experience. It seems to me that the personal experience of brain/body chemistry is just as important(if not more so) as the scientific understanding of the physiology.

            The late Alan Ronald Miller, a.k.a. Christopher S. Hyatt in his book “A Modern Shaman’s Guide to a Pregnant Universe”, had a name for people like Mr. Wise. He called them, “Metanoids”. He said, “Metanoids are inactive philosophers immobilized by their insight. Metanoids read more than they write, work more than they play, and always understand much more than they KNOW. Metanoids are especially fond of understanding complex metaphysical treatises without having tested anything in THE LAB of REAL LIFE.”

            …he also called them “the insipid enemy, itself”…

    2. High Expectations
      I like this study alot. Finally something to discuss other than ‘I had this once’, ‘I had something like this once’ or ‘I heard someone who had something like this once’.

      Information on this study seems hard to find; fair enough though since they haven’t published it yet. It is based on an 18 month preliminary study though – of which data is also hard to find. Hopefully the fact that they got permission for a bigger study means the preliminary study gave them reasons to continue.

      I have high expectations for this. Hopefully we have a proper study with a control group, proper blinding etc etc. And i really hope that the pictures they have to correctly identify are not just random shapes or scenes like beaches, woodland etc; or even simple words. Hopefully whatever they are using already has data from other studies concerning random success rates – if at all. I’m hoping for complexity correctly identified.

      As Dustin points out peoples experiences might be so dreamlike they might not be expected to being much data back, but the fact that peoples claims of OBE’s and NDEs seem so real, as if they are ‘normal’ but outside of their bodies, should reveal something – even if a lack of data helps draw ideas of that claim.

      One explanation of OBE’s and NDE’s I like that does not require a soul leaving the body is along Dustin’s lines. The brain either reaches a paradox in contemplating its own death, or the hugely different environment presented to it during cardiac arrest (where EEG measurement reveals minimal/zero activity and hence a very different background environment to normal sensory data capture) that the normal systems that build our cognitive envirnoment/model fail and we experience a completely surreal reality that consists of sensations, experiences such as a shifting of perception that is unhinged from our bodies.

      I hate to use the words ‘zero brain activity’ though since we don’t really know what to measure, or whether our equipment is even sensitive enough to confirm the absence of some type of brain activity. For example, if consciousness is processing occuring in nano-tubules then what equipment do we have to say that that is definietely not happening at some very low level.

      Also how long are these cardiac arrest events? I can hold my breath for about 90 seconds before it becomes seriously uncomfortable. Most things i read say brain damage occurs after about 5 minutes, but the world records for breath holding is longer (Feb 2010 … Peter Colat, a Swiss freediver, has held his breath underwater for 19 minutes and 21 seconds…).

      [quote]”separation of the mind from the body” is impossible. The very notion that the mind could somehow separate from the body is a dualistic concept that is simply not real. It’s like saying that the experience of taste is somehow separate from your taste buds[/quote]

      This is exactly what it is implying. I’m not too happy with dualistic ideas, mainly because of how uninformed they are by evidence, as opposed to experience – just like i would have been unhappy with science 2000 years ago by the number of hypothesis (back then assumed conclusions) unlinked to evidence. However it is not correct to say dualism is impossible. You know you can never say this. Hopefully one day (within our lifetimes would be nice) it will be possible to copy our consciousness out of our bodies at the time of death and give us a choice to live forever without the risk of spirituality being wrong – or having to go to court for judgement 😉

      Obviously if this sort of mind/machine interface was developed it would have things to say for materialistic dualism. Separating this from spiritual dualism is fine without the evidence, but we also lack evidence that the universe is incapable of other types of storage aside from confinement in neural networks. All we can do right now is say we doubt it, even if we argue that the doubt is as well placed as doubt that apples will fall upwards, though i would like a model of what OBE’s are before knowing whether we can rule them out, or rule them in, as a type of natural experience or evidence of spiritual dualism.

      1. all apologies
        I get a bit worked up by this, so first let me apologize for being so adamant, self righteous, and know-it-all like…

        You are very right in saying that I cannot call dualism “impossible”, and I really do apologize for making such a black and white statement(I’m reminded by my significant other that “only a sith deals in absolutes”, so I should have said, “it’s my opinion that the mind cannot be separated from the body because…” and then explained why I feel that way), but you are talking about a possible future that does not exist right now. You are talking about the possibility of mind/machine interfaces, and a lot of “what-ifs”. I am simply expressing an opinion based on my own personal experience of OOBE’s. From my philosophic meanderings of my own personal experience, my opinion has been shaped to believe that the mind is not separate from the body.

        I would be very intrigued if science ever claims to be able to transfer a “mind” into a computer, and I may just have to re-evaluate my opinions of the matter, but until that happens, or even comes close to happening, ma’fraid I’ll just have to chock that up to science fiction, and believe what I have gleaned through personal experience to be true.

        So let me jump down the rabbit hole with you. My guess is that the mind/machine interface would have to be like James Cameron’s “Avatar”, but even if that is the case, I still stick to my guns and say that the mind is not separate from the body. In the case of Avatar, the mind simply phased from one physical body to the other. Notice in the movie, Mr. Cameron uses the “dream walker’s” own DNA to create the Avatar…which is why the twin brother could phase to it. My opinion still holds that “the mind is not separate from the body” which does not imply only ONE localized physical connection…so long as the DNA matches, then the Avatar is simply an extension of the body.

        1. 🙂
          Actually I agree. Obviously I can’t use sci-fi to argue a position, though I also entertain the same intrigue as you as to what it would mean if we were ever able to do this. It should be noted that there are currently 50+ mind/machine interface’s licensed for human trials. Though we are not talking mind copying or transferring at the moment we are still talking computers directly interfacing with brains – and this is only the start after all.

          To material people like myself on most days human ‘consciousness’ is not stored in information, but in the structure that processes the information as well. To create an example, we are not simply the computer code, easily transferable between computers, but are also the computer itself. If the information of our minds is not like a computer program existing within the substrate of neurons, but is actually the neurons and their physical state then it is harder to imagine how we can be copied.

          However, a computer provides the architecture for a program to run. It is all the transistors, magnetic and electrical states. The pattern that flows around it is what we call a ‘program’. Perhaps even though we are also a physical system, just like a computer program, we can be transferred. Maybe we just don’t have USB yet (where would we hide it! 😉 )

          I am about 2 years old. Bits of me are older, 5 years maybe. My skeleton is older still. However, very little of me is as old as my memories. There is a continuous pattern, stored in atoms, going back in time and it is this that I call ‘myself’. I am already a pattern stored in a medium. When i think back to my earliest memories nothing much remains of that child physically, though there is continuity. I do not worry about this though. I completely accept that I am a pattern stored in matter, but perhaps that does not negate the possibility that I can be a pattern stored in something else too – the universe is a funny thing, even naturally. If it can’t do it, I vote we should.

          Thanks for the reply.

          – I think your likely right about perception, but I’d increase it out if data proves it necessary to incorporate perception at a distance. I can’t see many options other than we go to the data, or the data comes to us. I really hope this study is absolutely rock solid scientifically (I have some hope with it being run in UK hospitals) and has been designed to pass peer review and be repeatable. We shall have to wait and see…

          You’d think that if the preliminary study had shown something or have been at a high enough standard to create solid data it could have been released. It is not unheard of to release trial data, and the trial was 18 months long, with the estimates of those undergoing cardiac arrest and experiencing ‘something’ being 5-18%. I would have thought they would have some data if the affect was real. They got a bigger trial though…

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