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Dr Sam Parnia is a British pulmonary care specialist who over the past decade has been actively involved in researching the near-death experience (NDE). In recent years he has led the AWARE study, a “multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians who have joined forces to study the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death”. As we’ve mentioned here on the Daily Grail previously, part of the AWARE study has been a novel experiment in which the researchers test for a veridical out-of-body experience (during the NDE), by placing hidden targets up near the ceiling of the patients’ rooms. Much has been made of this experiment: correct identification of the targets would suggest that consciousness can leave the physical body and ‘wander’, while failure to identify any targets at all might be indicative that the whole experience is simply a hallucination.

Dr Parnia joined Alex Tsakiris as the latest guest on the Skeptiko podcast, clarifying some remarks he made earlier in the year during a presentation at a skeptical gathering, namely that he suspected the NDE was “an illusion, a trick of the mind.” His response on Skeptiko was to say that…

I think as a researcher I have to remain neutral and unbiased. The current scientific models that we have – and this is the point I think I was trying to mention in that quote that you said – the current scientific models that we have do not allow for descriptions the patients are providing of an out-of-body experience if they’re real.

So let’s assume for a moment that the patient who claims that they were on the ceiling and able to see things is actually really correct. Well, we have no scientific model to account for it today. So based upon what we understand of the brain and the way the brain works, the most likely explanation that we have today and the knowledge that’s available in 2010 is that this must be an illusion. However, I’m open-minded enough to accept that at any given time and era science is very limited. And it may simply be that this phenomenon is going to be something that will open up a whole new field of science. So that again depends on what the experiments show.

So the point I was making was based on the limitations of science that we have today, this is most likely to be an illusion but I’m very open to experimenting with it and doing an objective study to find out whether it is or not. And that’s what we’re doing.

Alex then pushed Dr Parnia on his stance, leading to the following response:

You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion.

Alex has taken this statement to mean that Sam Parnia is leaning towards the hallucination hypothesis (as the title of the podcast says, “Dr. Sam Parnia Claims Near Death Experience Probably an Illusion”). I can’t say I’d go that far – it’s clear that Dr Parnia is qualifying that opinion as being based on current scientific knowledge (and its limitations). However, given that (you would imagine) he has access to the ongoing data from the AWARE study, it sounds unlikely that they have come across any striking veridical OBEs thus far.

As I’ve said before about the AWARE study though, it’s still rather likely the conclusion will be 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”. Though I still applaud the work being done in delving into this reported anomalous aspect of the near-death experience.

Previously on TDG: