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"Facts" and Their Interpretations

by Diane Powell

As a scientist and neuropsychiatrist, I agree with the late physicist Sir William Lawrence Bragg’s statement that, “The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.” One problem with research on anomalous phenomena such as out-of-body (OBE) and near-death (NDE) experiences is that there is no uniform consensus about what to accept as facts. Because of differing epistemological theories about OBEs and NDEs, researchers interpret the same data differently and/or ignore irreconcilable data when constructing their theories. Craig Murray’s recently published academic book, Psychological Scientific Perspectives on Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences, illustrates this in its presentation of data on these phenomena from the fields of medicine, neuropsychology, neuroscience, parapsychology, psychology, and sociology.

Carlos S. Alvarado’s opening chapter reviews the psychological approaches to interpreting OBEs since the 19th century, most of which assume that they are either hallucinations or a form of depersonalization (the feeling that one is objectively watching oneself without having control over what they are doing.) And while a small percentage of OBEs are characterized by the experiencer seeing nonlocal information that is later verified as accurate (veridical information), most psychological theories discount these cases because of an inherent skepticism. Some skepticism is important in science, but not when it closes the door to a path toward greater understanding.

Susan Blackmore’s chapter includes a 25-year-old paper of hers that explains OBEs in terms of “models of reality.” She postulates that we “choose” a model of reality based upon sensory information, but can switch models when there is no sensory input. In other words, we can construct a bird’s eye view from memory. Support for this argument comes from research showing that “OBErs” are better than “non-OBErs” at visual imagery skills, including the ability to imagine a scene from different viewpoints.

Blackmore was happy to report that she still likes her theory and believes that subsequent research linking OBEs to measurable brain processes shows that “OBEs are real and our concept of ourselves may be the true illusion.” Although she thinks this research solves the debate, it really just provides new facts and not novel ways of interpreting them. Not surprisingly, those with reductionistic views regard these correlations as support for their view that OBEs and NDEs are just a function of our brains’ ability to trick us.

Some progress has been made toward investigating whether or not OBEs are hallucinations by Jane Aspell and Olaf Blanke. They examined people with localized brain damage and compared the brains of those who have had OBEs with those who have had autoscopic hallucinations—the perception of seeing one’s body in “extra-personal” space. They concluded that hallucinations differ from OBEs in that the person doesn’t feel that their sense of self resides in the extracorporeal body. Different regions of the brain were damaged in the two populations, which supports their conclusion.

Also covered in the book is Pam Reynolds’ widely reported NDE—an excellent example of how hard it is for mainstream scientists to change their perspective even when confronted with impossible-to-dismiss evidence that is contrary to their beliefs.

The major argument against survival of consciousness after death has been that NDEs never occur under controlled laboratory conditions. Cardiologist Michael Sabom decided to address this by his strategic use of a situation in which doctors routinely need to create the conditions associated with brain-death while carefully monitoring the patient. This was the case for Reynolds. His report on Ms. Reynolds’ experience is often presented as incontrovertible proof because she had an NDE while undergoing this extensively documented operation for a brain aneurysm. Her EEG flat-lined, which is the clinical definition of brain death. Her blood was drained from her brain, which was also cooled to 60° F. Her eyes and ears were tightly covered as a further precaution against potential skepticism. She experienced a classic NDE, the timing of which was nailed down because she simultaneously experienced (and later reported) the actions and conversations occurring in the operating room.

One of the criticisms leveled at Sabom was that part of the NDE occurred prior to the flat-line EEG. Sabom’s rebuttal was that the “principal part of her NDE (seemed to) occur later, when her EEG was flat.” Another argument was that a flat-line EEG doesn’t truly represent a brain that is no longer functioning. Since the EEG primarily measures electrical activity at the surface of the brain, it is unclear what is going on electrically at a deeper level. This is true, but it would be a more valid point if she didn’t also have the blood drained from her brain and her temperature lowered to 60° F. Even if she had some minor electrical activity under these conditions, to say that the brain created the NDE seems analogous to saying that one can cook a meal with only the stove’s pilot light on. Additionally, there were Reynold’s accurate reports of the events in the operating room while her ears and eyes couldn’t receive input. So even if the memory of a classical NDE along with verified, simultaneous operating-room events could occur in a sensory-deprived patient limited to the use of minimally-functional, deep-brain structures, that would still require a revamping of the mainstream view of consciousness and the brain.

Other chapters show how NDEs are influenced by our cultural expectations. For example, the Japanese often report that during an NDE they almost cross the mythological Sanzu River to reach the world of the afterlife. Hell and torture are common themes in Thai NDEs. Christians recall approaching a tunnel of light that they associate with God. Some neuroscientists have ascribed NDEs to oxygen deprivation, which can cause us to see a tunnel of light. But if this were so, wouldn’t the image of a light tunnel cross cultural lines?

In summary, OBEs and NDEs require us to follow Bragg’s directive and explore novel ways to think about the brain’s relationship to consciousness, as well as to our sense of self and its embodiment. Murray’s book provides us with an intriguing smorgasbord of information from which the reader can decide for him or herself which arguments are the most compelling.

  • 1 Comment
  • Neon1 Sep 06, 2010

    For me, it’s always fun to watch a situation in which a sincere and deliberate argument for one position ends up encouraging the belief of those who hold the opposite position.

    As Carl Jung said: “Arguments have an effect only on the conscious mind and not on the unconscious.” While I would prefer to use the word subconscious to describe sub surface conscious activity, his point is appropriate here. How many examples have been written about someone’s highly skeptical position on a given argument being immediately and irrevocably changed as a result of a deep personal experience? And, more importantly… Why does it surprise us to learn that deep personal positions are altered only by deep personal experiences?

    If a strongly held (subconsciously formed and sustained) position is not changed by argument alone, but can be immediately and irrevocably changed by a deep personal experience, then the attempt to change that mind merely by the use of a scientific argument would seem to be a monumental waste of time, no?

    My belief in position “A” is subconsciously formed and sustained. Therefore your argument for position “B” will tend to further sustain my belief in position “A” because I will gravitate towards and use as further proof of my position, all of the logical cracks in your argument… And vise versa. Yet, so much of our energy is spent in this very pursuit. Isn’t this an example of Einstein’s definition of insanity?

    In fact, my belief in position “A” will always cause me to gravitate towards any further proof of position “A” regardless of any professions of open mindedness I may make. I could say, “I will listen to all arguments, for and against.” but I can never deliver on the promise of the equity my statement professes because human nature will simply not allow it.

    The real question seems to be: When will humanity have the deep personal experience, which answers the fundamental questions we all spin our wheels arguing about without effect?

    I have a close personal friend who I have known for many years, who despite having been awarded a PhD in psychology does not believe in the existence of the collective unconscious as taught by Carl Jung. So it appears to me that it will have to be a very deep and very personal experience since so many people have yet to appreciate even the existence of a subconscious mind necessary to adequately explain the phenomena of NDE’s and of OBE’s; an experience so deep and personal that it will reverberate through humanity causing a bifurcation in consciousness sufficient to catapult humanity into a future deserving of our species name: Homo sapiens sapiens; an experience we must soon have, in my opinion, if we are even to survive as a species and evolve to the meta conscious state.

    Sure, I'll get Craig Murray's book. But only because I'm already a believer...

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