Sep 22 2008

More On Near Death Experiences

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Comments: 36

There has been a great deal of discussion about the planned study of near death experiences (NDEs) since I wrote about the study on Friday. I focused my attention primarily on the neurological and scientific issues, but other issues were raised with regard to this study.

GM Woerlee wrote an extensive piece on this topic focusing also on the medical aspects of what happens during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). His primary point is that CPR generates enough blood flow to the brain in order to explain the experiences that survivors report. He also emphasizes that this research into NDEs has been done enough to arrive at the reliable conclusion that it is the experience of an anoxic brain and tha this further research is unecessary.

This, of course, raises the question of the usefulness of this proposed study – to place signs near the ceilings in ERs and ICUs and then see if people with NDEs could read the signs, meaning they were actually outside their bodies and not just feeling as if they were. I agree with the argument that this is a questionable use of finite research funds. There are certainly more pressing medical questions with a greater probability of a practical outcome. Public interest and the ideology of individual researchers – not good medicine – is driving this research.

Susan Blackmore, however, disagrees. She herself had a drug induced out-of-body experience and then spent years researching such things only to conclude that there is no evidence for the paranormal and what she experienced was a brain phenomenon. But she says that such research, while low probability, could have far-reaching implications and it is worthwhile to have researchers follow their interests against the grain of mainstream science.

I consider this to the the Lotto approach to research – the chance of winning is almost insignificant, but if you do win you’re an instant millionaire. I have no problem with a small relative amount of research money going in this direction, especially if it is private.  I liken this to a typical investment strategy: 60% conservative, 30% moderate risk, and 10% risky.You want the bulk of your investment (in this case investment in research) to go into projects that are very likely to yield fruit, with progressively less funding to progressively higher risk investments. The question is, should 1% of your investment strategy go into playing the lottery?

I guess the answer it, it depends. I think this line of reasoning can be used to justify projects like SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but not questions that have already been adequately answered, like whether or not humans have ESP.

The final concern that was raised was about Sam Parnia, the head of this new NDE study. He is clearly a believer. In a 2001 interview, for example, he said:

“When you damage the brain or lose some of the aspects of mind or personality, that doesn’t necessarily mean the mind is being produced by the brain. All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged,” Parnia said, adding that further research might reveal the existence of a soul.

This is a breathtaking non sequitur.  A charitable interpretation is that the brain is necessary for mind but not the source of it, meaning that maybe it is the conduit for the mind. But this hypothesis (favored by some dualists) can be rejected by other lines of evidence. Certainly there is no evidence for this interpretation.

The concern is that the execution of the study will be tainted by Parnia’s clear bias. What protections will there be, for example, against simple cheating? We will have to wait and see. Hopefully the protocol will be documented sufficiently to evaluate the quality of the study’s execution.

But this also brings up another point – that if this study is positive it will need to be replicated. As the recent stem cell saga and the experience with Benveniste’s lab (doing homeopathy research) reminds us, there is fraud in science. Other than the occasional tattle tale, the only way to root out fraud is with replication. If NDEs truly represent the mind leaving the body, then anyone can follow this protocol and get positive results. Basic findings in science, ones that establish new paradigms, are typically replicated dozens or hundred of times. They become standard experiments on which grad student cut their teeth. New paradigms are never established by a single study, no matter how good they look on paper.

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