Monday, June 14, 2010

Trying hard to understand NDEs

I left off in my previous post by mentioning that I would raise some of the physiological aspects occurring simultaneously with the near-death experience (NDE).

To set the stage, a review of the medical literature shows that there are no particular disease states or events predominantly associated with NDEs. Among the many clinical circumstances reported to be associated with NDEs are cardiac arrest in myocardial infarction, shock in postpartum loss of blood or in perioperative complications, anaphylactic and septic shock, electrocution, coma resulting from traumatic brain injury, intracerebral hemorrhage or cerebral infarction, attempted suicide, near-drowning or asphyxia, apnea, and serious depression.

Several retrospective analyses have been conducted which have identified a number of interesting physiological correlates of NDEs. According to a 2001 study, the physiology of an NDE in patients with cardiac arrest usually includes elevated partial O2 pressure relative to other patients with cardiac arrest.

In September 2008 it was announced that an international study conducted in 25 UK and US hospitals would examine near-death events in 1,500 patient-survivors of heart attacks. The 3-year AWARE study — a follow-up to an earlier 18-month pilot study — is being coordinated by Dr.Sam Parnia of Southampton University. The goal of the study is to determine whether individuals can have an OBE with veridical (ie, real-world) visual perceptions in the absence of a heartbeat and brain activity. (As a side note, one of the simple but quite elegant fine points of the study is the inclusion of pictures visible only from the ceiling on shelves in the hospital rooms. Thus, if a patient’s spirit truly leaves the body and ascends toward the ceiling, they may be able to describe these heretofore unseen items.)

Some researchers and commentators tend to emphasize a naturalistic, neurobiological basis for the experience, while not necessarily trying to debunk NDEs. These include Susan Blackmore (1991), Birk Engmann at the Univeristy of Leipzig, and the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine, Michael Shermer (2010). Among the explanations invoked have been destabilized temporal lobes in the brain creating NDE-prone personalities, psychopathological symptoms secondary to severe brain malfunction resulting from the stoppage of cerebral blood circulation, and other concrete scientific explanations awaiting discovery.

In my next post, we’ll take a look at some of the data that don’t fit so neatly into the purely neurobiological “box” of explanations.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Near-death experiences - the real afterlife or just a hallucination?

Coming back to the theme of consciousness that I touched on a few weeks ago, I’ve been looking into the scientific literature on near-death experiences (NDEs) and out of body experiences (OBEs). I find it absolutely fascinating to consider the possibility that a person’s consciousness could exist separately from the body, even for a finite period of time. There are also some intriguing tie-ins with remote viewing, but that’s a topic that will have to wait for a post of its own. Even NDEs and OBEs as individual topics merit much more than a brief post.

An NDE by definition is an experience or any of a collection of experiences by an individual associated with impending physical death. These experiences consist of a range of phenomena which may include separation from the body, a sense of floating or levitating, feelings of calm/security/warmth, and the presence of an all-encompassing light. The majority of these phenomena are reported when the individual in question is either very close to death or once he or she has actually been pronounced clinically dead. Ironically enough, there have been a significant number of NDEs reported by individuals who have not experienced life-threatening circumstances.

Modern interest in NDEs can be traced to the publication of Life After Life by Raymond Moody, MD, PhD in 1975. For many people, this was their first exposure to a broad review and discussion of over 100 cases of clinical deaths and subsequent resuscitations. The interest sparked by this book led to the foundation of the Association for the Scientific Study of Near-Death Phenomena (now the International Association for Near-Death Studies) in 1978 by Moody, John Audette, MS, Ken Ring, PhD, Bruce Greyson, MD, and Michael Sabom, MD. Since that time, these individuals and others with an interest in NDEs have been involved with the founding of a number of similar research groups and programs, including the Near Death Experience Research Foundation and the Human Consciousness Project.

As with most other paranormal phenomena, the scientific community as a whole is divided on the issue of NDEs and what they represent versus what they actually are. Opinions vary from the entire experience being a hallucination brought on by the stress of the NDE at one extreme all the way to the experience being a definitive demonstration of the existence of an afterlife.

In my next post, I’ll examine the physiological correlates of the NDE and some of the pro- and con- afterlife viewpoints.

In the meantime, as always, I welcome your opinions on the subject!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mapping the psychic mind

Over the past week or so I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it might mean to be psychic in any sense of the word. Aside from the odd anomalous experience, I can’t really say that I know what it feels like. I’ve seen the odd psychic here and there, as well as a couple famous mediums in action. As a consequence I can say that I’m still open to the possibility despite not having had any direct personal experiences. Thinking about psychics and psi raised a lot of questions for me. Is everyone psychic to some extent or are only certain people? Can a person learn to be psychic? How could someone learn and how would they practice?

While there may be no satisfactorily objective answers to the above questions, another one occurred to me. From the standpoint of neuroscience and neurochemistry, what does the psychic brain look like and more to the point, where in the brain does psychic activity occur?

Empirical studies measuring psi activity are in remarkably short supply in the main body of medical literature. While some of this is likely because of the perceived fringe nature of this field, another possibility is the challenge imposed by knowing what and how to measure psi-related processes in the brain. After a reasonably stringent search for publications on the National Library of Medicine’s database, PubMed, I came up with a pair of recent articles using 2 different techniques with 2 very different results.

The first of these was “Using Neuroimaging to Resolve the Psi Debate” by Samuel T. Molton and Stephen M. Kosslyn.1 These researchers utilized functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to search for activity in the brains of pairs of biologically or emotionally related participants. The participants were shown emotional stimuli while in separate rooms with one participant acting as a “sender” and another playing the role of “receiver” while monitored by fMRI. According to Moulton and Kosslyn, “psi stimuli and non-psi stimuli evoked indistinguishable neuronal responses – although differences in stimulus arousal values of the same stimuli had the expected effects on patterns of brain activation.” In other words, the investigators found no evidence in support of psi using this method.

The second paper was “The Transliminal Brain at Rest: Baseline EEG, Unusual Experiences, and Access to Unconscious Mental Activity” by Jessica I. Fleck and colleagues. In order to understand this one better, I needed to look up the definition of transliminality which is, “a reflection of individual differences in the threshold at which unconscious processes or external stimuli enter into consciousness.” Among the characteristics reported for people high in transliminality are 1) belief in the paranormal and 2) reported occurrences of mystic experiences. While not examining psychic functioning directly, the investigators used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the resting brain activity of individuals reportedly high or low in transliminality. The study revealed significant differences in 3 areas: the left posterior association cortex, the right superior temporal region, and the frontal-midline region. Aside from the similarities to schizotypy, this study demonstrates some fundamental functional/processing differences in the brains of individuals more open to the idea of the paranormal.

Of course neither of the above papers is an end result in and of itself with respect to the question of whether psi exists and where in the human brain it can be found. What they do serve to illustrate is the pronounced challenges and complexities inherent in investigating these phenomena. The methods and the choices of subjects for each study leave some questions unanswered. Were any of the participants in either study self-professed psychics? Why fMRI as opposed to diffusion weighted or diffusion tensor imaging? Would a 3-tesla magnet or an EEG monitor be expected to interfere with psi activity or reception? Would magnetoencephalography (MEG) provide better resolution that EEG?

Questions notwithstanding, these studies represent an encouraging effort in legitimate scientific research into psi. I encourage anyone interested in learning more about these 2 fascinating studies to obtain copies of the papers and have a read. Enjoy!


1. Molton ST, Kosslyn SM. Using neuroimaging to resolve the psi debate. J Cognitive Neurosci. 2008;20:182–192.

2. Fleck JI, Green DL, Stevenson JL, et al. The transliminal brain at rest: Baseline EEG, unusual experiences, and access to unconscious mental activity. Cortex. 2008;44:1353–1363.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blog maintenance - Technorati verification

This is merely a brief posting in order to verify authorship and claim this blog via Technorati.


Thursday, May 13, 2010

Does our consciousness survive bodily death?

As I spent some time this past week poring over the abstract book from the recent conference “Toward a Science of Consciousness” sponsored by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, I realized that it was going to be more than a little challenging to select a topic for this week’s blog post. Ultimately, I decided to select a paper presented by Julie Beischel and Adam Rock of the Windbridge Institute that bridges (no pun intended) 2 of my favorite subjects: specifically, the survival of consciousness and psi (feel free to substitute your favorite term here, eg clairvoyance, telepathy, etc.).

In their paper, entitled “A Phenomenological Pathway to an Empirically Driven Distinction Between Survival Psi and Somatic Psi by Research Mediums,” Drs. Beischel and Rock describe the experiences of the Windbridge Institute with certified research mediums (CRMs) who had been screened and trained over a period of several months and had their abilities documented under controlled laboratory conditions. According to the paper, “these CRMs are able to consistently report accurate and specific information about the deceased loved ones (termed discarnates) of living people (termed sitters) during anomalous information reception (AIR); that is, without any prior knowledge about the discarnates or sitters, in the absence of sensory feedback, and without using deceptive means.”

Up to this point, the scientific/skeptical portion of my brain really liked what I’d read, although I felt strongly compelled to read more of the background on the screening, training, documentation processes as well as the controlled lab conditions. (Note: Many publications on the research conducted at the Windbridge Institute are available through the Publications section of their website) However, in the interest of time (and knowing that a follow-up post is always fair game, as is a query directed to the good researchers at Windbridge), I decided to give them the benefit of the doubt…

Continuing on, the researchers indicated that an identification of the specific parapsychological mechanisms underlying the AIR demonstrated by the CRMs has been historically lacking. They proposed 3 specific psi-based mechanisms by which AIR might be possible, namely super-psi (potent psychic ability), somatic-psi (psi communication with the living – used to obtain information regarding the deceased), and survival-psi (telepathic communication – specifically with the deceased). Two specific studies were described, one quantitative study in which CRMs’ experiences during readings for discarnates were compared to their experiences during control conditions, and a subsequent study in which CRMs’ experiences of purported communication with discarnates was qualitatively compared to their experiences during psychic readings for the living (ostensibly employing somatic psi).

In the final analysis comparing the essential aspects of the 2 experiences, Beischel and Rock suggested that CRMs could differentiate between ostensible discarnate communication and their use of somatic psi during psychic readings. To me this is an absolutely fascinating statement suggesting that individuals with mediumistic abilities are able to not only tap into the conscious and subconscious minds of the living, but that they are also able to establish communication with the deceased and further can discriminate between the two. While this paper may not directly address the question of survival of consciousness after physical death, it does indicate a positive trend in the establishment of objective research methodologies for interrogating these very questions.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Humans as Multidimensional Beings

In thinking about the survival of human consciousness beyond the limits of our corporeal existence, I was reminded of Edwin Abbott’s book, Flatland, and the concept of perceiving dimensions beyond the 3 physical dimensions that we normally inhabit. In Flatland, the protagonist is a square who through the course of the story is visited by a sphere who proceeds to acquaint the square with the concept of a third dimension in Spaceland. In contemplating this story and the concept of spirits as energy in my preceding post, it occurred to me (as I’m sure it has to many others previously) that our spirit or consciousness may be another facet of a multidimensional being beyond our physical 3-dimensional existence. During our physical existence, our consciousness may be constrained – only to be released upon our physical deaths. Beyond that, our spirits may expand to some higher order dimension.

As a non-physicist, I don’t feel as if I’m doing this subject justice, but the possibility is just too intriguing to let go of it completely. Current theories in physics, such as string theory and M-theory predict that physical space in general has either 10 or 11 dimensions, respectively. In other words, that’s 7 or 8 spatial dimensions in addition to length, width, and height. The physical sciences are a long way from demonstrating the physical realities of these other dimensions, but they do offer a lot of possibilities for additional aspects of our spirits. Ghosts, apparitions, and psychic phenomena may therefore represent the intersection of one or more of these other dimensions with our 3-dimensional world. Returning to the example of Flatland, the sphere that visited the square resident of Flatland provides an apt analogy for this. To any resident of Flatland, the sphere would appear as a circle of varying circumference depending on the plane at which the 2 intersected (the intersection of a sphere and a plane in geometry being in fact, a sphere). Likewise, the intersection of a ghost or spirit with our 3-dimensional world would be a limited 3-D representation of that entity.

As always, this topic is open for comment or discussion!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

What are ghosts and why should we be able to detect them?

Prevailing opinion among most members of Western culture, ghost hunters included, is that ghosts are the disembodied spirits of people who have died. Often as not, these spirits are assumed to retain the consciousness and personalities that they had in life. This begs the question though of what exactly is a ghost or spirit, and where exactly does it reside while one is alive?

From a biological/biochemical perspective, the best potential candidate would be the brain and its’ unique combination of electrochemical signals, patterns, and signatures that identify each person as an individual. The basis of memory, thought, and consciousness in the human brain lies primarily in the cerebral cortex, which is rich in electrical synapses. In their most basic form, these junctions between neurons are electrical pathways for the transmission of information via ionic currents.

Fundamentally then, the bases of a significant portion of our individual identities are determined by the patterns in which electrochemical currents flow through the biological circuitry of our brains. In other words, in addition to the various proteins, lipids, nucleic acids, organic and inorganic compounds that make up our bodies, there is energy that animates and defines us.

The big question then is, what happens to that energy when we die? Is it inextricably linked to our physical being such that when our respiration and blood flow cease, our personalities and memories cease to exist as well? From a purely biomedical standpoint, science would dictate that to be the case. If we switch to an experiential viewpoint however, we must remain open to the possibility that the rules may have to change and that the traditional laws of biology, chemistry, and physics as we currently understand them may not apply.

As any fan of Ghost Hunters or one of the many other ghost seeking series on television will tell you, spirits may manifest in any of a number of ways including apparitions, shadows, disembodied voices, sounds, changes in ambient temperature (ie, cold spots), and changes in electromagnetic fields (EMF) to name a few.

Apparitions and shadows relate to light and the transmission or blocking of light. Light, of course is a form of radiant energy or the energy of electromagnetic waves. Voices and sounds are forms of mechanical vibrational energy, which may occur as a result of actions occurring anywhere from the molecular to the macromolecular level. Temperature, as a measure of heat relates to another form of radiant energy. Finally, EMF changes originate with the movement of charged particles or the movement of an electrical current. All of these forms of energy, of course, can be detected with the appropriate apparatus (human eye, human skin, camera, audio recorder, thermometer, EMF meter).

The point at which this analysis necessarily breaks down is that most energetic phenomena (light, heat, sound, EMF) have a readily identifiable source. Paranormal phenomena such as ghost or spirit manifestations however lack a defined source. That is not to say that these phenomena are impossible to explain, but our current understanding of the physical sciences does not provide us with any ready answers. Particle physics offers some intriguing possibilities, but those are well beyond the scope of this blog.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback!