AwareofAware

Evolving news on the science, writing and thinking about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

Evidence vs “Bullshit”

I promised I would address this particular publication in a new post, as it has got lost in a long and winding discussion that came out of the last post. Here is the link to the full text of the publication which was published in August this year:

Link to PDF of paper on Researchgate

And here is a link to the kind of media interpretation that this article invoked:

Wired – Turns out near-death experiences are psychedelic, not religious

Or the BBC

DMT trip feels like dying

The paper was written by a group of researchers from Imperial College London. Imperial is a premier research institution, so anything that comes out of it should be taken seriously even when it is published in Frontiers of Psychology, a less than premier journal. However, in spite of the source of the research, namely Imperial, the tone that at least one of the researchers adopts towards NDE experiences reveals a distinctly unscientific approach.

“But it’s bullshit. It’s classic pseudoscience,” says Robin Carhart-Harris, who designed the Psychedelic Research Group study with Chris.

This was a reference to Eben Alexander’s book and claims. Now I am not a wild fan of Alexander’s NDE account, and the publicity it generated, but to dismiss it as “bullshit” shows a chronic bias against the possibility that NDEs are a “supernatural” or genuinely religious phenomenon. If you start a research project with that assumption, then you are unlikely to draw unbiased conclusions.

To be fair, the paper itself does not read as badly as it might given the tone of the author in the interview. The study was designed to assess the similarity between the experience of taking the psychedelic drug DMT, with an NDE. To do this they used the Greyson scale, the scale devised by one of the fathers of NDE research, which includes 15 different elements most commonly associated with NDEs. These include tunnels, bright light OBE etc etc. They assessed how much overlap there was in terms of level of experience and range. Their findings revealed that DMT induced an experience which bore similarities to an NDE, with significant overlap on Greyson scores compared to previously published data on those who had experienced actual NDEs. There were a few exceptions, such as less reported life reviews, no point of no return etc, but in general many of the elements of NDEs were reported by subjects taking DMT.

While the original paper does not go so far as to say that this proves that NDEs are hallucinations induced by the release of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain at the time of dying, this is most definitely the tone adopted by the Wired article, and certainly appears to be what at least one of the authors believes.

I view things differently. While it is obvious there are some similarities between the two experiences, there are some important differences, some of which I briefly alluded to above. The lack of the kind of detailed life reviews that NDE experiencers report when compared with these DMT induced experiences is significant. If someone is about to potentially die, and a life review is a part of that process, then it makes sense that someone who is not close to death would not have one. This in some ways, using a bit of twisted logic, provides a bit of validation of the fact that NDEs are real. But you could only draw that conclusion if you viewed the research produced by this group through the biased lens that we believers view things.

The truth is, that you could interpret the data from this study in two completely different ways according to your own world view, and both interpretations would be consistent with the findings of the study.

As a reminder, the essence of the key finding was that taking DMT induces an experience which has significant similarity to an NDE.

The first way you could interpret this data is the way in which Wired magazine and the author have – namely that due to this similarity, this shows that NDEs are just a psychedelic experience produced entirely by the chemical activity of the brain.

The other way that that the data could be interpreted is that DMT disrupts the “anchoring” mechanism of the consciousness to the brain, and thereby causes temporary erratic separations of the conscious from the physical brain, but while the patient is alive and fully technically conscious. Here is a quote from one of the subjects:

“It’s probably the most intense experience I’ve had,” says Iona. “[The sense that] birth and death were just a transformation rather than an end was something that felt true.”

It is entirely consistent with the data from the study to suggest that DMT could indeed cause just the kind of disruption that I describe above. If the brain is just a host of the conscious then pumping a brain full of a drug that is neurotoxic may indeed cause the association with the brain to loosen, and for that conscious to briefly dip into “other realms”. The researcher dismisses this idea out of hand, but provides no rationale for making that assertion.

Ultimately, the evidence from this study is valid, but the conclusions drawn by the researchers themselves in the interview and the media may indeed be “bullshit”, and entirely the result of atheistic bias. At the end of the day, the study, while intriguing, is a great big “nothing burger” in terms of providing evidence that NDEs are not a “supernatural” phenomenon.

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38 thoughts on “Evidence vs “Bullshit”

  1. Mesmer on said:

    Sorry for my English, I’m Brazilian and I’m using google translate.

    I think the following:
    The veracity of OBEs can be proven by veridical perceptions. If you give DMT, ayahuasca, peyote or rotten cheese to a person and then describe precisely the details and object of a place that has not been before, like the room next door, we must conclude that this is not just a hallucination.
    That simple.

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    • Indeed, that would be correct, however, in the study there are no such reports. My completely unsubstantiated view is that the DMT is definitely messing with the relationship with the brain and conscious, but unlike an NDE which is a linear experience, with a clear start and end associated with the time the heart stops, this is more a muddle with intermittent “disconnections”. All conjecture of course, but perhaps consistent with the results that are reported.

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    • @Mesmer

      Yes, DMT can’t get you out of the room and down the hallway. Naturally, sceptics just say that part of the experience didn’t happen.

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  2. I think rick strausmann has a view that DMT enables a filter for the consciousness away from the brain of sorts and note that that NDE maybe similar too in term of filter as far as I can tell. Plus I noted too that as far as am I aware those who have had NDE and experineced DMT that the two are not the same. The NDE another level altogether.

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  3. Some NDEs do sound a bit like DMT trips, Eben’s one is not the typical NDE and i cant entirely fault sam harris for dismissing it as a dmt trip. How many NDErs say they rode on a butterfly in a fantasy land with a fairy guiding them? But the core experience is not present in dmt trips, obviously by chance someone might experience a NDE on dmt but by chance somebody can also dream an experience like a classical NDE. I’ve had dreams of seeing bright light in another world, but the light was just that, bright, it didn’t have unconditional love/authority to it. Kenneth Ring said he did ketamine 9 times and while there were some superficial similarities, the core experience were very different. I tried to get ketamine but couldn’t find a trustworthy source (its a horse tranq so if ur a vet u might have it), pretty sure there’s no way i can get dmt from secure source because it’s illegal.

    I am very against the dmt loosening brain’s grip on consciousness thing. Physical on physical suggests physical, not nonphysical. I’ve seen quite a few people advocate this, it’s very wrong and will just give the staunch materialists more fuel to attack proponents.

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  4. These its like X studies or claims have been ocuring since the phenomenon was first described. Carl Sagan said it was some reverse of the birth canal. I would argue failure to find the same thing anywhere but death might lead one after 50 years to conclude it might have some connection.

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  5. I agree with Ben’s conclusion. There’s nothing there of any real substance (excuse the pun). There’s no evidence that DMT is even present in the human brain, never mind in quantities sufficient to cause hallucinations of the magnitude of what is reported in NDE’s. If anyone has any evidence of that lets see it.

    In my view it’s just another ‘group’ of academics, loyal to the cause (materialism) doing what they believe is good productive work. They’re not going to entertain ideas such as the possibility of consciousness without a brain. They would immediately lose their grants, they’d be ostracised, ridiculed even.

    I know this because a close friend of mine is now a professor in one of these institutions and the materialist credo is every bit as rigidly observed as any religious one. In some ways I don’t blame them either. How can you have consciousness without a brain ? We’re potentially talking about spirits/ghosts if we’re honest and as we all know, they were consigned to the realm of superstitious nonsense hundreds of years ago !

    And yet we have all these remarkable experiences that are quite definitely pointing to “something” (call it whatever you like) going on beyond the brain and this is the problem. Parnia, amongst others, are metaphorically knocking on the door of these prestigious institutions with extremely unwelcome news and I don’t think they want to hear it. Maybe things will change in the future, who knows ?

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  6. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for a good post.

    I agree with your general assessment that this research will be interpreted in two very different ways depending upon whether it is being interpreted by a materialist or by a person who believes in the reality of spiritual phenomena.

    If it is taken as an assumption (as it is by materialists generally) that consciousness is a product of neurological processes in the brain, then of course, both DMT trips and NDEs will be interpreted as resulting from neurological processes.

    But if it is taken as an assumption that consciousness is a non-physical phenomenon that interfaces with the brain and its neurological processes, then both DMT trips and NDEs will be seen as essentially spiritual experiences, in that they are taking place in a consciousness that is fundamentally spiritual. Any corresponding processes taking place in the brain are seen as results or parallel events rather than as causes of the experiences.

    I fall into the second camp, and have long viewed drug trips in general as involving a weakening of the usual mental veil between ordinary waking consciousness in the physical world and the phenomena of the spiritual world. However, given that drugs generally scramble the brain, so to speak, the experiences themselves are rather scrambled as well. I would liken a drug trip to sitting in a spiritual movie theater watching a surrealist movie rather than to walking out in the streets of the spiritual world.

    If DMT trips bring about experiences that mimic NDEs in various ways, this is not all that surprising for those of us who believe that consciousness is a spiritual phenomenon.

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  7. Wasn’t there a paper in psychology today that basically debunked the DMT/NDE thing, basically said we don’t even know if there’s DMT in the human body which I don’t understand because if it’s a chemical in the body couldn’t it be found in autoposy or chemical compositions. I’m not a doctor so I can’t give you an answer there but the article also said some things about how the experiences are not at all similar. Let me see if I can find the article. Found it. Hope I’m allowed to link articles here.

    https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/out-the-darkness/201810/near-death-experiences-and-dmt%3famp

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    • Thanks for the great comments. Not joining in as we have just moved into our new house and currently have no internet. I’d like to say it’s liberating, but it’s actually pretty dull. When I have more than just an iPhone to write with, I will have more to say.

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  8. As some who studies science and philosophy….I find tge term pseudoscience to be bs itself. There are things for which there is evidence and things that have some and things that have none. The NDE and ADE have a lot of evidence despite tons of tv shows I have yet to see any evidence of ancient astronauts or astrology of economics as far as predictions are concerned.
    also we have evidence for things that only sort of fit a theory like dark energy.

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  9. Ok. New York Times has story on the play tge hard problem of conscioussness….the playrighr in summary would agree with many sentiments here. Worth a read if you have the print or not behind paywall.I am more patial to Nagle than Chalmers and Searle but all are good philopsophers.

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    • I have to agree with him here. I feel like many nonmaterialists are giving this a bad name. Saying dmt/lsd hallucinations are evidence of nonmaterial consciousness is just pseudoscience. I really hope Parnia is a completely neutral person and his enthusiasm is because of hidden target perceptions and not his beliefs.

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  10. I really dont know how to react to either side. I dont think they know what consciousness is . Its not a oarticular perception or being awake . It is what is it like to be a bat a person….or nothing like a chair. I see no resolution of that here.

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  11. Samwise on said:

    Reply to the researchers and link above, by the person who critisized them,

    https://www.bernardokastrup.com/2018/10/the-fix-is-worse-than-problem-reply-to.html

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  12. Thanks for this great find Samwise. It is a very balanced piece that focuses on the science rather than any subjective interpretation. As I say in the post that started this, the data from this kind of research could be consistent with both a materialist and non-materialistic worldview, and those who try to use it to “prove” their belief, are misusing the data. From my perspective, there is nothing in these findings that undermines my belief the conscious is a separate entity hosted by the body. I like this sentence:

    “Consciousness science remains a fragile business, poised precariously between grand ambition, conflicting philosophical worldviews, immediate personal relevance and the messy reality of empirical research.”

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  13. I was just posting on another topic related to the decline inbUS life expectency …which got me on an irony ..we may be close to some ant aging drugs based on DNA repair. That is a lot simpler than anything going on the brain and that is going slowly.
    On another topic memory.Maybe Ben could answer this. But it was all supposed to be long term potentiation but then a test dirupted tgat but the memories all came back the mouse knew the maze again as I recall. So the memories were still around somewhere else. SO pun intended our knowledge is ….fragmentary. Set me straight if I am wrong.

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    • Apparently our memories are all stored in a central universal repository available for all to view at will once we pass over to the other side. Or so I read on IANDS once! Who knows.

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    • It is all a bit Matrix like. I do get why people who can’t accept a religious/spiritual explanation, but at the same time are unable to explain the origin of life or the consciousness opt for the belief that we are living in a giant simulation.

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  14. Might be multiple storage. In Life before Life they pass to the next incarnation and fade.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. It’s difficult to take that study seriously when it doesn’t address for the following:

    1- A comparison between the percentages that certain elements in the DMT vs the NDE experience occur. NDES have been studied to the point where we can outline the likelihood of people having any of the characteristic elements associated with it, such as the tunnel, the light, seeing dead familiar people, etc.

    2- Veridical perceptions in OBE, including visual, auditory, and non local.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Even if the brain does somehow excrete the chemical after it shuts down how on earth would consciousness still continue if the brain is flatlined? Consciousness is not the brain itself. If it was this wouldn’t have happened. Cardiac arrest is the cessation of both brain and heart activity and without blood flow to either the rest of the organs shut off too. You can only hallucinate if there is function to the brain. With no function or blood flow to induce hallucination it becomes impossible to do so. Given that research studies show evidence that consciousness is still active in such a state it would mean that consciousness is likely part of a larger picture. As for DNA repair. That will likely be a thing in a decade or two. It’s good to remember that trials for drugs take a long time and come in phases. So maybe one day we become ageless. I’m in no hurry. Heck according to studies like those from Parnia we are destined for eternity anyway so might as well enjoy it.

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  17. Colin Cooper on said:

    In a 2014 paper, Professor Stuart Hameroff – colleague of Sir Roger Penrose – argued the following regarding psychedelics and consciousness:

    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.688.8100&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    “…Psychedelic drugs, which may be considered ‘mind expanding’,
    bind in non-polar hydrophobic regions within proteins, and enhance
    electron resonance and quantum dipoles (Snyder and Merril, 1965;
    Shulgin et al., 1969; Kang and Green, 1970). Although psychedelic
    drugs (like anaesthetics) are considered to act at membrane receptors,
    they also get inside cells and can bind in quantum channels in tubulin
    where they may increase frequency of microtubule quantum dipole
    resonances and Orch OR events, driving consciousness more deeply
    into the quantum world, thereby ‘expanding’ consciousness. As the
    Beatles sang, ‘the deeper you go, the higher you fly; the higher you
    fly, the deeper you go!’…”

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  18. Samwise on said:

    17 weeks have passed since we were told by Dr.Parnia that updates were coming in the coming weeks. I want to ask him if he has forgotten or does not intend to updates us but many posts here suggests that he does not reply to emails.

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    • I just think he is proabaly so busy with everything, his normal everyday routine work, his enormous study etc that he is probably running behind, but of course that is only my take on it. Whether I’m right or wrong, there’s nothing we can do other than be patient and wait. He and his colleagues are the ones taking the risks, doing all the work, the least we can do is leave him alone and let him get on with it.

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  19. Samwise on said:

    When considering the fact that he appears on radio and TV shows and that it takes a short time to write something on Twitter, one could reasonably assume that he has the time to write a few words and update us. If he does not, then it would be better to not promise us any updates.

    I would not have expected news from him if he had not said that he would give us updates himself and the reason I want to know is not because of curiosity but because I am looking into ways of conducting similar studies, if his study is cancelled. That is probably why I find it harder to “leave him alone” than you do.

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    • Samwise said >”one could reasonably assume that he has the time to write a few words and update us.”

      One can assume anything one wants to, of course. I could equally assume that he hasn’t posted anything further on twitter because he hasn’t actually got anything worthwhile to post… that is… he simply hasn’t got the “promised” information yet so what would be the point in him “posting” just to tell us that (nothing) ?

      He doesn’t have to tell us anything, anyway. We’re not funding him, we’re not assisting him and I don’t think we’re helping him by losing patience. Very few researchers with careers in medicine have been… or are ACTUALLY willing to do such risky controversial research. Van Lommel had the balls to do it in Holland and he has been slated as a charlatan and a “premorbid quack” by some of his peers, amongst other insults.

      As to his study being cancelled, I don’t know where you’ve got that from? And if you (yourself) have the credentials (you’ll need them) to undertake a similar study wherever you are, then you will need an enormous amount of energy and assistance and the prospect of decades of hard work. Good luck with it, by all means. Parnia’s been toiling away for about 20 years so far and it’s something that will probably take him to the end of his career without getting all the answers, who knows.

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      • Samwise on said:

        Of course one could assume anything but it is reasonable to assume, as I did, that he does in fact have five minutes of time to write a few words. Particularly when he said it himself.

        However, your assumption that he has nothing to say, would disregard his own words, disregard how unlikely it is that he does not have five minutes to write an update and would be impossible because he has to have some kind of information. Etiher the studies have started, are cancelled, or delayed. That is an update/information in itself and impossible for him not to know.

        No, he does not have to to tell us anything. I did not say that. I am simply being curious and assuming, because of reason and facts, that he could write an update and also saying that it would be better for him not to promise an update in the coming weeks if it was not going to occur.

        I never said anything about my belief or the chance of the study being cancelled either. I simply stated my intentions if that happens.

        I do not agree that I need the credentials or many years of experience in the field to run an experiment. I just need the funds to hire people who do have the credentials and experience.

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      • @Samwise

        I did NOT assume that he has nothing to say. I said I COULD equally assume that he hasn’t (effectively) got anything to say. I don’t assume anything that I don’t have the facts/evidence about, I’m too old to fall into that trap.

        Samwise said >”I never said anything about my belief or the chance of the study being cancelled either.”

        Samwise said in the previous post > “and the reason I want to know is not because of curiosity but because I am looking into ways of conducting similar studies, if his study is cancelled.

        I think you are splitting hairs there, Samwise. There (above) are your words…”if his study is cancelled ?” The word.. IF… contains the implicit aspect of “chance” so you did effectively say that.

        Samwise said >”I do not agree that I need the credentials or many years of experience in the field to run an experiment. I just need the funds to hire people who do have the credentials and experience.”

        I’m afraid that is too naïve to comment on further. Best of luck with it.

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  20. Samwise on said:

    I did not say that you assumed anything. I pointed out that my assumption would be reasonable, while the assumption that you used as an example and really do not believe, would not be reasonable and even impossible.

    My assumption is based on logic, so you will not fall in a trap. He must know if the studies are going as planned, are delayed or cancelled and it is highly unlikely that he does not have 5 minutes of time to update us. The assumption is not false because you believe that he does not owe us an answer either.

    Yes, the word IF does contain the implicit aspect of a chance that the study could be cancelled but it does not say anything about my own belief of what the chances are. It is an obvious fact that there are three chances and that neither of the chances are set in stone. Either the studies have started, are cancelled, or delayed.

    You have no reason to believe that I am naive because I think that the proper funding and experienced researchers will be enough to conduct a study in the same manner and up to the same standards as Dr.Parnia. In any case, best of luck to you to.

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  21. Maybe he just forgot to tweet. Maybe he simply not enamoured with social media. Some people just aren’t 🙂

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  22. Yes i think he just doesn’t like social media. I’ve met some people with NO social media. I would be surprised if he cancelled it, before he said he thinks NDEs are hallucinations https://skeptiko.com/sam-parnia-claims-near-death-experience-probably-an-illusion/ but now he’s saying he changed his mind, he must have seen evidence to change his position and he repeated multiple times he changed his mind because the NDErs describe real things by doctors/nurses.

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  23. I dont do much.soc media My wife set up my twitter. Blogs I do. Its a good thing hevstumbled into it and then brought strict protocol

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