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