The Art Of Fence Sitting
There has been a press release and a few Tweets from the Parnia lab. Here is a key quote from the press release:
“So far, the researchers say, evidence suggests that neither physiological nor cognitive processes end with death and that although systematic studies have not been able to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness in relation to death, it has been impossible to disclaim them either.”
Here is the tweet that will cause the most consternation among the majority who come here:
“One of the most exciting discoveries – brain activity associated with heightened states of consciousness has been shown to be present even during cardiac arrest. This marks a pivotal moment in the study of recalled experiences of death and in our understanding of consciousness.”
In the past I have occasionally been a bit abrasive or less than complimentary about aspects of research or things that have been said by the Parnia lab. A while back I resolved to stop doing that, because while I find the words entertaining to write, if people associated with the lab read this blog, they may not find them entertaining to read and I have enormous respect for them. However, today I am struggling to stifle the snarky side, but I will do my very best from letting any acid bleed onto the page and remain as objective and even in my commentary of these statements as possible. However, I am going to unpick them surgically as I know that people will latch on to certain phrases, and they need to be addressed.
To the first statement. Does it reveal any new research findings? No. So the key question is what do they mean by “evidence suggests that neither physiological nor cognitive processes end with death”?
In the absence of unpublished new evidence or definitions of death, human physiological processes must by the definition of the word physiological, end with death. The definition of death using Sam Parnia’s own definition in previous publications, is the cessation of all measurable heart and central nervous system activity. Some definitions include respiratory processes, which can occur during CPR, and is possibly why time of death is declared on cessation of CPR. This all creates a semantic problem.
The first semantic problem is that physiological processes cannot happen after death. Biological processes such as changes in cellular chemistry continue after death, but it is actually impossible for physiological processes to continue unless the definition of physiological has changed. CPR is a grey area, but it is also the area which is most relevant to discussions of REDs or NDEs.
The second semantic problem occurs with the use of the new term RED.
For the word physiological to be correct they must now be defining the period where there is no heartbeat but CPR is being performed and therefore passive respiration is occurring, as a period where the patient is alive. If so, they have moved the goal posts and in doing so RED becomes an incorrect expression for all experiences reported during this period because they are not experiences occurring during their new definition of death…they are however “nearly”dead…mmm, can anyone think of a term to describe an experience that happens when someone is nearly dead? Anyone?
I hope any readers from the Parnia lab will allow me one indulgence of snarkiness when I ask people to rearrange the words: their eat can’t and they it have cake.
The second term, “cognitive” is much more straight forward. My current work in Alzheimer’s focuses on tests that measure changes in cognition and the definition of cognition is; “the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses.” This is precisely what is reported during REDs or NDEs. No disputing this.
The statement then goes on to say that studies have so far been unable to prove or disprove the reality or meaning of patients claims of awareness during death.
Well that depends on whether you regard the testimony of thousands of credible individuals including healthcare professionals as evidence that provides proof. If you do, then it is proven. However, as I have stated on here numerous times, these experiences have not been scientifically validated/proven using modern scientific, digital (non-human) methods.
If I have missed something and this press release says anything new then please let me know in the comments.
Let’s move on to the Tweet. This refers to the recent “straw man”case and possibly to their own findings which they mentioned in the AHA poster in 2019 (and likely subsequent unpublished findings). In the Straw Man case, EEG activity sufficient to be associated with consciousness was measured for up to 30 seconds after death. I repeat for the nth time, there were no recollections of consciousness because the patient never recovered. There was no reported life review, or other element of a RED reported.
In the AHA poster it was reported that EEG levels that could be associated with conscious activity were measured up to 90 minutes after death (but during CPR…so were they dead?). Despite repeated efforts to get an answer to the question of whether or not there were reported experiences of consciousness during these EEG episodes, no more details have emerged. They have the data. They know whether those patients survived and were interviewed, but through reasons only they know, which I am sure are good, they have chosen not to share these important details with the wider community for over 2 years now.
Until we are presented with validated reported recollections of consciousness, either during periods of EEG activity, or in the absence of EEG activity, these findings are interesting, but not relevant to informing the scientific community on the nature of REDs (or NDEs if a patient is not technically dead during CPR 🙂 ).
Until the Parnia lab, or other researchers, present time stamped validated reports of consciousness matched with EEG data we have not moved forward significantly from the 1970s in terms of scientifically proving one way or the other what is going on.
To me these statements represent scientific fence sitting. They are very much in character with some of Dr Parnia’s previous enigmatic statements. To one community, the NDE community, he unequivocally states his belief in dualism based on scientific evidence, to the other community, the medical scientific community, he presents a more nuanced position in which the data might support the understanding that these conscious episodes are due to underlying “physiological” processes.
However, sitting on the fence is a precarious position to take, and the fence is getting thinner as he gathers more data, and at some point he will need to get off the fence, especially when addressing fellow scientists of a sceptical disposition. He can obviously only do that when he has actual data to support what he says though.