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

Archive for the tag “consciousness”

Terminal/paradoxical lucidity. Overlap with NDEs?

The change in Brain structure due to Alzheimer’s disease (from John Hopkins)

I was going to write this at some point after Alan put a link to the below Guardian article in the last post discussion, but someone else has asked me to post on it, so here we go.

Guardian article on Terminal Lucidity.

I recently started work in Alzheimer’s for a Biotech that has a program in developing treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). As with all my work over the years in different diseases, I collaborate with leading academics and physicians in the disease area to develop research ideas – our own and theirs; discuss and disseminate latest research information and help facilitate the implementation of improved diagnostics and treatment pathways. I love what I do, whether it is in HIV, which I spent many years working in, or AD, which I have a particular passion for due to watching my father succumb to this hideous disease. The idea that I may be a part of helping deliver the first wave of potentially disease modifying therapies that slow the progress of this monstrous disease is hugely exciting.

Above is a picture of a normal brain and a brain that has been severely damaged due to AD . The brain of someone who dies with AD can weigh as much as 30% less than a normal brain at death. AD destroys the brain through a pathway that is widely understood to involve the deposition of Beta-Amyloid plaques in the neurons of the brain, which then through an immune response causes another protein called Tau, which has structural and metabolic roles in the neuron, to become dissociated with the neuron and eventually form clumps and neuronal death. This is the Amyloid cascade pathway that most scientists believe is the primary mechanism by which AD occurs. The process can start up to 20 years before symptoms appear, and once symptoms appear will usually kill the patient within 6-15 years. It is a terminal disease.

As the disease progresses patients go from experiencing mild cognitive impairment (MCI) which usually involves short term memory issues, to mild dementia which may affect one’s ability to do complex tasks, through to severe or advanced dementia where the patient is normally incapable of the most basic of tasks, becomes completely incontinent, and has lost all memory function or ability to speak. They are barely conscious as we understand consciousness. The final stage is death when the part of the brain that controls vital functions such as metabolism or heart rate etc becomes affected. Often dementia patients will die of chest infections as they lose their cough reflex and they literally drown in the fluid accumulating in their lungs. Often they will have pneumonia on their death certificates, but ultimately it is AD that killed them. In the UK it is now acknowledged as the biggest killer (over 20% of “with COVID” deaths are dementia patients). Suffice to say, at this stage the brain should not be functionally capable of lucidity.

Terminal, or paradoxical lucidity, is the phenomenon in which patients who have advanced AD and who have been in a state of cognitive non existence for months suddenly appear completely lucid or “their old selves again”. This usually occurs shortly before their deaths. It is not unique to AD patients, but from a scientific and philosophical perspective it is this group of patients that are most interesting and where those who have an interest in NDEs become excited.

Ultimately, terminal or paradoxical lucidity is not understood from a scientific perspective. A brain that has lost so much of its physical structure that the patient long ago lost cognitive function, and can no longer perform basic physiological functions like bladder control, should not be capable of “producing” high level conscious activity. It is a paradox, hence the alternative nomenclature. The overlap with NDEs, and hence the reason that Sam Parnia has become involved in this work, is obvious: people who report NDEs are reporting consciousness when the brain is completely incapable of consciousness from a scientific perspective because it is completely inactive.

The justification for research into this area is that maybe by understanding what activity we observe on an EEG during one of these terminal lucidity episodes, we may be able to develop technology that generates sufficient targeted stimulation to cause patients with AD to recover some of their function. There is a precedent for this. Currently available symptomatic treatments of AD, such as Donepezil, which slow the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetyl choline, have been shown to improve cognitive function in some patients with AD, especially when used early. However these drugs do not alter the underlying disease process, they just “make better use of” the undamaged part of the brain; the patient will die at the same point with or without treatment. It is just a brain booster (student doctors have used it in medical exams to enhance their performance!). Arguably, if we can understand the physiological processes that are occurring during terminal lucidity, maybe we can devise technology that creates the same effect. That at least is the materialistic justification for this research.

Non-materialists, or “Nutters”, like me have a different explanation. The long established guest of the brain (the consciousness) has returned and somehow is able sequester the remnants of its dying host to experience and communicate with this realm one last time. It is a “paranormal” or “supernatural” phenomenon.


Just an illusion

My training in Chemistry has long since given me a view on matter that shatters most people’s perception of reality. When you look around, you are fooled into believing you are seeing solid objects, but in reality you are not. “Solidity” is an illusion created by the absorption of light by electrons orbiting atomic nuclei.

The truth is that electrons, and nuclei take up tiny amounts of space, but due to the nature of quantum mechanics and the speed of movement of sub-atomic particles, they create the appearance of solidity. Moreover, due to electrostatic repulsion when objects come into close proximity, they “feel” solid. However, if all movement of electrons were stopped, and you were able to bring all sub atomic particles into immediate juxtaposition, objects like trees, even buildings would be invisible to the naked eye. To exemplify this point it has been estimated that if you were to bring all the sub atomic particles that comprise the entire human race together it would be about the size of a sugar cube. (Link)

Currently, I have a very poor understanding of quantum mechanics, something that I wish to address over the coming years as I feel it is important for gaining deeper insight into this whole subject area, but from what I do understand, and from facts like the sugar cube and that the entire universe originated from an impossibly small pin prick of light, I sometimes feel nervous about the nature of “reality”. In fact, I wonder if it is in fact just a gigantic illusion. I know others believe the same.

So how does that fit into the subject of NDEs? When I read about NDEs, people often describe their experiences of the other side as feeling more real than “real life”. Others refer to this life as a place of learning to prepare us for the next life. When you combine those subjective observations with the understanding of matter I just described, then it does indeed make more than just a bit of sense to understand the physical universe as being just illusory, and that our brains are the quantum processing machines allowing our consciousness to interface with this “illusion”. Now the fact we experience this illusion through our consciousness lends it a reality that it may not otherwise have had. This is not unrelated to the notion in quantum mechanics that a quantum state is not real until it is observed (I am probably saying that incorrectly).

Anyway, before I end up disappearing into a philosophical rabbit hole of ever decreasing circles, I just want to conclude with another concern that I have. Let’s say that this view of things is somewhat correct, namely that this life is illusory in nature and that the life after is “real”. How do we know that life is actually “real” and not just another level of a wider illusion in which we move.

Finally, I invite those who are better informed than I am on this particular area to comment on how this may or may not relate to Penrose and Hameroff’s theory about micro tubules within neurons being sites of quantum processing, and that this forms the basis of consciousness. I apologise in advance for not following up on comments immediately as I am travelling for the next couple of weeks.

Summary of Sam Parnia’s NYAS “What happens when we die” event:

Both the afternoon presentations and the evening panel discussion were livestreamed. Only one talk was excluded and that was a presentation by the “Pig Brain Team” from Yale, presumably because there may have been some proprietary technology discussed. They are available to view at the NYAS site now.

Recording of Livestream 1:

Recording of livestream 2: 

Recording of livestream 3 (evening panel discussion):

There was a lot of very interesting content in the afternoon session which can be bucketed into the following themes:

  1. History of resuscitation medicine
  2. Advances in resuscitation medicine and preserving the brain
  3. The ability to revive consciousness, and to what extent depending on damage to the brain
  4. The transformative nature of NDEs

I am not going to go over much of it since most of what was relevant to this blog has been discussed many times before. However, it is what was absent that was notable to me. There was no mention of the data from AWARE II that was presented over the weekend at the American Heart Association meeting and the subject of previous posts. I understand that the focus of the day was resuscitation medicine, but NDEs were discussed and I found it a bit odd there was no mention of the 2 abstracts at AHA considering this was the first data to come out of Dr Parnia’s landmark study. There was the opportunity to pose questions in the comments section on the livestream, and I did ask about the abstracts but there was insufficient time to answer the questions in the room, let alone on line.

The only tidbit that came up was regarding the sounds generated in the Bluetooth headsets. He described it as “timed sounds” that were delivered through these headsets. Does that mean that sounds were administered intermittently and for a timed but limited number of periods, or that there was a continuous stream of sound with the different kinds of sounds timed, and the time at which they changed recorded? This is very important with respect to the direction of the discussion initiated by Tim we had regarding abstract 287 at the AHA meeting. If the sounds weren’t continuous then the fact that one or more of the 4 “NDErs” heard voices from the room would potentially be less relevant, given the findings from abstract 387 depending on whether there was corresponding EEG and rSO2 data that showed sufficient levels of oxygen to support consciousness. I suspect we aren’t going to learn more at this stage and will have to wait till the data is published, which may be many years from now!

Dr Parnia did refer to a number of new studies that will be starting in the next months and years:

future studies

The one that is of most interest to me is the study looking into consciousness during deep hypothermic arrest. This is effectively COOL II. At this stage they are just performing a pilot study to help inform them on design for a larger landmark study. It looks unlikely we will hear anything from this for a number of years, but this has the potential to produce data more efficiently than AWARE II due to the controlled conditions. Also the prospective study into children’s NDEs will provide interesting insights into the differences that have been previously discussed. This will take a long long time as thankfully children are much less likely to be near death, or actually dead, than adults.

He also presented some data that had been collected from going back over historical interviews from numerous NDEs. This has been done before in various publications in IANDS, but I suspect that his team will apply greater systematic and academic rigor. I wasn’t quite sure where these NDEs were sourced from, but they included a whole host of parameters beyond the simple core elements previously described.

Finally, Dr Parnia did get a bit agitated when describing the impatience of the likes of us! He did look at the camera, and actually said that he was speaking “to the camera”…i.e. some of us. Busted! He was insistent that this research takes a long time, that there are not always enough staff to attend CA events etc. This does not explain why he didn’t refer to the abstracts from the weekend, but we must give him the benefit of the doubt and accept that there are protocols etc that he must follow. He did say that there was more data now, but not that much.

I doubt he does come to this site, but if he does, I hope very much that our enthusiasm/impatience doesn’t in anyway hinder his work, or damage what he is trying to do. If it does in any way, then he must tell me. I would rather dial back on the number of my posts than risk his work. If not, as I suspect is the case given how he is disposed to going on TV and talking about NDEs, then he must recognize that it is only natural for people like ourselves who have a keen interest in his work to be eager to learn as much as we can, and express our frustration at not having all the answers now. As always we wish him the very best in his quest to shed light on the nature of consciousness before and after death.

The evening session was just a panel discussion on what had been presented and what they thought about the various different issues. This was very much focused on the resuscitation medicine side of things and potential ethical implications.

Overall it was enjoyable, but for regulars of this blog, nothing new unfortunately. Now I’m going to bed!

Edited to add the morning after:

While there may have been nothing “new” from the perspective of insights into the recent findings from AWARE II, there were a couple of things that happened in the meetings that have refreshed my perspective.

Firstly there was the testimony of the woman who had received CPR for an hour and the doctors were ready to give up, except one, who took over and carried on. That was 10 years ago and now she is well and living a full productive life due to that doctor and modern techniques. Really rammed home to me what an amazing job the likes of Parnia and his team do.

Secondly was the NDE account described by the ER physician Dr. Tom Aufderheide in the panel session in the evening. That was mind blowing and it reminded me of why I first became hooked on the subject of NDEs. We really don’t NEED the results of AWARE II, we have hundreds, if not thousands, of reliable human testimonies, many of them from health care professionals themselves, that one hundred percent corroborate the validity of the OBE. But more than that they attest to the spiritual nature of humans and our ultimate destiny.

On here, we, I, have become so obsessed with the hit, the smoking gun, and I realised last night that I may have lost my focus on the true wonder of these incredible accounts…they are mind blowing. I don’t need AWARE II. I know from my own experience that there is another reality beyond this life. I have experienced it myself, and through the accounts of others. I know I have a soul inside of me…my brain just sometimes forgets!

Anyway, we will continue to follow developments, but Dr Parnia said to the camera, to us, that we must follow the NYU website for any updates. As much as I respect and admire him, I think I will continue to rely on the great contributors here like Tim, David, Eduardo, Z, Samwise, Chad and others who keep finding things on the web now that might just make it to the NYU website in a years time!


Brainless materialism

Apologies for the long gap between posts, but I am still working on a new book that I will be publishing later this year. Anyway, this article really caught my attention:

Science and the Soul

“But I was wrong. Katie made me face my misunderstanding. She was a whole person. The child in my office was not mapped in any meaningful way to the scan of her brain or the diagram in my neuroanatomy textbook. The roadmap got it wrong.”

This a quote in which the neuroscientist discusses the relationship between the brain and the soul, or self. He claims that the brain is not the source of the mind or the soul, and cites findings from interesting experiments performed over the years that support this thesis. He concludes the following:

“There is a part of Katie’s mind that is not her brain. She is more than that. She can reason and she can choose. There is a part of her that is immaterial – the part that Sperry couldn’t split, that Penfield couldn’t reach, and that Libet couldn’t find with his electrodes. There is a part of Katie that didn’t show up on those CAT scans when she was born.

Katie, like you and me, has a soul.”

This is of course central to the whole understanding of what is going on with an NDE. Just as it should not be possible for a child to have a full range of mental skills when she has been born with a fraction of a functioning brain, so too should it not be possible to experience consciousness when the brain is technically dead, or at the very least “unalive”. Both of these phenomenon are incompatible with a materialistic understanding of human consciousness, and point to the soul being a separate entity, entirely independent of the brain for its existence.

The issue in this type of case where a significant part of the brain is missing or not working properly, is that if the mind is entirely a product of the physical functioning of the brain, then any significant reduction in brain capacity should correspondingly reduce the mind’s capacity. Classically speaking, various parts of the brain have been shown to be responsible for various cognitive functions through brain imaging experiments, and yet when those parts are damaged or destroyed, or not present in the first place, then it seems that other parts sometimes pick up the slack. This completely negates the idea that the mind is a mechanical product of the brain since the relationship between the brain and the mind must therefore be somewhat abstract. This points to the metaphysical nature of the soul/mind/conscious.

When you look at the brain as just being a host organ for the mind, then the observations from the ER and the neurology journals start to make sense. If the mind, or soul, is a whole independent entity, it would be able to occupy and communicate with the brain, even if the brain is reduced in its capacity. The soul is not reliant on the brain for its existence. This is of course the conclusion from NDEs, where the brain is “unalive”, to be technically correct, and yet the soul/mind/conscious persists. These two findings which have been replicated numerous times are mutually supportive of the understanding that the soul is not a product of brain activity.


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