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.

The Illusive Dr Parnia Tweets

Thanks to one of the regular contributors for this reminder, but Dr Parnia tweeted for the first time in a very long time:

parnia tweet

I use the word illusive since he doesn’t really clarify what this means. Is this AWARE II, surely not as that is well under way now. Are these sub-studies of AWARE II? Are they completely new studies, and if so how will they differ?

Anyway, hopefully we will learn more before long.

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.

 

Emptiness

 

I came across this in my googling of NDE research, and I think it may have been mentioned in a previous chat (sorry for not calling out the person who mentioned it). Click on the link to access the pdf. It is free to download.

Meditation-Induced Near-Death Experiences: a 3-Year Longitudinal Study William Van Gordon et al.

This “paper” was published last month in the Mindfulness journal. Anything with that name in the title is going to be Buddhist, so I approach anything I read with the appropriate filters in place.

In summary the researchers recruit 12 advanced meditators who conduct a specific form of meditation which induces a “Near-Death” like state. The researcher calls the experiences that these meditators have MI-NDEs (meditation induced NDEs). These meditators practice at least one of these types of meditation a year as a normal part of their spiritual pursuits. For the study they are asked to complete a number of questionnaires after each MI-NDE session, including one that identifies components of NDEs as defined by the Greyson scale. Most frequenters to this site will be familiar with the scale, but for those that aren’t I have included it at the bottom of this post:

There are some other questionnaires more related to Buddhist beliefs, and one face to face interview conducted very soon after one of the MI-NDE sessions. The study was run over 3 years, with data collected from each participant each year. In addition “controls” were used, which included recording the same subjective output from non-MI-NDE meditation sessions.

Below is the key statement regarding the conclusions of the authors:

 

“Findings demonstrated that compared to the control conditions, the MI-NDE prompted significantly greater pre-post increases in NDE profundity, mystical experiences and non-attachment. Furthermore, participants demonstrated significant increases in NDE profundity across the 3-year study period.”

 

Now, I am not going to in anyway criticize Buddhist beliefs. Nor am I going to question the claims of people who practice Buddhist meditation that they have deep and profound spiritual experiences, which may indeed include out of body elements etc. If I believe that the conscious is a separate entity to the brain and that it is separated from the brain at death, then it makes sense that it may be possible under certain conditions to separate it during life too.

However, this paper has two major issues to me:

  1. The experience described by the meditators does not sound like an NDE
  2. There are some whopping design flaws that open it to ridicule by anyone with even the remotest understanding of how (not to) conduct a rigorous scientific study, and which relates to one of the issues I repeatedly mention with regard to blinding the investigators

Firstly, from a qualitative perspective, the experiences described by the meditators do not sound like classic NDEs. The word Emptiness is used a lot. While some NDEs do report emptiness, I believe a higher proportion of true NDEs describe different sensations which are more positive. Moreover there are no reports of specific verified OBEs, a crucial element to lending credibility to any study like this. They do describe spiritual elements and encounters with spiritual beings, but having read many NDEs, what these guys are taking about feels very different. I want to state again, that I am not doubting that they experienced something, but it was not a classic NDE in the sense that we know it. However, without more detail, it is hard to say for sure.

Now to my second point. This study has more holes than a sieve from a credibility perspective. The language used is very scientific, and creates the air of genuine academic research, but the reality is very different.

  1. The main author is a practicing Buddhist. Fine. However, he selects the study subjects from a group of people that he knows. Yep, that is the end of all credibility straight away. I understand why he did this: if you put this out there for all-comers you will attract a multitude of crazies, but that doesn’t change the fact this introduces humungous bias into the study, and lots of opportunities to influence outcome.
  2. Who conducts the interviews etc is not really discussed. Neither is how the data was “protected”. This is my potential beef with AWARE II. There needs to be blinding otherwise a study is open to accusations of bias, which leads to me point 3.
  3. Look at the graph below. It represents the improvement in the quality of NDEs over the 3 year period. In the first year the Greyson score barely exceeds 7, suggesting that they were not very NDE-like at all, but in the third year we have scores exceeding the average NDE score of “true” NDEs. In fact these meditators are getting so good at it that they experience virtually all of the components in the Greyson scale, something that very few true NDErs ever do.

graph

Now I don’t want to suggest that anything nefarious is going on, but this graph screams “something fishy is going on” to me. The author puts it down to practice makes perfect. Mmm. That would be fine if these guys weren’t already top of their game in meditating. They had on average over 30 years’ experience of meditating, and performed 3 MI-NDE type mediations a year. They should be able to meditate in the spiritual Olympics…if such a games existed. No. What that graph says to me is that either deliberately, or not, the meditators were getting feedback that influenced how they answered the questions. They were possibly “coached”, or prompted in how to more “accurately” describe their experiences.

For me the real result is the year 1 result, and given the other things I said, this study experiences emptiness when it comes to generating useful data with regard to validating NDEs, or indeed supporting the belief that NDEs can be induced by certain types of meditation.

 

 

The Greyson Scale

– Experiencing an altered state of time

– Experiencing accelerated thought processes

– Life review

– Sense of sudden understanding

– Feelings of peace

– Feeling of joy

– Feeling of cosmic oneness

– Seeing/feeling surrounded by light

– Having vivid sensations

– Extrasensory perception

– Experiencing visions

– Experiencing a sense of being out of physical body

– Experiencing a sense of an ‘otherworldly’ environment

– Experiencing a sense of a mystical entity

– Experiencing a sense of deceased/religious figures

– Experiencing a sense of a border or point of no return

 

Anyone having an “experience” can assess whether it is an NDE by assigning scores of 0-2 for the elements listed above. If an experiencer gives 0, then the element wasn’t present, if it’s 2 then definitely present. In general a score of <7 is not considered to be an NDE.

Get Paid To Study NDEs

Thanks to Samwise for posting this in the comments section of the last post. Again, I felt this was worth creating a seperate post out of since it is news about the AWARE study, and the last post was nearing a hundred comments, so time to move on.

The link below is for a new position as a research data associate at New York University School Of Medicine. The job description is clearly for someone to be working alongside the AWARE II study team as it references Sam Parnia and describes elements of the protocol that we are familiar with.

AWARE study position

They are looking for a graduate level employee, and someone who is either studying for a Ph.D. or who has relevant qualifications. When I first looked at it, I thought it was full time, but it would appear to be a bit of a zero hours type position, with variable hours, and on a temp basis. This ties in with a comment that David said, and that they may be looking to recruit a few people, so that they have someone “on call” at all times to attend the crash cart in the event of a CA. There are also a number of other duties which focus on the data processing side of things.

As I mentioned in the comments section, my one big concern about this is the lack of blinding that this position introduces into the study. If the same person who attends the CA, does the interview and processes the data, then this opens up any positive hits to accusations of potential cheating. It is in many ways a small detail as I am sure there will be other ways of verifying the validity of any confirmed OBEs, but my preference would be to remove any possibility of the interviewer knowing what image was projected. It may be that this is indeed the case, but without seeing a copy of the full protocol it is impossible to know for sure.

Anyway, this is all good in every other respect. This study is really ramping up by the looks of things, and is being taken very seriously. Roll on 2020.

Tin Foil Hat or Genuine Press Bias?

I am in the process of working on a review of the literature on evidence against NDEs being a genuine out of body phenomenon. The key piece of evidence relates to reports of brain activity after the heart has stopped. There have been reports in rats up to 30 seconds after death, and also in some human studies, but for now I want to highlight the reality of mainstream media reporting on this topic, and how utterly dishonest it can be.

Further down is a quote from the Independent newspaper in the UK discussing a 2017 publication by a group of Canadians that was discussed briefly in the comments section of my last post (Alan mentioned a Newsweek article that cited the same original piece of research). The background is that four patients on an ICU had life support withdrawn and their brain activity was monitored closely before and after cardiac arrest. One of the patients showed some delta wave EEG activity up to thirty minutes after the heart had stopped supplying oxygenated blood to the brain. (Delta wave NREM sleep is not associated with dreaming or conscious sleep, but rather is the deep sleep when the body is repairing itself). Here is the EEG data showing the anomaly:

brain waves

It is notable that the signals are extremely low in intensity after “death” (the dashed line), and therefore even if they are real, are extremely unlikely to signify “conscious” neuronal activity of the type that would be required to generate complex NDEs and store the information. However, our delightful media have a different take:

The UK Independent quote:

“But tests showed that the patients’ brain appeared to keep working ”

And

“The doctors don’t know what the purpose of the activity might be, and caution against drawing too many conclusions from such a small sample. But they write that it is difficult to think the activity was the result of a mistake, given that all of the equipment appeared to be working fine.”  Link to article

What was actually said in the publication:

“An unexpected finding in the current work was that single bursts of delta wave activity persisted following ECG and ABP cessation for one patient. It is difficult to posit a physiological basis for this EEG activity given that it occurs after a prolonged loss of circulation. These waveform bursts could, therefore, be artefactual in nature, although an artefactual source could not be identified.”

And in the discussion section:

“Finally, we also encountered one case where EEG activity persisted beyond the cessation of ABP. Given that this was only observed in one case and it persisted well beyond the loss of circulation, we speculate that this activity could reflect a nonneuronal artefact.”

Can J Neurol Sci. 2017; 44: 139-145

The inference in the Independent is that this “unexplained” activity invites speculation that the brain is up to something after death, adding credence to the meme that NDEs are a natural phenomenon, however the actual publication suggests it is most likely an artifact. Most people don’t bother reading the original piece of research, so will finish this media article concluding that brain activity occurs long after death, and thereby possibly dismissing NDEs as having natural explanations.

Anyway, as mentioned I am going to do a review of current literature on this topic and provide a summary. I will also be looking to shed more light on the difference between death of brain activity and permanent cellular death. Please feel free to make suggestions for appropriate articles in a comment (Please note, if you are posting a comment for the first time on this blog it will not appear immediately to avoid SPAM, trolling and BOTs. Due to my workload, it may be a day or two before I review it.)

Brand New Findings Revealed?

Thanks to Eduardo for picking this one up. I am extremely busy at the moment so don’t always have the time to trawl the networks for anything Parnia or NDE related, so appreciate when others email me links or post them in discussions. I felt this was worth pulling out. It was aired earlier this week on Dr Oz on January 22nd 2018. Dr Oz opens the segment with the announcement that brand new findings are going to be revealed (in the show). He then introduces Dr Parnia…well have a look yourself, click on the picture of our favorite intensive care doctor to access the video:

Parnia

Is this a sleight of hand or is there actually new data, or “brand new findings”?

Dr Parnia on one hand seems to describe the design of the most recent iteration of AWARE, AWARE II, then slips in “we did a study…” talking about the results from AWARE I. Given that he categorically stated in emails and on his Twitter feed that the results from AWARE II won’t be made public until after the study is finished in 2020, and that at this stage they have only recruited 350 or so, one can only assume that he is referring to AWARE I. However, the confidence he has in the assertions he makes seem to be growing stronger, which makes me believe that AWARE II has got some verified hits. AWARE I did not have any properly confirmed OBEs (i.e. validated sightings of pictures). There were some interesting accounts, and without doubt some real NDEs, and OBEs, but without the visual confirmation, they are nothing more than has been reported from countless other studies or independent accounts.

I do wonder why he is doing this. Is it to plug his book (Dr Oz does that at the end of the segment)? On some days he seems keen to protect the integrity of the study by not disclosing any preliminary results, but on others he does this kind of stuff. I guess there’s nothing specifically wrong with it, but from my perspective as a scientist, I do find the hyperbole attached to this format of show to be distracting and potentially tainting the credibility of the research, especially when the headlines do not match the reality. From what I can see there are no new major findings presented in this show.

As I say above, I can only assume that he is so confident now in producing paradigm shifting results, that he knows that in the long term, this will not cause any damage.

Happy Christmas!

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

John 1:9

I usually avoid referencing my faith as I want this blog to focus objectively on the research around NDEs. However, in an era where I see my fellow Christians being persecuted on an ever larger scale, and the establishment doing its best to eradicate faith in Christ from the public space, please indulge me on this day that is special to me and billions of others, and let me wish you a Happy Christmas.

Many people who have NDEs report a being of light emanating unconditional love. I personally believe this light is a being we call God, and that today, I celebrate the moment I believe this light came to earth in the form of a man called Jesus and shared a message that is echoed in many NDEs: Love one another…everyone, without exception.

 

A Little More Detail

I finally received a response from Dr Parnia today to my questions. As I said previously, many of the questions had been answered in the various twitter posts he had created, specifically about numbers recruited so far, and timelines. There was a little more detail about the latter in the email.

  • The announcement next year will effectively be the launch “proper” of the study once the new sites have fully come on board and the methodologies fully nailed down
  • No analysis of the data will be undertaken until the study is complete in 2020
  • The results of the study will most likely be announced just prior to publication in 2021

There are obviously a number of aspects to the study, and aside from the area we are most interested in, there will be data that will help enhance treatment of patients during and after resuscitation.

This is all good news, apart from the fact we will have to wait so long. The reason this is good news is that the steps that are being taken will insure this is a high quality study and that the results will stand up to kind of scrutiny that can be expected.

From my end, I am going to tone down the speculation on what has or has not happened, as frankly, while we can guess, we don’t know, and I don’t want to do anything that might in any way jeopardize this important piece of research.

However, I will still be posting on NDEs, and other bits and pieces of research etc that appear from time to time.

False Alarm

Thanks Z for alerting me to Dr. Parnia’s new tweets (he tweets so rarely that I don’t check as often as I should).

Some of my regular contributors in the comments section did caution me about getting excited and it turns out they were dead right. I sent an email to Dr Parnia asking him about numbers recruited, when there would be any announcements about the data and a few other points. It seems I probably wasn’t the only one as he answered these exact questions in a series of tweets:

 

tweet 3

If you read from the top it starts out promising, but then:

Untitled-1 copy

3 years. Oh dear. I get it, they want to be thorough and make sure it is done properly. they do have new sites on board, which is good and should accelerate the recruitment.

tweet 2

 

My question though is that if they have completed recruitment by the middle of 2018, they will surely only need to do the statistics after that. Another 2 years to go through the data and write it up seems like a very long time to me. However, he’s pretty clear that there won’t be any interim announcements, and that they will wait till the study is complete before saying anything.

 

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