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:
- The experience described by the meditators does not sound like an NDE
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.