Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Proof of Life-After-Death?

An explosive article has appeared in The Daily Telegraph claiming that researchers have possibly found hard evidence that there is a life-after-death, see: It's been known for a long time that some people who have recovered after being close to death report remarkable experiences; typically these begin with seeing your own body from above. You feel a sense of peace and love and find yourself travelling down a tunnel towards a bright light, visiting a beautiful otherworldly land populated by people who have died, including your departed friends and relatives, and even encounters with God. The experience varies from person to person and there are a vast number of reports with many unique disparities. Because we live in an age where scientific medicine and technology has given us the ability to resuscitate patients much closer to death than ever before, sometimes even when their heartbeat and breathing have completely stopped for a number of minutes, these reports are becoming more and more common. The earliest investigations into this subject go back to the late 19th century, but it was in 1975, when Dr Raymond Moody published his book Life After Life, that the term "near-death experience" entered the popular English lexicon. The completed study the newspaper article discusses is the latest, biggest and most thorough scientific experiment into this phenomenon ever conducted; it also included some brand new experiments. It is called the AWARE Study- AWAreness during REsuscitation, and it involved over two thousand test subjects; it was led by Dr Sam Parnia of Southampton University. Here are the full published results, see: This makes fascinating reading; the references include names like Pim van Lommel and Dr Peter Fenwick whose work I'm familiar with, see:

Predictably, the AWARE project has been criticized by Skeptics, notably by Dr Steven Novella (a suitable name because he tells a tall story) the academic neurologist, host of the radio show Skeptics Guide to the Universe and author of the Neurologica blog, see: Novella correctly points out a serious omission in the experiment's conclusion. One of the tests that NDE researchers have suggested carrying out since the early days is to place an object or image that would not normally be found in a hospital resuscitation bay or intensive care ward somewhere where it can only be seen from above. This is because NDE patients often describe being "close to the ceiling looking down"; and if they can see one of these visual tags it would be important evidence to support that their viewpoint is real. Popular experimental models recommend the method of sticking a picture on top of the spotlamps facing the ceiling. AWARE is the first test which seriously included this protocol: To assess the accuracy of claims of visual awareness during cardiac arrest, each hospital installed between 50 and 100 shelves in areas where resuscitation was deemed likely to occur; for example, emergency departments and acute medical wards. Each shelf contained one image only visible from above the shelf. These were different and included a combination of nationalistic and religious symbols, people, animals, and major newspaper headlines. These images were installed to permit evaluation of visual awareness claims described in prior accounts. These include the perception of being able to observe their resuscitation procedure from a vantage point above. It was postulated that should a large proportion of patients describe visual awareness combined with the perception of being able to observe events from a vantage point above, the shelves could be used to potentially test the validity of such claims, as the images were only visible if looking down from the ceiling. Some researchers have proposed such recollections and perceptions are likely illusory. This method was proposed as a tool to test this particular hypothesis. We considered this to be important as, despite widespread interest, no studies had objectively tested this claim. It was considered that should a large group of patients with visual awareness and the ability to observe events from above consistently fail to identify the images, this could support the hypothesis that the experiences had occurred through a different mechanism, such as illusions, to that perceived by the patients themselves. This is a good idea, although I disagree with the last sentence because it's effectively enticing somebody to try and prove a negative, which is fallacious. Unfortunately Dr Parnia's paper does not mention that any of his subjects report seeing these hidden images; in fact over three quarters of the respondents suffered their resuscitation in a place where the hidden images were not even present. My first thought was to demand that Parnia explain why did he not use more of these hidden images than the fifty to a hundred that he actually did. The answer lies in the practical hurdles of doing so. As an ex-hospital porter I'm somebody familiar with hospitals, and indeed one of my duties was to clean and maintain resuscitation bays and vehicles (not a task for the squeamish!), I know that it's very unlikely that an object placed for that purpose in the area would stay put for long. To make the experiment watertight the designers would have to include "double-blinding", in other words the hidden image would need to be installed without telling the emergency department staff it was there; otherwise it's possible that the patient being resuscitated might learn of the hidden image from an everyday source. Maybe something a member of staff said: "Doctor, why is there a newspaper clipping stuck on top of the O2 manifold?" Skeptics would definitely not hesitate to poke their finger through that hole. Indeed they have criticized a recent anecdote using exactly that same argument. In a book I read about NDE's a patient reports a view of a piece of surgical equipment that would not normally be visible from somebody lying on the operating table, and a Skeptic claimed that he could have seen the instrument through a reflection in the doctor's spectacles! In fact Novella brings that point up in his analysis of AWARE himself: My major concern was that the study had been criticized for not having tight protocols; for example, some have charged that the “hidden” images were visible to emergency department staff and this could provide a mundane conduit for knowledge of the images to get to cardiac arrest survivors. Perhaps these working obstacles make this outwardly attractive methodology less feasible than it initially appears. I also sense that Novella is anticipating a potential positive outcome for one of these studies in the future and is getting his rebuttal in first.
What Dr Parnia has achieved is an excellent assessment of the NDE phenomenon in the modern world; the best database ever created to gauge the level of NDE incidence in resuscitation survivors. He and his team have also gathered an invaluable overview of what it's like to have a near-death experience that can educate people who have never had the good fortune... or rather bad fortune... to enjoy this experience for themselves. After all, you can't exactly take photographs of the Spiritworld to bring home and show people. The Telegraph article also addresses a point I hadn't heard of before, the issues with interviewing people recollecting events after being given drugs like painkillers and sedatives. These medications are standard procedure in the care of somebody who is resuscitated, but will cause other inevitable impediments in near-death experience research. This adds to all the other challenges that the AWARE team have taken on as well as anybody possibly could. This is where I think Dr Novella is being very unfair to the AWARE team; he dismisses the entire project as "essentially a bust" and he harshly chides the Telegraph story for claiming that it indicates evidence of life-after-death. However I think that the AWARE project does indeed provide evidence of life-after-death. It failed to achieve all its mission objectives, but what it did achieve is definitely accomplished. The near-death experience is a very real phenomenon. Back in 1975 Dr Raymond Moody postulated that NDE's were going on all the time in hospitals all over the world; they've even happened spontaneously during non-medical recoveries from illness or injury. Scientifically proving beyond any doubt at all that NDE's are not just a product of electrical activity inside the cranial neuropile is fundamentally difficult, but in my view there's easily enough smoke around to make it highly likely that a real fire is burning. I've looked at both sides of the story, like I try to do every subject, and I'm not convinced by the Skeptic explanation, that this entire phenomenon is just the wildcard firing of the human brain in its death throes. I've spoken before about how denial of NDE's is not necessarily science-based and has powerful cultural, ideological and psychological roots; therefore I question the objectivity of Dr Novella and other atheo-Skeptico-materialist debunkers of the near-death experience. Are they being intellectually honest in their denigration of near-death experience research, or are they just scared that they might lose their "MBA", see:

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