Wednesday 12 October 2016

Return from the Dead

I don't often watch television, but on rare occasions a programme appears that is good enough... or at least interesting enough, to make me reach for the on-switch. The National Geographic Channel has produced a new documentary on near-death experiences called Return from the Dead. I've written several times about NDE's and you can see my thoughts in the background links below; so I eagerly watched this new show, expecting brand new information. Prof. Steven Laureys is an accomplished neurologist from Belgium who is fascinated by NDE's. His own mother had one during complications when giving birth to him. He believes that NDE's are not really a glimpse of a spiritual afterlife and are instead caused by the brain entering a shocked state as a result of being close to death. His hypothesis is not a new one, in fact it's as old as NDE research itself, dating right back to the original critics of Dr Raymond Moody. Prof. Laureys goes on a quest to investigate and see if his belief is true. Unlike many NDE skeptics, he is willing to put himself into altered states of consciousness personally to see if he can have an NDE-like experience. He does this using several methods; to begin with he goes to Poland and takes a ride in a centrifuge used to train fighter pilots. He sees a tunnel of light, similar to that portrayed in Hieronymus Bosch's classic painting Ascent of the Blessed and is described by many NDE-witnesses. Then in London a colleague shows him how to induce hallucinations by using sensory deprivation; and when somebody is in a coma they are definitely deprived sensorially. Then he meets a man in Canada who developed perfect memory after suffering a stroke. This is similar to another feature of the NDE, seeing your whole like flash before you. The doctors MRI scan the man's brain to see that the damage he suffered did indeed allow him total recall of his entire life. The stress of almost dying might be able to do the same. However, can the spiritual and mystical element of the NDE be induced artificially? He meets a woman in Dorset, England who often gets spiritual experiences as a result of temporal lobe epilepsy. Using himself as a guinea pig again, Prof. Laureys takes psilocybin, the active ingredient of magic mushrooms, while having his brain scanned. He also had an induced out-of-body experience. After his jet-set quest around the world, he returns home to Belgium to put all he has learned together by giving false NDE's to thirty voluntary test subjects. At the time of writing, Return from the Dead is available online here:

A friend of mine is a paranormal researcher, and when he saw the programme he wrote this: "Oh dear. Just had my conviction that near-death experiences were all spiritual shot to pieces. Been watching a programme on near-death experiences called Return from the Dead on the National Geographic Channel. It sure as hell painted a very good and sensible picture that all NDE's can be explained away from various things to do with the brain, more notably oxygen and blood starvation to the brain. I've always been aware of these avenues of thought and seen them portrayed on other TV documentaries but this one was probably the best and most informative. Sadly it answered all avenues of the NDE experience. So do I still believe in life after death? Well, I do although I am now more suspicious than ever before than NDE's are but a part of it." I interpret the programme very differently. It actually contains no major new information. All the theories Prof. Steven Laureys addresses are ones discussed by NDE researchers before; see the background links below for more details. Laureys' unique approach is simply to arrange them into a single experiment never done before. My criticism of his hypothesis is also one I've made of others'; the near-death experience has a distinct qualitative element that is not reproduced during attempts to induce the phenomenon artificially. This issue is defined best by a fellow neuroscientist, Dr Andrew Newburg. He explains how hallucinations generated by the methods Laureys uses are similar to dreams in that the test subject can easily discern their drug or hypoxia fantasy from reality because it is simply "less real" that our awake and conscious state of mind, what Dr Rick Strassman calls "Channel Normal". The problem with near-death experiences is that the witnesses relate a very different story from the same comparison yardstick. They say their NDE is "more real" than our awake and conscious state of mind, see: This is beyond what can simply be explained away by context; the claim that surviving a brush with the Grim Reaper gives the NDE pathos it would otherwise lack. The failure of the Aware study has been a major blow to the morale of many scientists who sought after the final proof that NDE's were spiritual; Dr Sam Parnia especially. The skeptics are indeed calling for him and his colleagues to concede that, in this case, absence of evidence really is evidence of absence. However, as I say in my own report, Aware was an incredibly difficult experiment to design. It was loaded with the inevitable shortcomings that are part of its inherent obstacles, see: No way can this be used as evidence NDE's are not real. National Geographic's Return from the Dead is not as conclusive as it's been billed; in fact it's not even very original. I am not convinced at all by its conclusions, and I hope my friend will reconsider his assessment of the near-death experience that he felt the programme forced on him.

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