Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Our Understanding of the Brain is even more Incomplete than We Thought

As the only stage in an NDE that involves perceiving the physical rather than the spiritual world, an out-of-body experience has the most potential to convince skeptics. If you could prove that someone saw or heard things that brain science says they could not have seen or heard, you would have, at the very least, evidence that our understanding of the brain is even more incomplete than we thought, and at most, a sign that a conscious mind can exist apart from a living body.


As a result, reports of veridical perception have a totemic significance among NDErs. One of the most celebrated is the story of “Maria,” a migrant worker who had an NDE during a cardiac arrest at a hospital in Seattle in 1977. She later told her social worker that while doctors were resuscitating her, she found herself floating outside the hospital building and saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor window ledge, which she described in some detail. The social worker went to the window Maria had indicated, and not only found the shoe but said that the way it was placed meant there was no way Maria could have seen all the details she described from inside her hospital room.


That social worker, Kimberly Clark Sharp, is now a bubbly 60-something with a shock of frizzy hair who acted as my informal press officer during the conference. She and her story are an IANDS institution; I heard several people refer to “the case of Maria’s shoe” or just “the tennis-shoe case.” But while Maria’s shoe certainly makes for a compelling story, it’s thin on the evidential side. A few years after being treated, Maria disappeared, and nobody was able to track her down to further confirm her story.


A case with a lot more evidence is that of Pam Reynolds, a singer-songwriter. In 1991 Reynolds, then 35, underwent surgery to remove a huge aneurysm at the base of her brain. Worried that the aneurysm might burst and kill her during the operation, her surgeon opted for the radical move of “hypothermic cardiac arrest”—chilling her body to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, stopping her heart, and draining the blood from her head. The cooling would prevent her cells from dying while deprived of oxygen. When the doctors restarted her heart and warmed her body back up, she would, in effect, be rebooted.

About a Dozen Prospective Studies have been Published in Recent Years

Of those books, probably the single best overview is The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, an anthology published in 2009. As The Handbook outlines, by 2005 dozens of studies involving nearly 3,500 subjects who reported having had NDEs had become material for some 600 scholarly articles. Many of these articles are in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, the IANDS house journal—which, the association proudly notes, is peer-reviewed. But many others are in mainstream medical publications. A search in February on PubMed, a database that is maintained by the National Library of Medicine (and that doesn’t include the IANDS journal in its index), turned up 240 papers mentioning near-death experiences.


Most of the NDE studies have been retrospective, meaning the researchers looked for people who’d had such an experience to come forward and be interviewed. That poses a couple of problems, scientifically speaking. It means the subjects were self-selecting, so they might not be representative. For instance, people who’d had scary NDEs might have been less eager to tell their stories than people who’d had uplifting ones. (One of the arguments you hear for why NDEs are not hallucinations of the dying brain is that so many of the stories contain similar features; but it’s notable that, while some studies indeed report only the well-known positive experiences, unpleasant NDEs account for a combined 23 percent of reports across a dozen different studies. They get far less attention, and certainly don’t seem to sell nearly as many books.) Most of the interviews took place years after the fact, so memories might have been faulty. And most important, retrospective studies make it pretty much impossible to obtain reliable data on what was actually happening to the subjects’ bodies and brains while they felt their souls were elsewhere.


About a dozen prospective studies have been published, several of them in recent years. In these, researchers typically arrange for every consenting patient who survives a specific medical emergency (such as a cardiac arrest) at a hospital to be interviewed as soon as possible thereafter. The patients are asked open-ended questions about what, if anything, they experienced while doctors were trying to revive them. If they report anything unusual, the researchers check their medical records and the accounts of people who treated them, looking for things that might explain the experience or show that their brain was shut down at the relevant time. All told, these studies have collected the near-death experiences of just under 300 people.


The goal for those who believe the mind really does leave the body is to find a verified case of what one prominent researcher has termed “apparently nonphysical veridical perception”—in other words, having an experience during which you see or hear things you otherwise couldn’t have perceived that are later confirmed to have actually happened. (Veridical means “not illusory.”) An out-of-body experience is only one of the 16 possible elements of a near-death experience on the Greyson scale, and the proportion of experiencers who report having had one varies widely from one study to another.

The Researchers Looked for People to Come Forward and Be Interviewed

“Nobody was talking about them,” Corcoran said when we met over breakfast. “A young man told me about [an NDE] and I had no idea what he was talking about, but I could see the emotion and intensity of it for him.” Since then, she has been trying to get the medical profession to take NDEs more seriously. “Death and dying is not something most physicians deal with very well to begin with,” she noted drily. “So when you start to talk about phenomena where you leave your body and see and hear things, you’re way out of their ballpark.”


More recently, she had been trying, with difficulty, to find veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who were willing to talk about any NDEs they might have had. “I was always adamant in the Army that this is a medical issue. I tell [doctors] they have to make up their own minds, but there are lots of patients who’ve had this experience, and if you’re going to take care of them, you have to have this information.”


Written accounts of near-death experiences—or things that sound like them—date back at least to the Middle Ages, and some researchers say to ancient times. The medical journalResuscitation recently published a brief account of the oldest known medical description of an NDE, written by an 18th-century French military doctor. But the modern era of research into near-death experiences is generally said to have begun in 1975. That was the year Raymond A. Moody Jr., a philosopher turned psychiatrist, published Life After Life, a book based on interviews with some 50 experiencers.



Moody’s book set off a steady stream of memoirs, TV shows, and articles. Since then, a small community has emerged of psychiatrists, psychologists, cardiologists, and other specialists. They share Moody’s belief that consciousness—the mind, the soul, call it what you will—may exist in some nonmaterial form, independent of but closely connected to the brain, and that NDEs may be able to provide evidence of it. The leading members of this coterie have distinguished careers at respectable universities and hospitals. They blurb one another’s books and give talks on spirituality and the nature of consciousness.

Sacred Geometry Dance: Creating a Vortex to Open to the Divine

The conference had the joyous, clubby atmosphere of a reunion; many of the people had clearly known one another for years. Attendees wore strips of ribbon in different colors bearing legends such as SPEAKER, PANELIST, VOLUNTEER, and, for those who have had a near-death experience, EXPERIENCER. The program included panels and workshops on everything from “What Medical Neuroscience Can Learn From NDEs” to “Sacred Geometry Dance: Creating a Vortex to Open to the Divine” and “Group Past-Life Regression.”


The opening talk, by Diane Corcoran, the association’s president, was clearly for newbies; the main ballroom, which seats about 300 people, was almost empty. She began by outlining the wide variety of circumstances in which people have NDEs—“heart attack, near-drowning, electrocution, terminal illness, combat fatigue”—then moved on to the typical characteristics of the experience. She referred to Bruce Greyson, one of the first doctors to study NDEs seriously, who developed a scale that rates the intensity of an experience on 16 separate counts, such as feelings of joy, encountering spiritual beings, and a sense of being separated from one’s body. The scale assigns a score of 0 to 2 for each count, allowing for a maximum possible score of 32. A 7 or higher is classified as an NDE, and according to one study, the average score among people who report such an experience is about 15.


However, Corcoran emphasized, the long-term effects of an NDE are as important an indicator of whether you’ve had one as the experience itself. Many people, she said, don’t realize for years that they’ve had an NDE, and piece it together only after they notice the effects. These include heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and certain chemicals; becoming more caring and generous, sometimes to a fault; having trouble with timekeeping and finances; feeling unconditional love for everyone, which can be taxing on relatives and friends; and having a strange influence on electrical equipment. At one conference of NDErs, Corcoran recounted, the hotel’s computer system went down. “You put 400 experiencers in a hotel together, something’s gonna happen,” she said. The scattered audience chuckled approvingly.


Corcoran herself wore two name badges. One said her name and trailed a multicolored strip of ribbons like an unrolled window blind reading 35 YEARSLEGACY SOCIETYASK ME, and HERE TO SERVE. (“It started as a joke,” she told me of adding ribbons at each conference, “and it became a tradition.”) The other badge said The Colonel: her long career includes a series of senior nursing posts in the Army Nurse Corps (she has a doctorate in nursing management). She first encountered NDEs when, as a junior nurse, she served at Long Binh, the largest army base in Vietnam, in 1969.