Taking a short intermission from my review series of the 50th Annual Convention of the Parapsychological Association (PA), I would like to introduce a new guest blogger, Bryan Williams, to Public Parapsychology readers. The following is his commentary about a recent article on near death experiences that appeared in the journal Medical Hypotheses.
Can Near-Death Experiences Reveal Something About Consciousness?
One of the most interesting features that a person may report in a near-death experience (NDE) is the apparent ability to remain aware of their surroundings throughout the duration of their experience, when they are presumed to be unconscious, comatose, or even clinically dead. After being resuscitated, some people give accounts of seeing their body from above in an apparent out-of-body experience (OBE), witnessing certain events going on around their body that are later verified as accurate by medical personnel who had been present at the time of the resuscitation attempt (Cook et al., 1998; Kelly et al., 1999 – 2000; Lawrence, 1995). In a few cases, some have even described venturing beyond the room where their body is located in their out-of-body form, witnessing people and events in other rooms that may also be verified by others who were present (Cook et al., 1998, Cases 8, 9, & 11; Owens, 1995). This feature of NDE seems to suggest conscious awareness continuing beyond the brain, which some may argue is suggestive of some form of survival. If that is the case, then could NDEs with this feature perhaps shed light on the nature of human conscious experience?
In a recent issue of the journal Medical Hypotheses, Sam Parnia (2007) of the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York raises this very question, examining it in the light of four recently published prospective studies, each independently conducted, on the occurrence of NDEs in patients who suffered a cardiac arrest (Greyson, 2003; Parnia et al., 2001; Schwaninger et al., 2002; van Lommel et al., 2001). These studies found that NDEs occurred in less than a quarter (between 10 and 23%) of the patients interviewed by the researchers, that NDEs were more common in younger patients (under 60 years of age) than in older patients, and that there were very few (if any) significant differences between cardiac patients who had an NDE and cardiac patients who did not in terms of medical condition, social demographics, and resuscitation procedures received, suggesting that none of these things influenced whether they had an NDE or not.
Parnia (2007) argues that NDE cases which suggest continued awareness and/or OBE aspects constitute an important problem for science and medicine, and that they should be studied further in order to explore their possible implications for consciousness. He proposes that NDEs with these aspects could be amendable to quasi-experimental study. He suggests that certain experimental trials could be set-up in some hospitals where cardiac patients’ brain waves are continuously monitored by portable EEG. If a patient goes into cardiac arrest, the EEG will allow for inferred monitoring of the patient’s brain activity should they later report an NDE following resuscitation. To test the OBE aspect of the NDE, he suggests that hidden targets might be placed in the resuscitation room, in positions and at heights that only a person looking down from the ceiling might see them (e.g., placing a random picture flat on a shelf hanging up along the ceiling). Parnia is apparently not the first to propose such trials; Holden (1988) had proposed similar research trials nearly two decades ago, and Owens (1995, p. 160) and Cook et al. (1998, p. 403) had advocated the value of such research trials.
The only potential problem with attempting such trials is convincing a hospital or university’s institutional review board that such work would be ethical and productive, something that would be difficult given that the life of the cardiac patient could potentially be compromised. It is also difficult to tell at the moment how invasive the methods and equipment for such trials would be; i.e., it is hard to tell whether or not the trial would interfere with the patient’s life and/or resuscitation procedures (a solution for this might perhaps be found in a carefully planned study design). Rate of success in testing the OBE aspects of NDE is also somewhat up in the air when one considers the mixed results from OBE perception tests with relaxed and dreaming subjects. In a review of his classic OBE studies, Charles Tart (1998) notes the successful trial he had had with his subject Miss Z., in which she was apparently able to see a five-digit number written on a piece of paper lying on a shelf high up near the ceiling, above the bed she was sleeping on. Miss Z. had reported frequent OBEs in which she saw her body from a position near the ceiling, and this trial had been a test of her perception from that position (aside from OBE, we also have to consider ESP on her part). However, Tart had less success with famed OBE subject Robert Monroe, who, despite having very vivid OBEs, was never able to correctly recall the number. In tests conducted at the Psychical Research Foundation in North Carolina (Morris et al., 1978; Roll & Harary, 1976), OBE subject Keith Harary often report vivid OBE in which he felt that he had traveled to other rooms, but his attempts to perceive target objects and letters in those other rooms were often found to be erroneous.
Lastly, it might be somewhat difficult to generalize any findings that may result from such trials given that the number of NDEs in cardiac arrests is so relatively small. In other words, whatever the results may possibly tell us about the conscious experience of the patients having such NDEs, it may be difficult to generalize the results to the conscious experience of all people given the small numbers of patients. This should not take away from the potential benefits of conducting such trials, however, and it is still an open question as to whether or not such innovative research will actually be carried out.
Bryan Williams is a Native American student at the University of New Mexico, where his undergraduate studies have focused on physiological psychology and physics. He is a student affiliate of the Parapsychological Association, a student member of the Society for Scientific Exploration, and a co-moderator of the Psi Society, a Yahoo electronic discussion group for the general public that is devoted to parapsychology. He has been an active contributor to the Global Consciousness Project since 2001, and was the recipient of the Charles T. and Judith A. Tart Student Incentive Award for Parapsychological Research from the Parapsychology Foundation in 2003. As of August 2007, he is the author of seven articles (two co-authored with William G. Roll) that have appeared in the Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association Convention. His native ancestry lies with the Laguna Pueblo in western New Mexico, and the tribe’s long-held beliefs in survival and the concept of spirits is one of the things that spurred his interest in parapsychology.
Cook, E. W., Greyson, B., & Stevenson, I. (1998). Do any near-death experiences provide evidence for the survival of human personality after death? Relevant features and illustrative case reports. Journal of Scientific Exploration 12(3), Autumn. pp. 377 – 406.
Greyson, B. (2003). Incidence and correlates of near-death experiences in a cardiac care unit. General Hospital Psychiatry 25(4), July 1. pp. 269 – 276.
Kelly, E. W., Greyson, B., & Stevenson, I. (1999 – 2000). Can experiences near death furnish evidence of life after death? Omega: Journal of Death & Dying 40(4), pp. 513 – 519.
Lawrence, M. M. (1995). Paranormal experiences of previously unconscious patients. In L. Coly & J. D. S. McMahon (Eds.) Proceedings of an International Conference: Parapsychology and Thanatology (pp. 122 – 148). New York: Parapsychology Foundation, Inc.
Morris, R. L., Harary, S. B., Janis, J., Hartwell, J., & Roll, W. G. (1978). Studies of communication during out-of-body experiences. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 72(1), January. pp. 1 – 21.
Owens, J. E. (1995). Paranormal reports from a study of near-death experience and a case of an unusual near-death vision. In L. Coly & J. D. S. McMahon (Eds.) Proceedings of an International Conference: Parapsychology and Thanatology (pp. 149 – 172). New York: Parapsychology Foundation, Inc.
Parnia, S. (2007). Do reports of consciousness during cardiac arrest hold the key to discovering the nature of consciousness? Medical Hypotheses 69(4), pp. 933 – 937.
Parnia, S., Waller, D. G., Yeates, R., & Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation 48(2), February. pp. 149 – 156.
Roll, W. G., & Harary, B. (1976). Target responses during out-of-body experiences [Abstract]. Journal of Parapsychology 40(1), March. p. 53.
Schwaninger, J., Eisenberg, P. R., Schechtman, K. B., & Weiss, A. N. (2002). A prospective analysis of near-death experiences in cardiac arrest patients. Journal of Near-Death Studies 20(4), Summer. pp. 215 – 232.
Tart, C. T. (1998). Six studies of out-of-body experiences. Journal of Near-Death Studies 17(2), Winter. pp. 73 – 99.
van Lommel, P., van Wees, R., Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: A prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet 358(9298), December 15. pp. 2039 – 2045.