Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Shedding a (very dim) light on NDEs

The International Association for Near-Death Studies is holding its annual conference in Houston, and the Houston Chronicle sent a reporter to write a feature story. The coverage is not overtly biased against research into near-death experiences (NDEs), as it likely would be in a British newspaper, whose audience would be assumed to have a scientific-materialistic disposition. The writer, Leigh Hopper, quotes a psychiatrist and supporter of the association's mission:
"These are very powerful experiences. People who have near-death experiences are transformed in their personalities, their attitudes, their values, their beliefs, their behaviors," said Dr. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville. "I've been working 30 years as a clinical psychiatrist trying to help people make changes in their lives. It's a difficult process that takes a long time. Now we have this experience that, in the blink of an eye, totally transforms personality. If we could understand how that happens, we might develop some great tools for helping people make changes."
And a skeptic, albeit a sympathetic one:
"Is this the kind of research M.D. Anderson [the university cancer center and site of the conference] is interested in? I don't think we're going to be doing that. That's not the angle of importance for our care," Fisch said. "At the end of the day, this is all about people who have experiences that are really meaningful to them and help shape who they are, and they often occur in the realm of health care."
You can see the wink — if it makes terminally ill people feel better to believe in this stuff, he seems to imply, that's a boon for medical care; makes them go quietly when their time comes. But don't expect us to waste our precious time and resources researching NDEs.

I think the reporter tried to write a fair story and deserves credit for that. But it just sends me crazy when I read sentences like this: "Recent scientific research suggests near-death experiences may be a result of oxygen deprivation and inadequate blood flow to the brain, as well as a response to a life-threatening crisis. A vision of extraordinary light may be nothing more than a blood-starved retina. … Greyson is interested in experiments to see whether the mind or consciousness can exist outside the body — or even survive the death of the brain. An experiment to test this idea might involve planting an object or "target" in an operating room where it could be seen only by a patient who "floats" out of his or her body and peers down from the ceiling."

Excuse me — a blood-starved retina? Many NDEs are reported by people whose hearts have stopped, who are by medical criteria dead. Yes, it's possible in this age of wondrous medical technology sometimes to revive people who have died for several minutes. What difference can inadequate blood flow to the brain or retina make to a dead person?

As for experiments to test the idea of a person seeing an object visible only from outside the body's location, the story implies that no such thing has ever happened. But while they may not have occurred in a strict scientific experiment (which would be quite a challenge to design), there are dozens of examples reported by doctors and nurses, who are generally not given to flights of imagination while on the job. Two psychologists, Karlis Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson (I talked with the latter at a Society for Psychical Research Conference) wrote up their study of hundreds of medical personnel reporting patient NDEs, some of which included the patient experiencing out-of-the-body consciousness and "seeing" things they couldn't have seen from their body's point of view.

One of the frustrating things about psychical research is that as far as the public is concerned, were are always back at square one, no matter how much solid evidence is published. It just seems to make no impression on anyone outside the field, or to reach fair-minded writers like the Chronicle's reporter. The prevailing scientific-materialistic world view is so firmly entrenched that no information calling it into question can penetrate. Except to those who undergo NDEs or similar experiences themselves, and a handful of investigators who reason that when something happens that transforms a person's personality, philosophy, and outlook on life, it might be worth taking seriously.


Vanishing American said...

NDEs are a fascinating subject; I have done a lot of reading about them, although I am not a 'science person' myself.
If these NDEs are simply hallucinations, a physiological response to 'oxygen deprivation' or whatever, would there not be more variation in the experiences? Instead there seems to be a consistent pattern to the experience. Even those who lack a spiritual belief system often have experiences which have a spiritual content to them.
You've probably also heard of the negative or scary NDEs some have reported; even they usually follow a pattern from what I have read.
I think part of the resistance on the part of the medical/scientific establishment to these things is that most of those in the science field tend to have a certain personality tendency; in studying the Jungian typing systems and the MBTI personality types, many scientists are 'judging' types who prefer closure and order; they can't accept or tolerate the open-ended, the mysterious, or the unknown. For many such people (my father is this type) they have a need to know and explain everything logically; anything which doesn't lend itself to empirical proof is dismissed. Not everyone is able to accept mystery, or the fact that there are things beyond human ken, or beyond our present understanding.

Rick Darby said...

You make an interesting point when you ask why, if NDEs are just some kind of physiologically induced hallucination, there is so much similarity among them? You would expect them to be as varied as different individuals' dreams.

One could argue — although it seems to me quite a reach — that by now the characteristics of NDEs (tunnel, bright light, spiritual figure emanating great love, etc.) are so well known that they're "expected," hence experienced subjectively. The same has been said about alleged UFO abductions or sightings of aliens, i.e., the image of the saucer-like object with pulsating lights or the gray figure with huge eyes has wedged itself into everyone's unconscious.

By the way (I just discovered this myself when researching my posting), IANDS has local groups meeting in many cities. You can look them up on the organization's web site. Presumably people talk about their NDE experiences there, so direct testimony is available for those interested in the phenomenon.