Sometimes when I reflect on the list of things that now comprise my belief system – afterlife, reincarnation, alternative medicine, psychic powers – compared to just a couple of years ago, it can momentarily cause a sense of disquiet in me. Am I starting to go soft in the head? What will I start believing in next? Pixies and fairies? Maybe my age related dwindling of neurons has caused me to lose it a bit. Or perhaps I smoked too many spliffs at university and it is now beginning to catch up with me. Maybe my bs filters have been compromised. Perhaps they need beefing up a bit?
If I am honest, I think with regard to that last point the opposite might be true. My bs detectors are working more keenly than ever before as they now get more exercise. What need does a sceptic have for the ability to discern truth? To simply impose a blanket ban on anything coming dangerously close to brushing up against the perimeter of one’s current belief system takes no real ability of discernment at all.
It is sometimes a good thing to be a former sceptic. It allows one to identify more with sceptical arguments. Some viewpoints are actually reasonable (that’s not to say they are also valid). One of them is the thought that if there were an afterlife why is it not more evident? Surely dead people would be popping up left right and centre and making us aware of their presence. Passed loved ones would be coming back all the time to tell us they were still around. If an afterlife were real it would be as evident to us as is the fact of gravity. And I for one would have great fun haunting people if I managed to come back. That would be the start of some seriously frenetic poltergeist activity! Just think of all the wonderful possibilities for scaring the bejesus out of people.
It would be a nice thing if there was that kind of in your face evidence to support belief in an afterlife (not the poltergeists) however what we do have is not that bad either. After years of hard work researchers have provided us with an extensive and comprehensive insight into what goes on when people come close to death.
The words close to death are actually a bit inadequate though. The full significance of clinical death is not always obvious to people. It is not simply a case of being unconscious! When people are brain dead there is no neural activity whatsoever. Not a flicker. Not so much as a whimper of a neuron firing. In other words it is pretty much like actually being dead. I sometime hear it said that if the people had really died they would not have been bought back again. However this statement is confusing clinical death with biological death. They are two different things. It is true that if someone is biologically dead they will not come back. That’s why decomposing corpses don’t suddenly spring back to life (except on Jeremy Beadle. Remember that one where the corpse suddenly sat upright in front of the mortified mortician and said ‘hello’. Actually you wouldn’t remember it because they weren’t allowed to air that particular episode due to the fact the mortician jumped out the window. It would have been great to see though wouldn’t it?) Clinical death occurs when the heart stops beating and blood flow to the brain stops. The crucial point is that clinical death has an associated brain state of nil activity, which is also the brain state corresponding with biological death. You don’t get neurons firing in a decomposing corpse (I assume) as also you don’t get neurons firing when a person is clinically dead. That is the connection. There is admittedly some debate surrounding the validity of the assumption there is absolutely zero brain activity, since EEGs measure only surface brain activity. However there is something slightly hair splitting about making a big thing of this, as some sceptics do. In conditions such as cardiac arrest (not a heart attack) the affects on the brain are well understood. Loss of consciousness occurs in seconds due to complete cessation of blood flow, then the neurons stop firing. Simply put the brain needs oxygen (and lots of it) to function. The brain doesn’t have a reserve store of energy for a rainy day in the form of glucose or glycogen or anything like that. It gets its supply of glucose from the blood, and if that stops coming so does the glucose. And even if the brain did store its own supply of glucose it would need plenty of oxygen to burn it anyway. So the brain is in double trouble. No energy and no oxygen to burn energy. (It is true that the brain is capable of anaerobically utilizing glucose, but there still needs to be blood flow to the brain, if only deoxygenated blood which will carry on supplying the glucose. This is clearly a different situation to what we are talking about here where there is no blood flow to the brain at all. Even in that situation the anaerobic utilization of glucose contributes only to briefly maintaining cell integrity. The oxygen still needs to come back pretty sharpish!)
The brain’s metabolic processes are very power hungry too. It burns a lot of calories to work properly. Although the brain represents only 2% of the body weight, it receives 15% of the cardiac output, 20% of total body oxygen consumption, and 25% of total body glucose utilization (Wikipedia) and the bioelectric signals in the brain consume nearly 10% of the whole bodies energy. Without that constant supply of oxygen the neurons simply stop signalling to each other and go on strike. Everything shuts down real fast. All this is very well understood and there is no real debate about it.
As well as all this there have been studies looking at blood flow and glucose utilization in the brain at the time people have flat EEGs, using isotope tracers and such things. They find flat EEGs do correlate closely with a very inactive brain. So medical doctors are not just shooting in the dark when it comes to EEG readings. Much is understood about flat line EEGs and what it means in terms of brain activity (there is none).
There was however this one guy, an anaesthesiologist by the name of Dr. G.M. Woerlee I think it was, who tried to make the claim this isn’t what happens. He said he was shocked by the fact that Pim Van Lommel’s research (a cardiologist from the Netherlands involved in a major NDE study) was accepted for publication in the Lancet (a well respected peer reviewed medical journal) and that it should never have got in there. He was basically claiming that cardiac arrests don’t result in a cessation of brain activity. This is the mother of all whoppers! How dare he! Someone should whip him with his stethoscope for telling such porkies! It does result in a cessation of brain activity Dr. Woerlee and you are a cheeky monkey for suggesting otherwise.
He does raise a slightly more valid point with regards to the potential of the resuscitation procedure itself to generate some level of consciousness, such as applying heart massage, defibrillation etc. However, even though the possibly of the resusitation procedure generating some brain activity can't be entirely discounted, this doesn't seem to be an adequate explanation for the lucid and coherent forms of consciousness experienced during a typical near death experience. Can a few sporadic spikes of activity really be responsible for such elaborate and meaningful experiences? A brain trying to splurt and splutter its way back online is hardly likely to result in any coherent thought patterns. In fact this is well understood also. The immediate period of time surrounding a person regaining consciousness is typically characterized by confusion, not clear coherent thoughts. And certainly not the upgraded level of consciousness typically associated with an NDE. So there does seem to be something slightly straw clutchy about the claim this is what’s causing near death experiences. Also it doesn’t explain how people can have veridical experiences incorporating conversations that took place in another part of the hospital or viewing objects or people they had no way of knowing about by normal means even if they were fully conscious. Additionally it doesn’t seem to explain cases such as Pamela Reynolds, who due to having a deep brain aneurism had all her blood drained from her body while she was kept in a frozen state. Pam was able to identify a range of surgical instruments used during the course of the operation and was aware of conversations taking place between the surgeons while the operation took place (all verified). It also doesn’t explain people who are blind, some from birth, who are able to see during their near death experience. One of the more remarkable NDE cases I have heard of concerns a woman by the name of Anita Moorjani (a Facebook friend of mine). She had end stage Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a form of cancer) and was given just a few hours to live (this was back in 2006). Many of her organs had shut down by this stage and she was in a coma. This resulted in a near death experience where she was presented with the choice of whether or not to return to human life. She was told that if she made the decision to return her cancer would clear up as a result of that decision. And it did. In a matter of weeks! She went on to make a full recovery and has been in full remission ever since. The doctors concerned were completely baffled, admitting there was no medical explanation for this. In fact medically it was impossible. The huge quantity of cancer cells being flushed from her body should have killed her never mind the cancer itself. This is a well documented case that took place during 2006 in a hospital in Hong Kong.
So the idea that a few possible spikes of electrical activity during defibrillation could cause all of these things to occur seems to be stretching things a little. Also even if one were to concede there might be undetected brain activity taking place despite the flat EEG one is still confronted with the curious fact that a dramatically reduced level of brain activity (something everyone agrees on!) results in a dramatically (in most cases) increased level of consciousness. Something doesn’t seem quite right about this. Wouldn’t you agree?
One has to wonder about Dr. Woelee’s motives in the first place. He has published a couple of debunking NDE books and appears on various chat shows for the sole purpose of rubbishing ideas of an afterlife. Even if he doesn’t personally believe in this stuff, why is he, and people like him, on some personal crusade to persuade others not to either. This in itself doesn’t mean he is biased but one certainly wonders if this is the case. If you heard about a person who had invested serious time conducting a study in order to confirm people of a certain ethic group have inferior intelligence you would probably have immediate concerns about the quality of the research on account of the implicit bias being suggested by the actual point the person was trying to make. It wouldn't necessarily be correct to simply assume the conclusion reached was incorrect, but you would certainly have a reasonable basis for alarm bells going off in your head. (By the way this kind of study has been done. It was called phrenology and has since been thoroughly debunked). The sceptics of course could make a similiar claim about NDE researchers, claiming they are biased in favour of NDEs, but at least on close inspection their conclusions do seem to correlate with the actual data. And anyway I am not altogether convinced that kind of bias is quite the same thing as the negative bias motivating some of these sceptics.
Another sceptical line of attack is to question the significance of the fact NDEers can accurately describe the details of the resusitation procedure used to revive them during a cardiac arrest, and in the case of operations are able to identify the surgical instruments that are used. The general claim by sceptics is these people have simply watched TV shows such as ER and have picked up details of how resusitations are performed from watching these shows. It is allegedly this they are describing. Also in the case of surgical instruments it is alleged by sceptics that it is not too hard to make intelligent guesses as to what they look like. Dr. Penny Santori, an ex-nurse and former NDE researcher, directly confronted these issues in her research. She conducted a five year study where she used a control group to establish the difference between the accuracy of the descriptions of resuscitation from people claiming to have had an NDE and those that hadn’t. It was subsequently found people who didn't have an NDE experience had no idea about the resuscitation procedure that had been administered to them, and when they made guesses their replies were based on TV dramas, and as a result were wildly inaccurate. The people who had a near death experience on the other hand were able to very accurately describe the resuscitation procedure that was used to revive them. The difference between the two groups was profound, lending considerable support to the validity of the out of body experience reported by near death experiencers. Another issue Dr. Penny Santori looked at in her research was the effects of endorphins, abnormal blood gases or low oxygen levels, the very things typically used by sceptics to explain away the near death experience. She claimed in regards to these things “all the current sceptical arguments against near death experiences were not supported by the research”. This has been consistently found in a number of other relatively recent large scale studies also. The traditional arguments against NDEs are looking quite worn. They are simply not supported by the data.
It is not unheard of that following a near death experience people can develop some form of psychic ability, or perhaps become slightly more intuitive compared to before. This led me to do a bit of research on psychic powers. Again I was surprised regarding the scope and credibility of the research on this subject. This is all stuff I simply knew nothing about until now because my preconceived biases prevented me from ever looking into it. IONS (Institute of Noetic Sciences) has been conducting a comprehensive and detailed study of psychic phenomena for several decades, including such things as exposing one person to flashing lights and looking at corresponding brain activity of someone sitting in an adjacent room (the rooms were sealed). The results are pretty unambiguous. The global consciousness project is another study which has been running for 10 years and is still ongoing. The alleged odds of the correlates they have found to large events are something of the order of billions to one. Obviously the results are attacked by sceptics, normally on statistical grounds. I do however know something about this subject since statistics was a compulsory module during the first year of my undergraduate mathematics degree, and I have to say the accusations levelled against IONS constitute pretty basic statistical errors. Most of the researchers conducting this research are of such a calibre I find it hard to believe they are capable of making the kind of errors they are accused of. These are people with some impressive academic credentials behind them, not some whacked out bunch of hippies (sorry if you happen to be a hippy. I mean no offence).
Going on to the subject of alternative/complementary medicine, as my girlfriend works in the local hospital as a mental health worker I am in a position to be aware of the more recent changes in attitude towards alternative and complementary therapy in the UK Health Trust. Techniques such as mindfulness have become fairly common place, and Buddhist type practitioners are springing up in the Health Trust like there’s no tomorrow. The accusation that these kind of therapies and treatments are being introduced into the health service on purely financial grounds is certainly not true according to what I am hearing. Apparently it is generally quite expensive to use complementary and alternative therapies. They are being used because they work. There are other alternative treatments available in the health service as well, including such things as reiki and reflexology. Since we are fundamentally energy anyway (I know this from physics) the idea of any healing modality that works through manipulating one's energy seems to be quite a reasonable premise. (Things like homeopathy are different. I am not sure on that one).
People sometimes claim the only reason anyone believes in an afterlife is because it is comforting. Take that psychological motivation out of the equation and no one would believe it. I certainly think we should always be cautious about being led astray by our wishful thinking. An awareness of this character trait is healthy. If we weren’t able to rise above wishful thinking we would be at the whim of every fraudster out who relied on this potential vulnerability to dupe us into buying into whatever it was they were selling. So this character trait is a good thing to acknowledge. However it doesn't at the same time mean if something is good it isn't true. Sometimes things are good and true at the same time. If you saw the lottery results and the numbers looked somehow familiar you wouldn't fail to check your ticket simply on the assumption that you can't have won because it would be too good to be true would you? You would check your ticket anyway. That is because acknowledgment of the connection between wishing and believing things to be true isn't carte blanche to outright reject the possibility of all good things. You look at the facts. If the data or facts is justafiably leading you in a certain direction then this legitimately overrides the concern about wishful thinking getting the better of you. There should be some sort of reasonable balance between healthy sceptism and outright dogmatism. I don’t think this balance is always achieved.
I don’t think embracing spirituality is all about believing what one wants to believe anyway. Certainly not for me it isn't. Take life reviews for instance. Thinking about these always makes me feel a bit on edge. I don't mean by this that I think they are a bad idea. I think they are a great idea! I can think of no other form of justice that is better than for everyone to be accountable for every misdeed they ever made in their lives, and to feel all the hurt and pain they inflicted on others. This has got to be the crème de la crème of any form of justice that could possibly be thought up. The only snag of course is that it applies to me as well. Another aspect of spirituality that doesn’t immediately jump out at me as being a particularly good thing is reincarnation. This is something you have to confront sooner or later if you get into studying NDE accounts in any great depth at all. There is no serious doubt that we keep coming back here (what lunatics). The good news is that we get to choose whether or not to do this. We don’t have to. It isn’t like some of the more Buddhist and Hindu kind of ideas on reincarnation where you simply default into another life when you are through with this one. That’s the good news. The bad news is you make the choice from an entirely different perspective to that of human perspective. And that lead us to make choices we would not necessarily make here. I find that a bit disempowering. Some reasons I would currently have for not wanting to come back here again mean squat to a light being (I should say light being perspective since we are light beings). So this another aspect of spirituality I have had to get my head around that hasn’t bought me any immediate comfort. I don’t like the idea of not existing but I am also not too keen on the idea of multiple trips back to Earth for yet more lesson learning. I think I am going to try and learn all my lessons in this incarnation so I don’t wind up coming back here again! In terms of the evidence to support reincarnation this is quite compelling as well. Dr. Michael Newton is just one researcher in this field who has produced surprisingly compelling results. You do have to be a bit careful with believing things like this. I am sure there are many cases of fraud, and sometimes false memories produced by hypnotism etc. But the number of compelling cases with verifiable evidence backing them up is strongly suggestive of the reality of reincarnation to say the least.
With the issue of fraud in general, I have always had the attitude that irrespective of whether or not such a things as psychic abilities exist there are always going to be some people who will make false claims about posessing psychic abilities. That is just obvious. To some degree that probably applies to such things as NDEs as well. I'm sure some people are probably fabricating stuff for whatever reason they have. So the odd case of fraud popping up presents no surprise, whether talking about NDEs, reincarnation or whatever. The key question is whether there are enough credible cases to back the phenomena up. In the case of NDEs even sceptics don’t doubt the general validity of their occurrences. To believe otherwise is to believe there has been some global conspiracy to make them all up. Not even the sceptics believe that.
In terms of proving conclusively by the standards of scientific rigour that there is an afterlife, that is a tricky one. I prefer to think of it more in terms of a law of court kind of thing. We can reasonably apply concepts such as balance of probability and beyond reasonable doubt to the evidence supporting the existence of an afterlife. In a civil court balance of probability will dictate the outcome of a trial (something OJ Simpson is acutely aware of after being successfully tried in a civil court). In terms of balance of probability I think that is a safe bet. In terms of beyond reasonable doubt, in my personal opinion this as well. In fact I personally know of two NDE cases where each case individually is beyond reasonable doubt, at least as far as I am concerned. So I am pretty confident overall. That’s not bad going for someone who’s most profound spiritual experience was to see Avatar. There is certainly no substitute for a personal spiritual experience but I seemed to have done quite well without one. It would be nice however to have a near death experience without the near death part wouldn't it?
Sometimes I have heard it said that if you are going to believe the anecdotal evidence supporting NDEs then you might as well believe in the anecdotal evidence supporting anything at all. In fact you might as well believe in pixies and fairies they say. However branches of social science relies to some degree on anecdotal evidence. Surveys and questionnaires are especially used in psychology and sociology for instance. This form of research is in essence anecdotal evidence, and the results of these methods of research form the basis of many social science theories. Even the use of census forms presupposes most people will tell the truth. Additionally circumstantial eye witness testimony can sometimes secure a criminal conviction. Of course the penalty of lying under oath is a powerful enough incentive to make most people think twice about not telling the truth on the stand, but this doesn’t change the brute fact it is still anecdotal evidence. There are mistrials of course but I am not stating any of this to indicate proof of an afterlife. I am simply stating that while sceptics reject outright the use of anecdotal accounts associated with NDEs simply on the basis that it is only anecdotal evidence they will inconsistently accept it in other contexts. This seems to me to be kind of hypocritical.
Couldn’t this same argument apply across the board though? What about all the anecdotal evidence regarding UFO sightings and other things such as alleged sightings of the Loch Ness monster and Yetis? Well anecdotal evidence is like all other forms of evidence. You take them on their individual merits. I personally don’t know enough about UFO sightings to make any sort of meaningful judgement on the matter. If I looked into it and the evidence was as suggestive as I currently believe it is for the case of near death experiences I would probably end up believing in UFOs as well. I simply don’t know because I haven’t looked into it in any depth. But it is not mutually exclusive anyway. UFOs might be a reality and NDEs might be a reality. In terms of the other things such as the sightings of monsters, fairies, pixies etc exactly the same principle applies.
This leads us naturally to the classic archetypal sceptical argument:- extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. The first question to ask oneself when considering the above statement is in what sense the notion of an afterlife is extraordinary. Or more to the point why does it seem so extraordinary. Is it because it is extraordinary in real terms or is it just extraordinary in psychological terms? What is the difference?
The idea of consciousness existing without an associated physical form is only extraordinary if one believes that humans are physical in the first place. But what is physical? Science tells us there is no physical. At least not the way we imagine it. What we call physical is just energy. That’s all there is. The distinction between what we call the physical realm and what we would call the spiritual realm is pretty much an artificial one. According to people who have had extensive near death experiences we don’t literally go anywhere when we die. Instead it is an expansion of consciousness. The resulting expansion of awareness takes us out of this limited human perspective and enables us to perceive a larger part of reality, the part we can't perceive while in human form. The idea of living without physical form is only surprising if one insists on making a distinction between physical and spiritual. In other words it is only extraordinary in a purely psychological sense, and is simply resulting from the erroneous belief that we already live in a physical world. The world only seems physical to us because of the way the human senses work and the way the human mind works to construct a convincing appearance of physical reality. So acknowledging the fact we are not physical in the first place is in effect a realization that the notion of living a non-physical form of life is not that extraordinary at all.
So let's go back to address the original point of why dead people don’t pop back all the time to say hi. Is there some sort of conspiracy going on to prevent us from knowing the truth? One of the things apparent from examining multiple NDE accounts is the reason we come to human life in the first place is for a bit of lesson learning (the situation is slightly more complex than this according to extensive NDEers but I will cover all that in a future post). It is clear we don’t come here for the sole purpose of having a good time. Everyone who has died and come back to tell the tale is very definite and clear about how much better it is on the other side. They generally don’t want to come back again. So this isn’t a vacation (for most of us anyway). The amnesia we have as humans of the real reality and the nature of what we really are is a deliberate design feature. It is necessary for us to be able to carry out the kind of missions we have come here for in the first place. The fact that we are beginning to get a significant hint of an afterlife now as a result of the many people being bought back through improved resuscitation techniques doesn’t offset this in any relevant way. None of this really takes away from the feeling of reality we get when we come here to Earth. We are not constantly able to remember our former spiritual lives because it would prevent us from believing the human experience is real, which is necessary in order to get what we want out of the experience. The fact that we are now getting these indications of an afterlife doesn’t really take that crucial aspect away.
Despite acknowledging that contacts with the dead aren't everyday occurences for most people I do sincerely believe it does occur on a lesser scale. I have personally had family members tell me of events that have happened to them that are quite profound in nature. And more recently from my current girlfriend as well. These are all people I trust and I am personally sure of the fact they are not fabricating the details of these events. So as far as I am concerned contact does sometimes happen on some sort of level.
Sceptics (informed ones) believe in the reality of the near death experience (they believe they do actually occur). The focus of their sceptism is generally concerning two main issues. One is the issue of how much brain activity is going on during an NDE and how this contributed to the NDE itself. The second issue of their focus concerns the timing of the NDE. For instance did the NDE happen just prior to slipping into unconsciousness or perhaps when coming out of unconsciousness.
We have looked at why we can be sure nothing much is going on in the brain during the period of flat EEGs and found the claims of the sceptics unfounded. They are not really basing their argument on the actual data. Researchers such as Penny Santori have successfully addressed the second issue. By using a control group she found stark differences in the ability of people having NDEs to be able to accurately relate details of their resuscitation procedures compared to those who had no such experience.
Just a quick comment on something I just recently found out about. Michael Jackson is still making music apparently. They dug him up the other day and he was decomposing.