16 August 2013

The near-death red herring, yet again

One regularly sees articles in the newspapers to the effect that so-called near-death experiences (NDEs) have an explanation that does not involve references to the supernatural. This has been the case now for decades. However many times it is supposed to have been ‘proved’, there always seems to be another research team willing to undertake a research project to prove it again. Each time the papers triumphantly report: NDEs (or whatever other experience they are talking about) are ‘all in the mind’.

The latest such article (Daily Mail, 13th August) refers to a University of Michigan study which looked at the brain activity of rats before and after their hearts were stopped.

Apart from the dubious ethics involved, this research in itself tells one nothing about NDEs, or about any other quasi-perceptual experience. Even if, as the researchers claim, the rat’s brain shows activity after clinical death, this does not get you very far in understanding the hows and whys of the kinds of experience people report in analogous circumstances.

The key issue raised by hallucinatory and quasi-perceptual experiences – whether they occur in sleep, near death, under normal conditions or otherwise – is the question of what they tell us about the way the brain, or mind, generates representations of its environment from external and internal data. This is a fundamental issue in psychology, and therefore ought to be of the greatest interest to psychologists, philosophers and neurophysiologists. However, it has been ignored in favour of whether or not there is an afterlife, ever since I established these phenomena as suitable subjects for scientific study over 40 years ago.

Having placed the phenomenon of out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs) on a scientific footing, we should have been provided with finance to take the work further, leading to the possibility of important advances in our understanding of conscious experience and its relation to brain physiology. As we did not have an institutional environment with residential and laboratory facilities, we need funding to set this up in the first instance. Such funding should still be provided now, even more urgently, to prevent the continuing waste of our abilities which could and should be being used in making significant advances. This would be true even if people other than ourselves had shown any sign of adopting a sufficiently analytical and open-minded approach. In fact they have not. The resistance to the possibilities suggested by the phenomena, which had prevented their being recognised by academia before our book on them was published, continues to restrict and distort the work carried out, and leads to the unsatisfactory conclusions drawn from it.

more on out-of-the-body experiences