26 January 2014

Near-death experiences: more obfuscation

This was first published in September. I am re-posting it in connection with an article about a new book on near-death experiences which appeared in Saturday’s Daily Mail. This, as usual, muddies the waters by perpetuating the confusion that the phenomena are either ‘genuine’, in the sense of providing evidence of the afterlife or the paranormal, or, if not ‘genuine’ in this sense, are to be dismissed.
The author of the book, Penny Sartori, appears to have some connection with the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre, currently based in Lampeter but originally part of the University of Oxford. The Centre was set up shortly after we published our initial pioneering research on out-of-the-body experiences, and cleverly succeeded in drawing away any publicity and research funds we might have got, including about OBEs, and getting them for itself. It may well have been set up expressly for this purpose. It certainly never carried out, as far as I am aware, any actual research on OBEs.
The present obsession with near-death experiences, and the false dichotomy that these kinds of phenomena must be either (a) real (meaning paranormal), or (b) dismissable, is to be deplored. It contributes to our being blocked from receiving any funding for research that would actually advance understanding of the phenomena.

There has recently been some more interest in near-death experiences, including a large number of hits on the posts about them on my blog. This is always very irritating, as there is no sign of response to our appeals for funding.

A number of areas of research, on which quite a lot of money is being spent throughout the world, were initiated by us. In some of the cases it could be claimed that the research now being done might have developed independently of our drawing attention to it, as the information was there, although ignored (e.g. the development of distorted interpretations of early forms of Gnostic Christianity).

However, there was no concept of near-death experiences until it arose out of nominal research on out-of-the-body experiences (OBEs). This in turn had developed (with some delay) following the publication of our first book [1] on OBEs, which made these appear as a type of experience that had sufficiently consistent characteristics to justify academic recognition. Our work provided much less justification for relating OBEs to the question of ‘proving’ survival than did the previous associations with spiritualistic beliefs.

The new and spurious category of near-death experiences arose from there being some cases reported of OBEs in hospitals. Eventually the concept of near-death experiences replaced that of OBEs in popular attention, so that the question of ‘proving’ survival or otherwise once again became the issue predominantly associated with such experiences.

However, the resulting association of OBE-type experiences with the idea of extreme states is likely to be highly misleading. In one study conducted by Professor Ian Stevenson [2] of the University of Virginia, for example, it appeared that only about half of the subjects of supposed near-death experiences were in any sense near to death.

My colleague Charles McCreery carried out an experiment, as part of his doctoral research at the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford, in which subjects attempted to induce OBEs in the laboratory. He found that two of his subjects reported subjective phenomena similar to those of so-called near-death experiences. Both subjects referred to ‘tunnels’, and one of them also described having the impression of ‘being on elastic going towards a tiny white light in [the] distance’. Neither of these subjects showed any sign of being near death. The one who reported the white light in the distance was a young female graduate student aged twenty-six. [3]

1. Green, C. (1968). Out-of-the-body Experiences. Institute of Psychophysical Research.
2. Stevenson, I. (1987). Personal communication to Charles McCreery.
3. McCreery, C. and Claridge, G. (1996). ‘A study of hallucination in normal subjects – I. Self-report data’. Personality and Individual Differences, Vol 21, no. 5, pp. 739-747.

‘We are appealing for £200,000 to assist my colleague Dr Charles McCreery in completing the work for his book on out-of-the-body experiences, then publishing it and publicising it. He has received no funding during the writing of this book, which is based on the research he carried out for his Oxford DPhil on out-of-the-body experiences. The book includes the results of both experimental work and extensive analyses of case material.
Dr McCreery’s book is a rigorously scientific analysis of out-of-the-body experiences, with discussions of the philosophical implications of these and related phenomena. It deserves to be completed, published and widely advertised. Those who claim that they want to advance human knowledge should provide us with the financial support required to enable this to happen.’
Dr Celia Green

more about modern ‘research’