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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Recent Press Stories Distort Near-Death Experiences

A recent LiveScience article was entitled “Are 'Flatliners' Really Conscious After Death?” The story quoted Sam Parnia, a doctor who has researched near-death experiences, in which people give amazing accounts after having a close brush with death. Although it didn't give us the full story, and kind of filtered out some of the most important facts, the LiveScience story was mainly accurate. But there was a serious inaccuracy in the article's statement that “Recent studies have shown that animals experience a surge in brain activity in the minutes after death.” There was only one such study, and it showed a spike in a single type of brain wave at a moment 30 seconds after a rat's head had been severed, not “minutes after death.”

The LiveScience story made clear that we should absolutely not expect brain activity for more than a few seconds after someone's heart stopped. It states, “The brain's cerebral cortex — the so-called "thinking part" of the brain — also slows down instantly, and flatlines, meaning that no brainwaves are visible on an electric monitor, within 2 to 20 seconds.” This is brain wave activity. Unconsciousness occurs within 6 seconds after the heart stops. At this web site, a cardiology expert tells us, “The interval between last heart beat and passing out can vary from 3 seconds to about 6 seconds.”

The LiveScience article quotes Parnia discussing what are called veridical near-death experiences:

Substantial anecdotal evidence reveals that people whose hearts stopped and then restarted were able to describe accurate, verified accounts of what was going on around them, he added. “They'll describe watching doctors and nurses working; they'll describe having awareness of full conversations, of visual things that were going on, that would otherwise not be known to them," he explained. According to Parnia, these recollections were then verified by medical and nursing staff who were present at the time and were stunned to hear that their patients, who were technically dead, could remember all those details.

But the LiveScience story completely fails to tell us anything about the duration of these recollections. Were these merely patients remembering the first 10 seconds after heart failure, as their brain activity faded out? We can't tell from the LiveScience story. The answer is actually: no. People lose consciousness within six seconds after their heart stops, not long enough to report details of medical resuscitation efforts.

A patient giving an account of a veridical near-death experience will sometimes describe minutes of medical activity during the efforts of medical personnel to restart his heart. Such a thing was reported by Pam Reynolds and in a case reported by Sam Parnia in his Aware study. In both cases we had patients report lots of things that were going on when their hearts were stopped, a sequence of events lasting minutes. Quite a few other similar cases are discussed in this post. The Aware study is now hidden behind a paywall, making it hard for people to learn about its more startling paranormal details (which are barely hinted at in the study's abstract). See here for a discussion of these details.

What the LiveScience story also fails to mention is that when such veridical near-death experiences occur, a person will typically report floating out of his body, something that is completely at odds with current scientist dogmas claiming that consciousness is purely a product of the brain. The person reporting the experience will not report lying in his body while resuscitation efforts occurred. He will typically report being above his body, looking down on it. 

The LiveScience story spurred the appearance of similar stories in the press, some of which had headlines that were unfounded. Newsweek.com had a story entitled “What Happens After You Die? The Brain Keeps Working Long Enough for Thoughts to Form.” No, studies of near-death experiences (including Parnia's research) do not justify any such claim, and are consistent with the idea that your brain shuts down within a few seconds after the heart stops. Such research is not a story of “the brain continuing to work after the heart stops” but a story of “consciousness continuing after the brain has shut down.”

The worst mangling of the LiveScience story and the research it is based on was a story in the British tabloid The Sun, which had the headline, “After you die, your brain knows you're dead, terrifying study reveals.” Again, the research is not telling us anything about conscious brain activity continuing after the heart has stopped. And the research isn't terrifying. You should hardly be terrified by an account of someone whose heart stopped and who reported floating out of his body, and witnessing medical resuscitation efforts. Such stories suggest that the soul survives death.

We have in some of these stories a case of writers trying to hammer the round peg of near-death experiences into the square hole of neurological dogmas that consciousness is equivalent to brain activity. It's a mismatch that won't work, no matter how hard you hammer.

The idea of the mind continuing after the brain has shut down should not come as a big surprise to anyone who has noticed the great disarray of scientists in their efforts to explain how the most basic mind activities could be produced by brains. Neuroscientists have no plausible tale to tell of how brains could produce abstract thoughts, or how brains could instantly recall distant memories. If some small part of your brain stores an obscure memory, in some tiny neural location, how could your brain know where that exact storage spot was, in order to retrieve the information instantly? Our scientists cannot answer this most basic question, discussed here.

When it comes to how memories could be stored in the brain, our neuroscientists are flip-flopping all over the place. A recent MIT article tells us some researchers have offered a “new theory of memory formation” different from the “strengthening of synapses” theory that has been the standard story for decades. Their theory is that memories are stored in a “pattern of connections.” The “strengthening of synapses” theory is indeed untenable, mainly because the protein molecules involved in such strengthening are very short-lived, lasting only a few weeks. But a theory of a storage in the pattern itself is equally untenable. For such a theory to be true there would have to be some grand neuron coordinator precisely coordinating connections over many different neurons to make such a pattern correspond to a memory. Nothing like that is known to exist, and we cannot plausibly imagine it existing. A memory can be formed instantly, but neuron connections form slowly. We have some experience of information being stored in binary form and in DNA, but no one has any plausible model of how it could even be possible to store information in a “pattern of connections” between brain cells.

But despite such huge explanatory shortfalls, those who have been indoctrinated in the dogmas of modern academia will continue to speak as they have been conditioned, and will mostly speak like Twin 1 in the imaginary dialog below between two yet-to-be born twins in the womb.

Twin 1: It looks like our happy time here in the wet womb is almost over. It's almost time for that fatal event known as “birth.”
Twin 2: I don't believe that birth will be our end. I believe in what I call “life after birth.”
Twin 1: Life after birth? Preposterous! When birth occurs, we will be severed from the umbilical cord that is the sole source of our nourishment. Death must soon follow.
Twin 2: I'm not so sure. Maybe there's some way we can survive. Somehow I think there is some mysterious reality beyond this familiar womb we have known all our existence.
Twin 1: A reality beyond the womb? What could possibly make you think of such extravagant nonsense?
Twin 2: I sometimes seem to get faint, irregular signals. It's as if I could occasionally hear faint voices coming from beyond the womb we live in.
Twin 1: Oh, so you think you've picked up paranormal signals? It's all just in your mind.

The faint voices occasionally heard by Twin 2 (the voice of parents) may be analogous to the irregular indications humans seem to get of a reality beyond our physical reality, through things such as medium activity, apparition sightings, deathbed visions, near-death experiences and the appearance of mysterious orbs in photos

Postscript: In response to my point about memory recall, a person might argue that the brain doesn't need to know the exact location of some tiny spot where it recalls a memory; since all cells are connected, the brain can scan until it finds what it is looking for. But that is not how memory recall seems to work. If you say the name of a famous person such as John Kennedy, I do not have some mental experience of searching through memory like someone flipping the pages of an encyclopedia. I do not see in my mind's eye many images flashing until I finally reach the image of John Kennedy. Instead, you suddenly say "John Kennedy," and I instantly retrieve nothing at all except the image of John Kennedy.  How could that work so quickly, if the image is stored in, say, brain location #834,342,430, and I have no way of remembering that the image is stored in that location, in a brain that has no coordinate or addressing system allowing exact brain addresses? Nor will it work to claim that the image is stored everywhere in my brain, an idea that becomes rather ridiculous as it leads to thinking that there are billions of brain places I am storing the image of Spongebob Squarepants.  It seems that there is no plausible detailed theory of brain storage of memory compatible with our experience of instantaneous recall of obscure memories, little bits of information learned long ago and thought about never or almost never since that time.  Attempts at such theories never properly explain instantaneous recall or the wonder of hyperthymesia.  It seems that memory must involve something more than just the brain, an idea compatible with the phenomenon of near-death experiences, a phenomenon suggesting that something like a soul exists.

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