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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Goofy "Return From the Dead" TV Show Yields No Insights on Near-Death Experiences

Near death experiences (NDE) first came to public light in the 1970's with the publication of Raymond Moody's book Life After Life. Patching together elements from different accounts, Moody described an archetypal typical near-death experience, while noting that most accounts include only some elements in the described archetype. The archetype NDE included elements such as a sensation of floating out of the body, feelings of peace and joy, a life-review that occurs very quickly or in some altered type of time, a passage through a tunnel, an encounter with a being of light, and seeing deceased relatives.

A previous study on near-death experiences was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2001. The study interviewed 344 patients who had a close encounter with death, generally through cardiac arrest. 62 of those reported some kind of near-death experience. 15 reported an out-of-body experience, 19 reported moving through a tunnel, 18 reported observation of a celestial landscape, 20 reported meeting with deceased persons, and 35 reported positive emotions. More recently the AWARE study found some fascinating similar results, discussed here.

Last Sunday night the National Geographic television channel offered us a special on near-death experiences, entitled “Return From the Dead.” It was the silliest treatment of the topic I've ever seen on TV. It showed a Belgian professor Stephen Laureys as he tried various attempts to get insights about near-death experiences.

Laureys first attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was truly laughable. He went to one of those fancy expensive centrifuge machines like they use to train astronauts to handle high g-forces during rocket launches. He went round and round in the machine, until he got a little tunnel vision. This, Laureys insinuated, is something that helps to explain the part of near-death experiences in which people often report traveling through a tunnel.

Such an insinuation is quite ridiculous for two reasons. First, the people who have near-death experiences are not being subjected to anything like high g-forces, so experiments with high g-forces tell us nothing about near-death experiences. Second, having an experience in which you seem to speed through a tunnel is a perceptual event very different from tunnel vision. Tunnel vision is simply where your vision is blocked or blurry except for a clear hole in the middle of your field of view. Tunnel vision is an example of perceptual restriction, but those who have near-death experiences rarely report such a thing. Instead, they often report quite the opposite, an effect of floating out of their bodies and having their visual perceptions enhanced, as if they could see more clearly than ever before.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was just as silly. He consumed some hallucinogenic substances called magic mushrooms. Then he had some trippy experience which he compared to the transcendental flavor of a near-death experience. Does this do anything at all to help explain near-death experiences? No, because people who have near-death experiences are not people who have used hallucinogenic drugs before having the near-death experience.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was an exercise in irrelevancy. He went into a sensory deprivation chamber which he said caused him to hear some voices that weren't there. This tells us nothing about near-death experiences, because such experiences are not preceded by periods of conscious sensory deprivation. Also, the type of hallucinations produced by such sensory deprivation chambers (described in this Wired story) do not resemble near-death experiences.

Laureys next attempt to get an insight about near-death experiences was as goofy as his first try. To try to help understand the component of near-death experiences in which people report floating out of their bodies, Laureys fooled around with some very elaborate high-tech virtual reality setup that includes a plastic dummy arm. This somehow produces some kind of perceptual anomaly that Laureys compares to floating out of your body. Does this do anything at all to help explain near-death experiences? Not at all. The first reason is that Laureys is exaggerating like crazy, because the minor perceptual weirdness he reports is something vastly different from an experience in which someone reports floating above their body and viewing their body from above. The second reason is that the people who have near-death experiences do not have them under any conditions even slightly comparable to the condition of being hooked up to some elaborate virtual reality machine.

Laureys approach is as silly as someone trying to explain ghosts by filling up a room with steam blasts and then taking pictures of steam blasts that look a little like ghosts. That would be batty, because people who report seeing ghosts don't see them under any such “steam rich” conditions. Similarly, no one reports out-of-body experiences under any conditions like the high-tech virtual reality conditions Laureys was playing around with.

At this point in the show Laureys waxes triumphantly about all the “insights” he is gaining into near-death experiences from his goofy excursions into the irrelevant.

The show ended with kind of a “mad scientist” moment, as we see some experiments in which subjects are walloped with oxygen deprivation. The goal is clearly to try to show that near-death experiences are caused by oxygen deprivation.

mad scientist

The oxygen-starved people are then questioned. We have some cherry-picked clips of a handful of people mentioning something that might be relevant to near-death experiences. There was no clip of anyone reporting something like a full-blown near-death experience, or even a clip of anyone reporting two different aspects of a near-death experience, nor did the narrator mention any such person. But one woman said it was kind of like floating around.  Does this do anything to support the idea that near-death experiences may be caused by oxygen deprivation?

Not at all, when you consider the suggestibility factor. Previous studies have shown that people are astonishing suggestible to figures in white coats conducting experiments. A classic example was the Milgram experiment which showed that people would turn a knob that they thought was producing an almost lethal dose of electricity to someone, as long as there was an authority figure in a white coat telling them to “please continue.” Now let's imagine a scientist who asks for volunteers for an experiment on whether oxygen deprivation will cause something like a near-death experience. This will create a kind of feeling in the volunteer's mind that the scientist hopes or expects that the volunteer will report something a little like some part of a near-death experience. Even if the scientist makes no mention of near-death experiences when asking for volunteers, but merely asks for volunteers for an experiment on oxygen deprivation, it is all too likely that some of the volunteers would realize or suspect that the experiment is really about whether oxygen deprivation causes near-death experiences. In fact, there may be a selection effect in which the people who sign up for such experiments tend to be people wanting to help debunk near-death experiences.

So even if leading questions were not asked to the volunteers, it would be all too possible that we would get some answers that are largely the result of suggestibility or an “expectation effect” in which the volunteer slants his answers to match what he thinks are the expectations of the scientist. And if leading questions were answered, there would be a near certainty of some response matching what the scientist was looking for. Suppose a scientist deprives a volunteer of oxygen, and then asks something like, “Was it kind of like floating about?” Regardless of what they experienced, it will then be likely that some of the volunteers will answer something, “Yes, it was kind of like that.”

You can do your own research similar to that shown at the end of the National Geographic show. Get some volunteers, blindfold them, and spin each of them around 30 times. Then give them a questionnaire asking questions like this:

Did you experience any of these?
__ A white light in front of you?
__ A feeling of joy?
__ Recall of previous experiences?
__ A sense of floating?
__ A kind of mystical feeling?
__ A feeling like traveling through a tunnel?
__ Seeing one of your relatives?

Of course, your volunteers will sense that you really want them to check one of these boxes, so almost certainly you will find a few of the questionnaire items are checked off. But you will not be entitled to claim any insight about near-death experiences from such an experiment. You will have merely shown human suggestibility.

Given the practical impossibility of randomly selecting people and subjecting them to oxygen deprivation without warning (the only way to avoid suggestibility issues and bias issues), the soundest way to determine whether oxygen deprivation produces something like near-death experiences is to check the unsolicited accounts of people who suffered oxygen deprivation while flying, mountain climbing, or diving. Such accounts (which have been written for centuries) will provide no support for the claim that oxygen deprivation can explain near-death experiences.  

This scientific paper reviews the effects of oxygen deprivation (called hypoxia) and makes no mention of any effects resembling that of a near-death experience. Far from reporting the type of ecstasy often reported in such experiences, the paper reports that there was no change in the reported feelings of subjects undergoing oxygen deprivation: "self-reported feelings did not differ between the hypoxic and normoxic sessions." So the insinuation of the National Geographic TV show that oxygen deprivation can explain near-death experiences is bunk.

Laureys once co-authored a good paper on near-death experiences, one finding that the memories from them are kind of "realer than real." But judging from Sunday's TV show, his current approach to the topic seems to be to engage in various types of irrelevant busy work, and claim that these provide "insights" into near-death experiences. Acting in a similar way, you might do some experiments involving illegal aliens from Mexico, and then claim that these provided insights on aliens in distant solar systems.

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