That “wooOOOooO” was the sound a ghost makes, just in case you were wondering. I’m not sure if what follows is more of a tale about woeful reporting, or woeful research.
What I am more sure about is that many of you will have seen BBC reporting that “[a] large study is to examine near-death experiences in heart attack patients“. By “near-death experiences”, we’re meant to understand the “floaty above my body” stuff.
Doctors at 25 UK and US hospitals will study 1,500 survivors to see if people with no heartbeat or brain activity can have “out of body” experiences.
To test this, the researchers have set up special shelving in resuscitation areas. The shelves hold pictures – but they’re visible only from the ceiling.
Dr Sam Parnia, who is heading the study, said: “If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity [… I]f no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories. This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study.”
[…] He said: “Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment. It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning – a medical condition termed cardiac arrest. During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. There then follows a period of time, which may last from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process. What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.”
Dr Parnia and medical colleagues will analyse the brain activity of 1,500 heart attack survivors, and see whether they can recall the images in the pictures.
Parnia gives his own account of the programme here – in slightly more measured terms than one finds on the main news site. But he still mentions that
Although many independent studies have shown that the brain reaches a ‘flatline’ state during clinical death, it has consistently been shown that 10-20% of people who are revived back to life report some activity of the mind.
These take the form of lucid, well-structured thought processes with reasoning and memory formation as well as the ability to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ actual events.
These observations have raised the intriguing – and controversial – possibility that the mind and consciousness may continue functioning after we have reached the point of death and the brain has shut down.
While an absolute impossibility to many scientists, for those who have experienced them and their respective doctors they are real. The key for science is to determine whether these experiences are illusions or whether they are real.
During AWARE, investigators will place images strategically in hospital bays, such that they will only be visible by looking down from the ceiling and nowhere else.
If after 36 months, hundreds of patients report being “out of body” yet no one can report seeing the images, then we must consider these reports to be nothing more than illusions.
If on the other hand there are hundreds of positive reports, then we will have to redefine our understanding of the mind and brain during clinical death.
For now though, only time will tell what the AWARE study will possibly reveal about our beginnings and our inevitable end.
Now: I find myself thinking that there’s something odd going on here. It seems straightforward enough to say that death isn’t a specific event, that we – medics, philosophers, and all stops between – don’t really understand what goes on during the dying process, that we might well have a good medical reason to understand it, and that the experience of dying is something that merits research. I’m even open to persuasion that there’s a moral imperative of some sort to get to grips with what we don’t know not just on the basis of an appeal to the welfare of the dying patient, but also an appeal to the value of knowledge per se.
BUT… I can’t help wanting to point out that a lack of understanding about death doesn’t seem to warrant a study into spooky ghosty floaty stuff. Call me a cynic, but I’d’ve thought that investigations into three-dimensional solid objects like brains would be on much safer metaphysical ground. If anyone does prove able to identify the pictures, this would be astonishing. But I’m willing to bet that they don’t, and that there is no evidence at all turned up for out-of-body experiences – not that there was any in the first place, of course. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my ectoplasm.
Now, one might say that even if the “pictures on a shelf” test is a bit silly, it costs nothing to carry out in terms of time or finance, and there’s no reason to get all steamy about it. Was this the primary focus of the study – as the Beeb implies and as Parmia doesn’t – we’d have a problem: research funders ought to be spending their money better. But it isn’t, and we don’t.
This doesn’t wholly persuade me, though – and I think my worry has to do with something about what characteristics I want in a doctor. Of course, I want my doctor to be humane enough to see me as more than simply the kidney in bed six. But I want him to be a pretty hard-nosed scientist as well. Actually, now I think about it, I want him to be a hard-nosed scientist above all other things. If he’s rude to me but good at curing me, then that’s just dandy. I’ll dance out of the ward and never have to see him again all the sooner. Occam’s razor ought to be placed in his bag of surgical goodies right next to the scalpel, and I want it to be something that he uses long before the scalpel.
So my worry has to do with the possibility that ostensibly rational, down-to-earth scientists are willing to research – even to consider researching – this kind of hokey nonsense. It seems a dereliction of a fairly fundamental obligation to keep the world as metaphysically pared-down as possible.
Actually, I’m now beginning to wonder whether the (ahem) possibility that consciousness can float free of the body might allow health providers to save money on anaesthesia. After all, if one can be separated from the other, then there seems no particularly good reason why what we do to the body would have any correlation with what happens to consciousness. Unless some kind of “two clocks” model is supposed to be correct, of course… Now: that would be astonishing!
Nope. Not April 1st
Meanwhile, over at b3ta, TheAlmightyBeev seems to have captured something in a rough-and-ready sort of a way, so I’ll give him the last word:
It would be an ethical nightmare though:
“This chap’s on his way out, can we shove him in your MRI to scan his bonce? Oh, and while you’re at it, put this picture of a duck on the shelf…”