By Daithi O hAnluain at Wired News
Two British scientists are seeking £165,000 ($256,000) to carry out a large-scale study to discover if clinically dead people really have out-of-body experiences. Dr. Sam Parnia, senior research fellow at the University of Southampton, and Dr. Peter Fenwick, a consultant neuropsychiatrist at Oxford University, are both highly respected researchers.
Near-death experiences are the most common experience and include seeing a white light, while out-of-body experiences involve serenely observing one's dead body while medics work frantically to resuscitate it. The researchers have founded a charitable trust, Horizon Research, to promote studies in the field.
Last year Parnia published a study indicating that 10 percent of clinically dead patients who were later resuscitated reported memories while they were lifeless.
Evidence includes patients recognizing hospital staff they had never met but who helped during their resuscitation. Others have recalled conversations between doctors. According to known medical science, this should be impossible, given the absence of any brain activity.
In the past, the theory has been scorned by the scientific community. Even those who want to believe the truth is out there have turned skeptical.
Susan Blackmore was once the doyenne of British paranormal research. She has since retired, disillusioned, from the field. She concluded in her book about near-death experiences, Dying to Live, that there are scientific explanations for NDEs.
While skepticism remains, scientists are coming to recognize that more research is necessary. In December 2001, a Dutch neurologist, Dr. Pim van Lommel of Hospital Rijnstate in Arnhem, Netherlands, led a team that published an article in The Lancet, the United Kingdom's highly respected journal of medicine. The study showed that 18 percent of clinically dead patients, later resuscitated, recalled near-death experiences years after the event.
Another study, this one conducted in the United States by the father of near-death-experience studies, Kenneth Ring, used blind patients, resuscitated from cardiac arrest, who likewise described seeing their body while clinically dead, although slightly out of focus. The book Mindsight was inspired by this research.
Fenwick and others are not positing life after death per se, merely consciousness after death. Nevertheless, the implications are enormous. If near-death experiences and out-of-body experiences don't come from the brain, where is consciousness based?
"There are two ways to view the universe," says Fenwick. "Our current world model is that everything is matter."
In other words, everything that we think of as "real" in scientific terms has a physical form that can be perceived by our senses. But this model, which philosophers call "radical materialism," cannot explain the existence of consciousness, which has no physical essence.
So how do we account for consciousness? "There's a little (unexplained) miracle, and consciousness arises," Fenwick says of the current paradigm.
However, another theory proposes that the basic building block of the universe is not matter but instead consciousness itself. This is described as the "transcendent" view, a perspective shared by many of the world's religions.
"This second, transcendent, view of the universe makes it much easier to understand NDEs (near-death experiences)," says Fenwick, who believes that science will eventually replace the material view of the universe with the transcendent one.
The advent of quantum mechanics, which posits that matter can simultaneously have both a physical form and a wave form is a step in that direction, he says.
So are scientific studies of the power of prayer, which suggest that subjects benefit from the prayers of others even when they aren't aware that someone is praying for them.
These studies have been interpreted by some researchers as an indication that consciousness behaves as a field, much like magnetism, which can be affected by other fields. If that's true, then it's possible one person's consciousness could affect another person's.
Now Fenwick and Parnia hope to add new near-death-experience and out-of-body-experience research to these findings. If they can raise the cash, they intend to study 100 reanimated heart-attack victims who had near-death experiences. Research has shown that 30 of them can be expected to have out-of-body experiences. Fenwick and Parnia plan to place cards above the patients' heads that can only be seen from the ceiling, where those who experience out-of-body experiences claim to watch their resuscitation.
So will this convince the skeptics? "No, nothing will, but that's OK," says Fenwick, laughing. "It's how science progresses. Any research that says you have to have a major rethink in your world model is always rejected. But it will prove that consciousness is not in the brain."
Another thing the research proves is that there's life left yet in speculating about the afterlife.
Last updated 14/02/2003