Thursday, September 25, 2008

Near death experiences: Interview with near death researcher in Time Magazine

Time Magazine's M.J. Stephey asks Sam Parnia," a fellow at New York's Weill Cornell Medical Center and a leading expert on the study of death, What happens when we die?" (September 18, 2008). Parnia has announced:

a 3-year exploration of the biology behind "out-of-body" experiences. The study, known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), involves the collaboration of 25 major medical centers through Europe, Canada and the U.S., and will examine some 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest.
He talks about the people he has met who have had near death experiences:

... first of all, they are completely genuine people who are not looking for any kind of fame or attention. In many cases they haven't even told anybody else about it because they're afraid of what people will think of them. I have about five hundred or so cases of people that I've interviewed since I first started out more than ten years ago. It's the consistency of the experiences, the reality of what they were describing. I managed to speak to doctors and nurses who had been present who said these patients had told them exactly what had happened and they couldn't explain it. I actually documented a few of those in my book What Happens When We Die because I wanted people to get both angles —not just the patients' side but also get the doctors' side — and see how it feels for the doctors to have a patient come back and tell them what was going on.
Well that should be interesting. One thing Mario and I noted in The Spiritual Brain is that near death experiencers tend to change their priorities, whether they are religious believers or not. They tend to focus more on relationships, and they lose their fear of death.


The Spiritual Brain: A "great primer" on the mind-body debate, says reviewer

Here's a review of The Spiritual Brain by Denver Seminary student Jeff Stauffer (June 2008). I loved this part:

One does not have to possess a Ph.D in the medical field to grasp the philosophical nature of this issue, nor to follow the arguments presented.
Thank you, thank you, thank you, Jeff Stauffer! The Spiritual Brain is not hard to understand. Hard for some to accept, perhaps, but not hard to understand. He concludes,
I found this book to be compelling in terms of showing the nature of the mind to be more than mere atoms-in-space. As Christians, we need to incorporate scientific findings into our worldview if we are to hold to a realist, correspondence view of truth. Beauregard's book helps in this regard by positing a dualist notion of mind/body as the best explanation of the evidence from neuroscience. Overall, Beauregard does a much better job of critiquing a materialist account of nature than he does of providing empirical evidence for a spiritual brain. However, I do not take this to be an argument from ignorance, but one where a non-materialist account seems to be the best hypothesis going based on the evidence. This is a refreshing position from within the academic world on a subject that, oddly, many strive to eliminate: the existence of the human mind. I would encourage this book to those interested in the mind/body debate as a great primer on the subject.
Hmmm. What Mario and I did is called an "inference to the best explanation." In many situations, a slam dunk proof is not possible, but we can infer reasonable conclusions from a line of evidence.

For example, if spirituality is clearly and obviously good for human health (see Chapter 8), that suggests (though it does not prove) that spiritual forces underlie the universe. The alternative is to assume that a delusion is good for one's health - but all other medical evidence shows the contrary. So the assumption that spiritual forces underlie the universe is not proven by the fact that spirituality is good for health but it is far more consistent with that fact.

The rest of the review is here.

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Does religion protect us against pseudoscience?

A recent study from Baylor University suggests that the answer is yes. In "Look Who's Irrational Now" (Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2008), Mollie Ziegler Hemingway notes,
"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
Now, that in itself should not be a surprising finding. For one thing, traditional religious groups tend to oppose occult practices, so the regular attender is likely to be aware of the group's negative view.

One can't help but recall King Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Sam 28:
When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.

6 He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.

7 Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."

"There is one in Endor," they said.

8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."

9 But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"
Saul's original view, however "non-diverse", was the normal one for traditional Western monotheistic religion. The image here at Wikimedia Commons features Saul and the Witch, and - I think - pretty much captures the terminal goofiness of all that stuff.

Another interesting Baylor finding: Higher education does not affect whether people believe in ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance, and witches.

I am not sure what to make of this finding, as reported, because the beliefs are not all equally ridiculous. As Mario Beauregard and I noted in The Spiritual Brain, there is some laboratory evidence for telepathy as a consistent low-level effect.

And demonic possession is an especially difficult case for surveys. Traditional religions assume that possession is possible in principle, so adherents may say that they believe in it in principle. But they may almost always seek other explanations in practice, believing that God would not permit possession to happen to believers. That does not mean that they literally deny the possibility.

The haunted houses I will simply pass by ...

In any event, as for late night comic Bill Maher - the inspiration for Hemingway's Wall Street Journal piece - and the sponsor of Religulous, an anti-religious documentary:

it turns out that the late-night comic is no icon of rationality himself. In fact, he is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience. The night before his performance on Conan O'Brien, Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.
Wow. I am old enough to have been in the long line of people getting the Salk vaccine at my local elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1956, and I remember the general disappearance of the polio scare in the following years.

Anyway, it turns out that traditional religion is an excellent prescriptive against many superstitions and much pseudoscience

Note: With "psychic healing," we need to define our terms carefully. There is massive evidence for the placebo effect (in research studies, people often get better because they believe they will). Is that psychic healing?

This qualification probably did not affect the surveys of religious folk because they would attribute the healing to the power of prayer and would not use the word "psychic" to explain matters. The main research question in recent yeas has been to distinguish between the effect of prayer for one's own health and prayer for the health of others - intercessory prayer - which, for many, is a religious duty.

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Neuroscience: Getting beyond mind-body problem

Actually, there isn't a mind-body problem. There is a materialism problem. If scientists cannot talk about non-material entities like the mind, they cannot help us understand basic facts like why so many people in the control group get better just because they know they are taking part in a study. Or why so many people die within a few years of losing a life partner (statistically beyond normal). What we think and how we think matters.

A recent symposium "Beyond the Mind-Body Problem", held at the United Nations, featured many non-materialist neuroscientists, including Mario Beauregard, lead author of The Spiritual Brain.
I am told that Jeffrey Schwartz, lead author of The Mind and the Brain, vastly livened up the proceedings ... as I very well believe.
And listen here to Kevin Keough's North Star Guardian interview with Mario Beauregard.

The photo above, taken by Bruce Greyson, features Schwartz, and physicist Henry Stapp, with Beauregard on the right - the three are the authors of a paper offering a model for non-materialist neuroscience (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 2004).

Here's the conference overview:
Over the past decade, an increasing number of physicians and neuroscientists have sought to uncover the complex relationship between mind, brain, and consciousness as they continue to search for a more comprehensive perspective on the "self" and the workings of the human mind. Though much remains to be done, their findings to date have shed a more holistic light on our understanding of the elusive mind-body problem. Join our panel of renowned experts as they explain how new paradigms fueled by the latest scientific research are beginning to fundamentally alter how we perceive and relate to the physical world.

The symposium will also serve as the occasion for the formal launch of The Human Consciousness Project—a multidisciplinary collaboration of international scientists and physicians who have joined forces to research the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain. Led by Dr. Sam Parnia, The Human Consciousness Project will conduct the world's first large-scale multicenter studies at major U.S. and European medical centers on the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death. The results of these studies may not only revolutionize the medical care of critically ill patients and the scientific study of the mind and brain, but may also bear profound universal implications for our understanding of death and what happens when we die.
Hat tip to Stephanie West Allen at Brains on Purpose.

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