As Frederik van Eeden put it back in 1890: “I am more convinced than ever that the a-priori rejection of and refusal to examine unfamiliar and unusual phenomena is the greatest foe of scientific progress.”
(Consciousness beyond Life – page 264)
In 1898 James wrote that the brain’s role in the experience of consciousness is not a productive but is instead a permissive or transmissive role; that is, it admits or transmits information.
(Consciousness beyond Life – page 307)
Given that I made such a big thing out of a near death experience in Monday’s post on the No-Self issue, I thought the least I could do republish some earlier posts on consciousness and NDEs for good measure before the week is over. This is the first of three that belong together. The others will come out at the weekend.
Here we go again!
I continue to find myself in the grip of the near death experience (NDE) issue. Exactly why it matters so much to me is not completely clear. It may in part be to do with my sister having died before I was born. She was twelve years old. It was 1939 and the war was just about to start. I was born just before the war ended and grew up in the double shadow of my parents’ grief and a world seeking to come to terms with the experiences of the blitz and the holocaust.
Later, when my father was dying, in an incident that I put down to morphine at the time, atheist that I was, he woke from his sleep when my mother called his name thinking he had died. ‘Oh, Mary,’ he said with infinite sadness, ‘why did you call me back. I was somewhere so beautiful I did not want to leave.’ Being a man of few words, he said no more. However, after my mother died and we sold the house, the people who had bought it said they were rather unnerved to wake one night in the master bedroom to find a gaunt and tall old man leaning over the bottom of the bed as though to see who was asleep in it.
On top of that is a feeling, which never completely goes away, that I am in exile – from where or why I have no idea, though I could fill in the blanks quite easily, but not from memory. Whatever the real reason, NDEs and what they might mean is an issue that fascinates me.
How could I resist reading Pim van Lommel’s book?
I am not concerned to discuss those aspects of this fascinating book which deal with areas that have already been well-trodden on this blog, for example the elements of a typical NDE, the alternative neuro-scientific or narrative-tradition explanations. I want to focus instead on what I regard as his main theme and the mainstream resistance to it, which leads him into areas that previous texts I have read do not deal with in such depth. Also I do not intend to go over his explanation of the studies he and others have conducted, though they are interesting in their own right and confirm the authenticity of the experience in so far as that is possible to do at present.
Does consciousness have a biological basis at all?
I have never been an overly religious person. I am reluctant to tell many people this incident but was compelled to write to you after reading this article. Three years ago also my father was murdered. After three weeks the police came to a standstill and put out a call for help in the newspaper. I dreamed of my dad three nights in a row. Each night he told me to look in the files and gave me specific instructions. After the third night I called the head of the ATF who was working on our case. He must have thought I was a real crackpot. But I had looked in my dad’s files. In my dream he had given me a date and a name. Sure enough, the name was there. The ATF agents contacted that person, and he gave the police the names of the people who were involved in my father’s murder. I really can’t give you any more details on this—we haven’t gone to trial yet and there is a gag order issued. I don’t claim to be psychic. I don’t have any idea why these things have happened to me. But it makes me wonder and curious.
If this story can be believed, and the thousands of others like it, then the question that inevitably arises is the one at the head of this section: Does consciousness have a biological basis at all?
Van Lommel believes it does not, in the sense of consciousness being created from matter. He marshalls both evidence and theory to back up his position. The next three posts attempt to give a sense of part of his argument.
Making the Idea Plausible
He is acutely aware that his case is regarded with profound suspicion by the majority of mainstream scientists. He looks at the impact that this has both on the treatment of evidence and on the way we receive the accounts of those who have experienced an NDE. He quotes Kuhn for a key component of mainstream science’s response (from the introduction):
The American philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn claimed that most scientists are still trying to reconcile theory and facts within the routinely accepted (materialist) paradigm, which he describes as essentially a collection of articles of faith shared by scientists. All research results that cannot be accounted for by the prevailing worldview are labeled “anomalies” because they threaten the existing paradigm and challenge the expectations raised by this paradigm.
He argues – and I am not sufficiently expert in quantum theory to judge the strength of his case here – that quantum theory has altered the balance of the argument significantly (ibid.):
According to some quantum physicists, quantum physics accords our consciousness a decisive role in creating and experiencing perceptible reality. . . . . . This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role.
As a result of the implications of quantum theory and supported by his own research and that of others, he strongly feels (ibid.):
On the basis of prospective studies of near-death experience, recent results from neurophysiological research, and concepts from quantum physics, I strongly believe that consciousness cannot be located in a particular time and place. This is known as nonlocality. Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time.
To help lame-brains like me to keep up, he brings in a helpful analogy that is being used quite widely by those of this point of view (ibid.):
Our brain may be compared both to a television set, receiving information from electromagnetic fields and decoding this into sound and vision, and to a television camera, converting or encoding sound and vision into electromagnetic waves. . . . . . The function of the brain can be compared to a transceiver; our brain has a facilitating rather than a producing role: it enables the experience of consciousness.
Even though I find this picture of the mind-brain-consciousness relationship quite plausible now, after my decades of wrestling with the implications of this research, most practitioners of medicine and psychology within the system find it too hard to swallow. Van Lommel describes an incident at a conference on NDEs (page 9):
After a few presentations on NDE and somebody’s personal story, a man got up and said, “I’ve worked as a cardiologist for twenty-five years now, and I’ve never come across such absurd stories in my practice. I think this is all complete nonsense; I don’t believe a word of it.” Whereupon another man stood up and said, “I’m one of your patients. A couple of years ago I survived a cardiac arrest and had an NDE, and you would be the last person I’d ever tell.”
And that is a huge problem for those who have such experiences. The following example is not untypical and should be seen as providing strong though admittedly anecdotal evidence (page 32):
During my NDE following a cardiac arrest, I saw both my dead grandmother and a man who looked at me lovingly but whom I didn’t know. Over ten years later my mother confided on her deathbed that I’d been born from an extramarital affair; my biological father was a Jewish man who’d been deported and killed in World War II. My mother showed me a photograph. The unfamiliar man I’d seen more than ten years earlier during my NDE turned out to be my biological father.
Van Lommel feels we should treat these types of account with respect (page 44):
I am of the opinion that people who have had a near-death experience and who are capable of putting their experience into words can teach us a great deal about the relationship between human consciousness and the brain. Finding an explanation for the cause and content of the near-death experience is a major scientific challenge.
The consequences of contempt
When we are contemptuous and dismissive, this can impact negatively upon the individual with the experience as well as on the progress of science in this area (page 51-52):
The process of accepting and integrating the NDE cannot begin until people feel capable of sharing their thoughts and feelings. With immense perseverance, often aided by positive reactions from those around them, people learn to live according to their newfound insights into what matters in life. . . . . When someone first tries to disclose the NDE, the other person’s reaction is absolutely crucial. If this initial reaction is negative or skeptical, the process of accepting and integrating the NDE typically presents far greater problems than if this initial reaction is positive, sympathetic, or neutral. Evidence has shown that positive responses facilitate and accelerate the integration process. In fact, without the possibility of communication, the process of coming to terms with the NDE often fails to get under way at all.
The research indicates the scale of the problem (page 62):
Sutherland’s study shows that when people tried to discuss the NDE, 50 percent of relatives and 25 percent of friends rejected the NDE, and 30 percent of nursing staff, 85 of doctors, and 50 percent of psychiatrists reacted negatively.
The impact of this is harsh (page 64):
It is very difficult for NDE survivors to explain to others how and why they have changed so much. What follows is a period of intense loneliness coupled with feelings of depression at the rejection of what they perceive to be the most impressive experience of their life.
This is in spite of the fact that a more positive attitude is immensely beneficial (page 66):
The results also show that the higher the percentage of positive responses to their personality changes, the better the NDErs were capable of dealing with the problems. That said, at the time of the survey, more than half remained incapable of communicating effectively about their experience. The absence of unconditional love in human relationships also continued to be a problem for more than half of the respondents.
If we are to shift from this negative and damaging virtual consensus, with what are we going to replace it? That will have to wait for the next post.