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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Fenwick’

thompson

I was asked to give a talk on this topic at the University of Birmingham at the beginning of March. I have done this once before (see link) and have ruminated on the issues before and since on this blog. I had so much running round in my mind-brain, whichever it is, that I needed to start organising my ideas in good time. Writing a blog post seemed a good way of helping in that process. The earlier post on Monday hopefully conveyed a sense of what actually happened. This is the second and last post attempting to express simply what I thought I might say!

I argued in Thursday’s post, which describes my journey from atheism to belief in God, that finding completely compelling empirical evidence in support or refutation of the possibility of a spiritual dimension will be vanishingly hard to come by. I said I would examine a typical example in this post.

Pim van Lommel’s research on near-death experiences is robustly attacked by Evan Thompson in his existentially philosophical treatise, Waking, Dreaming, Being which also claims to have turned my black swan, Pam Reynolds’ NDE, into a dead albatross.

Quotations from Thompson’s sceptical and Mario Beauregard’s convinced account will illustrate the problem. I’ll focus on the hearing issue, though that is by no means the only point of contention (readers of my recent post on this issue can skip this bit). Pam Reynolds had a tumour deep in the brain stem, surgery for which required a total shut down of her brain, drained of all blood and kept at a low enough temperature to fend off brain cell death within the time frame of the operation.

Thompson writes in Waking, Dreaming, Being (page 307):

Reynolds’s eyes were taped shut, so she wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on around her. Although she was wearing fitted ear plugs that delivered 40-decibel white noise to one ear and 95-decibel clicks every eleventh of a second to her other ear (in order to monitor her auditory brainstem response), she probably would have been able to hear the sound of the saw through bone conduction (as when you hear inside your head the sound of the dentist’s drill). On the basis of hearing the sound, she may have generated a visual image of the saw, which she described as looking like an electric toothbrush. She would have been familiar with the surgical procedure from the surgeon’s description and from having read and signed the informed consent form, and she would have seen the layout of the operating room because she was awake when she was wheeled in. [An alternative account posits that the theatre staff had hidden the instruments to avoid alarming her.] So she probably had enough knowledge to create an accurate visual and cognitive map of her surroundings during her out-of-body experience. Reynolds’s ability to hear what the cardiac surgeon said may seem less likely, but to my knowledge no one has tried to replicate the auditory stimulus conditions to determine whether speech is comprehensible through those sound levels or during the pauses between the clicks.

Pam reynold's surgeryBeauregard’s view is different (Exploring Frontiers of the Mind-Brain Relationship – page 132):

Sceptics will argue that when Reynolds saw the surgeon cutting her skull or heard a female voice say something about the size of her blood vessels, she was not clinically dead yet. Nevertheless, her ears were blocked by small moulded speakers continuously emitting 100-dB clicks (100 dB correspond approximately to the noise produced by a speeding express train). Medical records confirmed that these words were effectively pronounced (Seabom 1998). Moreover, the speakers were fixed with tape and gauze. It is thus highly unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation.

In terms of Reynold’s supposedly prior knowledge, it is perhaps also worth quoting Penny Sartori’s 2008 work in Swansea, quoted by Fenwick in a later chapter of the mind-brain book. In her study she was able to ask (page 148):

. . . whether the patients who said they left their bodies during the cardiac arrest were able to give a more accurate account of what happened during their resuscitation, than those who did not claim to have left their bodies or to have any memory of seeing the resuscitation. She asked both groups to describe what they thought had happened during the resuscitation and found that those who said they had seen the resuscitation were more accurate in their account of what had occurred than those who were simply guessing. This finding is important as it is the first prospective study which suggests that veridical information may indeed be obtained in some manner by someone who is deeply unconscious and who has none of the cerebral functions which would enable them either to see or to remember.

past-livesReincarnation:

Much later in the game I came back to giving reincarnation another look. It can’t really be ignored in any honest open-minded investigation. There is far too much evidence that suggests there are phenomena that invite interpretation as supporting reincarnation.

I explored reincarnation when I was investigating Buddhism and rejected it, so it is not only because my current belief in the Bahá’í Faith discounts it, that I am drawn to another way of interpreting the data.

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this take on the issue. They also look at whether psi alone might be a sufficient explanation. Personally, though they do not close the door on that possibility themselves, for reasons concerning the degree of identification that the strongest cases exhibit (see below) psi does not seem to me the best candidate.

They then move on to what they refer to (page 278) as the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.

They accept that this could explain cases where (page 280) ‘more than one person remembers the same past life’ but feel that it is improbable that a child’s brain would be capable of resonating to an adult consciousness. They also feel that where memories of a past life display ‘continuity’ and ‘detail,’ this would not usually the case where psi is involved and for them accessing a universal mind would entail the use of psi.

The idea of a Cosmic Memory Bank appeals to me partly because this idea is to be found in other sources that I trust in different ways. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi and Jung speaks of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

The introduction to Albright’s Everyman edition of Yeats’s poems puts his view succinctly (page xxi):

He came to the conclusion that there was in fact one source, a universal warehouse of images that he called the Anima Mundi, the Soul of the World. Each human soul could attune itself to revelation, to miracle, because each partook in the world’s general soul.

If we can accept this possibility, it provides, in my view, another possibly way of explaining the data which points also towards the possibility of reincarnation. Unfortunately, as always in this kind of area, greater certainty is inevitably elusive.

spiritual-brainWhere does that leave us?

In the end I’ve come to feel as Mario Beauregard does.

In The Spiritual Brain he refers in summary to the areas of exploration he has adduced which he feels a nonmaterialist view can explain more adequately (2528):

For example, a nonmaterialist view can account for the neuroimaging studies that show human subjects in the very act of self-regulating their emotions by concentrating on them. It can account for the placebo effect (the sugar pill that cures, provided the patient is convinced that it is a potent remedy). A nonmaterialist view can also offer science-based explanations of puzzling phenomena that are currently shelved by materialist views. One of these is psi, the apparent ability of some humans to consistently score above chance in controlled studies of mental influences on events. Another is the claim, encountered surprisingly often among patients who have undergone trauma or major surgery, that they experienced a life-changing mystical awareness while unconscious.

This paves the way for finding the idea of mid-brain independence credible.

He also refers to the work in neuroplasticity which I have also dealt with on this blog (2605):

Generally, Schwartz says, success with the four-step method depends on the patient doing two things: recognizing that faulty brain messages cause obsessive-compulsive behavior and realizing that these messages are not part of the self. In this therapy, the patient is entirely in control. Both the existence and the role of the mind as independent of the brain are accepted; indeed, that is the basis of the therapy’s success.

He ends up on Alvin Plantinga’s ground at one point (Kindle Reference: 2520):

We regard promissory materialism as superstition without a rational foundation. The more we discover about the brain, the more clearly do we distinguish between the brain events and the mental phenomena, and the more wonderful do both the brain events and the mental phenomena become. Promissory materialism is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists…who often confuse their religion with their science.

conscious-universeIn addition, Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe marshalls acres of evidence in favour of Psi, though it has been accused of overstating its case. He even quotes a sceptic in support of its rigour, thereby hopefully dismissing the spurious claims of dogmatic a priori sceptics (page 209):

Today, informed sceptics no longer claim that the outcomes of psi experiments are due to mere chance because we know that some parapsychological effects are, to use sceptical psychologist Ray Hyman’s words, “astronomically significant.” This is a key concession because it shifts the focus of the debate away from the mere existence of interesting effects to their proper interpretation.

There is enough here overall, I feel, to give all but the most died-in-the-wool materialist pause for thought. Even if you only give credence to ‘hard’ scientifically gathered evidence, it seems clear that the exact nature of consciousness is an open question rather than a closed case.

Let’s hope I conveyed all that clearly enough to get the point across to a roomful of psychologists!

Or was it back to the lion’s den again, perhaps.

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Three-Faces-of-Eve-The-1957

Three Faces of Eve (for source of image see link)

In the previous post, drawing on Jeffrey Iverson’s book – In Search of the Dead – I explored three examples of the evidence cited in favour of reincarnation. I indicated that I felt they might possibly lie along a dimension from an experience that faded as a child grew up, through a more persistent identification lasting a lifetime, to outright ‘possession.’ This post now looks at the question of how to explain these data.

Is reincarnation the only possible explanation?

There is a degree of uncertainty in the literature about exactly how to interpret these phenomena. In the interests of space I am not going to explore the question of their authenticity. Given that Stevenson is definite that he has 25 cases pointing strongly in the direction of reincarnation I am going to assume, for present purposes, that this is not the issue. I am going to focus rather on the explanation as the issue.

It is more often than not the explanation rather than the experience itself that raises the bigger questions, once you accept that there are facts to support the validity of the experience. Also, there is a general point to make before getting bogged down in the specifics, which is that throughout the history of religion and mysticism, it is accepted that spiritual reality cannot be communicated to our finite brain-locked minds except by metaphor, symbol and analogy. In terms of the comments made on the previous post, this indeterminacy might account for both the strong influence of culture on how spiritual experiences are explained and also for how much scope there is for an intuitive feel rather than logical account of what is going on.

The doctrine of reincarnation might be just such a metaphorical way, adapted to the mindset of a culture, of accounting  for what was being observed. We are still a long way from fully understanding spiritual reality. The evolution of the mind, suggested by the possibilities of spiritual and creative genius as discussed in an earlier sequence of posts, might slowly bring that reality increasingly within our reach.

To focus on one possible alternative explanation for the data I need briefly to bring into the picture two other concepts that might be relevant.

Multiple Personality

The first is multiple personality. Widely documented experiences, some of which have never been seriously questioned, show that one sub-personality can take over a person’s consciousness to the exclusion of another, at least temporarily. In Irreducible Mind, Adam Crabtree endorses various conclusions Myers had reached in the 19th Century. The most relevant for now is (page 363):

He insisted that these conscious centres [sub-personalities] must be regarded, at least in well-developed cases, as personalities or selves – intelligent sources of thoughts, feelings, actions that possess their own memory chains and exhibit a psychological cohesiveness. He indicated that these centres are not necessarily merely alternating states, but may operate concurrently with the supraliminal self and with each other.

This possibility is an important one as it clearly provides evidence that allows for the existence of variations in consciousness above and beyond what we find in reincarnation studies, particularly that a consciousness can co-exist alongside others or dominate, albeit temporarily, to the exclusion of others.

Collective Unconscious

The second concept is that there is some form of collective but subliminal consciousness. Yeats refers to it as the Anima Mundi and Jung speaks of the ‘collective unconscious.’ The Bahá’í Writings refer to the ‘universal mind’ as when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá responds to a woman’s letter advising her: ‘to forget this world of possession, become wholly heavenly, become embodied spirit and attain to universal mind. This arena is vast and unlimited . . . .’

I accept that in this second case I am introducing what to a materialist must seem a very questionable buttress to support my argument. My only response at this stage is that it may be a simpler and less problematic one than the idea of reincarnation.

The Fenwicks’ View

Peter and Elizabeth Fenwick, in their excellent book Past Lives, have a whole section on this very issue. They also look at whether psi alone might be a sufficient explanation. Personally, though they do not close the door on that possibility themselves, for reasons concerning the degree of identification that the strongest cases exhibit (see below) psi does not seem to me the best candidate.

Rupert Sheldrake (for source of image see link)

Rupert Sheldrake (for source of image see link)

They then move on to what they refer to (page 278) as the ‘Cosmic Memory Bank.’ They describe ‘field theories’ and refer to Rupert Sheldrake’s idea of ‘morphic resonance.’ They add (page 279):

If memories (information) are held in this way they would exist independently of the brain and therefore be accessible to another brain which ‘resonated’ with them.’

They accept that this could explain cases where (page 280) ‘more than one person remembers the same past life’ but feel that it is improbable that a child’s brain would be capable of resonating to an adult consciousness. They also feel that where memories of a past life display ‘continuity’ and ‘detail,’ this would not usually the case where psi is involved and for them accessing a universal mind would entail the use of psi.

Suspending Disbelief

For the reasons I outlined above, I am reluctant to let go of the ‘universal mind’ theory quite yet. I will now outline its possibilities and, if I can gain access to more data, hope to investigate these further in subsequent posts.

If we can accept the reality of these two possibilities – multiple personality and a universal mind – how would it help?

This is where some readers may have to exercise their faculty for suspending disbelief. Others may hopefully not be so challenged.

It is perhaps easiest to explain the implications of my ‘theory’ without ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ and caveats.

Let me say right from the start that this is a first provisional attempt to protect my disbelief in reincarnation from strong evidence in its favour. I plan to explore more deeply Ian Stevenson’s work in this area as a starter to see if what I am proposing stands up to scrutiny in the light shone upon it by his rigorous research findings.

So, a child is born. As he grows he reports experiences from another life. If true, this raises two immediate questions.

Why any life? Why that life?

There are other questions that need addressing as well and I will be looking at whatever data I can find to see if there are patterns in terms of the kind of previous life that might make such experiences more likely. If, for example, for reasons that I will return to, we exclude the return of Buddhist lamas, will we find that most previous lives ended prematurely, even violently, creating a sense of incompleteness that needs redress?

Setting such questions aside for now, if we accept that there is a universal mind storing all human, and perhaps other experiences, we could suppose that, the more recent the experience, the more salient it would be to a receptive consciousness. We could also hypothesise that the temperament of a child, that complex composite of different traits with which all of us seem to some extent endowed from birth, could resonate more strongly to some stored experiences than others. Also some children will have the potential to resonate while others may not, or at least not strongly enough to be affected.

Assuming we have a match – a child who has the capacity to resonate to subliminally stored experiences and who strongly resonates to recently laid down signals because of an affinity of temperament – then we have the possibility of a such reports of an apparently previous life.

If that could ever be proven we would have successfully cleared a Becher’s Brook that could have ended our race towards an alternative possible truth.

Degrees of Identification

Assuming that this could be true, just for present purposes, we are still not completely in the clear. Other hurdles stand in the way of further progress.

Why should some people’s memories of the ‘previous life’ fade leaving hardly a trace as the child grows up while other children cling tenaciously to a supposed previous identity?

This is a variation of the same issue as crops up in the case of multiple personality. Why do some identities reach the driving seat while others remain passengers? How can some drivers and passengers be aware of some of the others in the car while others are oblivious? How do invisible passengers influence the driver at the time?

Because the psychology I learned has neglected the systematic exploration of these issues, even in the context of multiple personality let alone reincarnation, I am not really in a position to provide any widely acceptable answer at this point.

I do however have some thoughts to share.

The degree to which I identify with a ‘self’ would seem to be an important factor, as is the degree to which I disown other ‘selves.’ This level of identification will clearly be influenced by many factors as I grow older.

However, with a young child, who very early on experiences someone else’s life, we can perhaps start at a simple level.

Would the degree of affinity, for example, between the host and guest temperaments be a factor – the closer the affinity the greater the identification?

Would there be pay offs and gains to further reinforce the identification? Those who have researched this have had to deal with the charge that all such claims of rebirth are fraudulent attempts to gain social advantage. It is true that the majority of cases seem to involve a lower ‘caste’ host claiming a higher class ‘guest.’ However, there are sufficient examples of the opposite to perhaps begin to tease this out, something I have yet to do.

We can all make a list of predictors of the degree of identification, and I won’t attempt to spell them out here as I simply wanted to illustrate the problems involved. Clearly there are many potential influences shaping exactly how deep and how strong the identification is.

Where is the Soul in all this?

Even when we set this aside, in terms of the resonating host model, the question remains though as to whether the residue of consciousness we are looking at can be fairly described as the dead person’s soul which remains trapped until the death of the host consciousness, or whether the persona is simply the residue of a life held in a collective unconscious, leaving the soul free to be elsewhere or perhaps not survive at all. This is not a problem for a believer in reincarnation: there is just one soul which is returning for another shot at becoming detached enough not to be reborn. The current body is for their sole use.

Dalai Lama (for source of image see link)

Dalai Lama (for source of image see link)

My mind being what it is, I cannot resist building even further speculations upon what might seem to some my already unacceptably speculative foundations.

If it should be the soul of the dead which returns, if we accept the resonating host model, what about the soul already linked to that body? Or is that sometimes the linked soul as might the case with the Dalai Lama, and sometimes not, as in fading identifications? What then about possession? Does the guest soul consign the host soul to the sidelines throughout a life time? If so, what then happens to the sidelined soul?

If we make the case of a lama an exception, the general pattern seems to be reducible to the impact of a residue in the universal mind upon a receptive temperament. I am not completely clear what kind of exception a reincarnated lama might constitute. It could be that the Buddha’s teaching that a fully enlightened soul may consent to return for the sake of enlightening others may explain a possible anomaly here.

There are clearly problems for both models – straightforward reincarnation and the reuniting host model. For me, with the possible exception of an enlightened one, the considerations explored in these two posts are reasons to consider the whole idea of reincarnation as problematic. The phenomena pointing in that direction are well attested and need adequate explanation.

My current favourite view has no evidence to support it as yet within the context of reincarnation theory as usually explained by those who believe in it. NDEs, although only indirectly supportive of life after death because the person lived to tell the tale, have convinced me that my already existing conviction in the survival of identity after death is almost certainly correct. What I have not accepted is that the carrier of this identity into the next life is the same as the residue of consciousness experienced by those who report a previous life and think it to be theirs.

What I am confident of is that the subliminal opens onto both the personal and transpersonal unconscious. (Well, I’m confident about the subliminal for now that is! A future post will deal with my default position of doubt. But more of that later.) Via the subliminal, we can experience sub-personalities we have brought into being within our own lives, or the residue of other peoples’ selves held in the universal mind. It is within that area of explanation that the reality underlying these phenomena is probably to be found.

For me, it all reinforces the really crucial point: the vast majority of us do not have direct access to that reality and have to rely on metaphors, myths and parables to give us a sense of what it is about. What is also important is that we do have an inescapable responsibility to work out our own position about this area of experience: what we decide will underpin many decisions we make about actions we take that will affect our planet, as well as our survival as a species and the quality of life all living things will enjoy or have to endure.

I am planning to look in more detail at Ian Stevenson’s work, amongst others, and hope to check out how well some of these speculations match the data as a whole. I’ll be reporting back if anyone is still interested! Any suggestions about good places to look will be gratefully received.

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