At the end of the last post we looked at psi. Other transpersonal experiences, particularly ones relating to mind-brain independence, are more controversial, if that is possible. Psi is even seen as a confounding variable, which I suppose is progress of a kind, rather than a supportive prop.
For example, Braude’s work in Mortal Remains makes it clear that it is difficult conclusively to determine whether apparently strong evidence of mind-body independence such as mediumship and reincarnation are not in fact examples of what he calls super-psi, though at points he thinks survivalist theories have the edge (page 216):
On the super-psi hypothesis, the evidence needs to be explained in terms of the psychic successes of, and interactions between, many different individuals. And it must also posit multiple sources of information, both items in the world and different peoples beliefs and memories. But on the survival hypothesis, we seem to require fewer causal links and one individual… from whom all information flows.
Less sympathetically, 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.
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. 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.
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.
Intriguing or what? Deuce maybe? Or a plague on both their houses?
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.
Thompson feels, even so, that there is a possible way of explaining these sorts of experiences. He quotes the work of Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (page 313) who ‘put forward a model of how the distinct brain areas known to be frequently damaged in cardiac arrest patients may contribute to the various elements that make up near-death experiences.’ They claim to have found two types of NDE, one linked to right- and the other to left-hemisphere functioning. He adds (my italics): ‘it also seems possible that a patient could have both types of near-death experience and later link them together into one remembered and reported episode. Pam Reynolds’s near death experience, for example, might have been of this kind.’
So, you pay your penny and takes your choice.
I feel I’m back in a familiar place, the one described by John Hick.
John Hick adduces a very compelling argument that appeals to a mind like mine that has never had even a glimpse of what Pam Reynolds, amongst many others who came back to describe their near death experience, had access to. Hick, in his book The Fifth Dimension, contends that experiencing the spiritual world in this material one would compel belief whereas God wants us to be free to choose whether to believe or not (pages 37-38):
In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, the hidden God – hidden and yet so readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, . . . . . This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings. . . . To be a person is, amongst many other things, to be a (relatively) free agent in relation to those aspects of reality that place us under a moral or spiritual claim.
So, most of us won’t find evidence so compelling it forces us to believe.
To be fair to Thompson I need to add two more quotes which resonate with this in a way, the first from the end of the section on NDEs (page 314):
Although Blanke and Dieguez’s model is speculative, as they admit, it serves to illustrate how we can begin to approach near-death experiences from a cognitive neuroscience perspective, instead of supposing, as many near-death experience researchers do, that these experiences pose an insurmountable challenge to neuroscience.
This is at least honestly tentative, untainted by fundamentalist scientism. His basic position is similarly balanced (ibid.):
One way to lose touch with the existential meaning of near-death experiences is to argue, on the basis of the kind of cognitive neuroscience perspective just sketched, that these experiences are nothing other than false hallucinations created by a disordered brain. Another way is to argue that these experiences are true presentations of a real, transcendent, spiritual realm to which one’s disembodied consciousness will journey after death.
Both of these viewpoints fall into the trap of thinking that near-death experiences must be either literally true are literally false. This attitude remains caught in the grip of a purely third-person view of death… Both viewpoints turn away from the experience itself and try to translate it into something else or evaluate it according to some outside standard of objective reality.
Where does that all leave me?
I have failed so far to find evidence to confirm that transliminality of any kind is anything more than an occasional correlate of psychosis. Moreover, I sense that at this point, I am going to be hard-pressed to find strong evidence that will support the notion that psychosis entails the leaching into consciousness both of subconscious brain activity and extrasensory stimuli.
Still, I have clarified to my own satisfaction what I think I need to find evidence for. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains in Some Answered Questions that (pages 241-42):
The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names—the human spirit and the rational soul—designate one thing. . . .
. . . the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit and is its essential quality, as the sun’s rays are the essential necessity of the sun.
The diagram at the top of this post, with which I illustrated in an earlier post the issue of brain-produced and extrasensory stimuli, plainly does not go far enough. One of the best existing attempts of something that does is to be found in psychosynthesis.
It neatly distinguishes the conscious self (the ego) from the Higher Self – in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms the mind as a power or fruit of the spirit. With its help I am hoping to explore these issues further, particularly with respect to psychosis and creativity.
I would hope eventually to be able to tease out how trauma can lift us towards compassionate self-transcendence instead of shrinking us towards self-protective egotism, depending upon our response to it. The implication for creativity would be whether the pain of life makes a better person as well as a better artist because greater creativity and access to the transcendent are both possible and facilitated by pain, and for psychosis whether pain causes less effective filtering for both brain-generated and extrasensory experiences.
In both cases trauma could lift or lower the trajectory of a person’s life. I’d like to explore more deeply why some people go up and others go down.
I’ll leave it there until the New Year, and pause my posts until then as I did last year. I wish all my readers well over this festive season.