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Science On the Edge of Life

Oct. 09, 2014 by | Comments (20)
Pet scan of a brain

Is anybody still at home when the lights go out?
Wikimedia Commons/Jens Maus BY-SA

“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here,” said that ancient hero of hedonism and Athenian party animal, Epicurus. “And when it does come, we no longer exist.”

For some, this is of great comfort. The idea of eternity—even if it’s spent watching seasons two to infinite of Firefly—is not everybody’s cup of cocoa. For others, it’s impossible to contemplate our minds ever processing a final thought. A recently published study titled “AWAreness during REsuscitation” has reignited the discussion of what happens to our minds as we die.

The physical nature of mortality has provided fertile grounds for natural philosophers and scientists for thousands of years. Going back to the ancient Greeks, pre-Socratic materialists pondered whether our mind decayed into its atoms on our death, while Plato and friends much liked the idea of our selves existing in a form that persisted long after our meat became dust. Theological influences have since imposed a heavy cultural weight, making it difficult for much of history to even contemplate an end to one’s thought processes long after we’ve breathed our last… let alone critically examine the idea scientifically.

Yet since the 19th century there has been a wealth of studies applying science to the question of what happens to our mind at the brink of death. Now there is one more to add to the list, and it’s a big one.

The term near death experience (NDE) was coined by the psychologist Raymond Moody in 1975 to describe patient accounts of what he believed was “a glimpse of the beyond.” The experiences associated with NDEs have been reported by anywhere between 12 and 18 per cent of survivors of cardiac arrest, depending on who you ask. Identifying causes for these claimed accounts—of seeing tunnels, bright lights, mystical (and emotional) encounters, dissociation and detachment from the body—has been challenged by the usual difficulties one encounters in psychology and neurology, especially with regards to issues of ethics and consent.

One of the first systematic explorations of the phenomena was conducted by psychologists Ian Stevenson and Bruce Greyson in 1980, who reviewed 78 patients through interviews and examining medical records. They made correlations between the experiences and socio-cultural factors in the patient’s backgrounds, suggesting whatever was going on, it heavily reflected the patient’s history. Understanding how the brain is physically behaving during these experiences is also problematic, given invasive research isn’t exactly a priority when a patient is knocking on death’s door. Other studies have speculated on the effects of hypoxia or hypercarbia on various neural networks, flooding of endorphins, or changes to neurotransmitter receptors, however, as potential players.

For those interested in NDE research, assistant professor of medicine at State University, Dr. Sam Parnia, is a big name. In 2001 Parnia reported he had found no biochemical evidence supporting the role of commonly speculated biochemical changes in near death experiences. In a BBC documentary titled The Day I Died, Parnia expressed his views that the mind was possibly a phenomenon that could exist independently of the brain.

In a new study just recently published in Resuscitation, Parnia has released his findings on a four year study involving 2060 people in the UK, Austria and the US who experienced a cardiac arrest and were successfully revived. The statistics of the “AWAreness during REsuscitation” study suggest 40 percent recalled a form of awareness they attributed to the period they were deemed to be clinically dead. Just 9 percent, however, correlated with experiences ascribed as NDEs. Narratives collected describe the details of many of these experiences, ranging from how various machines sounded to the presence and actions of particular medical staff.

In itself, this data is impressive in its scale and detail. It was unfortunate that in spite of placing images around the hospital where cardiac arrest resuscitation was deemed likely, the evidence collected on explicit visual recall was too limited to objectively apply. Yet as far as health culture goes, the study provides a fascinating snapshot of how patients under resuscitation conditions recall their experience.

Parnia’s interpretation of the results is perhaps more interesting, however. In the paper, he again methodically dismisses the likelihood of the usual biochemical explanations. For him, the brain is just too dead to do much of anything while the heart isn’t pumping. The results suggest awareness during cardiac arrest can’t be compared to that during anaesthesia, for instance.

Thus, within a model that assumes a causative relationship between cortical activity and consciousness the occurrence of mental processes and the ability to accurately describe events during CA … when cerebral function is ordinarily absent or at best severely impaired is perplexing.

In a 2013 interview with Wired magazine, Parnia responded to the fact his claims verged on the supernatural by saying “Just because something is inexplicable with our current science doesn’t make it superstitious or wrong. When people discovered electromagnetism, forces that couldn’t then be seen or measured, a lot of scientists made fun of it.”

In reality, most 19th century scientists went to town studying the relationship between electricity and magnetism given the ease with which they could experiment, while the phenomena went on to be used to justify nearly any belief in the supernatural for the next century or so. But while Parnia’s work contributes valuable data to understanding NDE as a cultural phenomenon, his speculations do indeed sit on the brink of pseudoscience. Not because he claims we have no concrete materialistic answer—in that space, lack of confidence is a virtue of having no convincing evidence. But rather, there are hints of daring to give into the temptation that lack of evidence somehow lends weight to immaterial theories.

“It could be that, like electromagnetism, the human psyche and consciousness are a very subtle type of force that interacts with the brain, but are not necessarily produced by the brain,” Parnia says in the same interview. “The jury is still out.”

Only there is no jury in science. And if forced to use that analogy, they never come in to deliver a final official verdict, as much as one day simply stop devoting so much time to the discussion given the usefulness of their understanding. We have a great deal of evidence that lends great amounts of confidence to a causative model of our minds emerging from a material brain. That this model is incomplete or cannot adequately explain certain phenomena given current knowledge doesn’t mean there is a jury sitting around doodling cupcakes on notepads.

Could discoveries such as a spontaneous spike in activity in specific locations in the dying brains of rats add weight to the argument? In what percentage of cases might false memory play a key role? The limitations of examining the brains of dying humans imposes parameters on research which, while unfortunate, do keep that jury doodling. Yet this also means there is little reason to gain confidence in non-neurological causes for our mind.

If Parnia’s inklings have any merit, I for one am looking forward to season two of Firefly. In the meantime, I’m drinking to Epicurus, may I never get to shake his ethereal hand.

Mike McRae

Mike McRae is an Australian science writer and teacher. He has worked for the CSIRO’s education group and developed resources for the Australian government, promoting critical thinking and science education through educational publications. His 2011 book Tribal Science: Brains, Beliefs and Bad Ideas explored humanity’s development to think scientifically—and pseudoscientifically—about the universe. Read Mike’s other posts on this blog.

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