Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Studying the Edge of Death

Yesterday I read something that I found truly fascinating.  A team of researchers from the University of Michigan Health System published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that showed that within the first 30 seconds after clinical death in rats (where the heart stops):
"... all of the rats displayed a widespread, transient surge of highly synchronized brain activity that had features associated with a highly aroused brain."  
Notice the word "all"?  That's significant because any scientific study expects outliers.  But in this scenario, each brain reacted in exactly the same manner.

Thus, with this initial data in hand, the team then decided to confirm the results by getting a bit more, ahem, data.  They chose a few more Rattus norvegicus volunteers and switched the method of death to asphyxiation.  Again, the results were nearly identical to the patterns of those who preceded the suffocated rats in death (the original set of lucky volunteers who succumbed to cardiac arrest.)

This is a remarkable study because it’s the first time that researchers have actually studied and quantified the dying brain.  I think most people would agree that it's not that big of a leap to extrapolate this phenomenon to human beings.  Since we are mammals with similar – albeit much bigger – brains, then consequently it is highly likely that our brains behave in a similar fashion.  This, too, would be the first natural explanation for near-death experiences with clinical evidence to support it.

Notice I said, “most people.”

In steps Jeffrey Long, MD, a radiation oncologist and self-proclaimed skeptic-turned-believer, who claims:
“The majority of near-death experiences cannot be explained by such a study.”
How so?  Where is your contradictory evidence, beyond simple hearsay and personal anecdotes of near death experiences?  But of course Dr. Long has to issue a statement disagreeing with this study without a shred of contradicting evidence.  How else can he sell more of his, “Evidence of the Afterlife” books if he was to agree that this study has the potential to show that his initial premise of near-death experience is full of new-age religious nonsense?

I recall that Dr. Michael Shermer has also discussed this phenomenon on several different occasions, each of which pointing to the same naturalistic conclusion.  Dr. Shermer writes that oftentimes death is a process that can take two, five, even 10 minutes to complete, with the brain producing hallucinations while in a state of hypoxia.  Yet people like Dr. Deepak Chopra and the good Dr. Long continue to muddy the water with ideas of some mystical universal consciousness, or an esoteric human soul that transcends the body.  Rubbish!  Both of these ideas are both pure conjecture and have no basis in science.

Admittedly these near-death experiences sound impressive and were certainly very real to the person whose brain was busy dying.  But then again, how would these people know the difference?  Our brain is how we interpret stimuli, so of course our brain will believe what it forced upon on itself (assuming that the patient remembers it.)  But these experiences are no more real than someone who has woken up in a state of confusion after a vivid dream.

This phenomenon is why Dr. Long is able to sell so many books with stories of people who have been yanked back from the brink and claim to have experienced something divine.  These patients are very convincing because they themselves are completely convinced that it occurred.  And naturally, people who have been raised with the notion of heaven and hell will buy this nonsense hook, line, and sinker.

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