Dr. Michael Nahm is a biologist and researcher on the remarkable phenomenon known as terminal lucidity.
Interview with Dr. Michael Nahm biologist and researcher on the phenomenon known as terminal lucidity and its connection to near-death experience science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Michael Nahm to discuss his reports on patients who experience brief periods of unexplainable lucidity before death:
Alex Tsakiris: In the papers that you’ve authored you have some really intriguing case studies and you’ve done quite a thorough job of scanning the literature, looking for these case studies, interviewing folks and getting new case information as well. The classic one, and one I really enjoyed, is someone who’s suffered from Alzheimer’s for a long period of time, and is more or less completely disabled. The woman I remember is a case in Iceland. She’s lying in bed and all of the sudden she sits up, and as clear as day looks at her son and recites this really beautiful poem, recites it perfectly, and then falls back into the this state of whatever that locked-up state severe Alzheimer’s sufferers have where she really can’t do anything. So tell us a little bit about that case or another case that just really befuddles the idea we have about how the brain works in these really hampered situations like Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Michael Nahm: Yes, I perfectly agree that’s one of the most intriguing cases and it relates to an Alzheimer’s [patient], a person with a long time Alzheimer’s disease history. And in fact we have collected quite a number of these cases. It seems that the Alzheimer’s cases are somehow very prominent in our case collection. And they are particularly interesting because Alzheimer’s disease destroys the brain to a very great extent so that in the end, in a terminal stage of this disease, people usually are non-responsive. They cannot do anything. They don’t talk. They just lie in their bed and this case was also in this category. It was actually related to me by Erlendur Haraldsson whom you may know from his many publications also on near-death related issues. So he related [this case] to me and I cannot tell you anymore about it but we have many other cases in which people suddenly seem to surprise their bystanders by addressing them personally while they didn’t know or recognize them for years before. They suddenly sat up or seemed to have access to their memory and talked about their lives; talked about their problems they had with let’s say the church, or the fear of death. And then they just leaned back and seemed to die very soon after this episode where everybody thinks, wow, he is recovering or she is recovering and is coming back to life. But quite the contrary, this person is very often in such cases about to die. And many nurses and caretakers have actually confirmed that they know this phenomenon. If a person who has been absent for a very long time suddenly becomes clear, they already get alerts and think, oh wow, this person is actually going to die.
Read Excerpts From The Interview:
Alex Tsakiris: The end result of those experiments [on terminal lucidity and near-death experience] is — this really happened. But, as soon as we get past that fact we have all these, “how many angels fit on the head of a pin” questions. So, you can use traditional science… materialistic science… you can use it really well to say whether or not this is observable, but once you get beyond that, is it really possible to say much that’s meaningful?
Dr. Michael Nahm: To a certain degree, yes, because what science does and should do is collect evidence. For my part, I always have the feeling there’s a very large imbalance especially in frontier areas of science between what we can observe and what people expect to make out of these observations. Sometimes they go, “okay, perhaps out-of-body experiences, and the vertical observations from out-of-body experiences, perhaps they are real, but we don’t have a theory so it can’t be real.” They put too much emphasis on not having a theory, but to me, that’s not the right approach.
Dr. Nahm discusses specific cases he’s examined on terminal lucidity and how Alzheimer’s patients have experienced intervals of clear awareness just before their passing–[2min.54sec-9min.10sec]
[easy-tweet tweet=”NDEs/OBEs… they put too much emphasis on not having a theory, that’s not the right approach — Michael Nahm” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]
Alex Tsakiris: I was going to ask you what some of your colleagues who are more skeptical of the entire near-death experience science field have to say about terminal lucidity. Maybe in asking that I’d also ask why more people aren’t open to what these end-of-life care providers tell us? Because as you said, it’s been my experience that when you talk to these people it’s just standard stuff. They’re like, yeah, we see that all the time. We know what that means. The person encountering spirit, out-of-body spirit encounters by their loved ones… oh yeah, happens all the time around here. I mean, why isn’t anyone talking to these people? They seem to have a wealth of information about this but I don’t think your colleagues have been so receptive to the idea of terminal lucidity. What do they say?
Dr. Michael Nahm: Well let’s say the typical physician or the typical neuroscientists, they will say, well we know that phenomenon. It’s one of these lucid intervals that every person has with a neurological disease or psychiatric disease. Every now and then they become lucid and sometimes it just happens around the same time they also die. So they just regard it as an accident. There is nothing really interesting about that, it’s just one of these things. But I agree that the [people] who actually work with the dying, they have a very different point of view because these lucid intervals are so strikingly different from other lucid intervals they might have had some years before. And I think one reason why the physicians don’t engage in too much dialogue, or the practicians, is because the practicians are those who care for the dying. They are perhaps somehow afraid to relate to the science authorities or to the boss of the hospital. I think that if you talk to these people sometimes this comes through. They experience it a lot but they don’t have a real background or a social background, or colleagues with whom they could talk and share their experience. Sometimes they also like to do it more privately and they don’t go public with it because it might be that they will face some problems.
Researching the origins of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Dr. Nahm talks about the influential role this ancient text has played in our concept of death, how it’s been open to misinterpretation–[16min.43sec-24min.06sec]
Alex Tsakiris: One of the things I wanted to talk about today is the very interesting article you sent me on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And what you explore is how we sometimes misuse and misunderstand what that document really is and what it really means. So I was hoping we could spend a few minutes talking about the Tibetan Book of the Dead and what you discovered.
Dr. Michael Nahm: What you’ve said already sketches nicely what I wanted to say with this paper. Because, let’s put it this way, I became motivated to write about the Tibetan Book of the Dead because of personal experiences I’ve had with adherence of Tibetan traditions. And when I talked about near-death experiences, what the people experienced, typical stages of let’s say pleasurable western NDEs, they will just go on and say no, that’s not related to dying. When you want to know what people experience when they really die, you have to read the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. This is the ultimate authority. This is two thousand years–or five thousand years old.
Dr. Michael Nahm: And this is really what people said to me. And I said, look guys, I have some good literature about near death experiences why don’t you go and read that? No. Because Padmasambhava has written [the book] two thousand years ago and things like that. So I felt compelled to let’s say, clear things up and to compile or to show for the first time it seems, how the Tibetan Book of the Dead was developed in a very specific Tibetan spiritual tradition over the course of many centuries by different individuals who are in part even known as a person. It’s not that some two thousand or whatever years ago some god appeared and said, “Now write this down and this is what happens. Now go and meditate and you can verify it in a scientific way.” That’s just not what it is. And even in Tibet in the different traditions that exist there you find many different approaches to describe what happens to a person dying. There are even contradictions to current NDE research, to other cultures’ concepts of what happens to people when they die. So I think it’s really neat to put that document into the proper context, and this is what I’ve tried to do.
Alex Tsakiris: And I think you do [this] very nicely and very convincingly. And as you just outlined, I see you pulling apart two problems with how we use the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The first is as you just said, there’s this history that’s completely intertwined with a religious tradition and a cultural tradition that has certain biases and certain motivations that aren’t generally associated with pure science or the pure telling of human experience. It gets into spiritual salesmanship to a certain extent because it can’t do otherwise. And it’s not putting it down, it’s just the way things work. The history of any religious tradition gets into at some point the idea of promoting and perpetuating the tradition because it has to to survive. The other thing you pull apart is the complicating factor that as we’ve absorbed it into the west we’ve applied our own filters on it: this is a psychological text about transformation or it’s a very scientific approach to it or it’s a humanistic approach. It’s really about people not about spirituality so much. So maybe you can speak to both of those. You’ve spoken to one but if there’s anything you want to add to how the cultural influences of Tibetan Buddhism and the religious influences might have distorted what we got through the original experiences. And then how we in the west have added this layer of disinformation or misinformation really. I don’t think they were intentionally trying to misinform people, but how that’s been layered on top of it.
Dr. Michael Nahm: I can talk a little about that but basically the real person to talk about [it] would be Brian Cuevas, the one who unearthed all this and who described all this in the book that I mainly draw from in my Tibetan text. He’s the one who showed how the psychological, the scientific, and also the humanistic approach was adopted and promoted by westerners. So I’ve just recapitulated that part in my paper. But I think it’s true. We also have to put that book and its earliest translation in English or in western language into the context of when it appeared. And it appeared much earlier than the book of let’s say Raymond Moody who popularized NDE research in the ‘70s. So the Tibetan Book was much earlier and had a greater impact because the desire of the people who know what’s going on when people die was still there but there weren’t many sources to consult except from very obscure parasychological books and studies, or psychical research but many people don’t know about this excellent work. But anyway this Tibetan book of the Dead, it radiated the huge attraction [during] these times and filled a gap. And it was easy to utilize it for any kind of fashionable concepts of psychology and religion and so on. So finally the westerners with a quite limited spirituality at that time, they had the solution. Look at those old guys. They worked it out. That’s how it is. So that came a great relieve and I think that’s one of the reasons why it became so successful.
Alex Tsakiris: So where do come down on the end of it in terms of how you think we should approach looking at the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And in particular, how we should understand it in light of more contemporary near death experience science?
Dr. Michael Nahm: I think it is one out of many different ways to describe what happens around the time that people die. But I’m not so sure westerners can really do much with it.
Speculating on future developments in near-death research, Dr. Nahm is confident we can apply current tools to apprehend these experiences and what they potentially reveal about extended consciousness--[26min.57sec-32min.28sec]
Alex Tsakiris: This gets to the larger question of where can we really go with near-death experience research, if you will, or science? It seems to me that we have this huge wall–it’s the evidential wall and we’ve leaped over it even though there are a lot of people who don’t want to leap over it with us. It’s like, hey, this is real. This happens. This seems to completely undermine this dorky idea that we’ve had of how the mind is wholly a product of the brain. That seems to be cast aside by this research but I’m not sure what we can do beyond that. I remember interviewing Raymond Moody who can sometimes be very difficult to listen to. He talks in rhymes and sometimes has these weird associations that he makes. One thing he was really insistent on and it stuck with me–I don’t know if it’s true or not–he said that when it comes to NDEs, we need a completely different system of logic. And I would extend that and say a system of language before we can ever talk about this stuff scientifically. So I wonder if this whole field just brings us up to the point of saying, okay, something very strange is going on. Then I’m always a little leery when we extend beyond that and say, this is a completely new realm that we’ve discovered but we can use all our same tools. We can just pack them on our back and bring them with us as we investigate this. I don’t know that we can.
Dr. Michael Nahm: I think that we can of course go there and use our methods that we use in other science disciplines. I always prefer an experimental approach like [with] out-of-body experiences, why not try to investigate them experimentally like Charles Tart has done for example, and some other people earlier.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m with you on all of that, Michael, but the end-result of all those experiments is just this is real, this really happened. As soon as we get past that we have all these how many angels fit on the head of a pin questions. So you can use traditional science–materialistic science and you can use it really well to say whether or not this is observable inside of our shared conscious experience that we have. But once you get beyond that, is it really possible to say much that’s at all meaningful beyond that?
Dr. Michael Nahm: To a certain degree, yes, because what science does and should do is collect evidence. In the best cases prove but of course that’s difficult. For my part, I always have the feeling there’s a very large imbalance especially in frontier areas of science between what we can observe and what people expect to make out of these observations. Sometimes they go, okay, perhaps out-of-body experiences, vertical observations from out-of-body experiences…perhaps they are real but we don’t have a theory so it can’t be real. They put too much emphasis on not having a theory but for me that’s not the right approach. I think if we have the facts and I think we have quite good facts we can go on to thinking what does that all mean but we should not expect to come up with a sound, waterproof theory with explanations and predictions…I think it would be nice if it [were] the case but I always have the impression that reality or even consciousness is larger than what I can penetrate with my human logic. And I think if you go into the realm of quantum physics or even in the theories of relativity and all of [these] physicians trying to find a theory of everything…I don’t think they will succeed because we will not be able to penetrate the foundations of nature, the foundations of existence with bottom-up causality and logic. I think it’s begging too much and when we talk about frontier areas of science and near-death experiences, I don’t think our logic will help us to fully understand but it’s enough to understand the basics. Even without having a solid theory about how does dualism work, how does the mind and the brain interact? I don’t know if we’ll ever understand that fully but that doesn’t mean I reject it because the theory is lacking.