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Alex: Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris.
Today, I don’t have much news on the experiments we’re working on but I do have a very, very interesting interview coming up with Dr. Peter Fenwick, one of the foremost authorities on near-death experiences and a really clear and compelling voice about so many of the topics that we talk about here in Skeptiko. It’s a rather long interview so I’m going to get right to it. Here’s my interview with Dr. Peter Fenwick.
Alex: Our guest today is an internationally renowned neuropsychiatrist and Britain’s leading clinical authority on near-death experiences. He’s the author of many, many books including one we’re going to talk about a little bit today, The Art of Dying. Dr. Peter Fenwick, welcome to Skeptiko.
Peter: Thank you so much.
Alex: It’s a real joy to have you on. I of course am very inspired by much of your research and your writings. I think you give a real clear voice to this whole issue of survival of consciousness and as well as in this new book The Art of Dying. So I really can’t hide my support of your work. But I think we’re going to have a very interesting dialogue here and might be able to engage on a couple of different points and see where all that shakes out.
Where I thought we might start though is maybe you could tell us a little bit about what sparked your interest in the whole issue of survival of consciousness. In particular, since you were really I think going down a much more mainstream track at the time, what compelled you to speak out publicly about this topic?
Peter: Two question though. First, one is what sparked my interest. I’m a neuropsychiatrist and as such I deal with people’s mental state and I have wide experience in different mental states. Also, I dealt with patients with epilepsy and so I have experience of abnormal brain discharges in different brain structures and the alterations that these can make in people’s mental states. So I was familiar with that whole are.
I also at one point read Raymond Moody’s book on near-death experiences and I looked at that and I knew that near-death experiences only happen in California and they don’t cross the Atlantic to the UK. That was in about ’82.
Then into my consulting room came a man who had a cardiac catheter and it had gone hopelessly wrong. His heart stopped and if his account is correct, they were not prepared for this in the cardiac cath room and there were specific reasons for this. There was a lot of turmoil went on while they tried to restart his heart. He told me he was watching this from the ceiling during the time his heart had stopped. He was extremely anxious about the whole thing, not surprisingly. He didn’t have a full near-death experience. He left his body, watched the resuscitation process, went down the tunnel, met the being of light and then essentially was sent back.
The next day, the cardiac surgeon came up to him and said, “I think we didn’t quite get the information we wanted yesterday so we’ll have you again in the cath lab today.” He was so traumatized by the whole thing, he just simply got up and left the hospital. So what I saw was a man with a [inaudible 00:04:37] in the story. It was quite clear to me then that the evidence suggested that near-death experiences actually did cross the Atlantic.
So we set up a study or Margot Grey set up a study in Guy’s Hospital and of course we found them just as common here in England as we did in as if they had been found in America. That was really interesting because it raised questions. The question it raised is what is the nature of this particular mental state? Is it just due to alterations in brain function which had very good organic causes or could it point in another direction.
One of the things I did in 1986, we did the first British NDE film. In following that, we got over 2,000 letters and I selected at those 500 and sent them a specific questionnaire. So you got a large sample of detailed questions and answer to what a near-death experience was in the British population. Now you have to remember that 98% of that sample had never heard of a near-death experience when they had it. You can’t get samples like this nowadays because everybody’s heard of them but back then they hadn’t. So we feel that our data is fairly clear.
The next point was it all due to drugs. We asked this question of the data and the respondents in over 30% said they weren’t on any drugs at the time. So that’s [inaudible 00:06:31] drugs [inaudible 00:06:32].
Alex: Can I interject something with a question here because what’s intriguing to me is I’m wondering, Dr. Fenwick, as you’re going and preceding through this research and you made a funny comment that you didn’t know whether or not NDEs crossed the Atlantic, what was the climate like for you both, with your colleagues and maybe even internally in terms of this paradigm shift that’s going on in your head. What is that like? Can you share a little bit about that?
Peter: Yes. That was interesting but you have to remember that I’m grounded in neuropsychiatry. So if I talk about mental states, my colleagues aren’t too surprised. But there is a lot of resistance because at the hospital I was practicing at that time, they had an intensive care unit. I applied to the ethics committee to carry out a questionnaire survey of people who had been through the intensive care unit to find out if any of them had had near-death experiences.
In the ethics committee, one of the major people who was running the committee at that time was very, very hostile. Since he was one of the physicians on the intensive care unit, he said, “There will be no such experiences in my unit because when people are seriously ill like that, they are treated with drugs and sedated and they are not conscious. So it’s impossible to get experiences like that because they don’t occur and it’s therefore a stupid question and will only be upsetting the patients by asking them.” They turned down my first request.
So there’s a lot of hostility which was impulsive and not rational because in fact what has come out of the data is that people with near-death experiences are very much supported by being able to talk about them. But that information only came later. So it took a little while to be able to point out that there is now a growing science behind this and we’re interested in the science of it and we’re not just interested in the phenomena as trying to prove any particular point.
Just on another point which became very important for us and which really directed the whole research. Was that when we looked at our first 500 questionnaire responses we found that near-death experiences or the phenomenology of near-death experiences could occur in many different situations. Obviously, they occurred near to death because that’s what we were looking at. Well the people said they were near to death. They also occurred in accidents when the outcome of the accident was no trauma to the person but they may have been threatened by it.
But they also tended to occur in situations where [inaudible 00:09:51] the person could never have been near death. Then there were some people who said they had these experiences relaxing in front of the fire or even when they were going to sleep. So, sort of having [inaudible 00:10:07] getting a drink. So that made me feel that you could not get a sample like this and expect to be able to get a good scientific explanation because they’re probably going to be many.
So what we needed to know very firmly was brain states. We had to hold brain states constant and then we could look at phenomenology. The most interesting were in the cardiac arrests. We had 10% of cardiac arrests in the sample. So we said where we must start in trying to understand these is to in fact look at cardiac arrests specifically because then we know that it has the three states, three clinical features which indicates that the person has, if in fact dead. If they weren’t resuscitated the process would become irreversible. That is no pulse rate or no heart rate. They’re not breathing and all their brainstem reflexes are down. So the brain is totally dysfunctional.
So if we were going to study near-death experiences then that was our group. So we set up a study at Southampton Hospital with Sam Parnia, who’s since gone on to look at these in other group patients which is ongoing at the moment. What we found out, yes, they do happen in cardiac arrest. The data pointed to this experience occurring when brain function was absent.
Now the importance of this to science is astonishing. If you can really say that people have mental states which are present in the absence of brain function then you’re saying something so important and we have to look at consciousness in a different way. That is the aware project which has been discussed and Sam is looking at this now in 18 hospitals in the UK and I think 3 in the USA and 1 is in Austria because we must know if near-death experiences occur at the time the heart has stopped. If so, what the phenomenology of the heart is.
Alex: That really encapsulates the whole gist I think of what I wanted to talk about. Really, if I can, I’m going to delay a little bit going into your book, The Art of Dying. It’s a very interesting book and I want to talk about it. But you’ve just brought us to the central question and that is, why hasn’t there been the shift? So the data is there, the data has mounted up and of course we can always want more data. But why hasn’t there been the shift?
Peter: There are several reasons for this I think. Let’s assume that one is a scientist and that one is following one’s career. If you’re doing that then you obviously had to be attached to a unit and you have to apply for grants. Now, if you’re applying for grants, what you’re going to apply for? You’re going to apply for things particularly in medicine that is seen as helpful. Is it really helpful to study near-death experiences? Would you rather find out how to place a new microvalve in the heart or would you be interested in the mental states of the patients who are unconscious? One would contribute towards the usefulness of medicine as a whole. We could all do with new microvalves at some time, whereas the other is much more for pure science.
Alex: Let me interject, Dr. Fenwick, because I would question whether you really even believe that. I think the implications for survival of consciousness are so vast and so widespread – and let’s take it out of the medical profession, move it into psychology. Certainly, and my wife is a psychologist, but every aspect, every area of psychology is turned upside down if you have this different view of consciousness and survival of consciousness. I’d take it one step further and I was mentioning to you before that I had a very interesting interview with a gentleman, Dr. David Lester, who’s not only one of the leading authorities on suicide and is on all these boards and whatnot but is also the author this book Is There Life After Death.
This goes to my point that I don’t think we can explain it just from what the practical applications of it are because here’s a guy who’s investigating suicide on one hand, he’s investigating and writing a book on is there life after death. There’s just this lack of scholarship that’s kind of dumbfounding.
If I can, let me play for you a clip. Can I play this clip for you?
Peter: Yes. I’d be interested to listen to it.
(Start of interview with Dr. David Lester)
Alex: What do you make of the fact that in Dr. Bruce Greyson’s research people who have attempted suicide, had failed, and have had a near-death experience are dramatically less likely to try suicide again and that they tell them that I’m not afraid of death and I want to live and all these other things?
David: I’m not sure what to make of that, even to speculate. It actually doesn’t really make sense to me that those who attempted suicide and have a near-death experience don’t feel suicidal afterwards. I would expect that if the experience is that pleasant they might be more prone.
Alex: But that’s not what the data shows.
David: I know, so it’s counterintuitive to me. When you me why do you think it might happen is like I really don’t know because I would have thought the opposite would happen.
(End of interview with Dr. David Lester)
Alex: Okay, so a nice enough guy and we had this chat but I just have run across this so many times. Here is a guy who’s in a position, he’s one of our authorities. He’s in the position of being a scientific authority. How can there be this disconnect? How can there be this lack of scholarship to just be so disconnected from the research?
Peter: I think there are several points there. The first point is he’s right. He’s right in the sense that some suicide patients, if they have a near-death experience want to get back to that place again. I’ve had referred to me one or two people who set out to commit suicide again because it was such a nice experience. This world, beside the NDE world, looked very tawdry and non-inviting. There was one patient who we had to have in hospital for over a year while she came to terms with the fact that it was a near-death experience and she had to get on with her life. I can think of another person who after his near-death experience would sit in his chair all day just saying that he wanted to die to get back to where he’d been.
But that is not the general feeling. The general feeling is that you lose your fear of death and you’re less likely to commit suicide. But Bruce Greyson has done some work on the accounts of spirituality after near-death experiences. But he’s also looked at those people who’ve had a very close brush with death. For example, cardiac arrests without near-death experience and they share the same thing but not to the same extent.
So if you look to this people who are very close to death do get a change in attitude. They do become more spiritual in the wider sense of the world, although those who have a near-death experience become more spiritual and have a much greater understanding of life than they did before the near-death experience.
Alex: What about the point do you think we’re properly engaging with that data?
Peter: No. It raises a whole lot of questions for us. The most important one through my point of view are that we actually don’t really properly understand death even. So the near-death experience suggests, and I’m talking about near-death experience in cardiac arrests. Keep it very specific so we know what we’re talking about then. Suggests a continuation of consciousness once the heart has stopped and the brain has become dysfunctional.
Now if that is what suggested it then we should be able to go to the literature and ask questions about the mental state of the dying as they come up to death because there should be some information there about what the actual death process is. Now if you do that, you’ll find there’s a huge, big, black hole. People have not asked that really interesting question to me, and that is what is the phenomenology as you approach death.
Now these don’t occur in everyone and I’m not absolutely certain yet of what the frequency is, but what I can say is that they’re frequent. We’ve been researching in hospices, in a nursing home and the palliative care team, looking at the mental states and what happens before you die. Now for various reasons we have started by asking the carers of the dying what they have noted when people died. There were a whole set of questions which we extracted and these related to deathbed visions. You’re account in the literature, very few, there’s a nice book by [Otis and Haralson] [ph 00:20:27] on this. There are very few studies and no prospective studies of what deathbed visions are and how often they occur.
So we wanted to examine those and there’s something else called deathbed care instances and these go into all the phenomena which occur at the time of death. In our western culture, there really are no studies at all of what actually happens at the time of the death. On materialistic science, it will just simply be a switching off of the brain, end of story, let’s go home, with no interest.
In actual fact, the near-death experience has taught us that there could be a considerable interest because of the potential for a continuation of life after death or certainly continuation of life when the heart has stopped and the brain is dysfunctional. So we need to know what happens at the time of death. We’ve now been able to write four papers on what the carers of the dying say happens at the time of death. The story is enormously interesting.
Alex: Isn’t there somewhat of a disconnect there as well? You were talking about early on in your research when the person who was running the ward of the hospital was not interested in having you poking around with your patients.
Isn’t there also this disconnect with end of life healthcare providers? If I was to walk down to my local hospice center, go, pull a nurse aside and say, “I’m really concerned about my mental health because I’m having visitations from my father.” I’m sure she’d pull me aside and say, “Really, there’s nothing to worry about. I see this all the time.” Versus if I walk in and told my psychiatrist this or my neurologist this down at the hospital, they’d be putting me under medication.
So you obviously are exploring and starting with these end-of-life healthcare providers. Why hasn’t been done before? Maybe the other question is, is their story different from other healthcare providers?
Peter: What is so interesting is that there’s a huge black hole. Science has refused to look at this area in the west. They just are not many papers on the mental state of the dying and what they experience. Again, I think there are two reasons for this. One is because there’s the taboo of looking at death because the doctor see it as a medical failure if their patient is going to do so they don’t study it. So that’s one point.
The other point is that in society too, we tend to not consider our own death. We’ll talk about people’s death but we very seldom spend time thinking about what death is going to be like for us. You certainly don’t in a party go up to somebody and say, “Hi! Tell me, what’s it going to be like when you die.” We make absolutely certain we don’t visit that.
So we don’t allow ourselves both from a scientific point of view and to some extent in a cultural point of view to look at this. But the phenomenology is just fascinating and it starts, the Dalai Lama says that we know, and this is my current research interest and if any of your listeners have information on this, I’d love to know about it. The Dalai Lama says that two years before you die, you get inclinations that you’re going to die.
So, I would like to know from people if their relatives who have died had inclinations that long before. I don’t mean once you’ve gone to the doctor and found a lump and you know you got cancer, that’s not that. It’s mental inclinations that you know that you’re going to die, probably when you consider yourself to be well before anything happens. So that’s one point.
About a month about you die, then you’ll start getting visitations from dead family members. We’ve got enough accounts of these to say who comes and it tends to be spouses are the highest on your list. Then brothers or sisters and children quite often see their grandparents.
The visitations are most interesting because it produces a change in journeying language or change in language of the dying. They don’t talk about “when I die.” They talk about “I’m going on a journey,” “when I’m picked up,” “I won’t be here because I’m leaving.” It’s got quite a different sound to it. The visitations usually tell people or the visitors tell people that they’re going to be there for them and look after them at a certain time. The time they give them is, “I’ll be back at 4:00 tomorrow afternoon.” Now the person dies at that time. Sometimes they die in the process of greeting somebody.
So we’ve got quite a bit of information about the nature of these visitors and what it’s like for people who are dying and what their purpose is. They seem to be there to pick the people up or that’s what the dying say. The dying can negotiate with these visitors, put off their dying for a bit. They say, “No. I’m not ready to go yet. I want to wait for my son.” Sometimes the dying process will seem to stop, they can wait for their son to come and then they die after that.
Alex: How intriguing. I’ll make sure we that we have a link up on the Skeptiko website for any of you who are listening where you can directly connect with Dr. Fenwick and pass those stories along.
Can I go back for a minute and touch on something that you were mentioning about the cultural factors in this. I was just thinking of how we’ve changed our approach to death and how really in the last 20, 30, maybe even 40 years we’ve pushed it more and more in the background. I think back about when I was a kid it was becoming rare but it was still possible that people would have a wake in their house. There’d be a dead body in the house and that seems so strange to us now. Yet, from a standpoint of being comfortable around the fact that that is what’s coming for all of us, what are the consequences of removing ourselves from that fact?
Peter: You’re so right. That’s absolutely correct. Death has been swept under the carpet and swept into special places. I don’t mind going to special places but it’s divorced from life which is the difficulty. Of course, in Victorian times, when death was so common, what would you have, 10 children, five of whom would live? Death was a common phenomenon. Everybody was brought up knowing about death. Death was seen very much as part of life. It wasn’t something strange, which you don’t want to know about, and is something outside of one’s experience. Everybody knew about it and they had been there when a sibling or parent had died. Remember of course, people were dying much younger. They didn’t go on and on and on, and then going to nursing homes and then die without any contact with the rest of the family.
So I think this has had an enormous effect on us to the extent that we have mentally pushed death right away from us. I don’t know if you remember but when I was younger, if you saw a cortège passing down the street, I would used to stand still and some people would bow their heads as the hearse pass them. People don’t do that now. What you get are the motorists behind honking their horns because the cortège is going so slowly. In other words, there is no longer any respect for the death, for the people who had died, for the dead in that sense at all. It’s not until you precipitated into this that you come to recognize that death is in fact a profound part of life and it needs to be reintegrated back again to society. I think you’re absolutely right on that. We’ve lost all our rituals too, haven’t we?
Alex: Yes. I think it’s funny that you mentioned the Dalai Lama and without getting too far into the Buddhist tradition. One thing I came across, and I can’t even put my finger on exactly where, but in certain Buddhist sects, the first training that a Buddhist monk does is go and meditate in front of the, basically the graveyard where the bodies are placed before they’re cremated or whatever is done. The idea is obvious. Is that you start by considering the ending point. I just always thought that was so spot on in terms of isn’t that where we should all be putting our attention to begin with before we even consider life, to consider the end.
Peter: I think you’re absolutely right. One of the things I would like to do is for death to be taught as a subject in school. Now you may say this is very ghoulish but it is only ghoulish in our culture, it’s only ghoulish because we have swept it under the carpet. So you might say, “What are you going to teach the kids? What is there that’s special about death? It’s a switching off.” No, it isn’t. I’m going to suggest that we actually don’t know yet when we die.
Now I’ll support that in the moment because you may say to me when the heart stops beating and brain stem reflexes go, the definition of death. That’s when we die. But I can give you artificial respiration and cardiac massage and then you don’t die, so that’s no longer a point. So what you say is we should take brain death but I’ve already shown you that brain disruption does not negate a full mental state with memory which is astonishing if it’s correct. So we have to think about that.
Just think about this, if you talk to the dying and say when did the person die, they will tell you that there is a moment when the body that they’ve been looking at changed from an animated or having an occupied presence to one when it’s an empty shell. Now this is a definite moment they say.
Alex: So this is during an out of body experience?
Peter: No, just ordinary people dying. The relatives gathered around. They look at it and say it’s moved from an animated presence to an empty shell. These ideas might be strange but yet these are what the people who are surrounding the body at the time of death say.
Now if you take that as the moment of death, then you’re going to push death quite a long way [inaudible 00:32:40] from the definition which we’ve been thinking about before which is the cessation of respiration, etc. Sometimes we have accounts from people. I’ve got a lovely account from a son who came and visited his dead father a week after he had died. The father had asked this, in fact, his body was kept until his son came. When the son arrived, his experience was that his father was still there, still present in his body even though he’d been dead, as we’re using the other definition, for over about a week.
Then soon after his father had been sitting with him for some time, it became apparent to the son that the state of the body, as far as he perceived it, changed and it became an empty shell. Now that sort of thing would suggest that our understanding of death yet is still very imperfect. We need many, many more accounts from people and studies of what this actually means because it may mean that we will get a linking in our western tradition much more onto the eastern traditions of death, the idea and the concept of something leaving.
Now, if you ask people who, again, who care for the dying they’ll tell you that the relatives of the dying frequently see shapes and mists leaving the body at the time of death, when they stop breathing. So we have this within our own culture of things leaving the body at the time of death. But it goes much, much wider than that. There is some evidence of connectiveness between the dying and people they know. We’ve had the chance to look at this and it has a very definite structure to it. The phenomenon is as follows: that somebody who’s connected to the dying person at a distance, maybe in another country even, suddenly gets a very strong feeling that that person is dying or if they’re not dying that something very strong is happening to them.
Now the way this feeling occurs depends on the mental state of the individual at the time the experience happens. So if you’re awake, you get fairly simple ones, they’re strong feelings, they’re emotions that something is happening. It’s a compulsion that you have to go and ring somebody up because they’re in danger, that sort of feeling.
Occasionally, people report a vision of the person but that is rare. They may have a knowledge that the person has come to say goodbye to them and reported to the knowledge. It’s that sort of thing and of course, this happens in people who don’t know that the other person is ill at all.
Now if you’re asleep then the visitation is quite different. It’s much more complex, it’s much more narrative. It now takes part as a part of dream imagery when the dying person comes to tell you that they’re dying. Usually, they come with the message that they’re also okay now.
The phenomenology is something like this, there is this one other woman who became aware that her son was standing at the end of her bed. Her son was in country, she was in another and that he was dripping wet. As she watched him, she became aware that he slowly became dryer and then became surrounded by light. The light is always the light of love and compassion. He said to his mom that he’s okay and then the vision faded.
Now this was all in a dream. She didn’t know whether she was awake or in a dream. I suspect she was probably asleep. Of course, she was extremely worried by this because she knew that something awful had happened to him. So when she could she rang up to find that he’d been drowned about the time that he appeared to his mother.
Now we’ve got lots and lots of stories like this, these deathbed care instances. So there’s a very strong linkage at the time of death between the person who’s dying and somebody they know extremely well.
Alex: What’s so intriguing about this story that you’ve just told and the way that you’re linking the science to the stories is that there’s, again, such this disconnect between science that you’re trying to put together and what’s generally accepted among mainstream science. What do you think it’s going to take to change that? Is there a breakthrough study that can be done? Is there breakthrough work that can be done or is it just plowing away with the kind of work which is very, very compelling? Is it just building block by block, putting together accounts and doing work or is there some breakthrough that we can have?
Peter: I think the breakthrough is going to come through some [inaudible 00:38:18] experiment. Where it becomes quite clear that in cardiac arrest it’s possible for the consciousness with a dysfunctional brain to perceive what is happening in the [inaudible 00:38:31]. Maybe go outside it and pick up information and then remember this after is over because one of the things that we do know that is that memory is significantly affected in head injuries. It’s one of the first questions you ask, “Do you remember what happened?” That’s just because memory is so sensitive to cerebral trauma.
So it should be, on our current understanding of memory function, impossible to remember what happens after cardiac arrest during that process. So if we can do really two things, one is to define the brain state more accurately, in other words we need cerebral monitors of some sort. It would be interesting what we’re doing is to stop the cerebral blood flow. If we could look at cerebral blood flow at the time of the cardiac arrest and we can get information from the patient’s account to show that they were indeed acquiring information at the time their brain was dysfunctional and to remember this afterwards. Then we have to ask questions about consciousness and whether it is the sort of phenomenon that we think it is at the moment.
If it turns out that it’s not, then all the things that I’ve been talking about come right midstream scientific agenda. We’d have to then get more information on it ¬¬- but the crucial breakthrough, one crucial breakthrough, certainly that. The other breakthrough is just collecting information of what actually happens. There is a doctor in the States, in Houston, Dr. John Lerma, who had started this process of collecting information, what happens around the time of death. He’s got the most wonderful accounts of what happened.
So we need many, many more Dr. John Lermas all over the States starting to ask these questions and publish them. In fact, all of us who are interested in human in life must start to look at and understand human death because it is so much part of life.
Alex: Absolutely. I think at some point it just becomes an issue of parsimony and I think we’re almost already there. What other explanations do we have? Although it is interesting, I had a conversation with a Dr. Cliff Saron at the University of California-Davis. Here’s a guy who was actually, he’s at the Center for Mind and Brain and he’s studying Buddhist monks and meditation. I actually had the occasion to call Dr. Saron because I was interested in potentially supporting the research, in funding some of it.
So I thought this would be someone who would be very open to continuation of consciousness research. He just was hostile to the idea and, it seemed to me, very misinformed about the data. What particularly brought up which I wanted to address with you is it seems like no matter how much research is mounted on the side of continuation of consciousness, the skeptics are waiting on the other side to just find the least little bit of evidence to counter that.
What came up from my conversation with Dr. Saron he goes, “What about the recent work Henrik Ehrsson,” I’m probably mispronouncing his name. But in Sweden they did this study and they made such a big deal out it. It garnered so much press attention that they had recreated an out of body experience and when you really look at the substance of the research, there’s really not much there. Are you familiar with that and would you care to comment on how you think that research might fit into near-death experience and the out of body experience?
Peter: Yes. There’ve been a number of papers published on out of body experiences and the brain processes which underpin them. Now there’s nothing surprising in that at all because we found for many years with the body image generated within the brain, there’s structures which mediate it. If you stimulate these structures either electrically or damage them in such things as stroke, you get an alteration in body image. So, there’s actually no difficulties about that.
Alex: Just to back up, that’s what they did in this study. They used virtual reality goggles in order to trick them into a feeling where their body was at the time. Isn’t that essentially it?
Peter: That’s absolutely correct. But you see, what they didn’t do and what they should’ve done was to refer to the Japanese work which occurred about 20 or 30 years ago, saying that you could change body image by using television cameras in a way which is not too dissimilar from what they’ve just recently done. They’re just going over old ground again. Really, all this is showing is that our brain images are enormously plastic and can be changed.
As we go towards out of body experiences, in any sense because you’re not actually dealing with that, we’ve got one piece of evidence I think from another study which points to the fact that you can get information by an out of body experience when the brain is down. This work was done by Penny Sartori in Swanzee. She’s an intensive care nurse and she was doing a study of near-death experiences in the cardiac unit. She divided her sample up into those of who’ve said they left their bodies and watched their resuscitation process and those who had no experience during their cardiac arrest. What she did was she asked both groups of people to say exactly what happened during the arrest.
Now, the prediction is that everybody who goes into a cardiac arrest, they have a very good idea of what actually happens in the res situation because of what they’ve seen on telly. That’s where the fact that people who’d say that seeing the rest is probably wrong because it’s just memories of what they think happens.
So when she compared the group, they said they had seen it, and how accurate they were with the group who just had not seen anything for what must have happened. She’d found that the group who’ve said they’ve seen it were in fact significantly more accurate.
Alex: So just to clarify then. The resuscitation process and I don’t know anything about it other than ER show on TV like you’re mentioning. But it’s very complicated in terms of the sequence of events at which…
Peter: That is exactly right.
Alex: …different apparatus are connected at any time. So the chances that someone would just guess that are not very great and she found significant differences between folks who had been resuscitated after a near-death experience versus those who had not. Is that correct?
Peter: Yes. Those who had seen it knows it had happened. Who said they’ve seen it compared to those who had had no experience. So it’s a straw in the wind, you get lots of these straws. As Michael Sabom’s work, again, showing correlations between descriptions of the near-death experiences of what happened during the arrest which they couldn’t have known because they were unconscious at the time.
So there’s a lot of evidence pointing in this direction but what we need is to be absolutely certain from a scientific point of view that the brain is down. That needs to be demonstrated apart from the fact that all their brain stem reflexes have gone. We need something to show which is unique to that situation to show that the experience occurred at that time.
Alex: The last area I guess that I want to probe in terms of this disconnect between the research and the data on near-death experience, on afterlife encounters, on re-orienting ourselves towards the dying process which is I think part of what you’re trying to do in your book The Art of Dying. But the last component of that that has to do with an interview that I had just recently is the role that religion plays in this whole equation. I can’t help but feel that we’ve struck a bargain between science and religion and created this false dichotomy that further perpetuates this misunderstanding.
The book I’m talking about is The Spiritual Brain and we’ve just had an interview with Denyse O’Leary, who is one of the co-authors of that, is a Catholic and is very upfront about her beliefs and her acceptance of that doctrine. But what I find is from religious folks, they’re either not willing to look at this data at all or they’re only willing to accept it to the point that it disconfirms the materialistic, atheistic paradigm. But they’re not really interested in fully engaging with where this data might lead us. So do you have any thoughts on maybe the role our organized religions, particularly our western religions, have played in this whole issue.
Peter: Yes. I think it enormously interesting and a very wide question. Of course now with it being the [inaudible 00:48:41] or is it 150 years since the origin of species. There’s been a lot of discussions as to relationship between the evolution theory and religion and the effects that it had at the time on the scientific culture and the way that various religions have seen it.
It’s not the debate which that caused isn’t too dissimilar from the debate which the new data on how we die, the phenomenology of dying and what this shows us in terms of moving on, moving towards and moving from, suggestions of the continuation of consciousness. People are very divided, and they get very divided in specific areas. On Monday to Friday, they’re materialists and on Saturday and Sunday, they accept their religion’s views and the two can be diametrically opposed.
It’s the way that we work like you can pick up a packet of cigarettes in the UK which says, “Danger! Cigarettes cause cancers. This will shorten your life,” and you smoke away happily. It’s absolutely illogical that one should go through these behaviors. It’s just simple cognitive [inaudible 00:50:19]. It’s a refusal to let the two areas come together.
But taking it from a different point of view, I think there is a huge change sweeping through society now. The fundamentalists are becoming more fundamental and the atheists are becoming more atheists. It’s the middle ground which I think tends to be losing out by polarization on the two sides.
I think that the result of this would be that we will in fact go through this phase of polarization and then come into a much more general acceptance of the area. I think that this will occur for two reasons; because society is changing but also because the data is pointing towards it is increasingly going to become much stronger.
Alex: It’s funny because one of the things that I talked about with Denyse O’Leary is again, back to the Dalai Lama and he’s famously said that he is in favor of science to test and prove all Buddhist doctrine. To the extent that science finds Buddhist doctrines incorrect then Buddhist doctrines need to change.
I kind of challenged her and said, “Isn’t this the position that Christians should take, the position of truth that we want the truth no matter where it leads?” I just can’t help but wonder why that position hasn’t been more popular because it seems like it would really change everything. If across the United States and Europe every pulpit had someone saying, “We just want the truth. Wherever that is, we’re all about the truth.” Again, that seems so obvious and we know that’s not going to happen.
Peter: I think you’re right. It was said very nicely, I think it was St. Augustine who said that there are no miracles. They’re just events that we don’t have an explanation for. I think what has happened in our materialistic science is that we’re denying the events. So I think there is a move now towards a recognition that you cannot deny psychic phenomena because they’re there, what is wrong are your theories about the phenomena.
So there’s a beginning of a publication, there’s a book coming out I think by Charlie Tart, talking about the end of materialism. This is just it. It’s a recognition that we have to move on from saying the theory is correct. So this is a range of phenomena which we could look at because we’re encompassed within our theory, to one which says, “Here is the phenomena, now it’s time to change the theories which underpin them.”
If you look at the phenomena of dying, they all tend to point towards this journey and this moving on, this continuation of something. So we need to think about that very strongly. Our book in fact ends with the dying process itself. That’s why it’s called The Art of Dying . There are very good books, there’s a lovely book by David Fontana, Is There an Afterlife? Looking at the scientific evidence to suggest that there is a continuation of consciousness and it’s very good.
So if you’re a materialist, you can’t not look at the phenomenology, you have to do that. Then of course it’s a question of creating the theories which will encompass the phenomena into worldview, rather than saying they can’t occur, therefore they’re not there.
Alex: Tell us a little bit more about the book and how it’s doing and what audience it’s reaching.
Peter: The book was written because I became interested in what happens as we die. I appeared on a television program discussing what we’d already found and wrote some newspaper articles. So we have over about 1,500 to, again, coming towards 2,000 stories from people who were sitting with their relatives when they died.
So that forms the basic data source for the book. It looks at what happens as you approach death, what is a good death, how we can prepare for it, what we should do for it. It suggests ways of understanding the death process and coming to terms with it. I really don’t think that any of us now should die without having read a book like that. Which of us would go on a car journey without taking a map or actually knowing what’s going to happen or where we’re going to go? We got to know that and the data is beginning to be there. So I think it’s terribly important that we do find out about it, not only find about it but that it becomes absolutely mainstream within our culture so we can start to come to terms with it.
So that as one of the reasons why we wrote the book. As you said, it’s called The Art of Dying and the art of dying was taken from a book published in the 14th century, that’s the time that the Black Death in the UK and Europe in fact. It was called the Ars Moriendi, the art of dying. The Ars Moriendi was put out by the church to help guide people through the death process because there weren’t enough priests, they’d been killed by the Black Death, to attend to all the people who were dying. So it’s really there to produce a scientific evidence or what they fear and the phenomena which occur which we should all know about before they start occurring to us, before they’re forced on us by death itself.
Alex: Dr. Fenwick, is there any data on whether or not this guiding process, this being aware of what might lie ahead, whether that plays into the phenomena of dying in any way that you’ve discovered?
Peter: That is such an interesting question because it goes to two sides. It goes to one, are we dealing with expectation only or is it that we can actually manipulate the phenomenology of death.
Now John Lerma, who I’ve talked about before has some data on this. It is that if you’re totally open when you die, just ask and look for all the help you can get then you get it. There are lovely accounts we heard people who were very keen not to die alone and they had visitations from their dead relatives. In our culture, we don’t seem to see angels as much as they do in the States. But I suspect that if you want angels to come and help you then you will see angelic figures. It’s really very interesting and the relationship between expectation and what you allow yourself to perceive in the dying process I think is enormously important.
Alex: Well wonderful book and just an even more important practical reason to prepare yourself for the process. It might make a substantial difference in your journey. So what more reason do you need than that?
Peter: Yes, absolutely. I totally agree.
Alex: Well thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been a real pleasure.
Peter: It’s been wonderful speaking to you and thanks very much for asking.
Alex: Hey, Dr. Fenwick, thanks again. That was great. I will send you an e-mail of the link when it’s ready to go out and we’ll also have a transcript up as well.
Peter: That’s really kind of you. Thanks so much and I hope this was the sort of thing you wanted.
Alex: It was excellent, far exceeded my expectations. I’ll also put a link up and maybe we’ll get some stories from some folks.
Peter: Listen, I use a different e-mail address for people giving experiences because sometimes we get so many it’s difficult to get them out.
Alex: Of course, if you would like to send to me in an e-mail, I’ll make sure that we just provide that link to folks.
Peter: Okay, perfect. I’ll do that. I’ll send it on that e-mail address to you so that you can then use that.
Alex: Okay, great!
Peter: Thanks very much, nice chatting with you.
Alex: Thank you, take care.
Peter: Okay, bye-bye.
(End of interview with DR. PETER FENWICK)
Alex: Thanks again to Dr. Peter Fenwick for joining us today on Skeptiko. If you’d like more information about Dr. Fenwick’s books or an e-mail link if you have any of the stories that he was looking for and asked about during the show, please visit our website at Skeptiko.com. You’ll also find links to all our previous shows, a link to our forums and an e-mail link to me.
Much more coming up on future episodes of Skeptiko, I have quite a few I think very interesting interviews coming up that I’ve already completed and I just need to get out there, so stay with us for that. Also, much, much more on the experiments we’re working on. I’ve actually been able to find a couple of folks to hire and help me on that, so I think we’re off and going on that again. Much more to come, stay with us and bye for now.
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