Leslie Kean made headlines investigating UFOs, now she taking on NDEs, mediums, and after death communication.
photo by: Tatiana Daubek
Today we welcome Leslie Kean to Skeptiko. Leslie is an investigative journalist with a long long list of credits from many major news outlets, but you may also know her from 2010 NYT bestseller, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record. Well, she’s back with another thumb to the eye of conventional paradigms with her new book: Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence of an Afterlife. Leslie, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks for joining me…
Alex Tsakiris: You’ve looked at these people square in the eye, you sat in the séance session, and not that you’re infallible or can’t be fooled at all, but you’re bringing something there that, I think, adds a certain degree of credibility for people like me… I think the journalist, in that position, is somebody I trust.
Leslie Kean: Well, I hope that’s the case and I’m glad you feel that way, I hope it came through that way in the book, because I certainly, even though I did have my own personal experiences, which really affected me, at the same time I remained in the role of a journalist and I even analysed my own experiences that way.
Alex Tsakiris: Those are two topics that you talk about in this book and you draw these connections together, one is the physical mediumship that was demonstrated in the Scole Experiments and the other is, Jim Tucker does contribute to this book in terms of reincarnations. So, however you want to pick that up in terms of what’s in the book or how long that interest was there before you and those topics.
Leslie Kean: Yeah, I mean all those topics have interested me for a long time and when I did… I think it was in the early 2000s, I was working on my UFO stuff but I knew these two colleagues who were also involved with the UFO subject but I sort of helped them develop a proposal for a documentary on this topic, and they ended up doing a film and I ended up assisting with that film, so I got to meet a lot of the players in the field, but I wasn’t able to fully participate because my priority was UFOs and I was working on the book for that and everything and doing a lot. But this subject matter has always really interested me, it’s always been sort of in the background of my work and I’ve poked around with different things involving it. The reincarnation cases, the physical mediumship, both fascinating to me.
One thing that happened was in 2011, I was present when a very close friend of mine died and at the very moment that that person took their last breath, and that was something I’d never experienced before and it really was very profound for me to be there for that moment, and it brought up a lot of deeper questions in me; it sort of hit me over the head, like this personal experience that made me want to understand more about how… it’s just so…
I don’t know if you’ve ever been with a dying person, but it’s very surreal and they’re suddenly there one minute and then they’re gone, it’s hard to comprehend. So that kind of also stimulated me to sort of want to discover more about the whole survival questions and once the UFO calmed down, the effects of the UFO book calmed down, I started to poke into this a little bit more deeply and then I had the opportunity to do another book on it. So it was an opportunity I definitely wanted to take.
Alex Tsakiris: You say this is a journey for you; what was your biggest takeaway, learning points about near-death experience that you didn’t know and you’ve discovered?
Leslie Kean: Well, I think what’s actually more interesting to me than the NDEs are the veridical out-of-body experiences, they’re very closely connected, but of course the universality of them is really important and the fact that there’s no adequate explanation that’s been offered to account for all the different components of NDEs. I respect greatly the work of Pim van Lommel and others who have spent so much time investigating them and van Lommel’s description in his chapter of the way he sees consciousness is, being sort of in a field and the brain is like, more of a receiver, not a producer of consciousness. I feel like he describes it so eloquently and so beautifully in his chapter, way better than I ever could, and he’s the one that understands it; he’s been studying it.
But the key component for me, as a journalist, about this whole arena of NDEs and OBEs is when you have a veridical OBE, which is when somebody leaves their body, as they experience it anyway, and are able to report back… this is leaving their body when they are completely, clinically dead, meaning there’s no heartbeat, there’s no brain activity, they’re going through some kind of a medical trauma or something and when they’re able to report back, after they come back into their bodies, sights and things they’ve seen and things they’ve heard that correlate with real events, and they often will report them from a perspective of the ceiling, which is often where they say they find themselves.
So in one case we have a social worker who was studied by Sam Parnia, in the study he did with many colleagues, describes seeing a bald… one of the medics was bald and he wouldn’t have been able to see that very well from his bed, but he was unconscious anyway, but he was able to describe that, he was unable to describe sounds that he heard that correlated with specific beeps that were being made at specific time intervals, in a machine.
So, the point being that you can verify that the person actually was having perceptions, when his brain was completely non-functional, and you can verify because of what he reports back, as being accurate. So that to me is really significant because it shows that consciousness seems to be able to function independently of the brain.
Alex Tsakiris: I’ll tell you a couple of things I took out of the van Lommel chapter that I thought were particularly significant, and I’ve interviewed him before and read a bunch of his stuff, but [that] came through as somewhat fresh is, he very succinctly talks about the history with this and he has been around for a long time, he’s been a cardiologist for a long time, so you really get the sense of a medical doctor who really stumbled upon this and couldn’t look the other way, I mean, he couldn’t; he was like, “Look, before when I started my career we weren’t resuscitating anybody, you have cardiac arrest, you’re dead, that’s it. Then with the advent of resuscitation we started bringing more of these people back and they started telling me stories.”
Then the way he kind of, as you said, goes through and, again very succinctly says, “Well look, we eliminated all the other possible explanations and some of these people had a short cardiac arrest before they were resuscitated, some of them had a long one, still the same near-death experience, still the same death. Some of them had drugs, some of them didn’t, same experience, same experience.”
So, we hammer on this near-death experience science because it so annoys neuroscience and medical science in general, I mean, it really flips it on his head; there’s a lot of pushback there.
Leslie Kean: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: But I thought he does a great job of just, kind of, laying it out in really clear terms.
Leslie Kean: As you point out, I loved his curiosity, Alex. You know, he really was curious, he wants to know, he wants to understand and he asked the question too, in his chapter, you know, where is that curiosity in science?
Alex Tsakiris: Oh yeah, and I want to get your opinion on this because it’s something I’ve kind of hammered on for a while, but is it a lack of curiosity, is it just a willful ignorance, or I sometimes wonder if there’s something else going on?
A few years ago I interviewed this woman, her name is Dr. Caroline Watt and she’s the head of the Department of Parapsychology at Edinburgh in Scotland, which is one of the premier universities studying psi, which is in all your book, all bout the psi stuff and all that. I don’t know if you ran across this, but the title of her article is, there is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced that you are one of them, and I have to tell you, I still get messages, whatever from people saying, “Hey, all this stuff, it’s not real because this woman said it.”
I had her on, it’s just a complete hit piece, the article’s completely debunked. I had Janice Holden from the University of North Texas — you know, a good researcher, an excellent researcher in this field — Dr. Jan Holden come on, completely shut… they misquoted van Lommel, they just badly, sloppily misquoted him. Is there some kind of… I don’t know how organized it is, but sometimes when you see the reaction to the survival issue and in particular we’re talking about near-death experience, I’ve got to wonder if there’s something else going on here, in terms of the amount of pushback and the organized pushback that you get on this. What are your thoughts?
Leslie Kean: Yeah, I’m sure you know more about that than I do, because you probably talk to more people than I do, but certainly in the UFO field, there were people who were absolutely convinced, people like at the CSICOP, they have a mission, they’re absolutely committed to debunking this, no matter what the data, I mean it’s their preconceived position that it can’t possibly happen, and they will go to any lengths, no matter how dishonest they are, to debunk things.
I don’t know, if in this field, you know, I haven’t been involved with it as long, I don’t know if there’s just people that have that commitment, for whatever reasons, but I’m sure you know more about it than I do, and why somebody who studies parapsychology, like her, would be so closed to this, it’s beyond me, but I can’t provide an answer for what the root of that is. Maybe it’s a combination of a lot of factors and it’s different for each person that pushes back, and they have different reasons for doing it, I don’t know.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, okay let’s talk about… this is a tough one too, but let’s talk about religion and more broadly about spirituality and beliefs and, I think as it ties into — maybe — the purpose of the book, again the short excerpt from the introduction, the very excellent introduction that does a great job of laying out the whole book you write, “What if we could develop a broad unified view of what could be the reality of life after death based on facts, and thereby diminish the potency of competing rigid belief systems?” Is this the big picture goal that you have in mind to kind of wean us off of religion and at the same time atheistic scientism kind of thing, is that where you headed on this?
Leslie Kean: I mean, that’s a loaded question because certainly, I’m not interested in challenging or undermining anybody’s faith or religious beliefs or mystical beliefs or whatever, beliefs are meaningful to them, but I do think that the information in this book doesn’t contradict belief systems. I would hope that anybody, regardless of their belief systems or their religion, would be curious to know what the facts are, what really is, when it comes to the question of an afterlife and I tried to structure it in a way… first of all, it’s not a religious book at all, I don’t deal at all with religious concepts or philosophies and that kind of stuff, or speculation about what the afterlife is like, which people have to leave that up to their particular faith or whatever. But I also don’t think that the information in this book contradicts or challenges religion, because most religions do point towards some kind of an afterlife, as I understand it. I’m basically not a religious person, but I don’t see how this would contradict belief systems that believe in that and it might actually help people reinforce their concept of an afterlife.
The bigger picture of whether it could help undo the conflicts that people feel regarding belief systems, I mean, that’s a kind of an idealistic hope that would be, yeah it would be fantastic if we could…
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Leslie Kean: And we didn’t have groups fighting with each other anymore about belief systems, that would be fantastic. So I just threw that in there as a potential purpose that information like this could serve in the world.
Alex Tsakiris: I just have to say, when I went the religious thing or the God thing, I wasn’t trying to, kind of, lead you where you don’t want to go, but to me, it seems obvious and I sometimes don’t like it when we kind of talk around the thing, it’s like, I’ll tell you, number one, I think you know that there are plenty of people that will be offended by the suggestion that a medium is talking to the dead and that that doesn’t contract their belief systems, yeah, it sure as hell does contradict. A lot of people out there, fundamentalist Christians, just see it as — they’ll just tell you it’s demonic.
I’ve also interviewed — and I hate it when we just can’t handle this thing straight on — but I’ve interviewed people who are pretty prominent; you know, best-selling books on Christian NDEs. Now, their spin is to take it all and say, “Well, there’s these people who have these…” and we can’t deny it. I mean, people have religious near-death experiences, people have religious after-death communication experiences, and by that I mean they see Jesus, let’s just stick to that, they see Jesus.
Leslie Kean: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: “And Jesus was crucified and he told me to put my hand in his hand where it was up on the cross, and therefore…” you know, you can go Dr. Jeff Long’s website, the largest database of near-death experiences and you can read one after another after another. What happens when I interview these people is, I say but that’s not what the broader science says, the broader science says, “Yeah, you might have had that experience, but a lot of people didn’t have that religious experience,” and overall the data suggests the opposite of that, that we can’t tie this survival thing to any set religious beliefs.
So maybe I was… I wasn’t necessarily trying to lead you, it’s just where I’ve been led is to say, “Hey, religion is all about this and they care deeply about this.”
But I agree with you as well that, I’m sorry and then I’ll shut up, but broadly speaking, this should be a huge bone to religion because in the debate over whether there is something or whether there is nothing, it’s something.
Leslie Kean: I know, well that’s what I was really trying to say and I have a very simplistic attitude about it because I haven’t yet been a recipient of the pushback that will probably come and I think I’ll have to consult with you Alex when that happens, because I’m just sort of naïve, but I take the position that, yeah this would be helpful to anybody with religious ideas, but as you’re pointing out, if they can’t accept mediumship — which means I guess that they might believe that after you die, you go to a place called Heaven — but I guess they don’t allow for that possibility that you could actually communicate from that place to this Earth. That doesn’t fit in within their world view I guess, so they can’t accept it, but maybe that’ll open up some doors for some Christians to be happy that maybe they can be in touch with their loved ones from Heaven. I don’t know, I don’t know how it works for people, I really don’t I can’t take care of that for people; I’m just trying to provide factual information and reality here and they can do what they want with it. But I hope it doesn’t offend anybody, that wasn’t my intention.
Alex Tsakiris: So, we’ve touched on mediumship a couple of times; tell folks a little bit about what that part of your journey was like and what impressed you and what changed for you from that.
Leslie Kean: Well, I mean we could start with mental mediumship. There’s of course three types, there’s mental mediumship, trance mediumship and then physical mediumship, and my initial experiences were with mental mediumship, which means that the medium… I mean, maybe all your listeners know this, but the medium is in a normal state of consciousness and seems to have some kind of an antenna or some ability to tap into, what she says, are deceased people on the other side and she’s able to transmit information to the person receiving it, which is called ‘the sitter’ and the sitter gets the feeling that their loved one still exists, because of all the information that’s provided that verifies that for them, and basically that’s the process.
I wanted to find some mediums who I could test under, sort of my own personal controls, which I did. I have two extraordinary mediums do readings for me and they were just way beyond average in their accuracy, the accuracy repeated itself between the two readings that I did and the second reading… The first reading, none of them knew who I was, but as I mentioned in the book, the first reading, the medium had my phone number, but I’m not going to go into this, I just know that she didn’t seek out anything about me through that phone number, but nonetheless…
Alex Tsakiris: Well, let’s pause there for just a minute, because that’s the pushback that people who are super skeptical and are trying to defend their position, they always throw out, “You were fooled and it was so easy for those people to dupe you.” I’ve always kind of seen it the other way, I’d like to hear what your controls were, but my experience is, if you’re going and you say, “I really want to control this, I just want to know that I really got the real deal,” it’s pretty easy to control it isn’t it?
Leslie Dean: Well yeah, here’s what I did for the reading I did for a medium in Ireland, whose name was Sandra O’Hara, I used a fake name when I contacted her, I set up a completely separate a email address that was completely different from my regular email address, that didn’t involve my name and I only used that fake name when I paid her, and everything else, it was paid through PayPal. She had absolutely no idea of my name, my location on the planet, nothing about me at all. So, to me that was pretty good controls, we talked through Skype when she did the reading, but she didn’t know anything about me, not even my name, so there was no way she could have looked up anything in advance.
Plus, the mediums will also often provide information that, even if they did look you up, they couldn’t find anyway, it’s very personal. One of the people that came through for me was, sort of a public figure, but the other one was my brother, that nobody could possibly know anything about, he’s nowhere on the internet. So to me I felt very comfortable with those being controlled situations, there’s no way that this medium could have found out anything about me in advance. That was satisfactory to me anyway.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, and again, that goes back to the journalism thing, it’s like, when I’m reading that from you I’m saying, “This is reasonable,” because sometimes the scientific stuff, and I know Julie Beischel is included in your book and she’s fantastic, we’ve had her on several times and I love her rigor; she’s into the science part of it and you know, quadruple controls and quintuplet controls and all this. What I liked was just, no, here’s a person that seems like she’s on the ball, she knows how to judge people and she’s knows how to tell if she’s being duped and she was there and she didn’t get duped.
Leslie Kean: Right, and so then, therefore with the level of accurate information that came, it’s just astounding to sit there and hear this information coming through from someone who doesn’t even know your name. So, I was able to do my own analysis afterward and figure out how accurate she was. There’s two ways to explain it as far as I’m concerned, number one, the deceased people were communicating through her, which is what she was, absolutely 100% sure was happening and I have to say that personality traits came through as well; it wasn’t just information. Or the second possible explanation is that all the information was coming through, through the medium’s own psi, through her own telepathy and clairvoyance, that she was basically reading my mind, but maybe doesn’t realize that that’s what’s happening.
As far as I’m concerned there’s no other way to explain this and the issue is that many people in the scientific world won’t even accept the psi explanation, so they have to come up with it being fraudulent in some way but they can’t do that either. So I’m kind of interested to see how they’re going to respond to this.
Alex Tsakiris: If we take the leap or even the step that you’re suggesting we take, a lot of sand castles just kind of come crumbling down, because in the book, here’s another quote from the introduction that I think is particularly relevant, you say, “It is important to make clear what I mean by “survival”. This concept does not refer to an impersonal merging into pure awareness or becoming one with universal consciousness as envisioned by many who meditate or who are influenced by Easton religions.”
Well, you’ve already talked about why you might have put that kind of qualifier in there, but I’m drawn to the first part of that, which is, once we jump into the survival of consciousness hypothesis and say, “Oh it doesn’t look, guys, like it’s so much hypothesis, it looks like that needs to be our starting point, our understanding, and kind of go from there, ” well where do we go from there, where do we go with spirits, what are spirits, what are good spirits versus bad spirits, is there some kind of hierarchy?
So you go back and you talk to the mediums, particularly you talk to the near-death experience, and there’s a hierarchical order right? So these people are, they’re having the out-of-body experience, which is cool and they’re seeing the guy, the doctor has one brown sock and one blue sock and says, “Doc, you couldn’t even get your socks right this morning,” and he goes, “Ah, could you have seen that?” But then he says, “I went to this place, I met this being and then I met these higher beings and then there was this higher being beyond that,” I mean, where do we stop in terms of trying to wrap our arms around all that may be in this thing called consciousness? It gets pretty challenging, pretty quick, doesn’t it?
Leslie Kean: It sure does and there’s plenty of questions that are unanswerable as far as I’m concerned, and probably always will be unanswerable and I think that’s the thing about near-death experiences; I mean I think, as a journalist, what’s important about them is what’s uniform about them, is the fact that people do go into some kind of alternative realm and they are forever changed by that experience. I think those kinds of things are more important than the specifics of what they say occurred for them when they were in that realm, because as you point out, the Christians will see Jesus and the Buddhists might see the Buddha and there’s a lot of differentiation, according to what people’s frame of reference is, so it’s sort of, to me, more the essential nature of the experience that’s important and how it affects people. So, the rest of it, who knows the answers to all that?
My point in the introduction that I was making, Alex, was that the book is concerned with the question of personal survival, it’s not concerned with the question of some kind of universal survival where we all kind of merge, but it’s asking the question, do we survive in some sort of personal way, where emotions and thoughts and psychology and memories are somehow carried for into the next realm? The reincarnation cases of children you know, really beg that question, that’s why I opened the book with those cases, they really ask the question because it seems as if that’s what happened with these children, that personal elements of that previous life have survived and are in their awareness at very young ages.
Alex Tsakiris: I get your point and it’s a good one. I just think, I relate also to the first way that you answered that, which is, there’s no limit to the number of questions that this directly brings to the forefront. So, like we don’t know, we don’t know if that personal survival is a prelude to merging into the universal, or whether there’s just no limit once we go there to the questions we might ask, but we have to go there, and I think that’s what you’re obviously trying to do with the book.
Leslie Kean: I would agree. To me, what’s partly fascinating about it is the sense of wonder, the sense of mystery that it generates to have to come up against with these very strong cases and experiences and data about the world, the real world and it shows that there’s so much that we don’t understand about the physical world. There are forces in operation here that we can’t explain and that science can’t explain and I like the fact that it opens up a door to, sort of the mystery of the world around us and we’ll never be able to, I assume, answer a lot of the questions that are raised. To me that’s part of what intrigues me about it actually.
Alex Tsakiris: So with your UFO book, you’re not only, you know, just write the book, kind of sit back and go away, you became quite an advocate and not just an advocate but you really were out there in terms of advancing this issue. Do you see the same thing happening with Surviving Death?
Leslie Kean: It’s a good question Alex, I mean, I don’t feel that I have the… you know, I don’t feel as much of an authority on this to tell you the truth, as I do on UFOs. I mean, I spent 11 years on the UFO topic and I felt in that book that I really brought forward all there is to say about it, as far as I’m concerned. It was sort of like finishing the end of that journey for me and I can’t imagine ever doing another book on it or having a whole lot more to say, other than advocating for change, in terms of attitudes and in terms of government and things like that.
But with this, it feels much more open-ended to me and I don’t feel like I’m some kind of an expert or authority on this information. I think my unique contribution here is applying journalistic standards to it, you know, trying to be very objective and seeing how it all holds together and maybe being able to be a voice for bringing more credibility to this topic.
And the other point, the real reason I wrote this book, is to bring this material into the mainstream. I’m sort of like a vehicle, for taking material that’s scattered all over the place and that’s been sort of marginalized by our culture, taking it into a book that can bring credibility to it, that shows that it’s valid, that shows that it’s serious and then handing that out to the mainstream world, which to people who have never been exposed to it before, by having a big publisher, like I do, a very well established publisher, these people that really help get it out.
So my job is, as I did for UFOs, my goal is to take material that needs to have more credibility and recognition to it, that can change people’s lives and putting it into a form that is accessible to an intelligent and curious person, who has not encountered this material before. So the book’s really written for people who this is new for and with the special approach that I have to offer.
So, that’s sort of how I see my role in all of this. I hope that makes sense.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, totally. The other thing that hints at, of course, is maybe your journey isn’t over on this one. Like you’ve kind of closed the door on the UFO one and said, “My journey’s kind of over,” on this one you’re saying, “Hey, maybe my journey isn’t over.” So…
Leslie Kean: My god, it’s not. I feel like it’s just beginning to tell you the truth. There’s so much more I want to learn. I have stacks of books on my desk that I want to read, that I haven’t had time to read yet and I want to be in dialog with people. I’m setting up these sections of my website for research papers and to post additional information that I couldn’t include in the book or papers that relate to things that I’ve covered in the book.
I also want my website to be a real vehicle for people to learn more and that will include my own explorations, as I discover things, new things that might relate to something I wrote in this book that I hadn’t discovered yet, I want to make that available to people.
So, I see it as, sort of an ongoing process, absolutely, and I’ll be the first to say I have a lot more to learn about it, and who knows, maybe they’ll be another book down the road? But it’s a journey that has just begun essentially for me.