Long-time NDE researchers and author P.M.H. Atwater reveals what she’s learned from the nearly 4,000 near-death experieners she’s studied.
Alex Tsakiris: Once we accept that near-death experience science overwhelmingly suggests that consciousness, in some way that we don’t understand, survives bodily death, I think you make a very good point about looking beyond NDEs at the broad range of spiritual experiences and trying to somehow understanding how they all fit together.
PMH Atwater: What I always look for is the pattern of after-effects, how that affects the individual’s life, how long-lasting is that, how that affects the lives of others. It’s always the after-effects.
I spend a lot of time in the book on after-effects, both with adults and children. On the physiological end, there are definitive changes to the brain/mind assembly, to the nervous system, to the digestive system, and skin sensitivity.
We’re joined today by NDE researcher and NDE experiencer, PMH Atwater. PMH, thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.
PMH Atwater: It’s my privilege.
Alex Tsakiris: A lot of folks will recognize your name. You’re certainly one of the leading NDE researchers and have been for a long time. You have a new book out called, Near-Death Experiences: The Rest of the Story. I want to talk about that book but I first want to talk about a couple other things.
Let’s start with a little bit of background. I was amazed, I guess, in just the sheer number of NDE accounts that you’ve carefully recorded in your research. It’s over 4,000. Is that correct?
PMH Atwater: Nearly 4,000.
Alex Tsakiris: These are pretty in-depth, careful interviews that you do with these people.
PMH Atwater: They’re not just interviews. I want to be clear about that. I call it “having sessions,” because I don’t ask interview questions. I say very little, that is to say to lead the person on and to telling me whatever they want to tell me. But then I spend a lot of time watching them and studying them as they speak. If anybody walks by, does that change their tone or what they’re saying? If a loved one is near, does that alter their response in any way? So I’m doing a lot of observation work.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, that’s fascinating. It’s obviously a very wise methodology to follow and I’m glad that you’re explaining how careful you are in doing that. I guess even that becomes so complicated because there are two aspects of this.
There’s the aspect that this is a profound spiritual experience for a lot of folks, this near-death experience. But the other aspect of it is that I think a lot of folks, as you explain in your book, feel some very mixed feelings about coming out and being public about this because they know that there’s still a certain stigma attached with talking about such a strange experience. So I have even more appreciation for this careful process you go through in working with these folks.
PMH Atwater: Yeah, well, just call me obsessed. [Laughs] Yeah, it’s a magnificent obsession, I guess. My husband calls me “the monk in the monastery.” My office is in the basement of our home so when I go over my data and think and what-have-you, I am the monk in the monastery. I am. I truly am. I will not know what time of day it is, who I am, who you are; all I’ll know is what I’m doing. I have that kind of a laser focus.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, that’s going to make it even more intriguing to dip into this article that recently came out and caught my attention. It was a rebuttal, a reply that you wrote to an article that appeared in a Scientific American. The title of the article, written by this guy named Steven Chu, who–by the way, I invited Steven to come on this show. I invited him a couple of times, actually, and as is often the case with folks like this who are kind of hunkered down in their own worldview, they don’t want to come out and talk too much.
Anyway, he wrote this article back in September, titled “Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to have Scientific Explanations by New Research on Abnormal Functioning of Dopamine and Oxygen Flow.” I emphasized, punched-up a couple of those phrases there because I really want to talk about them. They’re just completely false and yet the spin of it is so—I don’t want to say sensational, but it’s kind of a National Enquirer, you know? Now found! New research!
So my first question is did you ever have a chance to talk to Mr. Chu about this? Did he ever…
PMH Atwater: No, no I did not. I just simply wrote my reply to his article and I have heard nothing since.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m sure he’s just some kid who was given this writing assignment and I’m sure he doesn’t even really know…
PMH Atwater: Well, I want to be fair here with our “scientific community” which unfortunately isn’t always that scientific. But what a lot of them do is they’ll get a little bitty piece of information and they’ll gallop ahead and say this little bitty piece of information explains the whole package. And that seems to be part of the scientific ilk. This is what I’ve observed over time.
Alex Tsakiris: But wait a minute. Let’s be fair, like you just said, and come out and say that’s completely non-scientific.
PMH Atwater: I know. It’s what we call scientism. I find this true also with most near-death researchers as well, although not to the same extent. They’ll come out with a certain viewpoint or focus or item or saying that they’re looking at and they’ll research that and then they’ll make rather broad statements in accordance with that research. This is…
Alex Tsakiris: Give us an example.
PMH Atwater: This is a problem I’ve had all along with both sides. Let me give you some examples in the “scientific realm.”
Alex Tsakiris: No, give me an example in the NDE research realm because that’s more interesting. I don’t know exactly what you mean. I know what you mean in the scientific realm. I don’t know what you mean in the NDE realm. Who’s an NDE researcher who’s galloped ahead with their research?
PMH Atwater: Let me do a broad one here and say that to this day, near-death researchers still go out in the field or maybe just doing it with email or mail-in questionnaires, but they’ll have their list. They’ll have their questions. They have in mind what they’re looking for and they’ll compare whatever they find with the classical model and they’ll then make statements based on the classical model. The problem I have is, the classical model isn’t classical.
Alex Tsakiris: But still, I’m struggling with who you’re talking about.
PMH Atwater: You cannot really look at findings in the field of near-death studies until you also look at the pattern of physiological and psychological after-effects because it’s the after-effects that validate the experience, not the other way around. And we’re looking then at even brief experiences, which I call the initial experience, which is maybe one or two elements, max. That’s all it is; very brief.
And yet if those people display the entire pattern of physiological and psychological after-effects, that’s a full near-death experience and yet, our wonderful brothers and sisters will toss it out and say, “No, it doesn’t match the classical model. It doesn’t have at least five or six or eight or ten elements.”
Alex Tsakiris: But who’s doing that? PMH, who’s doing that?
PMH Atwater: That’s the entire field.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, who in particular, and what is some research…
PMH Atwater: Well, everybody and anybody. You name them; I don’t have to name anybody. That’s the way it’s done in the field.
Alex Tsakiris: Who’s gone off the rails in a way that you think has made it…
PMH Atwater: Oh, I won’t name names. Sorry. [Laughs]
Alex Tsakiris: It’s not a matter of naming names. I just…
PMH Atwater: But I certainly make that point in the book when I talk about the rest of the story.
Alex Tsakiris: I read the book. I don’t recall exactly where—even if you were to talk on a particular body of research. I mean, you have different people have approached it different ways. We’ve talked to a bunch of these folks on this show. You have Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia. He’s a psychiatrist, so he’s well trained in the psychological aspects and he’s looked at that to a large degree…
PMH Atwater: No. They’re all wonderful. You could name them all but the glaring hole in the package is the classical model. If you look at the classical model, it isn’t classical.
Alex Tsakiris: You’re going to have to explain that a little bit.
PMH Atwater: It doesn’t apply across the board, and that’s the sort of itch I’ve had right along and fuss I’ve had right along, and the rest of them know it. You know, I’m outspoken about this. I’ve said, “Hey guys, why are you looking for a classical experience or profound experience and you’re missing all the rest of it?”
Alex Tsakiris: So you’re saying when you say “the classical model,” you’re saying there’s a push toward a one-size, NDE’s must fit this way, must have these characteristics…
PMH Atwater: Right.
Alex Tsakiris: …and that causes…
PMH Atwater: They must have at least half of them, and you don’t have to have at least half of them.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s a point. I think that’s a point well-taken and you make that point in your book. I think you also make that point in this rebuttal to Mr. Chu’s article where you say…
PMH Atwater: This is what I’m trying to say, is we can’t go according to any one conclusion; we can’t go on any one idea; we can’t go according to any one research pattern. If we do, we invariably trip ourselves.
Alex Tsakiris: But again, to me, one of the problems here is that kind of obscures the larger issues that I really wanted to get at. I’ll use a quote…
PMH Atwater: Oh, okay, let’s get at it.
Alex Tsakiris: We’re going to get at it. [Laughs] That comes back to this rebuttal that you wrote which is very nice and very well-done and you call him on a couple of points and stuff like that. But there’s a larger pattern here that I really want to get at, and that’s I guess I’ll go to a quote from Dr. Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia and see if you agree with it.
PMH Atwater: Okay.
Alex Tsakiris: He says that, “None of the proposed neurophysiological mechanisms that these folks keep claiming are associated with NDEs, none of them have been shown clinically to occur in the near-death experience.” So he’s calling out the whole thing and saying, “Wait a minute. You guys are flying around with this explanation and maybe it’s CO2 in the blood or maybe it’s lack of oxygen.” He’s saying…
PMH Atwater: Or maybe it’s a sleep disorder.
Alex Tsakiris: Roger Nelson, University of Kentucky, he comes out, “It’s a REM intrusion kind of thing.”
PMH Atwater: Well, he is absolutely right, and this is the point I was trying to make. People get ahold of one thing, like a sleep disorder and they do a whole research project on the sleep disorder. They say this is what causes near-death experiences, so that they’re honing in on just one thing and they’re making this very broad statement that this is what causes near-death experiences.
This happens throughout the scientific field. That’s not real science, which I’m sure is what bothers you. That was the point I was trying to make is that this is not real science. Well, I’ve seen a similar thing, though not as pointed, in the near-death community itself. So I’ve been sort of the challenger on the sidelines saying, “Now, wait a minute, guys. How can you make that statement when you’re not looking at ta-dah, ta-dah, ta-dah.” This not looking at, for me, speaks to the after-effects and the intensity of the after-effects.
Alex Tsakiris: Go over that one more time. The after-effects and why that’s so important, do you think?
PMH Atwater: Well, it absolutely is. That’s how we can tell what is really happening within the brain, within the body, within the spirit, within the heart, within and without. It’s the intensity. It’s that intensity that engenders the after-effects. It’s not the experience, per se. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you just met the friendly dark or if you had a long, complicated experience where you had a life review, you met loved ones on the Other Side, and you attended a heavenly college. In other words, it doesn’t matter, brief or complex. What matters is intensity. I think that’s Chapter 16 in the book where I talk about intensity is the key. You know, that part is being missed. It’s how intense is it?
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I think you’re really onto something here that’s very intriguing. I guess I did read the book and I picked up on that but I didn’t quite get it in the way that you’re saying it now. I think you have a very valid point because it reminds me of the parallel that you see in parapsychology where researchers have, to a certain extent, sold their soul to the Devil and given in to science and have dealt with things on more materialistic terms, rather than go over and say, “Wow, the spiritual implications of this are huge.”
I think you’re right to a certain extent in that some of the NDE researchers have chosen to try and squeeze this into a medical model of how many points on the Greyson Scale did we reach on this in order to legitimize it inside of the medical community. Maybe what you’re saying is that this so blows the whole thing away that they’re afraid…
PMH Atwater: Well, your NDE researchers are expected to follow that model. I’m still waving a red flag, yelling and screaming, “Wait a minute, guys! Look at even the simple ones. How intense were they? Look at the pattern of after-effects. How much of the after-effects, physiological as well as psychological? How intense are the after-effects?”
That’s what’s telling you what’s really going on here, not if you play with or try to limit to scientific ideas, medical ideas, parapsychological ideas, religious ideas. None of that will show you as much as the pattern of after-effects.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on. Take that one step further. They’ll show you what’s really going on here in terms of what? In terms of what do you mean, what’s really going on here?
PMH Atwater: How deeply affected that individual is. If they’re deeply affected enough that it changes the body as well as the brain as well as the spirit. When you look further into what’s happening to the human being, you begin to see what I saw and that is that this can become a biological thing.
One of the things I noticed in my research, and I spent a lot of time talking about it in the second half of the book, is that the near-death experience is not any kind of anomaly. It is rather part of the larger genre of transformations of consciousness. I say that again because of the after-effects and how deep those after-effects or intense those after-effects might be.
If you go even further and realize that near-death experiences, Kundalini breakthroughs, baptism of the Holy Spirit, spiritual transformations, on and on and on, all of these different parts of this broader genre, they all change the human being in significant ways almost as if a transmutation.
So if you study history, which I have done, and you look at those times in history throughout our globe, and you notice this communing throughout the evolutionary phase, a lot of people are suddenly coming out and being born this way, being changed this way, experiencing this kind of thing. What I began to notice is that near-death experiences are really a biological imperative.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, PMH. I’m with you up to a point. Then when you get there and talk about the historical significance and the place that we are in history, I’ve got to pull back a little bit. I just don’t think the evidence for that is real strong in a couple of ways.
1) It seems very ethnocentric. It seems very much us looking at our navel here in the United States, here looking in the West and looking at where we’re at.
2) I think if we just look back at history, some of our guests, particularly Michael Tymn who’s been on this show, does a great job at showing how at the turn of the 20th Century, in the early 1900s, we went through a great revival of spiritualism with some of the best and brightest minds, scientific minds, in the West who were totally embracing this. They would have said the same thing. That we’re on the cusp of this big transformation. The transformation never occurred. So this idea that we’re right there, we’re right about to shift the paradigm, I don’t think there’s a lot of good support for that.
PMH Atwater: I don’t know how to use the words to show you what I’m seeing. What I’m seeing is clusters of breakout. No, they don’t necessarily continue, but I’m seeing clusters of breakout. Whenever I see clusters of breakout, I do see what near-death experiencers cry for and talk about and that is freedom, equality for all. Freedom of religion and a better life and certainly better health.
Alex Tsakiris: This is the kind of stuff that drives skeptics nuts. I’ve got to say, I have some empathy with them because if you want to talk about people like Bruce Greyson and Jeff Long or even Sam Parnia, who I think is really a skeptic, they’re too careful and deliberate in the science. Or they’re too limiting. Hey, and I’m with you, maybe.
But then if you want to go ahead and say, “Wait, we have to take it this whole other level and look at history and look at this transmutation of human beings and we all need to be healthier, it’s all kind of New Agey stuff. I think it’s fair for someone to push back and say, “Prove it. Show me the hard stats on where this has changed, and don’t tell me that you just see these breakouts and I’m seeing it happening.”
We’ve interviewed on this show plenty of New Age people who will just publish a book with absolutely no scientific background at all, just on their beliefs on what is going to happen. I know you’re not doing that; I know you’re not talking about that…
PMH Atwater: No, I’m not.
Alex Tsakiris: You’re a careful researcher, but you can see that slippery slope. I mean, where is the evidence for what you’re saying? I certainly didn’t see it in the book.
PMH Atwater: Yeah, I don’t know how to verbalize it except to say that I’ve seen this cycle repeat and repeat. What I’m noticing is how that is changing people. That’s what I’m noticing right here and right now with the near-death experience and other different types of transformations.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, don’t you think those guys back at the turn of the century, William James, don’t you think they saw that? Don’t you think all the spiritualists at the turn of the century…
PMH Atwater: I talk a lot about William James in the book.
Alex Tsakiris: Didn’t they see it back then? What happened? What’s happened in the last 100 years?
PMH Atwater: That has fared what is continuing to break out. If you notice, the New Thought movement which began in the 1800s—we’re talking about William James and all these different New Thought people. That began actually early in the 1800s. What I’m trying to show in the book is that there’s a relationship here and there’s an overall message here.
But yes, that’s not as hard. I can’t find the hard details as a scientist would, to be able to back up what I’m saying. So in the book what I’m doing is I’m showing you the patterns and how they match what I’m talking about in the book. You know, you decide whatever you want to decide, but the book, Near-Death Experiences: The Rest of the Story, it is my dream, my hope, my intention, that that book challenges people.
Regardless what your point of view is, and you say, “Well, certain chapters don’t have much research behind them and other chapters have a lot more,” what I’m hoping you do is think. What I’m hoping you do is just what you are doing, challenging me. What I hope you are doing is challenging others, taking a look at everybody’s work, everybody’s ideas, and say, “Wait a minute, this works, this doesn’t.” But then take a look at yourself when you’re saying that. Look deeply within you and take a good look at why you are saying this works and this doesn’t.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I don’t know what works and what doesn’t. I think there’s a couple of really important points and I want to come back and touch on one of them which I think is a hot button for me and it’s one that you brought up.
That’s that I do think it’s critical to look at—once we accept that near-death experience science overwhelmingly suggests that consciousness, in some way that we don’t understand, survives bodily death, I think that’s just case closed and all the Atheist materialists, like in Scientific American who are arguing against that, are just the old guard, just trying to hold onto their world the way that it is.
Here’s my point. Once we cross that chasm and say, “Okay, we do have this survival thing going on,” I think you make a very good point and I’d like to hear any other thoughts you have on it. I’m looking at the broad range of spiritual experiences and trying to somehow herd that group of cats into some overall understanding of what this means.
PMH Atwater: What I always look for is the pattern of after-effects, how that affects the individual’s life, how long-lasting is that, how that affects the lives of others. It’s always the after-effects.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s a wonderful point. So what is your means of—and I remember a little bit from the book but refresh my memory—how do you quantify or try to get a handle on this after-effects issue?
PMH Atwater: Well, of course in the book I spend a lot of time on the after-effects, both with adults and children. To sort of shorten up the pattern, I would say on the physiological end, there are definitive changes to the brain/mind assembly, to the nervous system, to the digestive system, and skin sensitivity.
Alex Tsakiris: Go into some detail. I think folks would find that interesting. What in particular have you found out in terms of physiological differences for folks who’ve experienced this transformation?
PMH Atwater: Okay, let me just go down the list. More sensitive to light, especially sunlight, and to sound. Look younger; act younger. More playful, that’s with adults. With kids it’s exactly the opposite. Looking at and seeing more mature. Substantial change in energy levels. Changes in processing, switch from sequential selective thinking to clustered abstracting with an acceptance of ambiguity. Insatiable curiosity. Lower blood pressure. Bright skin and eyes. Reversal of brain hemisphere dominance is commonplace. Reversal of body clock. Heightened intelligence. Indications of brain structure/brain function changes.
So we’re talking about real stuff here, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, we’re talking about real stuff, and on one hand I think I understand the importance of sharing this information, particularly with people who have gone through that experience and might be suffering in this way.
On the other hand, I’ve got to make sure that I understand the process that you’re going through in coming to these understandings. It would be hard for any scientist, any researcher, to sort through that list of symptoms. There’s about a 50 year research project there in really matching up which one of those fit in what group and the whole breakdown of how that happens. How confident are you that those physiological changes are all real in the way that you’ve reported them? I’m sure that you’re being as honest as you can be, but how confident are you that you’ve really nailed…
PMH Atwater: I’m completely confident. I say that because over time now, more and more of my findings are being clinically tested and are coming out verified.
Alex Tsakiris: Give us an example of one or two of those.
PMH Atwater: Synesthesia, which is multiple sensing or conjoined senses. That was a study done in Florida of, I believe it was three different medical centers. That’s in the Journal of Near-Death Studies. They found that indeed synesthesia is part of the after-effects of near-death experiences. No, not everybody has them but yes, a lot of people do have them.
This thing about divorce, I’m noticing how you become a different person. You’re not the same person you were before. This confuses families, spouses, children.
Alex Tsakiris: PMH, I want to talk about that before our time runs out because another interesting part of this book that you break down which was new to me and very, very challenging on a couple of levels because it doesn’t paint quite the cheery story that we like to think about for near-death experience, but the transformational cycles that you saw over the years that folks go through. Can you talk about that a little bit?
PMH Atwater: Well, I know that certainly there are definitely four phases that people go through. Phase 1, the first three years: That’s when it’s almost as if you’re still in that cloud and you haven’t landed yet. You’re in that phase of you want to sit on top of your roof and yell at the world that there’s no death and yes, there is a God. Very evangelical.
You’re very impersonal, detached from ego identity. You’re really caught up in the desire to express unconditional love, wonders with all life, you’re fearless, you’re knowing. Vivid psychic displays. Just spontaneous surges of energy. A hunger to learn more and do more. It’s like a rebirth.
Alex Tsakiris: So the battery’s been switched on for the first three years.
PMH Atwater: Yeah. [Laughs] And for all of these newbies, those who’ve just had an experience or it hasn’t been all that long, I remind them about discipleship. The first rule of discipleship is don’t freak the natives.
Alex Tsakiris: [Laughs]
PMH Atwater: I mean, you’ve got to remember, you’re going around being very loving and helpful and psychic and intuitive and knowing you’re going to freak out a lot of people. I hope to be helpful there.
Phase 2, the next four years after that, is sort of like a rediscovery and a concern with family and community and very service and healing oriented. Very interested in projects. You tend to align with former life roles but you kind of do it in a different way. Unusually more or less active and contemplative. Can resume the former lifestyle but very desirous of carrying out your mission.
With most people, after those first short phases are over with, the initial one, the three years and then four years after that—in other words, usually after about the 7th or 10th year, Phase 3, the individuals become much more practical and discerning. They’re back to work but with a broader worldview and a confident attitude. Most of them are aware of self-worth and real identity now. They know they’re a soul. They’re not a body; they’re not name, address, and social security number. They are a soul. They tend toward self-governance and self-responsibility. Become very dedicated, very spiritual.
And this comes on just very hunky-dory until about the 15th year, Phase 4. I’m going to say 14th through 20th year because it varies on the individual. Then you get hit again. It’s almost as if the rug is pulled out from under you.
Most of the people go through a period of what I call grieving, because it’s like of losses in the life. You begin to wonder, “Was this all worth it? Are my after-effects fading?” There’s a real crisis of self. Things can get really, really dark. Divorce, loss of job, medical problems, this-that-and-the-other. You just get hit in the face with all of these things that you thought you had learned to be able to handle or overcome in smoother, more positive ways and all of a sudden you get slapped. If you can negotiate the darkness light brings, that’s when you get the real depth and maturity.
Alex Tsakiris: Wow, that’s pretty deep. Let me ask you some detailed questions here. How many near-death experiencers have you followed into, for example, Phase 3, beyond 10 years? And how many have you followed into Phase 4, this 15-20 year period?
PMH Atwater: I can’t give you a number. I can just say a lot.
Alex Tsakiris: I mean roughly how many? Are we talking about a dozen, two dozen?
PMH Atwater: Oh no. We’re talking hundreds here.
Alex Tsakiris: Hundreds you’ve followed into 15-20 years?
PMH Atwater: As much as I could. Now, when I say as much as I could, I’m talking about telephone. I’m talking about email. I’m talking about meeting them again. I’m not talking about going back and having another big session, but I am talking about checking up.
I’m also talking about when I’m doing my work I’m always aiming for different ages and I’m always looking for significant others, because they can tell me how much the person has changed over time. Is it just a little bit? Is it a lot? So I’m not always with the individual; sometimes I’m with their significant others. So I’m always looking at what it is like for people who are 3 years old? What is it like for people who are 7 years old? What is it like for people who are 21 years old?
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s the part I think people would find particularly interesting and surprising. I certainly do. Were you surprised by that “Dark Night of the Soul” kind of thing?
PMH Atwater: Yeah. None of us know it’s coming. Yes, absolutely yes. I was hit, too.
Alex Tsakiris: So you were surprised to see it in yourself as a near-death experiencer, but you were also surprised when it kept popping up with these other folks.
PMH Atwater: Oh yes, yes, yes, a million times yes. You really get caught.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s non-intuitive. It’s counterintuitive. It really is. And that’s delightful. I mean, I love that when science offers up or research offers up little tidbits that go against what we’re expecting the narrative to be. So I don’t even want to speculate. I don’t feel a need to speculate in terms of what that means. I just want to make sure that you’ve discovered a little morsel there because I think it’s a really interesting tidbit.
In the time that we have left, tell us what else is going on. You mentioned a little bit about your website, your newsletter. Tell us a little bit about how people can learn more about what you’re doing, have done, and continue to do.
PMH Atwater: Well, certainly that’s on my website, which is www.pmhatwater.com. If people want to sign up for the free newsletter they’re certainly welcome to.
My hope is that we look at near-death experiences more openly and more broadly and not jump to conclusions. Not make a lot of assumptions.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. It’s certainly a very interesting angle on a very, very important topic. You’re to be commended for all your great work and contributions to this field. Thanks so much for joining me today, PMH.
PMH Atwater: Thank you for having me!