109. Is Dr. Sam Parnia’s AWARE Study of Near Death Experience Doomed to Fail?

Cornell University Professor and NDE researcher seeks to verify out of body experience after clinical death.

parnia-bookWhat will you see when you die? According to near death experience researcher Dr. Sam Parnia you may see a carefully hidden image placed several inches below the ceiling of your hospital room.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for the opening round of a dialog with well known near death experience researcher Dr. Sam Parnia. Dr. Parnia has made worldwide headlines with his novel approach to proving whether out of body experiences of cardiac arrest patients demonstrate proof of an afterlife, or whether such reports are merely a, “trick of the mind”. Dr. Parnia’s group is using visual targets placed near the ceiling of the patient’s hospital room in an attempt to objectively establish whether near death experiencers can see what others can’t.

According to Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris the study is unlikely to produce positive results, “I’ve spoken with a lot of near death experience researchers. They’re telling me Parnia’s methods go against what we’ve learned about NDEs”. Tsakiris continued, “near death experiencers have been know to bring back some remarkable, verifiable information about what happens after clinical death, but there’s little to suggest they will see and remember Dr. Parnia targets.”

Tsakiris also questions whether Dr. Parnia’s skepticism about near death experiences has led him to create an experiment that’s designed to fail, “it’s a subtle thing, Dr. Parnia public statements about his skepticism of the near death experience doesn’t mean he’s intentionally trying to debunk the survival of consciousness hypothesis… but it does make you wonder.”

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Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko, I’m going to be opening up a dialogue with Dr. Sam Parnia. Now, the unusual thing about that is that Dr. Parnia isn’t here and he isn’t going to be joining me for an interview. In fact, what I’m doing is preparing some questions that I’m going to transcribe and then send to Dr. Parnia in hopes of getting a response from him.

So let me explain a little bit about what’s going on. Dr. Parnia, as many of you are aware, is a well-known near-death experience researcher, a guy who splits his time between the UK and New York’s Cornell University, where he’s a Fellow there in pulmonary care. What Dr. Parnia is really best known for is the Aware Study, a very novel, interesting way of looking at near-death experiences that’s received quite a bit of media buzz, primarily because of the way the experiment is done.

What Dr. Parnia and his group have devised is a way of putting targets-that is, pictures inside the room of someone who may experience cardiac arrest. They may experience clinical death. Up above their bed, very close to the ceiling, is a target that they can’t see unless they’re way up in the ceiling looking down, okay? So the idea is that near-death experiencers routinely report that they’re out of their body, that they’re having this out-of-body experience and Dr. Parnia and his group said, “Hey, let’s devise an experiment so objectively see whether they can report information that only they could see.”

In other words, when somebody comes into the hospital, let’s put them in a room. If they have cardiac arrest, let’s go and talk to them and see if they saw our target that was placed above their bed that only they could see. If a lot of them see it, then this survival of consciousness thing must be real. If they don’t see it, then it’s not.

So that’s the Aware Study, and it’s generated quite a bit of buzz, quite a bit of interest, and as the man behind the Aware Study, there’s been a lot of speculation about exactly what Dr. Parnia’s angle is on this research. I mean, is he a true believer who’s looking to establish another line of evidence for the afterlife? Or is he a die-hard skeptic or materialist looking for a novel way to debunk all of this NDE nonsense?

Well, those questions have certainly been stirring around in my mind for a while, but it really wasn’t until a few months ago when a Skeptiko listener sent me a link to a video lecture that Dr. Parnia had given that the ball really got rolling in terms of inviting him on Skeptiko and trying to open up this dialogue.

So the link that was posted in the Skeptiko forums is from a lecture that Dr. Parnia gave to a skeptical group in the UK, hosted by Dr. Chris French. As many of you know, Dr. Chris French is a very well-known, outspoken UK skeptic who’s been on the Skeptiko show before. I think twice, actually. So let me play you the first of a couple of audio clips from the video lecture that Dr. Parnia gave and then I’ll pick up and continue on with this story and what’s happened so far. And we’ll get into my questions for Dr. Parnia.

Here is the first clip:
“If, when you turn off the switch i.e., you turn off the brain, you don’t get any blood flow into it. If people truly have consciousness, they really are able to see things as they claim they can do, then you have to accept that maybe Plato and others may have been correct. So far, we don’t know. We’ve set up a study for the Awareness Study and we’re trying to investigate it. And I think the key thing that we can do objectively is to use some kind of hidden target…”

So that will give you a little feel for the tone of the lecture. Very reasonable, balanced sounding stuff. So I watched the lecture. I immediately had a bunch of questions. I emailed Dr. Parnia and requested an interview. He quickly got back to me and said, “I’d be delighted to talk to you, however, due to a number of commitments that I have right now, I wonder if you’d be kind enough to watch a lecture I recently gave at a skeptical organization, hosted by Chris French, blah, blah, blah.” And he also added this:

“I’m not so focused on cases where people have had near-death experiences in non-specific medical conditions. This tends to be most of the cases that people discuss and therefore leads to a lot of discussion, debate, etc.”

Now, of course, there’s really nothing wrong with this statement. I mean, he’s a doctor. He’s interested in controlled medical conditions as they relate to NDE. Fine, fine, fine. But if you’ve been along on the Skeptiko thing long enough, you know it’s not always that easy. Sometimes these seemingly innocent-sounding statements are really a coded message for a lot more.

Like in this case, as Dr. Parnia is saying, “Hey, I’m a doctor working in the critical care unit of a hospital and I’ve decided to look at NDEs in that setting, period.” Is he saying that? Or is he saying all this other NDE research you hear about is a bunch of crap because it’s not done by a doctor working in a critical care unit and it should all be disregarded? Now, I’m not saying that’s what he’s saying, but I’d like to ask him if that’s what he’s saying, because you could read it that way.
So part of this whole process of opening up a dialogue is to try and figure some of these things out. So with some of those questions stirring up in the back of my mind and some other questions that I have from watching his video, I fired off an email and tried to arrange an interview. And in the email, of course I tried to explain that I had seen the video, that it had generated quite a bit of discussion among our forum and I pointed him to that, and I also outlined a couple of questions that I’d like to ask, including some specifics about his research methodology. And that’s when the tone of the emails started to shift a little bit.

Now, I don’t know if it was because of the specific questions that I asked or if it was because he finally took a look at the Skeptiko website and realized we’re not quite as pro-skeptic as he might have thought. But whatever the reason, Dr. Parnia went from quick email responses and “If you have any questions, get back to me. I’ll organize a time to speak,” to long delays in our correspondence and “Could you please send me a list of specific questions and I’ll respond by email. You can then post them on your site.”

Well, I still pushed for the phone interview. I suggested, “Hey, we can wait a month or two, whatever it takes. We’ll work around your schedule.” But he was pretty insistent on the email format and eventually even, you know, dished me off to his secretary to send the questions to-which is fine, he’s a busy guy and I know he’s got a lot going on.

So in an attempt to honor that request, I am transcribing this podcast right now and going to send it to Dr. Parnia’s secretary, and hopefully we can get some written responses to some of the questions I have, and some of the questions that Skeptiko listeners raised on our forum. So here goes-my questions to Dr. Parnia regarding his Aware near-death experience research project:

Question 1, and why not start with a biggie? Isn’t this experiment doomed to fail? Okay, let me flesh that out a little bit. At this point, I’ve read dozens of NDE cases and I’m sure Dr. Parnia has read many, many more than I have. But I’ve skimmed through at least 100 and I see all sorts of reasons why someone might have a near-death experience and an out-of-body experience and not be able to see these targets that he’s placing in this experiment. So let me play you another short clip from Dr. Parnia’s lecture and then I’ll tell you more about what I mean:

“And so if we get say 500 people who all supposedly die and come back and all that sort of stuff, and they call claim they saw Dr. Smith and they have all these incredible stories and they can describe what was happening, and we can demonstrate that it was happening when they’re going through cardiac arrest and the brain is shut down, then supposedly, if they really are out of body, they should see that picture.”

Wow. I’m going to have to break that down for you and play you bits and pieces of it because there are so many interesting points to pull out of there. But let me start with the first part. I just think his numbers are way off. So he starts off by saying, “If we get 500 people who die and come back and all that sort of stuff…” which first of all, his tone seems rather dismissive, but take that out for a minute and focus on the number.

Let’s say he gets 500 people that come back and say they’ve had a near-death experience and they recall their resuscitation process. I don’t know how he’s going to get 500 people to do that. I mean, the average hit rate in these clinical trials in terms of number of people who have cardiac arrest compared to the number of people who recall their near-death experience is 1 in 10 to 1 in 8.

So let’s take 1 in 8 and say his 500 people now represent 4,000 patients that are going to experience cardiac arrest. Well, that’s way more than the number that he hopes to get in his study. I think his study was 1,500. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, his big problem is, and I’m sure he knows this-I just don’t know why he’s not bringing it up-is that your typical NDE experience would never report this kind of information, this kind of target information.

First, there’s a bunch of near-death experiences where the person doesn’t really recall the resuscitation at all. They recall other parts of the event very clearly, maybe the trauma, the being of light, the judgment, but they don’t recall the resuscitation. A bigger and more obvious problem is people who do recall the resuscitation but the position that they’re in in this out-of-body state, which all sounds very weird but it’s really all we have to go with, but their position doesn’t allow them to see the targets that Dr. Parnia has set up.

And you know, in preparing for this, to give you an example, I went to the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation website and I searched through and I very quickly found some cases that will give you a little bit of a sense for what I’m talking about. Here are just a few. This is Barbara, a near-death experiencer who says:

“I had been sitting up in the corner of the room, outside my body for some time. I was at the ceiling in the corner, watching and listening because my body wasn’t comfortable to be in.”

Okay, so the important thing is, she’s in the corner by the ceiling. Would she be able to see the target? I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Here’s Nicki:

“I turned to the other side of the bed and stepped out of my body. I began to walk around the room, trying to talk to my living family members but they could not hear me.”

Okay, clearly she’s not in a position to see the target. Now, I’m not saying that anything else about her near-death experience is valid or anything like that, I’m just saying that in the way that Dr. Parnia has set up the study to measure it, she has no chance of seeing the target.

And here’s the last one I’ll share with you, from Arnie:

“During my surgery, I found myself up in the corner of the operating room ceiling where I could look down from overhead on my surgery. I couldn’t see the operating team and equipment surrounding the table because a large, overhead lamp blocked much of my view.”

Okay, now there’s a couple of really interesting points here. One is how high is he? Is he just above the lamp? Is he all the way up to the ceiling? Is he in that two or three inch space that Dr. Parnia hopes that he’ll be in to see the target? I don’t know.

But the other interesting thing, and the point that we have to take into account, is from Ernie’s account here his vision during resuscitation seems to be much like our vision during waking life. He has a perspective. He’s seeing it from an angle. There are certain things in his way and he can’t see through them. Well, this is very problematic for Dr. Parnia because it means if that patient’s out-of-body experience isn’t positioned exactly precisely where it needs to be, they’re not going to have any chance of seeing the target.

And lastly, of course, I have to add there’s the matter of focus. I mean, would we expect NDErs to look at and remember these “targets?” I mean, obviously they’re very important to Dr. Parnia and his group, but are they important to the patient? The person who’s dead and floating outside of their body?

And that, of course, challenges the last little snippet from the clip I just played you. Let me play it for you again here real quick:

“…if they really are out of body, they should see that picture.”

So he seems to be asserting very matter-of-factly that these patients should see his target and the question I’d have is for all the reasons that I just mentioned, why does he think that’s so? Why is he so sure that these patients should see the target?

And I guess that leads into another question of what’s the history here? What’s the history of this research? Are we building off of preliminary studies where under maybe less tightly controlled conditions they’ve had targets up on the ceiling and people have seen them? I’m not aware of that research. Maybe it’s out there. That would seem like a logical stepping-stone. Or, are there a lot of accounts of people being able to see the pictures on the wall and tell those in their accounts? Again, I don’t see a lot of that in the cases that I’ve read but maybe he knows better than I do.

And while we’re on the topic of talking about history and design of the experiment, you know what kept going in the back of my mind and I kept expecting to hear it is why aren’t we doing something like Dr. Penny Sartori did? It seems to me her approach was much more naturalistic in that she said, “Okay, here are these accounts that we’re getting from people who’ve had cardiac arrest and had a near-death experience. Let’s take their accounts as they come in and let’s compare them with the control group that didn’t have a near-death experience and let’s see which one is most realistic.” Maybe Dr. Parnia can do that with the data that he has. So a question I’d have is does he plan to do that? It seems like a follow-up or replication of Dr. Sartori’s work would be very appropriate, very illuminating.

But having said all that, and having raised all those questions, I have to tell you that I’m not particularly optimistic that we’re going to get an answer to those questions. And the reason I say that is from the next clip that I want to play you from Dr. Parnia’s lecture. This is the one that really grabbed my attention. It’s about 47 minutes into the lecture, so it’s almost at the end. Let me play you this clip:

“If, on the other hand, it’s just an illusion, it’s a trick of the mind, which it may well be and I suspect it will turn out to be, then we would expect no one to be able to see those pictures.”

If NDEs are just an illusion, a trick of the mind, which it may well be, and I suspect it will turn out to be. Of course, this is just his opinion. Open-minded researcher willing to look at the data, follow it wherever it leads. But consider for a minute the implications of what he’s saying. He’s suggesting that the Aware Study that he’s done, which as I’ve pointed out doesn’t have any chance of succeeding, should be the final decider. It should trump the 20 years of prior NDE research that’s been done. It should put a nail in the coffin to all this NDE research.

Am I overstating what he’s stating? I don’t know. Let’s see if he’ll answer the question. But the more I listen and read about what Dr. Parnia says, the more I see a debunking exercise. Another setup. A setup to fail. And of course, there are a lot of other good things that can come out of the Awareness Study. He’s looking at a lot of important issues as they relate to the dying process. What’s going on in the brain during this process? But all of that will be forgotten and buried from the headline if he proceeds with this study, which is doomed to produce the kind of low hit rate that will certainly support his “suspicion.”

Later on in his video lecture he says it will be an interesting situation if only one or two people see the target. I’d be amazed if one or two people see the target. But again, I could be way off. That’s why we have to sit back at this point and hope that Dr. Parnia responds to some of these questions or hope that he finds 30 minutes to come onto Skeptiko and talk to us and tell us what’s really going on regarding these issues. That invitation, of course, is always open to Dr. Parnia. But until then, I need to send this podcast off to transcription and forward it on to Dr. Parnia’s secretary. And that’s what I plan to do.

Well, that’s going to do it for this episode of Skeptiko. If you’d like a link to the video lecture I’ve been referring to, please visit the Skeptiko website. It’s at www.skeptiko.com. You’ll also find a link to all of our previous shows and an email and Facebook link to me, a link to our forums, and a bunch of other good stuff. So check that out.

Stay with us. I have a couple of interesting interviews coming up. I’m going to play some interviews that I did a long time ago that are really fascinating, fascinating interviews relating to the Christian perspective on the near-death experience. One is from a very well-known Atheist who I really enjoyed dialoguing with. The other is from a very well-known Christian Apologist who I also greatly admire and enjoyed speaking with. I didn’t agree with either one of them, but I sure enjoyed talking to them. And that’s the pleasure of doing Skeptiko.

Anyway, that’s it for this time. Take care and bye for now.

oined today by Professor Michael Marsh, a highly regarded academic biomedical researcher and physician who was formerly a Professor of Medicine at Oxford, and then later in his career returned to Oxford to complete a PhD in theology. Now, his doctoral thesis was on near-death experience and out-of-body experience, and that’s also the subject of his recently published book titled, Out-Of-Body Experience and Near-Death Experiences: Brain-State Phenomena or Glimpses of Immortality?


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