Interview with NDE researcher and AWARE Project leader explores limits of experiments on near-death experience.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with the NDE expert and author of, What Happens When We Die?, Dr. Sam Parnia. During the interview Dr. Parnia is asked why he suspects NDE is an “illusion”, and a “trick of the mind”. When pressed, Dr Parnia stated, “…It may well be. You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion.”
While Dr. Parnia’s position regarding the validity of the NDE phenomena stands in contrast to most other near death experience researchers he continues to push forward. His AWARE Project asks cardiac arrest patients who experience a NDE to recall hidden pictures placed above their bed. This methodology has been criticized by NDE experts who give it little chance of yielding positive results. Dr. Parnia responds, “I don’t know if [the tests will] be successful or not. That’s an important point to make. As I said, I don’t have a particular stance. It’s possible that these experiences are simply illusionary and it’s possible that they’re real. Science hasn’t got the answers yet. So we have to go fair-minded. Right now what we have is a setup that can at least, we hope, objectively determine an answer to the question.”
Alex Tsakiris: We’re joined today by the author of What Happens When We Die? He’s a leading expert on NDE research. He’s best known as the lead investigator of the AWARE Project. Dr. Sam Parnia is a Fellow in pulmonary care at Cornell University and he’s a doctor. I mean, in addition to being a researcher, he’s also there in the ICU saving lives. Dr. Parnia, thanks so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Sam Parnia: My pleasure.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, it’s really my pleasure to have you on. Your work has generated a lot of interest and the little bit of exchange we’ve had has generated a lot of interest. A couple of months ago I did publish a post suggesting that the AWARE study of consciousness during clinical death–I suggested that maybe that was doomed to fail. You are nice enough to join me on this show today and discuss that a little bit.
So let me start with this: in replying to my post, you suggested that maybe I had misrepresented the AWARE Project when I said it seeks to verify out-of-body experience after clinical death. Perhaps you’d like to clarify what the AWARE Project is and maybe what that misrepresentation was.
Dr. Sam Parnia: One of the things that’s really interesting to me is trying to understand what happens to-as you pointed out, I work in an Intensive Care Unit-and one of the things I find most interesting is trying to understand what happens to patients when they’re critically ill. And then particularly when they have died, which is basically a cardiac arrest. So cardiac arrest and death are synonymous. Most people don’t realize that.
We deal with a number of patients who have cardiac arrest in hospitals and what we’ve come to understand is that in order for us to improve the medical care of these patients, I’m not sure that we can bring them back to life again and improve their neurological outcome and otherwise making sure they don’t have any brain damage. We have to do more and more research. And so what scientists have done in recent years is essentially develop this field of resuscitation times, which is essentially the time required to bring people back to life.
Inadvertently in studying the processes that take place when somebody has died, what happens to the brain, we also have to study what happens to their mind and consciousness. In other words, what are the mental processes that take place to an individual when they’ve gone through the process of death? And what we’ve learned is that death, very much contrary to the public’s perception, is not a moment. It’s actually a process and that it’s reversible for an amount of time, which now stands at least over an hour of time. There are case reports of people who have been dead for three or four hours.
And so the AWARE Project, which is short for AWAreness during REsuscitation, is an experiment that was designed to both address some of the important issues that are needed in trying to improve the outcome of patients who have a cardiac arrest when we bring them back to life again, and also at the same time, not ignoring the fact that people seem to have consciousness and memories while under a period of cardiac arrest.
In other words, the evidence that we have so far suggests that people can have mental activity after they’ve died and have had a cardiac arrest. What’s fascinating about this aspect of the work is that people describe some elements that are somewhat subjective. For example, people will describe seeing a bright light; then they describe seeing a tunnel; then they may describe seeing deceased relatives who almost welcome them through the process of death and comfort them. But those things are really not scientifically testable because they are subjective. However, a group of people claim that they can see doctors and nurses working on them and they can describe in specific details what had happened to them.
I’ve studied hundreds of these cases before, as have many other people. Part of what we wanted to do was to set up an experiment that would objectively test the claims that people have when they have cardiac arrest, should they claim that they could see the resuscitation because we don’t know at this point whether these claims are correct. In other words, do people really see things from the ceiling? Or is it some kind of illusion? That’s really essentially what the experiment was about.
Alex Tsakiris: I hear you loud and clear there that the AWARE Project is broader than just an NDE study. I understand that even the term “near-death experience” is something that you’re not totally comfortable with for the reasons that you just enumerated there in terms of your understanding and your evolving understanding of the dying process. But I have to say, in what you just said there, there is a little bit of a riddle in what you say.
I think you yourself as being the lead investigator and the person a lot of folks look to in this research, are a little bit of an enigma-hard to understand. Some people think, “Hey, that guy is too welcoming. Too much of an NDE proponent.” Other folks I’ve heard say that you’re too much of a skeptic to really give near-death experience a fair shot.
So I thought one of the things that would be interesting today is maybe pull apart some of the things that you just said there. I’ll give you an example. In the email response you sent to me, here’s one thing you said about the big picture of consciousness. You said:
“As I’m sure you are aware, there are many different theories for why near-death experiences occur.”
And now here’s the next part that really caught my attention:
“The main issue is to realize all human experience is triggered by the brain.”
Now this really struck me as a little bit odd. I mean, I thought that was supposed to be the central question in this research. Can consciousness exist outside of the brain? So I was a little surprised that you had stated it that emphatically, particularly when it seems like a lot of your colleagues, other NDE researchers and other consciousness researchers as well, seem to be much less emphatic in stating that consciousness cannot exist outside of the brain. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Dr. Sam Parnia: I think the problem is that it’s a problem of emails because obviously there’s not that much explanation. I think there’s a key point that’s missing and therefore with all respect, you’ve made an incorrect conclusion from what I’ve said.
What I was referring to was that unfortunately in the field of near-death experience-since you brought that up-there’s been a general neglect in terms of research. And so if you look at the medical literature and the things that people talk about in the media, it’s generally theories rather than anything that’s been substantiated through proper scientific research. For example, one of the things that is more of a perception out there in society is that there’s some sort of so-called scientific explanation of near-death experience. That this is due to lack of oxygen or some other chemical process affecting the brain.
The point I was trying to make is that although this has never been validated, so for example, there are no experiments that demonstrate that a lack of oxygen causes near-death experiences or any other chemical process leads to near-death experience. We have to accept that when people die of course there are chemical changes taking place in the brain and we have not yet discovered what those are that correlate with near-death experience.
However, the point to realize-and this is important-is that if science one day identifies what those chemicals and those processes are, and let’s say it’s Region X of the brain and it involves chemicals Y and Z. How does that tell us whether the near-death experience was real or not? The unfortunate problem is that a lot of people have drawn-in my opinion-the incorrect conclusion that just because you identify a chemical process, that automatically means that the experience is a hallucination. And that’s the point I’m trying to make. It doesn’t.
Because, in fact, every human experience is mediated by the brain, so if that was the correct argument, then we’d have to say that when somebody feels love, just because we can trace a chemical that causes love into the brain, that actually someone’s maternal love towards their 5-year-old is not real. It’s a hallucination. You see?
The point I was trying to make is that yes, we don’t know what those chemical triggers are. One day we may identify them, but that still doesn’t negate the reality of an experience. And reality is actually not timed by any neurological trigger in relation to any experience. So that was the first point I was trying to make.
The point about consciousness that you raised, as you know, the question of how human consciousness or the self or the soul or the mind arises, or the psyche as the Greeks called it, has been a question that has intrigued humanity for as long as we know. Essentially, ever since the time of Aristotle and Plato, there have been two broad categories we use.
One is more in tune with Aristotle’s belief that essentially although there is a human soul that the soul is nothing more than a product of bodily processes. There are others who follow Plato, who believed that actually the human so-called soul or psyche, as the Greeks called it and now we call it the consciousness of the mind, is basically a separate entity to bodily processes and therefore lives on after death.
Again, the point I’m trying to make is that at this point, we don’t know scientifically which one of these is correct. Again there is some sort of perception that the scientific explanation is more in tune with Aristotle’s belief, but again it’s a belief. There’s no experiment that’s shown how thoughts can be generated from the brain and consciousness can arise from brain processes. And so that’s really the question that we’re trying to answer. I think that depending on the appropriate experiments, and I hope that the AWARE Study will be the first of many such experiments that will start, like with any scientific endeavor you have to start somewhere. And then you have to fine-tune your research.
But I hope that we’ll be able to inadvertently in some ways answer this age-old question as well, because if experiments demonstrate that in fact when people have died and the brain was not functioning that somehow consciousness continues to work-in other words, people are able to see and hear and have full awareness-then we have to accept that perhaps Plato and those who followed that view, such as Professor John Echols who is a Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist, that their view may be correct.
On the other hand, if the appropriate experiments are done and that’s important, but they demonstrate that actually consciousness does not continue, then it seems to support the view of those who claim that consciousness must be some sort of brain-based process. I don’t have the answers, of course.
Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. And I certainly don’t want to misrepresent you. That’s the purpose of having you on, so I’m glad you can clear that up.
Dr. Sam Parnia: Well, that’s the problem of emails. I find that all the time, just in general conversation, too.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it might even be beyond emails. I still think I’m not quite clear on where your starting point is which I have to say I think is a…
Dr. Sam Parnia: My starting point is, as you say, I’m trying to understand what happens when people die and I’m interested in that…
Alex Tsakiris: No, no, no. That’s fair. That wasn’t meant as a…
Dr. Sam Parnia: I don’t have a start. I don’t lean one way or the other, if that’s what you mean.
Alex Tsakiris: But we all have a stance.
Dr. Sam Parnia: I don’t.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me give you another example, okay?
Dr. Sam Parnia: No, I explained to you why I said this-this is an important point I think you’ve raised.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me push forward with another example that will maybe drive that home. I don’t want it to shut off that thing, but you represented yourself very well there and I think you made that point. I don’t need to push back on that. That’s okay.
But let me move on with another example of where I’m coming from, you know? This email exchange we had resulted from a presentation that you gave at Goldsmith College. It’s an excellent video presentation. I encourage everyone to watch it, as well as to read your books and your other fine writings on this. We’ve provided a link on the show notes for that.
In that talk you speak very favorably and respectfully about the NDE cases that you’ve accumulated, I think over 500 of them. You describe, for example, a very young boy, he’s like 3-years-old, who told you about his near-death experience and seeing himself above his ambulance. You go on to say that such accounts make it doubtful that that kid is making this up or that he’s culturally influenced by near-death experience movies or anything like that. So you seem to be saying what a lot of other NDE researchers have concluded-that the experience is non-hallucinatory.
But then later on in that same presentation, you say, “If near-death experience is an illusion, a trick of the mind-which it may well be-and I suspect it will turn out to be.” So there you’re saying that after looking at all these cases, collaborating with other NDE researchers, that your current position is that your hunch is that these NDE cases are probably an illusion. Now that’s not a problem. That’s not a criticism. It’s just I’m trying to understand. That is where you’re coming from, right?
Dr. Sam Parnia: No. You see, as I’ve tried to explain to you, I have been doing this for so long that I’ve heard so many different arguments, and they’re very valid. They’re very valid arguments. I think as a researcher I have to remain neutral and unbiased. The current scientific models that we have-and this is the point I think I was trying to mention in that quote that you said-the current scientific models that we have do not allow for descriptions the patients are providing of an out-of-body experience if they’re real.
So let’s assume for a moment that the patient who claims that they were on the ceiling and able to see things is actually really correct. Well, we have no scientific model to account for it today. So based upon what we understand of the brain and the way the brain works, the most likely explanation that we have today and the knowledge that’s available in 2010 is that this must be an illusion. However, I’m open-minded enough to accept that at any given time and era science is very limited. And it may simply be that this phenomenon is going to be something that will open up a whole new field of science. So that again depends on what the experiments show.
So the point I was making was based on the limitations of science that we have today, this is most likely to be an illusion but I’m very open to experimenting with it and doing an objective study to find out whether it is or not. And that’s what we’re doing.
Alex Tsakiris: I do want to push it just a tiny bit further. You say, “…and I suspect it will turn out to be.” Now there’s nothing wrong with that but if you, as someone who’s worked in this field, it’s okay to say I’ve done all this research and I’m leaning towards suspecting that that’s how it’s going to turn out to be. What’s the problem with that?
Dr. Sam Parnia: I don’t think there is a problem.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. You do suspect that it will turn out to be a trick of the mind, an illusion.
Dr. Sam Parnia: It may well be. You’re pushing and I’m giving you honest answers. I don’t know. If I knew the answers then I don’t think I would have engaged and spent 12 years of my life and so much of my medical reputation to try to do this. Because to appreciate people like me, I risk a lot by doing this sort of experiment. So I’m interested in the answers and I don’t know. Like I said, if I was to base everything on the knowledge that I have currently of neuroscience, then the easiest explanation is that this is probably an illusion. But again, I don’t know.
Alex Tsakiris: Fair enough. Let’s move on because in my blog post and in the email exchange the other thing I really want to try and dig into a little bit is the research methodology because you’ve designed a really rather unique experiment. As you described, you place these hidden images over the bed of a patient and if they wind up having cardiac arrest and a near-death experience then you go and do an interview with them and ask them if they saw that image over the bed.
Let me go ahead and play this clip where you describe that experiment:
“And so if we get say 500 people who all supposedly die and come back and that sort of stuff, and they all claim they saw Dr. Smith and have all these incredible stories and they describe what was happening, then supposedly, if they really are out-of-body they should see that picture. 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.”
Okay, so there you’re describing the experiment and maybe you want to add anything that you have.
Dr. Sam Parnia: I think the point is that’s just the point of the experiment for people who listen. In fact, that is one aspect of the research that we do in the experiment, but that’s the aspect that you’re more interested in. So I want to point out that’s a small part of what we do.
Alex Tsakiris: Agreed. Understood, I should say. We also have to acknowledge that that’s the part that’s garnered the most media attention and is certainly fascinating and very interesting to people. So I think it’s okay if we focus on that. Even though I have to say that I encourage everyone to particularly watch that video presentation because you do a wonderful job of laying out many different aspects of it-the testing of the pacemaker in the heart was really interesting in terms of really nailing down this idea of we do know that consciousness does return, but that’s a whole other issue.
Here’s what I want to focus on with regard to what we’re talking about because I’m really puzzled by this. That’s when you say this if we see 500 people come back and report that they’ve seen the picture. Now in another place and in a written interview you gave you might have used 200. But this term of hundreds of people coming back and positively identifying the picture comes up and lot and I just don’t see where you get those numbers. I mean, if you’re starting with 1,500 people in your study, I don’t see based on the little bit that I know of this research, how you’re going to wind up with anything more than maybe a dozen people who even have a chance of seeing that picture.
Dr. Sam Parnia: Again, because the point, you see, I think you’ve mistaken something in the lecture. The point I was trying to explain was about the field. How can we verify or refute these claims that people have? What I was trying to point out is that it’s like any field of science. It’s very difficult. The ideas can be simple but actually implementing them is very, very difficult in practice. For example, if you look at the idea of gene therapy that was so prominent maybe 25 years ago that what you do if people have genetic illnesses you just replace the gene. A basic, simple idea. But in practice it’s been fraught with difficulties because that’s what researchers like.
So the idea that we have is very simple. When people claim to have out-of-body experiences, all we have to do is put a picture up there and wait for them to either see or not see it. But the reality of it, as you pointed out to some extent, is that the difficulties are that first all these people have to have cardiac arrests or they’ve died. Therefore, most of them are not brought back to life again. Those who are brought back to life again, because of the trauma to the brain, only a small proportion will have any kind of memories. Even a smaller proportion will have a recollection of having an out-of-body experience.
So if we start out with 1,500 cardiac arrest patients, we would estimate that we should have maybe about 50 who have had an out-of-body experience. So what I was referring to was at what point would we claim that we have enough evidence to try to persuade the argument one way or the other? And that is that if we have single digits of reports one way or the other, I don’t think it’s sufficient. And that’s the point I was making.
But if you get hundreds of people long-term in this research and they not be with the conclusion of the first part of the AWARE study but it may be something that’s built on later. But if you have hundreds of people who all were supposedly positioned right above where the pictures were and describe all kinds of details that happened to them from that vantage point above but somehow cannot see that picture, then I guess at some point we have to accept maybe they really aren’t seeing them.
On the other hand, if we do get that many people and they do claim to see the picture, then maybe we have to accept that it’s real. The problem is that you end up with too few people then the difficulty is you don’t know. For example, participating in some sort of fraud. Could it just be someone making something up? Could it be that they claim that they didn’t see the pictures? Of course then the problem is well, maybe there was some other reason why they didn’t see them. They weren’t interesting to them. Maybe they weren’t looking in that direction. So I think that’s the point I was making.
In order to make conclusions we have to make sure that the numbers are sufficient. That’s the main point. It’s like any research into gene therapy. You have to start with a smaller number and then you build up. I think the point is to try and see what’s happening with the first tens of cases and then based upon that you can get, hopefully, funding to then do a much larger study which will obviously cost somewhere in the millions. So I don’t think anyone’s going to invest that kind of money into something that hasn’t got the appropriate background. That’s the point.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I do see what you’re saying. So you’re saying that the first stage of 1,500 that you’re running, you probably will reach, like you said, the single digit. In the best case you’ll reach single digit reports, but you’re saying if you ran 15,000 such cases and you wound up with 1,000 near-death experiences, you would expect a lot more than that in terms of people who might see the image. Is that correct?
Dr. Sam Parnia: The problem is the limitation in out-of-body experiences. We don’t have a lot of data, as you can appreciate. The only data we have is from Dr. Pim Van Lommel’s study which was published in 2001 and he basically found that from their 344 cardiac arrest survivors that essentially they had a rate of about 1.5% or 2% roughly of the out-of-body experiences. So that’s what we’re dealing with. It may be that our experiment will show that that number is correct or incorrect, I don’t know.
But if you only have one or two percent of the people having out-of-body experiences and you start out with 10,000 patients who survived, of course you’re not going to have more than about 10 or 20 people who claim to have had an out-of-body experience. Then you have the problem of were they in the right position? From my research into this phenomenon, people have different experiences. Some of them will tell you, “I was six inches out of my body.” Some will say, “I was in the corner of the room looking straight out at my body.” Some of them say, “I went straight through the ceiling. I didn’t want to wait.” So then you have all these other confounding variables that will come into it. So, you know, it’s a start.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. It’s a start. Fair enough. I will, however, push it just a tiny bit further when I pull out another segment of that clip that you just said. Maybe you’re clarifying it now, but I’d like you to really hone in on it. You say, “If they really are out of their body they should see that picture.” And again, that just strikes me as kind of a strange assumption for all the reasons you were just saying. I don’t know, I think it’s an unproven assumption and it seems like an unusual starting point for this research.
I’ll just throw this out there and I’d love to get your comment and your clarification. But that’s that a few months ago we had on a researcher colleague of yours who I know you’re very familiar with, Dr. Penny Sartori, and she approached this same question but she started from a different standpoint. She said, “Okay, let’s take these accounts that people have, these out-of-body experience accounts, near-death experience accounts while they’re being resuscitated and let’s look at their memory of the resuscitation and compare it with what actually occurred in the room and see if that’s accurate.”
I just wonder, since that research seemed to yield positive results, why not go more in that direction? More of a kind of naturalistic direction in terms of what these near-death experience accounts are telling us? Maybe the flip side of that question is why do you think these pictures will be successful and people will, as you say, they should see that picture? What would you want to…
Dr. Sam Parnia: I think you’re slightly-I don’t know if they’ll be successful or not. That’s an important point to make. As I said, I don’t have a particular stance. It’s possible that these experiences are simply illusionary and it’s possible that they’re real. Science hasn’t got the answers yet. So we have to go fair-minded. Right now what we have is a setup that can at least, we hope, objectively determine an answer to the question. So that’s the first point.
The second point is that obviously again this has to be-what people report has to be in the context of everything else that was happening to them. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who have had so-called out-of-body experiences and they’ve described very accurate details of what happened to them. And sometimes when you speak to the physicians, they have confirmed what the patients have said.
So again, if under those type of circumstances we have people who have seen everything accurately as far as we can determine, their accounts of what happened were correct, and they claimed that they were seeing things in the direction of where the image was, then in theory if they are correctly out-of-body as they claim to be-again, you realize I’m not saying they are but the patient is claiming out-of-body at the ceiling-then I see no reason why they shouldn’t see the images.
If on the other hand, there’s some other process going on, for example, it was either an illusion or it could just be that actually you know what? Perception is not quite as we think it is. Maybe they are able to see things in a way that we’ve imagined or a way they imagined they were perceiving. And they may not see the pictures.
But these are the realms of the unknown right now. We don’t have the answers and I think, as I said before, it needs the experiments to try to determine it. As with any scientific experiment, probably one experiment will lead to fine-tuning of another experiment and so on and so forth.
Alex Tsakiris: Will you, as part of the AWARE Study, collect and publish those kinds of accounts that you just mentioned? You said you have accounts where people come back and provide information about their resuscitation…
Dr. Sam Parnia: Of course.
Alex Tsakiris: …that’s later verified. Can you tell us in what form, and I know this is all subject to change as the research comes out, but how will the information from the study be published? In what form?
Dr. Sam Parnia: Well, the study will obviously be published in a scientific journal, in a medical journal, like with any research. That’s the first thing. We thought that certainly people’s experiences cannot always be condensed into a five or six page scientific paper. Therefore, I would personally like to have a catalog of people’s experiences that we could then document, either on a website or maybe as an addendum to the paper if the publishing journal will accept that. And often they do that. They have some more material on their website that maybe cannot go into the print version because of space issues. And then we could have that available for people to read.
I’m also interested personally in trying to make sure that we can watch the video document these things so people can see them, because I think they’re important. They’re significant, and one of the most important aspects is what the people say.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Can you share with us a little bit about the timetable for this project? Where you’re at; when some of this information will come out?
Dr. Sam Parnia: I’m hoping-with any research, like you said, things can change-but I’m hoping that we can at least release the first set of preliminary data within 12 to 18 months. That’s my general hope. And by that stage we should be about half-way through. We should have about 750 or so cardiac arrest survivors, and we should have a good idea which way this thing is going. I hope that we can at least release some of that information.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. And would you be willing to share at this point of 750 cardiac arrest survivors any estimate in terms of how many near-death experience accounts you might wind up with?
Dr. Sam Parnia: That’s precisely what I’m talking about is looking at what people have experienced; what the outcome has been; having out-of-body experiences. So that’s what we hope to be able to publish, as I’ve said, in the next 12 to 18 months.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I just wonder, do you think you’re going to have 20 accounts, 50 accounts, 100 accounts?
Dr. Sam Parnia: Oh, do I know? No. At this point I don’t know. Hopefully in a year or so I will be able to answer that question for you.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. Well, it’s certainly been a great pleasure. I really appreciate and respect you coming on and clearing up these, and I hope we have offered a more clear picture of what you’re doing. It’s obviously very exciting work and you’re really to be commended for doing this work. It’s brave, as you mentioned. It’s not the kind of stuff that is not going to generate a lot of interesting criticism from every side you can imagine. So I’m sure you do have moments of where you question why you even got into all this stuff in the first place, right?
Dr. Sam Parnia: Yes, but it is a fascinating subject and I think it’s very important because not only will it have an impact on those that we bring back to life, like I explained, but also we answering some of the last remaining age-old philosophical questions that haven’t yet been answered by science.
And I think it’s important for science to try to answer some of these questions that affect all of us. What is the mind? What is consciousness? Why are we the way we are? Is there something else? What happens when we die? And these things have not yet fitted into the scientific field, but I think they are now, and I think that’s important. So I hope my work can encourage others to also get involved and hopefully remain neutral and unbiased.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. Do you have any thoughts on why this doesn’t seem to be more of a pressing issue for science and medicine?
Dr. Sam Parnia: I think there are a number of reasons for that. First of all, one of the things I’ve noticed is that when you talk to some of the public, they have some perception that it should just be done. Things should just be done. Experiments should just be done, not realizing how much effort goes into just one single experiment. You’ve highlighted a little bit of that and we just talked about it.
But more important is that funding is so important. Money is needed. You have to hire a staff; you have to have a budget. And of course funding only comes from organizations that have that ability to provide that, and they’re limited. And they generally will fund medical research that they perceive as being able to help people who are alive. So the one difficulty that you’re trying to tell people you’re studying something that affects people when they die, then they may feel that it’s interesting, it’s fascinating, but there’s no real organization, no real funding body for that.
The second problem has been that people-to some extent we’re all affected by pressure, peer pressure, and pressure around us. The unfortunate perception out there has been that the study has something to do with religion and philosophy only. And I hope I’ve managed to explain why I don’t think that’s correct. I think it should fall into the realms of science because we are resuscitating people who have died and therefore we have to pay attention to what happens to the mind and consciousness too.
So I think that’s a negative perception on this subject and therefore the combination of these two things is not likely-it’s not like you read a medical journal or the newspaper and people are putting adverts in saying, “Please come. We have this huge amount of funding. We’re waiting for people to claim it.” So who’s going to do the research? People have careers.
So to be honest with you, in all the years that I’ve been doing this-even though I wrote a book and I’ve done numerous media presentations-even to this day I don’t see anyone coming out with real money to try to support this kind of work. So it’s limited. So wish us luck.
Alex Tsakiris: I do. I do and I think anyone who’s even remotely interested in these big-picture questions in terms of science wishes you all the best of luck. We’ll certainly keep an eye on the AWARE Project. Again, Dr. Parnia, thank you so much for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Sam Parnia: Thank you very much.