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Examination of recent research from the University of Michigan linking surge in brain activity of dying rats to near-death experience science.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for a look at two interviews that shed light on recent reports suggesting a scientific explanation for near-death experiences has been discovered in the work of Dr. Jimo Borjigin, at the University of Michigan. The study found a surge in electrical activity in the brains of dying rats. Researcher and science writers offered this as a possible expatiation for human near-death experiences. As we’ve seen in the past, research supporting a convention explanation for near-death experience receives considerable attention form the mainstream science media. This study was no exception with stories popping up on the BBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, National Geographic and many other media outlets. (continued below)
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Many Skeptiko listeners sent me this links to the various reports on this research, and I kept pointing them to a past interview I had done a couple of years ago relating to this topic, but since I never mentioned it on the show I thought I do so now.
In June of 2011 I interviewed George Washington University Medical Center Professor, Dr. Lakhmir Chawla, who discovered a surge in the brain’s electrical activity seconds before death might in humans. Here’s a clip from Skeptiko episode 140:
Alex Tsakiris: So, Dr. Chawla, in 2009 you published a paper with the surprising discovery that some of your patients who were very close to death experienced a final surge in brain activity and the paper has gained quite a bit of traction, media attention, mainly because of this quote of yours:
“We think that near-death experiences could be caused by a surge of electrical energy as the brain runs out of oxygen.”
It‘s been a while since that paper was published. So first I want to ask you, do you still think that what you saw has anything to do with near-death experience?
Dr. Lakhmir Chawla: Obviously all of the patients in our study passed away so there’s really no way for us to truly know if what these people were experiencing is, in fact had they survived, being the signature of a near-death experience. What we did notice which was very striking is that in all these patients–and in this study we reported on seven patients on which we had very good documentation. We’ve seen these electrical surges, EEG activity, at the end of life in over 100 patients and what we basically have, I hypothesize that when people pass away something occurs in their neural structure.
We have a hypothesis for why this may be happening, that causes this large intensity of electrical energy. What we basically hypothesize further and speculate is that if somebody within the field, someone who’s having a heart attack, for example, and their heart stops and the oxygen to their brain went down and they have this sort of terminal surge of energy and then they were resuscitated and brought back, it’s very likely that they would recall that electrical surge.
If they did recall that electrical surge, we hypothesize and speculate that that could be what people describe in their near-death experiences. The one thing that we’ve seen rather consistently when you read the literature of near-death experiences is that not everyone has the same imagery. Not everyone has the same experience.
But the one thing that they all have in common is that the experience is very intense and very vivid. People can usually recall many, many years later on with great detail what they experienced. So it would take something that would be a very durable electrical event of energy for someone to have that. So we put those notions together and arrived at that speculation.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. I just wanted to confirm that and it’s interesting that you reference the near-death experience literature. I’ve had a chance to interview some of the world’s leading near-death experience researchers and gosh, I even went back and talked to some of them about this. I couldn’t find any of them that would even seriously entertain that kind of speculation.
As a matter of fact, privately one of them told me, and this is pretty harsh, but he said, “It’s one of the dumbest explanations for near-death experience yet published.” So I guess I was really wondering exactly where you’re coming from, exactly what near-death experience research you’ve dug into that makes you feel like the speculation that you’re talking about would fit the broader research that’s been done into near-death experience.
Dr. Lakhmir Chawla: No, I mean I’m not a researcher in near-death experience. That’s not my primary scientific interest. We are basically at the bedside taking care of very sick patients in the intense care unit. I don’t pretend to have any incredible insight into what these are or are not. All we are saying from our group’s scientific standpoint is that we see a very consistent signature for patients when they’re passing away. We are not the only investigators to report this; it’s now been investigated and reported by multiple investigators.
This is not artifact. This is real electrical activity. It’s high-frequency gamma wave activity at the minimum. It could be higher frequency than that. And the one thing which is abundantly clear is that this level of activity is coherent electrical activity. This is not sort of slow beta wave activity. It is not nothing, sort of dying brain variance or whatever. So I don’t know what’s causing it. We’ve speculated what might be the cause.
I don’t know if this is a near-death experience or not. I’m not saying it is or it isn’t. But I do believe that it’s plausible that if someone has a very large coherent amount of activity and they are then awoken or awakened, they’re going to have a memory of that. That memory could be what people believe to be is a near-death experience.
The one thing which we find rather consistent is that the level of energy associated with this is very high frequency and it’s very intense. If you look at the BIS monitor and SEDline monitors for which these are measured, it pretty much goes to the top of the scale. It goes beyond or very close to the maximum capacity that the device can measure.
So I don’t know what it is but I do think it’s plausible that if someone has this and they recall it, that they would recall a vivid memory. Whether that’s a near-death experience or not, I don’t know.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. Let’s just push that a little bit further. I appreciate where you’re coming from that near-death experience is a hot topic. Something happens at the final stages of life. I think it’s easy to make that connection.
The pushback I hear from the near-death experience researchers and why they say, “Wow, that just doesn’t really fit and we’ve been down that path before,” there’s a couple reasons. But the main one is the timing. You know, the first thing they’ll tell you is that while near-death experience has certainly been studied a lot in cardiac arrest patients because it eliminates a lot of the other variables, it’s not the only place where near-death experiences are reported.
The first thing that I heard back from the near-death experience researchers I talked to about your work is most people who report a near-death experience aren’t that bad off. They’re not in that much of a medical emergency, final stages kind of situation that you talk about. Heck, there’s even people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and don’t have any real physical trauma going on that have a near-death experience. Or people who are in the middle of a plane crash scenario that have a near-death experience. So the literature, when you get into near-death experience, goes way beyond people in this medical situation.
But moreover, this issue with the EEG becomes very interesting because we also have people in the near-death experience literature, case studies published in placed like the New England Journal of Medicine, all the right places to publish case studies, where they’ve induced cardiac arrest and they know there’s no EEG, and yet there’s the report of a near-death experience.
Dr. Lakhmir Chawla: Right. So I guess it really comes down to your definition of what a near-death experience is or isn’t. Is it driving a car and having a Mack truck come and nearly crush you and you avoid it? That’s a near-death experience because you nearly died. I think that it all depends on what near-death means and your definition of what near-death is. I think that’s an important distinction. I think that when we talk about near-death, what we’re talking about can vary.
Patients who undergo anesthesia and who have very bad events or are getting psychoactive medications, which is a part of critical care and a part of being in the operating room, they can all have near-death experiences and they could have had a very traumatic case in which the heart’s never stopped. So think there is going to be an enormous amount of heterogeneity of what a near-death experience is or isn’t.
In those cases, I certainly agree that people can have things that they recall from the events but it’s very hard because it’s very rare for a person to die or nearly die and then be awoken within 15 to 20 minutes and you can say to them, “Hey, do you remember anything?” It’s not the nature of the recovery of a very severe near-death event. So there’s a lot of things that can go on between an event and the actual recall and I think that it’s very hard to ascertain in any given individual if this electrical spike that we’re describing speaks to a very particular type of recollection versus a more generic near-death experience.
I think that this is a testable hypothesis, in fact, but I do think that it’s very hard because what one’s definition of a near-death experience varies from investigator to investigator.
Alex Tsakiris: Not really. Not all that much. Again, this is NDE Research 101. Everyone nowadays uses something called the Greyson Scale, invented by Bruce Greyson. It’s in a series of 7 or 12 questions and they rate how “deep” the near-death experience is. So when we throw around the term, “near-death experience,” it really has at this point in the stage of the research, a very specific set of features. It’s not really all over the board kind of like you’re saying. So I’m not really sure that there is that much discrepancy in what is or what isn’t a near-death experience in terms of the near-death experience literature.
Dr. Lakhmir Chawla: I’m not referring to the literature and what the case definition is or isn’t. I mean, the case definition is that they all agree on what they’re using to describe it. What I’m saying is that everyone in our study died. They all died. And they all had this electrical spike. And all we’re suggesting is that people who survive who had this are likely to recall whatever that electrical energy is. That individual may recall that as an experience or as a memory that occurred as they died or nearly died. That’s all we’re saying.
I’m not suggesting that every person who has a near-death experience has to have this spike. Nor am I suggesting that this spike is the signature for all near-death experiences. All we’re proposing is that if this is recalled, this could form a very strong memory and so it may represent a specific subtype of people’s near-death experiences. I’m not suggesting that this is the end-all, be-all. We don’t have any kind of evidence to make that determination but I do think it’s very interesting that people have this.
What I find further interesting is that animals, when they’re killed, also have this electrical spike about 45 seconds to 60 seconds after death.
Alex Tsakiris: Uh-huh (Yes). It is a surprising finding and it’s an interesting finding. It’s also interesting to me though how the story kind of runs way ahead of itself. As you say, I think you’re being very straightforward and I appreciate you putting the spikes in the ground in terms of what you would sign up for and what you wouldn’t.
The story has kind of taken on a life of its own and it seems like this happens over and over again when near-death experience is thrown into the mix and we have some kind of conventional explanation for it. We get a lot of traction behind those ideas even if they haven’t been, I don’t know, researched quite as fully as we’d all like. Any thoughts on that?
Dr. Lakhmir Chawla: Well, I’ve been interviewed and have spoken to many people about this and I think it dramatically determines what the person’s previous position is. If I have this conversation with an Atheist, the Atheist tells me that you have proven that the near-death experiences are not divine intervention and you have given evidence for the fact that there is no God. And when I speak to very religious people they tell me that I have measured the soul leaving the body and it’s a divine event that we are capturing and experiencing and being able to observe.
And I think that those two assessments are wildly off base and you have two sets of people looking at the exact same data, creating these exact opposite conclusions. All we can say is that we have an interesting finding. We don’t know what it is, but we strongly believe that when people pass away there is little to no research in this arena as compared to, let’s say, molecular biology. We simply don’t study it in a very forceful fashion because this is a time where it’s usually reserved for hospice and families and comfort care.
What we’re suggesting is that there be something to be learned at the end of life and it may shine a light on something that is very important to the stakeholders, which are our patients. Our patients care very deeply about what happens when they die, as I would argue most people do. What this is or isn’t I don’t know but I do know that the finding is intriguing. It may explain some patients’ recollections but I certainly don’t suggest that it explains everyone’s.
There is a very wide group of people who have, a lot of them, a huge set of conclusions on a 7-person case study that I think is highly premature. So our view is that we have an interesting finding and whenever we have an interesting observation generally what we do is scientists study it in more detail to understand what it is and what it isn’t. And I think that for the near-death experience researchers who are looking at these data and saying, “Oh, everyone’s saying it’s this, that, or the other,” I would say, “Let’s study it.”
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But I’m not sure that they’re saying this that or the other. They’re saying, “Okay, let’s take your finding and let’s take your data and very logically try and fit it into the rest of the data that we have.” They’re saying, “You know what? This doesn’t really add much to the story that we already have, because we have so many cases that would contradict the kind of conclusion that you’re coming to that this is somehow a near-death experience.”
And the contradiction is that we have too many people that have this continuous memory of their entire process of being in the hospital, of going under then leaving their body. I don’t want to get into too many of the details of the near-death experience research because I know that’s not your thing. But the most profound part of the near-death experience research is this out-of-body experience, this ability to see things from a vantage point outside their body, to hear things from a vantage point outside of their body.
Of course, this has been reported repeatedly in case studies and they’ve tried to replicate it in other work. But there’s no way to connect that OBE part of the near-death experience to your data. There’s also no way to connect the EEG data that they have to your research. So I don’t think it’s a lot of people coming to conclusions; they’re just saying like they’ve said in the past when people have come up with, “Oh, it’s probably a lack of oxygen. It’s probably fear of death.”
And then they’ve gone and done the work and said, “You know, that doesn’t really fit.” And that’s what I’m hearing them say again—“You know what? This is an interesting, surprising finding, but it doesn’t really add much to the research we’ve already done in near-death experience.”
In May of 2010 I interviewed science journalist Jeff Wise on why a scientific study suggesting near-death experiences are caused by carbon dioxide in the blood got so much media attention even though it stood in contrast to the opinion of every near-death experience science expert…. a fact that even the study’s authors acknowledged. Here’s a clip from Skeptiko episode 103:
Alex Tsakiris: That’s fascinating, and that kind of ties into what I want to talk about in this research. You’re right on target. I thought it was so interesting because this NDE research was widely reported and I’m glad that you reported on it and in particular with your background and with the book, Extreme Fear. There’s an interesting tie-in.
But here’s the real problem I have with it. All those things you’re talking about are great and wonderful. They just don’t relate to near-death experience. I mean, there are several problems with this research. First of all, it’s relatively small; it’s a small little study.
Jeff Wise: Granted.
Alex Tsakiris: The correlation isn’t that strong. It contradicts earlier research that looked at Co2 in the blood. But here’s the real kicker, and it’s what relates to the work that you’ve done both in your personal experience in adventure travel and about your book. That’s that the media has this perception that the near-death experience is about hallucination. It’s about all these symptoms that are associated with lack of oxygen in the blood, which is what this research is really about.
The elevated Co2 levels are really a by-product of not getting enough oxygen in the blood, as you point out quite correctly in your book. If you look at near-death experience research, which is well established now for 20 years, what we find is exactly the opposite. People who have a near-death experience have an increased level of lucidity; an increased level of awareness.
The most recent research that we reported on here where they interviewed extensively 1,000 near-death experiences, 76% of them said that their experience during the near-death experience was more conscious than their everyday life. And the data that they report is not hallucinatory at all – 98% of the data that they report is realistic and real. So if you have a dream and you see you’re in a car and then suddenly the car turns into a lion, these are hallucinations. These things don’t occur in the near-death experience.
Jeff Wise: I sense that there’s an issue here that’s bothering you, which is that my report and many of the reports in the media, took an essentially materialistic view…
Alex Tsakiris: All the reports.
Jeff Wise: All the reports.
Alex Tsakiris: All the reports in the media. And it wasn’t that hard to find. The first step of good reporting is what do the experts in the field say? The near-death experience research experts, the people like Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia or Dr. Jeffrey Long at the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation; they were quick to deal with it. And they did it in a nice way, but they said there’s nothing here.
Jeff Wise: Okay.
Alex Tsakiris: It contradicts earlier studies. It’s very small. The main point is we’ve already looked at cerebral hypoxia, which is what this is all about, and there isn’t anything there. This thing just explodes in the media because it taps into what I think what a lot of folks want to believe, which is that our consciousness is totally tied to our brain and it’s totally tied to fear. This is the other thing this is tapping into. It’s a fear of death thing. That’s totally been debunked and refuted, but that persists.
Jeff Wise: I see that your trouble with this, and with my reporting, really has to do with the interface between two kind of conflicting world views. On the one hand – stop me if I’m completely off-base here – but on the one hand you’ve got the view of the human spirit as a kind of essential thing that is not rooted in an underlying physical mechanism that can be explained strictly in material terms.
On the other hand you have this kind of – I don’t want to say post-enlightenment – well why not? Let’s call it post-enlightenment, this idea that the world can be understood as a system of interacting particles and forces. So psychology, particularly in the last 20 or 30 years, since the downfall of Freud, essentially has been an attempt to find mechanical corollaries to every aspect of human consciousness.
And so I will plead guilty. Essentially you and I are coming at this issue from different camps, I think. I perceive that you are maybe someone who believes the human soul is an immortal essence?
Alex Tsakiris: I’d like to take all that stuff out of it because I think that the philosophical implications and the lack of a theoretical basis for how consciousness could survive bodily death is wide open. It opens up a million questions. But I think the starting point has to be with how do we do good science? And how do we do good science reporting?
I’m not trying to call you out here, because you write a blog every day for Psychology Today. This obviously tapped into a lot of the topics that you’re interested in and you handled it better than most of the people I’ve read about. But there’s this huge disconnect here between the science media, and to a certain extent, the general population in terms of just the published data.
Forget any beliefs that I have or anything like that. Just the published data, like I just told you, says that near-death experiences are non-hallucinatory and they’re always perceived as being hallucinatory. And there’s this link that’s made. It is so pronounced that I just have to wonder if there isn’t something more going on, just in terms of the need for our society to reinforce and prop up this hard-line materialism, even when the data doesn’t support it.
Jeff Wise: I don’t know. Is our society hard-line materialistic?
Alex Tsakiris: Our science is, right? Because that’s the disconnect right there. The general population hears about near-death experiences on Oprah or wherever and they’re like, “Wow, that’s really cool. That really relates. I know my uncle did that.” But when they turn to science, what they get is just the opposite. “No, no, no. Right around the corner. Oh, here it is. This’ll probably explain it. Just let it play itself out. Here it is.” And it’s just not true.
Jeff Wise: This idea that a scientific theory is something that tries to increase our understanding by making a prediction, by saying “Okay, we’re going to say that the earth orbits around the sun, therefore we would expect to see this motion of the planets,” or something like that. I think the thing that’s often overlooked is that the theory requires a mechanism. And I think this is why Freud ultimately I think was cast aside, because Freud had a lot of interesting ideas and suppositions about how the brain works, but he never offered any mechanisms.
I think what you’re saying is true. More and more you’re seeing a materialistic, mechanistic view of human psychology coming to the fore, which is very much out of synch with the popular culture.
Alex Tsakiris: But it’s out of synch with popular physics. Quantum physics, which is what runs your TV and your GPS system and all that. They don’t even have any kind of sense of materialism. And it’s so long gone from that that it doesn’t. But that’s a whole other topic, as is Freud.
I would have to interject because it’s a hot button for me. I think we moved away from Freud because he was just completely discredited as a fraud. He published fraudulent research for patients that he never really saw and if that work was done today, we wouldn’t even be so delicate and parsing why and how his theories might not hold up. We’d just say he’s a fraud. We shouldn’t take seriously anything he says.
Jeff Wise: I recently ran across a statement by somebody who was writing about science and said that we need to keep politics out of science. That struck me as funny because to me, science in a way is politics. An idea doesn’t become accepted on its own merits. It becomes accepted because people form a consensus about it. I think what you’re talking about here with regard to near-death experiences is that you feel that on a scientific forum, your view of it is in the minority and that you’re not getting a fair shake. You feel like your research is not given its due. In a way, it’s just like…
Alex Tsakiris: Let me fine-tune that there. I appreciate you playing this out for me because I realize this is not exactly where you’re coming from or where you’ve gone at it.
A couple of episodes back, I interviewed Dr. Jeff Long, the guy who published the most comprehensive near-death experience research to date. His book shot to the New York Times Bestseller’s List within 8 days of publication. So we can’t say that there’s this massive conspiracy to hold back this information. No, it’s out there.
What I notice and what I was trying to just dialogue with you a little bit about is that when we turn to science and we turn to science journalism, there’s a different code. And the code is applied with this invisible hand. And that is that you’re going to stick to this line, and you’re not going to venture out and say these other things that do point to all those spiritual aspects and all that. You’re not even going to go there because you’re going to be viewed as being unscientific. It’s such a contradiction because as I pointed out, in this case the science really points in the other direction.
Jeff Wise: That’s not what it feels like from my perspective. To me it feels like near-death experience is something that I’m interested in. As I started to say earlier, I’ve been gathering string on various phenomena related to mortal danger. It’s one I put in my blog, like I’ve never experienced my life flashing in front of me, and I’m not even sure what it’s like. Is it like watching a movie? Is it like watching a slide show?
But at any rate, it’s interesting to me, but I’ve only touched on it so basically you’re talking to a guy who ran across this study, tried to tie it into what he already knew about carbon dioxide levels in the blood and panic and so forth.
So I don’t know this other research that you’re talking about. When you mention these guys who claim that they’ve found evidence that near-death experiences cannot be explained through materialistic explanations and so forth, it’s not that I’m afraid to look into it. But it doesn’t really fit into my schema for how I basically have come to conclude the world works. It’s not fear so much as it doesn’t really mesh into how I believe the world fundamentally works.
And so I think that’s really the problem. If you’re trying to propose a theory or a view of a phenomenon that is radically at odds with how let’s say mainstream science views the operation of the world – not to say it’s impossible. That’s how real, profound revolutions take place.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, Jeff, because I think you’re going in one direction where I completely agree with you, and that is when we propose things in science that go against our observed world, our five senses, I think it makes us uncomfortable. And I think that’s what you’re alluding to.
At the same time, that’s the challenge of the times we live in and the challenge of the science reporter is virtually all science at this point goes beyond what we experience in the world. Everything since Einstein contradicts our experiential existence, right? So I still don’t understand how time can be nonlinear, you know what I mean? Time to me is linear. It was yesterday, today, and it is tomorrow. But I have to accept that theoretically, time is not linear and that time and space have this relationship that I don’t understand.
The same is true with consciousness. The data’s in. It’s clear. It’s unambiguous. In some way that we don’t understand, because we don’t really even understand consciousness – we don’t understand it at all – in some way we don’t understand consciousness survives death. I can say I don’t understand that; I don’t know that, but I can look at the data scientifically and say, “Yep. That’s what the data says.”
Jeff Wise: I think that’s perhaps where I would part ways with you.
Alex Tsakiris: That the data doesn’t say that?
Jeff Wise: I mean I know that your listeners are probably very well acquainted with the data, so I don’t want to go on and discuss whether the data is legitimate or not, but to explain from my point of view. And I think you wanted to talk to me to talk to somebody who is on the other side of this debate and kind of get a sense of why.
Alex Tsakiris: I do that all the time. I talk to all the researchers who are on the other side of it. I appreciate everything you’ve said already. What I really want to tap into is, as a science reporter, how you deal with it. And you’ve done a fair job of that. I hear you. You’re saying it doesn’t fit with your worldview and therefore the data would be a huge leap. You can’t dig into every topic that you come across, so you basically have to stick with what’s the commonly accepted view of things.
Jeff Wise: Alex, I’m only accepting what’s accepted by me. When we approach the world, it’s a very interesting question to me, why we find something interesting. Of all the things that we could look at, turn our attention to, listen to, and think about, we selectively narrow it down to a very small subset.
I think the answer to that question is that we’re interested in things that make sense in the context of everything else that we know, but that’s novel. It’s new. So things that are boring that we see every day we’re not interested in. Things that completely don’t make any sense or we have to completely deconstruct our entire worldview in order to incorporate them, those things also aren’t interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, I think you’re right.