Interview with NDE researcher Dr. Jan Holden unravels the claim, “there is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences.”
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with University of North Texas professor, Dr. Jan Holden, co-author of, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. During the interview Holden discusses her research into near-death experiences:
Alex Tsakiris: I wanted you to help me work through this paper titled, “There is Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences.”
Let me start out with the first question, what are they reporting on here? What’s the news? Have they done any original research in this paper?
Dr. Holden: I didn’t see any original research. What I saw was a compilation of theories and results that have been published for quite some time, and have been answered in—you mentioned The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences.
What I noticed about this article is that it’s citing a lot of old sources that have been responded to, and they did not even mention, let alone respond to, those responses.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s get to the meat of their paper—I’ll give you this quote: “Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that there is nothing paranormal about these experiences. Instead, near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry.”
I know from your continuing education course on near-death experience science there are at least 10 prospective NDE studies with in-hospitals patients. I don’t think one of them would support this conclusion. What research are they citing to support their claim?
Dr. Holden: I don’t know. The material that’s out there actually supports a different conclusion. To quote my colleague Bruce Greyson, “If you ignore everything paranormal about NDEs then it’s easy to conclude that there is nothing paranormal about them.”
And that’s what they have done.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we’re joined by Dr. Jan Holden from the University of North Texas, who is one of the contributors and one of the editors of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation.
Welcome, Jan. Thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Dr. Holden: Thank you, Alex, I’m happy to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: Can you start out by telling us a little bit about your interest in NDE research, Jan? And about this book that you helped compile?
Dr. Holden: You bet. Well, I was pursuing my doctoral degree in counseling back in the mid-eighties and through a series of failed attempts at different dissertation studies I landed on a study related to near-death experiences. I’d been interested in them since I’d read Moody’s book and I read it a couple of years after he published it in 1975. So that’s the study that came to fruition for my dissertation research. I’ve just been fascinated by the phenomenon and research into it ever since. I’ve been in the field for more than a couple of decades.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. I’ve come across some of the work that you did in preparing for this and there’s actually a really excellent, almost like a continuing education course that you’ve put together slide-by-slide, where people can go through and listen to and learn about some of the basics. I’m just curious—who is that course directed at and can anyone go on and get that background on NDE research?
Dr. Holden: Yes. You’ve made a really good point. Following the compilation of The Handbook of NDEs, in which leading researchers in the field wrote chapters where they did comprehensive critical reviews of all the research on NDEs for the first 30 years of the existence of the field of near-death studies, after we finished the book then I compiled this online continuing education course. Actually it’s the first of five parts that I have planned.
In that first part it just addresses a review of the field of near-death studies and the features of the kind of near-death experience that has gotten the most research attention, which is pleasurable NDEs, those that are dominated by pleasurable feelings like peace, joy, and love.
And yes, anyone can go online and watch that first part. It’s available at the website of the International Association For Near-Death Studies, so if you go to www.iands.org and click on the “Education” tab you’ll see the online continuing education program. When you click on that it takes you to a page where you just register. You don’t have to pay unless you are a health care provider and you want to get continuing education credit. We are able to provide that to some health care providers and there’s a little fee for that.
Otherwise, anybody can watch it completely for free. It runs about an hour and 15 minutes and it includes not only an outline of information but many of the points are illustrated by audio or sometimes video segments of NDE’ers talking about their experiences. You can get the concept but also get the feel for how people talk about these things.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s really nicely done and one of the things that I came away with is wow, beyond the debate—which we’re going to get into a little bit today—I thought, “What a great service for all the people out there who are in counseling, nursing, health care professionals, doctors, who just don’t know the basics. So beyond the debate of it, “I’m encountering patients who are telling me about this. I need to be informed.” So what a great service to have this continuing education course to give that basic background to folks.
Dr. Holden: Exactly. You’ve really latched onto what our intention has been. If I could give a plug, we’re looking for a grant to complete the remaining four parts, so if any listeners are interested in supporting a philanthropic effort like that, we’re eager to find someone. We have all the material; we just need the time to put it together.
The second part is going to be on after-effects of pleasurable near-death experiences which are a whole big subject in themselves. Then the third part is going to address special topics like distressing near-death experiences, children’s near-death experiences, and what research has shown about characteristics of near-death experiences in general. Then the last two parts are going to be specifically for helping health care providers.
Part Four will be how to respond immediately when someone discloses a near-death experience. The fifth part will be how to work with someone over time who is integrating the experience because research shows that most experiencers do consider if not struggle with the experience for usually years afterwards, until they reach some peace. The experience for most people really is like pulling the rug of their worldview out from under their feet, so there’s a lot of re-thinking their ideas about themselves and the world and the cosmos because of these experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, there’s a whole fascinating area that we could go off and explore there which I think is interesting but I don’t want to get too sidetracked from the main reason I wanted to have you on today. You’re so nice to do this because one of the primary reasons I did want to have you on was to help me work through this paper that was recently published and I sent to you. The title of this paper is really quite interesting. The title is “There’s Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences: How Neuroscience Can Explain Seeing Bright Lights, Meeting the Dead, or Being Convinced You’re One of Them.”
The reason I wanted to have you on is because one of the paper’s co-authors, Dr. Caroline Watt, has agreed to come on Skeptiko and discuss the paper with me. I thought that was really great and before she did, I wanted to talk to a real NDE researcher like yourself and come up-to-date on what’s really going on in the field. This is a great opportunity for me and what I was hoping we could do is work through this paper, I don’t know, bit by bit, talk about some of the points they’re making, and compare it to what you’ve found in your research so that we’ll have a good discussion with Carolyn when she comes on.
Dr. Holden: Yeah, that sounds good.
Alex Tsakiris: So let me start out with the first thing that struck me because I have to say, I ran across this paper several months ago. One of our listeners pointed it out to me and I didn’t make too much of it because it just seemed to be not that significant and it seemed to be out of synch with what was really going on with NDE research.
But I’ve been surprised at the number of people who are skeptical of NDEs and are scientifically minded—I just had an interesting interview with consciousness researcher, Dr. Christof Koch, and one of the things he did after the interview was he sent me a copy of this article saying, “See? See? I told you this NDE stuff has no real substance behind it.”
So I do think this paper has kind of gotten more traction than I would have expected. So let me start out with the first question, which is what are they reporting on here? What’s the news? That’s a pretty big, strong title there. There’s nothing paranormal about near-death experiences. Have they done any original research here in this paper? What are they reporting on?
Dr. Holden: I didn’t see any original research. What I saw was a compilation of theories and some results of some research that have been published for, in some cases, quite some time and actually have been answered in—you mentioned The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. In it, Bruce Greyson, who’s a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia and Emily Kelly and Edward Kelly, who are research psychologists there, wrote a chapter entitled, “Explanatory Models of Near-Death Experiences.”
They actually referred to all of these things that Mobbs and Watt referred to, but they did so by responding to them about how these theories were inadequate to explain all the phenomena that have been observed in near-death experiences. So what I noticed about this article is that it’s citing a lot of old sources that have been responded to but Mobbs and Watt did not even mention, more-or-less respond to those responses, if that makes sense.
Alex Tsakiris: It does. Let’s do this. Before we even get to some of the specifics that I want to get to, I want to start with what I saw as the tone of it and some of the words that are used I thought were very provocative but seemed to pull us away from the real science of near-death experience and more into somebody’s culture war debate issues that we often fall into. For example, I’ll take this first quote from the paper:
“These experiences (obviously they’re talking about near-death experiences) classically involve the feeling that one’s soul has left the body, approaches a bright light and goes to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.”
The word that jumped out at me is “soul.” What do you think they mean by soul and where are they going with that?
Dr. Holden: Well, I’m not sure because most of the literature that addresses this uses the term “consciousness” and most researchers specifically try to avoid words that have some religious connotations because they’re trying to remain scientific. So authors will talk about a person having a sense of their consciousness functioning apart from their physical body and usually but not always observing or in the vicinity of the physical body.
Then, of course, in near-death experiences there are really two phases, the material in which the person is perceiving phenomena in the material world and then the trans-material where they go beyond the material world to phenomena, deceased entities and environments and spiritual entities and things like that that are not of the material world.
In any case, I definitely have the impression that the field of near-death studies is–although we address the issue of how near-death experiences and what research about them relates to what is part of religious orthodoxy, the main scientific focus is on using words that are areligious, not religiously associated. So I agree that their use of that term doesn’t represent the tone of the field of near-death studies in general.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay. That’s maybe just a minor point but it kind of tweaked me a little bit when I read that. Let’s get on to the main meat of their paper, which is—I’ll give you this quote:
“Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that there is nothing paranormal about these experiences. Instead, near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry during a traumatic and sometimes harmless event.”
I never really understood what that “traumatic and sometimes harmless” meant, but I guess they’re referring to that not all near-death experiences occur when people are near death, but that seems to be a side issue.
Here’s my direct question: what clinical NDE research are they referring to that supports this conclusion because I know from my knowledge of the field but also going through your excellent continuing education class where you identify at least 10 prospective NDE studies that have been done in hospitals that I’m aware of, I don’t think one of them would support this conclusion. I mean, what research out there are they citing that would support this conclusion?
Dr. Holden: I don’t know. I would say that the material that’s out there actually supports a different conclusion. As a case in point, they cited Van Lommel’s prospective hospital study in the Netherlands that was published in The Lancet. A little side point—they referenced it by talking about a case of hypoglycemia where a person had REM-like dream-like EEG, and reported an NDE.
I actually read Pim Van Lommel’s article many times and I don’t remember having seen it so I actually went back to the article. It’s not there. I searched the article for the words “REM,” “diabetes,” and even “rapid” for rapid eye movement, and they simply are not there. So they actually mis-referenced. I thought, “Well, maybe they just said two because it was the second reference instead of three.” So I looked at the third one but that one does not have any reference to diabetes, REM, or anything like that either.
So I really don’t know where they got that case from. I just found it very ironic that they cited Van Lommel et al’s study when it does not support the conclusion that Mobbs and Watt drew. In fact, Pim is an ardent crusader for the non-materialist prospective on near-death experiences, meaning that the things that he has observed in his extensive research with NDE’ers is that any theory that tries to reduce NDEs to material phenomena like misfiring of neurons in the brain or lack of oxygen to the brain and that sort of thing doesn’t cut it.
He’s a retired cardiologist and he retired so that he could actually take on this goal of trying to bring modern medicine up to speed about how theories reducing everything to the brain and functioning or misfunctioning of the brain just don’t explain what all is there. The title of their article, “There’s Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences,” to quote my colleague Bruce Greyson, “If you ignore everything paranormal about NDEs then it’s easy to conclude that there’s nothing paranormal about them.”
And that’s what they have done; their only mention of veridical perception was to say, “The celebrated Canadian neurosurgeon, Wilder Penfield, argued that the veridical perceptions during out-of-body experiences, which is part of near-death experiences, is brain-based.” They didn’t cite any source.
What I can tell you is that I can quote Wilder Penfield from his 1976 book, The Mystery of the Mind: A Critical Study of Consciousness in the Human Brain. He said, “In the end, I conclude that there is no good evidence, in spite of new methods such as the employment of stimulating electrodes, that the brain alone can carry out the work that the mind does. I conclude that it is easier to rationalize man’s being on the basis of two elements, brain and mind, than on the basis of one. But I believe that one should not tend to draw a final scientific conclusion in man’s study of man until the nature of the energy responsible for mind action is discovered as in my opinion it will be.” And that’s from page 114 of his book.
He’s clearly a dualist who uses the word “mind” instead of “soul” or “consciousness” which is more typical to use now. He says clearly he believes in all of his study of the brain that understanding the mind cannot be reduced to understanding the functioning of the brain.
Alex Tsakiris: So it’s interesting that they would cite him…
Dr. Holden: Exactly. Yes. And to cite him as if he argued that veridical—we should probably define veridical perception for your listeners, which is…
Alex Tsakiris: You know what? Before we even get there what I thought we might do, Janet, is back up because you touched on a really interesting point that I think needs to be covered and that’s a little bit of the history of near-death experience research, and in particular what crossed my mind as you were saying this is that we’re throwing around this retrospective versus prospective studies and I think it’s important because the reason that Dr. Pim Van Lommel did the research the way he did was to overcome some of the objections that folks had with retrospective NDE studies.
That’s not to say there isn’t something to be gained from the retrospective ones, either. You do an excellent job of this. Maybe you could lay out a little bit of the history and how we came to be concerned about prospective versus retrospective and veridical out-of-body experiences and all the rest of that.
Dr. Holden: Okay. Well, the field really began with what’s now called retrospective research. That’s where essentially let’s say a researcher puts out an ad in a newspaper and says, “If you have survived a close brush with death I would like you to participate in a research study.” So anybody who sees this and remembers having survived a close brush with death comes and is willing to participate in the study.
Some of the down-sides of retrospective research is that it’s a self-selected sample. We don’t know how representative it is of let’s say all people who survived cardiac arrest or all people who survived falls during mountain climbing. But the positive thing about it is that it does include people from all kinds of circumstances in which their NDEs occurred. So you’ll get people who drowned, who fell during mountain climbing, who were in car accidents, who had allergic reactions to medication, who had cardiac arrest and of course were resuscitated and survived.
So retrospective research is nice because it provides this broad sampling of all varieties of people. But because it is self-selected and because it includes people who both actually were clinically dead for any period of time and people who were not actually clinically dead because as these authors, Mobbs and Watt, pointed out, NDEs do occur to people who actually have died and people who were just afraid of dying. Like people who survived falls during mountain climbing and might have been injured but never even lost consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, it’s always curious to me about that, Jan, when skeptics cite that. I would just think that would make it even more puzzling or harder to explain with a conventional medical explanation because here we have someone who has a cardiac arrest. They have no blood flow to the brain and here’s someone who has essentially normal blood flow to the brain; they just fell off a building or something and yet their experience is almost exactly the same.
And yet they draw it as somehow more evidence in the favor of a biological explanation. I never really understand that kind of connection.
Dr. Holden: I don’t either. That’s exactly one of the points that Bruce Greyson and his colleagues made in that chapter in the Handbook. We know that NDEs occur under a variety of circumstances. It does just add to the mystery of it but also points out that all of the brain-based theories that these things have to do with lack of oxygen to the brain and that sort of thing, research has shown that no matter what the circumstances in which the near-death experience occurred, the contents and after-effects of the experience are indistinguishable.
So whether you did have that fall or whether you suffered cardiac arrest, the nature of the experience itself and then what happens to the person afterwards is going to be essentially the same. So I agree with you. It’s like Mobbs and Watt cited this as something that’s like discrediting of NDEs when actually it, just as you said, adds to the mystery of what’s actually going on.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m sorry to have gotten us a little bit off-track. Next I think you’re going toward prospective studies. The goal there was to limit the medical conditions to an extent where we could better really dig into this, right? And have a better idea of understanding what’s going on. That was the goal of heading toward prospective studies, right?
Dr. Holden: That’s right, yeah. Prospective studies are ones that so far have been done in hospitals. What happens is that a team decides that they’re going to interview and collect data on everybody who survives cardiac arrest. So in the hospital people either are brought in or while in hospital like maybe during surgery or something they go into cardiac arrest. Of course they’re successfully resuscitated and then the team goes in and within a short period of time afterwards, usually within 24 hours, and interviews the person to find out what they remember from their close brush with death.
So it’s nice in that you get a group of people who are medically confirmed to actually have been clinically dead and you get really in-depth information about them. So you lose the breadth that you have with retrospective studies but you get more in-depth study. This is becoming more and more the focus because one of the foremost questions about NDEs is this question of the relationship between consciousness and the brain.
What the prospective studies have shown is people who have been in cardiac arrest sometimes for minutes and then are resuscitated describe things happening that seem to have occurred during the time that their brain was not functioning. One of the things that Pim Van Lommel talks about in sometimes painful detail is how long it takes for the brain to start shutting down, which is essentially about 20 seconds for really noticeable changes to be seen. Within seconds the EEG, the measurement of electrical activity in the brain, goes flat.
So theoretically the brain is not functioning and yet the person is experiencing a very lucid experience with complex thinking processes and perception that they subjectively describe typically as either absolutely real or more real than this reality and during which they often describe perceptions of things away from their physical bodies that were corroborated to be accurate. I don’t know if you want an example of that but that’s what veridical perception is.
Again, ironically for Mobbs and Watt to have cited Van Lommel’s study incorrectly and in that same study in that Lancet article, he gave a case study of a man who was brought in comatose and cyanotic, in cardiac arrest, having collapsed in a field and then discovered by a passer-by. They repeatedly checked his pupils; no response. The guy was just unconscious during the entire resuscitation and actually for a few days until he finally regained consciousness.
When he did, one of the male nurses who had been there in the resuscitation was walking through the ward where this patient had recently regained consciousness and the patient saw him and said, “You, you! You were there when you were resuscitating me.” He said, “I saw you put my dentures on a shelf of a cabinet nearby while you were scurrying around doing all this stuff, intubating me and all that. I need my dentures. Would you go get them?”
And the nurse was absolutely flabbergasted because he knew that this guy had been brought in unconscious; he’d been unconscious the whole time and for a couple of days after. So how could he have known even that his dentures had been removed more-or-less be able to report accurately where the nurse had put them and where they in fact still were. The nurse retrieved them and gave them to him.
So again, it’s interesting that Mobbs and Watt mis-cited this article that actually provided information that supported a different, very different, conclusion. It clearly involved a paranormal phenomenon.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I love the way you laid that out. I think that’s going to be really helpful for people. It seems like they completely—this is Mobbs and Watt again—kind of never really understood the distinction between these two types of research, the retrospective and the prospective, and that the reason that we do the prospective research was exactly to try and accommodate some of the skepticism that has been shown by folks like this. “Okay, let’s really limit this down to a set of medical conditions that we can pretty well control.”
I also like how you refer to Dr. Van Lommel, who is a cardiologist, has been a cardiologist for 30 years. He is very well-versed and knowledgeable about exactly what’s happening with the body. If I could, I’m going to read one of those quotes that you alluded to. This is from Van Lommel’s paper and it summarizes exactly what you’re talking about, about his understanding of what’s happening in the brain.
He says, “After cardiac arrest the first symptoms of oxygen deficiency are recorded 6.5 seconds later. If the heartbeat is not restored, the complete loss of all electrical activity in the cerebral cortex follows 10 to 20 seconds later. If cardiac arrest lasts longer than 37 seconds, the EEG does not normalize immediately.”
So exactly what you’re saying, this really became the crux of the debate. That is, when these people are having these perceptions, do they really have no brain? Are they really clinically dead? And one of the main thrusts of Van Lommel’s article is to say, hey, as a cardiologist I can tell you. These people really did have no brain activity and here’s how I know it and here’s what we know medically about people in this condition. So I’m glad you laid that out for us.
Dr. Holden: You know, you mentioned something about the tone of Mobbs and Watt’s article and I noted too they referred early on that a handful of scientific studies had been done on NDEs. That kind of dismissive terminology and is really misrepresentative. It really does misrepresent the field.
When we compiled all the studies to be critically reviewed in the Handbook, what I discovered was that as of 2006, NDE researchers or research teams had published over 65 articles of studies conducted in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia, involving over 3,500 near-death experiencers and addressing the experience itself and/or it’s after-effects. So 65 studies by different researchers and research teams on four continents involving 3,500 near-death experiences is not really fairly represented as “a handful of scientific studies.”
Alex Tsakiris: Well, especially when it’s couched in terms before that in the paper of this is really a religious kind of issue. It’s really a social issue. There hasn’t been any real scientific work outside of a handful of studies. It’s really quite the opposite if you look at the NDE research, as you just alluded to. Not only is there a fair amount of it at this point, but its tone is certainly not of this religious cheerleading kind of nature.
In fact, as you know and you point out, the science of near-death experiences is very controversial within a lot of religious traditions. It brushes up against a lot of religious ideas so to kind of shift it off to the side of being some kind of cultural religious phenomenon is really doing it a dis-service. There’s a real medical mystery here that NDE probes quite effectively.
Dr. Holden: Yeah. That’s a really good point and as you alluded to, just as one example, some very conservative religious groups of any denomination, Christian, Hindu, whatever, will believe that only people who subscribe to their particular religion are going to have pleasurable experiences following death. But what near-death research has revealed is that a person’s pre-existing beliefs, whether they’re devoutly religious of any religious persuasion or whether they’re Atheistic, everybody has very similar experiences.
That’s not to say that all experiences are pleasurable. Some are distressing. But once again, pre-existing belief systems characterize both people who have had pleasurable and distressing and even among distressing, all belief systems are represented. So it does fly in the face of some religious orthodoxy and creates some controversy.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, Jan, now we’ve hit on a lot of the key points that we want to discuss regarding this article. What else do we want to talk about here that maybe we haven’t addressed?
Dr. Holden: Well, I noticed a couple of other things. For example, toward the end of the article they say one recent theory is that the basic arousal system beginning in the midbrain may account for many of the components of the near-death experience.
We’ve already talked about how we know of cases where people report phenomena that appeared to have occurred when their brain wasn’t functioning at all, so that’s—but what struck me is that what they were actually calling “recent theory” they cited an article by Susan Blackmore from 1988. You know, 24 years of research has transpired since then and Greyson, Kelly and Kelly responded to what Blackmore had proposed in Greyson’s chapter in the Handbook. It’s just another example of how this is old news that has been answered but that answer wasn’t acknowledged in this article.
Another one that really jumped out at me was they cited the research by Olaf Blanke and colleagues that they say demonstrated that out-of-body experiences can be artificially induced by stimulating the right temporal parietal junction. But physician Jeffrey Long and I wrote an article that has been published in which we critiqued their finding and found them to be very lacking.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, beyond that I just continually go back to the point that we discussed and you just mentioned a minute ago, and that’s we’re talking about patients that have no blood flow to the brain, who we can assume have a flat EEG. To completely ignore that in a paper like they do I think is more than just an oversight. I really find that hard to resolve. We can talk about all these other things but we’re talking about these things happening with no brain. That’s the big question that we have to unravel and I don’t think they come even close to it.
As a matter of fact, it’s almost like they’re distracting us from that fact by trying to compare these situations to people who have a normally functioning brain. For example, I love this one. They say, “One of the most frequently reported features of near-death experiences is an awareness of being dead. These feelings, however, are not limited to near-death experiences.”
Now a couple of things jumped out at me. First I wonder what they mean by “feelings,” because in so many of the near-death experience accounts that I’ve read these folks aren’t having feelings of being dead. They’re just trying to figure out what’s going on because there they are, as you just said, up in the corner of the room looking down and they’re wondering what’s going on. Moreover, I think a lot of the accounts—and you can tell me—report exactly the opposite. They don’t feel dead. They feel like why are these people pounding on my chest? I’m still here. What’s going on?
Again the big point seems to be the medical condition of the patient and if you’re not taking that into account that this patient has a flat EEG and this other patient that they cite essentially has a normal functioning brain, I don’t know how you can really draw a lot of conclusions about the fact that this is not limited to near-death experiences.
Dr. Holden: Yeah. I agree. And I think your point is well taken that bringing up things like people have feelings of being dead under other circumstances doesn’t really address the main question here, which is how people can have an experience of vivid consciousness that they perceive as real not only during the experience but afterwards. Unlike dreams and hallucinations where afterwards the person looks back and says, “Well, it may have felt real at the time but it wasn’t. It was an illusion.”
NDErs by large are adamant that what they experienced was absolutely real. And often choose who they will and won’t disclose their experience to because they just don’t want to deal with people who can’t consider at least the possibility that what they experienced might have been real. So as you say, it kind of sidetracks from the actual question about how the brain can seemingly function actually often better than it does in the physical body when the person is seemingly with a nonfunctioning brain.
Alex Tsakiris: What about the bigger picture? What’s really going on here? I mean, these aren’t dumb people and some of these weaknesses that we’re pointing out in the paper I’m sure were at least somewhere in there in their field of vision. How does something like this paper come to be? How does it come to be published and why is it spread as widely as it is?
This paper gets reported on. If you look at it, I sent this paper to Jeff Long after I got the email back from Dr. Caulkin. I sent this to Jeff Long and said, “Gee, has anyone written a response to this that I can point this to?” And Jeff’s response was like, “Well, my initial response was that this is kind of a throw-away paper. No one’s going to take this seriously.” I went back and did a Google search and I said, “Jeff, this thing got picked up by NPR, BBC, Discovery News, Scientific American.”
I mean, this resonates with a certain message that folks are trying to get out about NDE research. It doesn’t matter the quality of the research like we just talked about. It resonates and that resonance then causes it to be spread far and wide in certain circles. So what’s really going on here?
Dr. Holden: Well, a couple of things from my perspective. One is that the idea that consciousness is not the product of the brain flies in the face of the really prevailing scientific view right now. So I think articles that support that perspective of the materialist perspective that everything can be reduced to brain functioning appeals to people who have not maybe encountered the evidence to the contrary or have because of their apriori assumption that consciousness is the product of the brain they’ve dismissed without really looking critically at the evidence pointing to a different possible conclusion.
The other thing that’s kind of related is that I see the publication of this paper as—I’m going to use a strong word here—a failure of the peer-review system. It’s a failure that’s just inherent in the peer-review system. What happens is a scientist or researcher or theorist writes a paper and submits it to a journal. The journal sends it out to two or more people on its editorial review board and the people assess the validity, accuracy, and so forth of the article and send it back to the editor and either recommend that it be published or not.
Well, apparently their reviewers recommended that it be published. These are people who, like the authors, either were unaware of the actual scope of the research that’s been done on NDEs or have dismissed it or I don’t know, but they certainly didn’t even mention it more-or-less respond to it. But because the authors could cite previous studies and even though they mis-cited like Van Lommel and misrepresented his perspective, because they cited Van Lommel’s study in The Lancet it carries a certain legitimacy and it sounds plausible and so the article gets published.
It’s difficult when the journal in which that article was published is a cognitive science journal and maybe those people that specialize in that don’t see the NDE research, but there is a certain responsibility in any author to do a thorough literature review before they publish something. There’s a responsibility for editors to be knowledgeable about the full range of research on a phenomenon when they’re doing a review.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, Jan, that’s I think a really good summation of maybe what happened here. So tell us a little bit more about what’s going on with you. You just mentioned you’re trying to finish up this continuing education class. That looks really great. What else is going on with you in terms of your NDE research?
Dr. Holden: Well, I’m in a really privileged position to be working with doctorial students working on their dissertations so I have one student, Laura Pace, who is developing an instrument to assess health care professionals’ knowledge and attitudes about near-death experiences. Someone had developed an instrument like this about 30 years ago but it was designed just for nurses and it now is outdated in terms of some of the items and so forth.
So she’s developing a current and really well-constructed instrument that will enable us to do research not only about what current health care providers’ knowledge and attitudes about NDEs are but how interventions like the online program might advance people’s knowledge and attitudes so that they’re more able to respond in a helpful way to people who disclose NDEs. People can be hurt by the way others respond to their disclosure of NDEs if the others demonize them which research doesn’t support, if they pathologize the person or the experience which research does not support and so forth.
So it’s an important area that she’s laying the groundwork for future research and professional development of healthcare providers.
Then I have another doctoral student, Michael Paz, who is about to submit a manuscript describing how we translated Bruce Greyson’s near-death experience scale, which is the most widely used scale in NDE research–it assesses the depth of a near-death experience—into Spanish. Interestingly, the scale has been translated into a few different languages but not Spanish, which is one of the really major languages of the world.
So we’re hoping to be able to extend research into primarily Spanish-speaking cultures. For example, no major study has come out of the Spanish-speaking, South America or Central America. There’s been one study in Brazil Portuguese but not the majority that is Spanish-speaking. So that’s another thing that’s cooking right now.
Then my graduate student, Lee Kinsey, and I are doing a study where we are actually asking near-death experiencers to tell us about their experiences of disclosing their NDEs to healthcare providers, to determine whether people have had predominately good or bad or neutral experiences. What we can find out about what healthcare providers need in order to be able to respond constructively.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. That sounds like great work and it’s so interesting to know that all that is going on there in Denton, Texas at the University of North Texas.
Dr. Holden: Yes, thanks so much, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Thank you, Jan, for joining me. I really appreciate it.
Dr. Holden: My pleasure.