"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious" ~ Albert Einstein

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Book Review and Parapsychology Primer

Sam Parnia's highly anticipated book, Erasing Death, was recently published .  The level of anticipation was due to the fact that Dr. Parnia is the lead researcher for the AWARE (AWAreness During REsuscitation) project.

Horizon Research Foundation - AWARE

AWARE is taking place in several hospitals, covering a few countries, and seeks to improve upon and gain more insight into resuscitation science.  However, there is a particular area many folks are interested in.  AWARE also seeks to objectively validate that the Out-Of-Body (OBE) experiences, which somewhere between 2-5% of cardiac arrest patients experience, are real.  In other words, AWARE is trying to validate that consciousness can exist independent of the body ... at least, for a limited amount of time.  This would be truly astonishing, if true.

Although, it is a must read for anybody interested in parapsychology, I didn't think it was a super riveting read.  Partly because AWARE is still in its early stages and also because it's not really meant to be a book on parapsychology.  It is meant to be about resuscitation science, as Sam Parnia is one of the top doctors in this area.  Of course, there is plenty of overlap between the two and the book does set down a few remarkable precedents for parapsychology.  Before, I get into that ... what is parapsychology?

When most people hear that word they think of images Hollywood has helped create: Ghost Busters, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and perhaps something like the Exorcist.  So, let me clear things up with a simple definition often used for parapsychology.

Parapsychology is the scientific investigation into anomalous phenomena, typically related to consciousness.  Let's look at an example, that will help clear things up even more.

One of the bigger areas of parapsychology is called psi, which covers things like telepathy and precognition - things we normally associate with the phrase "psychic ability".  Once again, we normally think of things like the local palm reader, or some gypsies with a crystal ball.   In actuality, many psi experiments intentionally deal with average folks like you and me that have no professed psychic ability.  What one class of psi experiments show is a small effect indicating we all have access to information, which is gained in an extra-sensory fashion, albeit at an unconscious level.

Probably the most popular and perhaps the most conclusive experiment, or set of experiments, showing this effect is called the Ganzfeld.  Essentially, two people are separated in two different chambers that are electromagnetically shielded.  One is the receiver, one is the sender.  The receiver is in a dark reddish-light, with eyes covered and wearing headphones that apply white noise (i.e. they are sensory "starved").  The sender is given an image, which is part of a set of 4 visually disparate images, all randomly selected via computer from a large database of images. This is done in a double-blind fashion so nobody knows what the image will be beforehand, even the experimenters.  The sender mentally sends the image and the receiver is instructed to tell what impressions he/she is receiving.  Later, an image is chosen from the four visually disparate images that fits the impressions recorded.  If there was no effect and this was due to random chance, one would expect a hit rate of 25%.  The value being converged upon after performing a meta analysis of many replications across different labs is 32%, indicating more correct choices than random chance would predict. That doesn't sound like much, but it turns out to be a highly statistically significant result.

You've probably heard about the Higgs particle by now.  In fact, CERN just announced the Higg's has been "officially" discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  But, this official announcement and discovery also depends in a large part on statistics.  The Higgs particle wasn't discovered by directly detecting it.  It decays way too fast for that.  But, the math of the Standard Model of physics predicts what the signature should look like from the decay of a Higgs particle.  The catch here is that the signature must be detected out of a lot of background noise.  More and more data is collected until the statistical analysis says that the chance of the result being a fluke from random chance is greater than 1 in 1 million, otherwise know as 5-sigma significance.  This is the standard level of statistical significance expected for an official scientific claim of a new discovery.  It will take much more data before they can even nail down the properties of this new Higgs particle and determine whether it is the standard-flavor Higgs predicted by the Standard Model, or something more exotic, potentially opening the way to new physics.

For comparison, the meta-analysis for the Ganzfeld indicates roughly a 6-sigma significance.  To be a bit more precise, the Storm (2010) meta-analysis indicates approximately 46,948,356 to 1 with outliers removed and 8,695,652,173 to 1 without outliers, that the 32% hit rate is due to random chance, which implies rather strongly something real is happening.  This is an order of magnitude stronger than the data for the Higgs, at the time of their original announcement.  There are other statistical arguments that have been raised such as publication bias in the meta-analysis, but these have all been thoroughly addressed and covered elsewhere.  The Ganzfeld is one of the most heavily critiqued experiments, yet it still stands.  In fact, almost all hardcore skeptics, such as Richard Wiseman, have admitted that various aspects of psi have been reasonably demonstrated to the usual scientific standards.  But, for now they all stand by the claim, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". 

There are two problems here:  (1) There is no mathematical theory for psi, like there is for the Higgs.  A  reasonable objection and a concern I share.  There are proposals, but they're all incomplete and leave much to be desired.  (2)  There is a prevalent taboo in mainstream science against all things psi.  It would seem because of this second problem it's hard to achieve this subjective level of "extraordinary evidence" folks are looking for, because it's a little too easy to keep shifting the goal posts further and further out.

Anyhow, here is a decent interview of Dean Radin, who does a much better job of explaining the Ganzfeld than I do.  Dean Radin is a senior scientist at the Institute for Noetic Sciences, founded by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchel.

Back to the book!

Another area of parapsychology I find fascinating is Near Death Experiences (NDEs).  This is mainly because I think it has the strongest chance of being objectively verified independent of statistical analysis and has the strongest potential to be paradigm shifting.

The NDE phenomenon is so prevalent even mainstream science acknowledges that it is happening at clearly definable rates in cardiac arrest patients - approximately 10% of patients have an NDE (or at least remember having one), and approximately 3% contain a veridical OBE element. Veridical means perception that seems to be independent of the body (i.e. the patients have actually reported observing their body and resuscitation efforts from the other side of the room and much more).  Overall, Parnia and others say the number of NDE reports is now in the millions.  Here is one somewhat famous case, that of Pam Reynolds, as it was covered on BBC.  (AWARE has the potential to knock the socks off this one, though)

Pam's experience is fairly typical of the NDE experience, which has universal themes found across all cultures, religions and age groups.  12 such themes have been identified and are listed here.  (After listening to NDE'ers talk about their experience, I would have to say these short descriptions probably do little justice in expressing the power of the experience)

1. Out-of-body experience (OBE): separation of consciousness from the physical body
2. Heightened senses
3. Intense and generally positive emotions or feelings
4. Passing into or through a tunnel
5. Encountering a mystical or brilliant light
6. Encountering other beings, either mystical beings or deceased relatives or friend
7. A sense of alteration of time and space
8. Life review
9. Encountering unworldly (“heavenly”) realm
10. Encountering or learning special knowledge
11. Encountering a boundary or barrier
12. Return to the body, either voluntary or involuntary

The NDE debate revolves around whether these experiences are brain-induced, or happening independent of the brain.  Most of the medical mainstream would say they are brain-induced, but there is currently no brain-based theory that is satisfactory for explaining NDEs.   (In fact, consciousness itself is mostly unexplained.)  Currently, the only real reason to insist on this explanation as the correct one is that it fits within our current materialistic worldview, which isn't a very scientific way of operating.  One should at least keep an open mind.

For the first time ever, AWARE is attempting to offer strong evidence obtained from a controlled scientific experiment, utilizing the veridical OBE component of the NDE, as to whether, or not, the NDE is brain-induced, happening independent of the brain, or possibly some combination of the two. This is the first thing remarkable about this book

(1)  Sam Parnia is one of the leaders in resuscitation science in the world and this book is part of an effort to reshape and improve the quality of medicine delivered in that field.  Parnia is adamant that exploring all facets of the resuscitation process, including the Near Death Experience, is paramount.  Before, a reported NDE would be shrugged off as hallucination, at best.  Now, it may start to get more serious scientific study.

So, how are they going to objectively test the veridical Out-of-Body experience?

They're installing visual cues within hospital rooms, which up to now have been pictures that are out of visual sensory range of the patients body, but hopefully visible from the perspective of the OBE.   If a patient reports an OBE and correctly identifies the picture, it would lend a high level of confidence that perception is happening independent of the brain, especially if they can time the event to a period during which the brain was flat lined and the heart was stopped.  The results won't be fully conclusive, as they will need replications with tighter controls, to ensure their is no information-leakage, etc.

(2)  Unfortunately, they have not had any hits yet (i.e. patients identifying the visual cue), but they did have two OBEs, one of which was rather remarkable and covered in the book.  Unfortunately, due to logistics, visual cues were not installed in either of the two rooms the patients were in.  Additionally, the standard location of the visual cues would have been outside the visual angles reported in these NDEs, even if they were installed.  They are working to correct all this.

Anyhow, one patient correctly recalled events that were not visible to him during the cardiac arrest.  Here is a decent summary taken from a forum I participate in.

"One [NDE] was verified with medical records. The man identified a doctor he did not even know was in the room and who he never set eyes on. There was an important time marker- he heard the electronic defibrillator advise the shock in the correct words used. Two shocks were advised, which means he was in V-fib for 2-3 minutes between shocks as the device checks for heart rhythm. He was totally lucid and never had any alteration of consciousness. He noticed that the doctor he didn't even know was in the room was chunky and bald with blue scrubs and hat, but only saw him from behind. He saw the nurse wore lighter blue scrubs and was tall. He said he saw it all plain as day despite having his head partitioned by a curtain while they fed the cath up his femoral artery through his groin."

(3)  Lastly, the book went into the details of resuscitation science for the first half, which was actually pretty interesting.  Parnia now says death needs to defined as a process, rather than a moment in time.  It used to be that if (1) the heart was stopped, (2) an EEG indicated a flat-lined brain, and (3) the pupils were dilated with no reflex, indicating an inactive brain stem, a person would be considered dead.  But, they now know that the cells within the body, although not executing their normal functions, are still viable for hours after this point (some cells are viable longer than others).  In fact, patients haven been brought back several hours after they were "dead" (going by the old way that term was used) thanks to advances in resuscitation science.  Experiences from several of these patients, with at least one reporting an NDE, are covered in the book.

(4)  One last point that was interesting.  Parnia started out as a skeptic in all of this, or at the very least, as a professional fence-sitter who chose his words wisely.  Around the time of this book, his language has changed considerably.  Based on the evidence gathered so far,  he now believes something very interesting is going on and is leaning towards the view consciousness may very well survive bodily death.  He also thoroughly argues that all current conventional explanations for NDEs (oxygen deprivation, Ketamaine, or other administered drugs, a dimethyltryptamine (DMT) dump by the pineal gland, etc.) are unsatisfactory, although this was already pretty well known and accepted within the parapsychology community.

Here's an NPR interview with Dr. Sam Parnia that digs into much more details than I covered here, for those interested in more:

If AWARE does indeed record hits, which some feel is just a matter of time now, and this becomes part of mainstream science via the help of guys like Parnia, this will be truly paradigm shifting.

I'll wrap it up there in the interest of length and leave you all with a couple more videos on psi, for your enjoyment.  As you will see in these videos, the Ganzfeld is not the only experiment providing evidence for psi

Enjoy! ;-)

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