What Happens When We Die?

Sam Parnia. What Happens When We Die: A Ground-breaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death. Hay House, 2005.

Despite the subtitle, this account of a study of Near Death Experiences conducted at Southampton General Hospital fails to produce any revolutionary breakthroughs. The author and his team interviewed 63 people who had suffered cardiac arrests, of these three reported NDEs and four others experiences which "didn't score highly enough on the Greyson scale to count". That is an interesting comment for it suggests that out of a wider population of reported NDEs, only those which agree with some predetermined theoretical model are counted as 'true' experiences. You might think that as these seven cases are the ones the author has come across in his own research, they would each be presented in great detail, on the contrary they are really just skimmed over, but old, and in some cases second-hand, anecdotes are presented in much more detail, presumably because they are more dramatic.

As some NDE experiencers reported out of the body experiences in which they view scenes from the ceiling, Parnia had boards with writing on scattered around the ceilings of the hospital for them to read. Needless to say none of the seven cases involved an OOBE, and the circumstance didn't arise.

Parnia remains puzzled by these experiences, and they lead him to question the very nature of consciousness. He refers to the so called 'hard problem' of consciousness, which how can brain cells or the pattern of electrical and chemical activity in them generate subjective experience. I wonder if this problem is really a scientific one at all, rather I suspect that it is a cultural one, part of Hellenic cultural denigration of matter which has strongly influenced Christianity. How can something as profane and tacky as plain old stuff generate something as profound and spiritual as thoughts. This division of the world into separate spheres of matter and spirit and sacred and profane reflects the class divisions of a number of classical societies, between the purified priests, philosophers and Brahmins, and the impure world of artisans, slaves, dalits and women. At a scientific level it is not clear how any of the paranormal theories actually improve the situation, it doesn't seem to be any easier or harder to conceive how patterns of quantum fluctuations, 'subtle matter' or unextended mind stuff could be conscious than plain old brain stuff.

There are even bigger problems, Parnia has to accept that large chunks of our personality are dependent on the brain's working, that specific brain damages can lead to specific deficits, indeed certain kinds of brain damage can lead to losses of whole concepts, people with some kinds of visual cortex damage are not aware they are blind, because they have lost the very concept of sight. It is difficult to see how a 'separable self' could have any kind of visual experience. Indeed it is not clear exactly what this separable self is supposed to be. In the strictly Cartesian dualist viewpoint the mind is not in space at all, so there is no question of it 'leaving' the body and floating around the hospital, to look at drawing or writing on the upper sides of boards. Parnia quotes a Dr Elhali who talks of 'subtle matter'. This is our old friend the astral body of course, it is unclear whether this is supposed to have astral eyes and an astral visual cortex, but as it is not usually seen floating around emergency rooms, it clearly does not intercept photons and therefore could not see by them. But then the concept of 'subtle matter' makes no sense at all in terms of modern physics, it is hangover from the days when atoms were through to be little indivisible billiard balls.

If these experiences make no sense as literal descriptions of actual historical events, what then are they. How can people have memories from times when their brains are inoperative A further complication, which actually suggest an answer is actually provided by Parnia. People who have suffered cardiac arrest and other reductions of the blood flow to the brain, tend not to lay down memories of the events, Yet these 'experiences' are actually what appear to be memories of past events. Even if there was a functioning separable self how did its experiences get laid down in the oxygen starved brain's long term memory, (and if the separable self had its own backup memory store, how come people loose their memories in the fist place, why not simply access the backup). The answer, one which never seems to occur to Parnia, or even to most of 'the sceptics', is that these 'memories' of NDEs aren't memories at all, they are something else which resemble memories to the people who experience them.

Several experiences argue that the experiences were more real than real, which might be another way of saying that they are much more vivid than real memories. This would explain why Parnia's sample produced so few and no really dramatic accounts, they grow with time, perhaps building up over weeks and months as people struggle to come to terms with what has happened to them. This doesn't mean that people are consciously making them up, rather they are part and parcel, albeit in a particularly dramatic form of the general process by which we use internal narratives to make sense of our lives and experiences. Some people are better at unconsciously constructing these inner narratives than others, and these will be the ones who have vivid and powerful NDE's (or in other contexts 'memories' of their babyhood, past lives, alien abductions satanic abuse and other kinds of unusual experiences). -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson

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