To the SPR yesterday for a talk by Dr Penny Sartori, a nurse who carried out a five-year study of NDEs at the intensive care unit at Swansea hospital between 1998 and 2003. Seven of 39 patients who suffered a cardiac arrest during this period reported an NDE. She described how, before the study began, she placed symbols on the top of monitors above the beds, where they could not be seen from the ground. The idea was that if any patient saw one during an out-of-body episode it would help to verify that it was real, and not imagined.
Sadly, none of the patients saw the images, and in most cases their reports were hard to verify. On the other hand, when compared with a control group, their reports showed much greater accuracy, suggesting the presence of an unknown process.
Some of the best evidence of this is still that provided in the 1980s study by cardiologist Michael Sabom, which may have had an advantage over the Swansea study in that it involved surgical operations rather than intensive care situations. Sabom's patients made quite detailed comments on the operations, for instance remarking on the curious shape of the heart, as the surgeon pulled it out and worked on it, or the depth of the spine from which a damaged disc was removed. Members of a control group who were asked to describe the operation were much less specific and made major errors.
Sabom's control was criticised for using patients who merely had similar medical backgrounds. Sartori improved on it by recruiting individuals who had experienced resuscitation. But as it turned out, these people were no better able than Sabom's group to say what might have happened during their period of unconsciousness - some did not know, and others simply extemporised from TV hospital dramas.
This area has always interested me, because out of body vision carries such a powerful impact. It convinces individuals, almost uniformly I think - and certainly those who experience it during an NDE - that their mind is not their body, and that their consciousness will survive death. It's not an unreasonable inference, and one that's obviously important for sceptics to try to counter. Handily, Chris French was at the talk, and ready to provide his take.
Sartori pointed to a clear distinction between individuals who suffered hallucinations, which were random and confused, and the NDErs, whose experiences were lucid and involved the same imagery. French disputed this by analogously referring to abduction experiences, where there is evidence that even people who think they are real are clearly hallucinating. There may be a point there, although I didn't follow it completely, and I wasn't sure how useful it is to compare the two quite different situations.
Sartori then countered that the information some patients came up with, apparently while they were unconscious, did seem to have been acquired paranormally. One reported that he had met his deceased grand-daughter and that she told him to tell her mother not to believe everything that mediums told her. This meant nothing to him, but his daughter later confessed she had been regularly consulting mediums without his knowledge. In another case, staff in the unit watched a dying man sitting up and gesturing at the wall for half an hour - he later said his sister and come to visit, although she had died the previous week, a fact which his family had decided not to reveal to him.
Wanting the last word, French retorted that 'a sceptic would probably still say it could all have been a coincidence'. Interesting that he slipped into the third person there. I wondered whether he did this because he would personally be embarrassed to identify with such a strategy, in which case, one would have to ask why he continues to think the way he does. I suppose he has too much invested. When things get tough, just fudge and prevaricate. It must be difficult being a committed sceptic sometimes.
I've mentioned once or twice Blackmore's heroic resistance in Dying to Live on the same subject. Briefly, her approach is that when people say they saw what family and hospital staff were doing around their unconscious body they are just exaggerating or making stuff up. In her brisk, no-nonsense way, she deals with a seemingly unanswerable bit of evidence by blaming the percipient for making such a big thing out of it. Surely, she argues, that can only mean one thing: that the percipient is not really confident it happened the way she said it did. As I say, it must feel demeaning for a serious scientist to have to talk in this way.
This is taken to extremes by psychiatrists Glen Gabbard and Stuart Twemlow in their 1984 book With the Eyes of the Mind. They are particularly bothered by Sabom's claims about out-of-body perception in his heart patients. They manage to postpone the subject until the last few pages, at which point they seem to realise they are going somehow to have to tackle it. The results are comical: they haven't got a clue. They enlist the help of Terence Hines, whose debunking textbook they happen to have handy, and who doesn't really know either, but has a lot to say about Uri Geller and fraudulent psychics. Having perused this stuff for a while they conclude that claims of out of body perception can be put down to fraud, but without really making clear whether they think it's the doctor or his patients who are lying.
You can't blame sceptics for behaving like this - their entire worldview rests on it. But it would be interesting if more people who essentially share that worldview understood the dubious shifts that can be required to keep it in business.
(Incidentally, Sartori has just published a book based on the study, and other research carried out for her doctoral thesis. At a cool £85 I can't imagine that we are all going to rush out and buy it, but I'll try to get hold of a copy and review it at some point).