Didier and Robert-Houdin
Mysterian thinking

Science 'solves' mysteries

A couple of scientific studies caught my eye recently. One claims to have found the cause of the near-death experience - all in the mind, and nothing to do with angels and afterlife, apparently - while the other finds a partial confirmation of the claims for acupuncture, and again, this has a purely physical explanation, nothing to do with yin and yang.

Pretty strong stuff, then. I'm always fascinated by newspaper headlines that science has 'solved' this or that paranormal mystery, especially when it's something as complex and extraordinary as the near-death experience. I approach these articles with a feeling of intense anticipation, as if, in the next few seconds, the mystery that has had researchers scratching their heads for decades, will finally all be cleared up, and I'll be left gasping - so that's what all that was about! A sort of Darwin-Wallace moment. I know the claim is going to be exaggerated, if not actual nonsense, but I still feel a bit cheated when that turns out to be the case.

This was research carried out by Lakhmir Chawla, an intensive care doctor at George Washington University medical centre in Washington. Chawla had terminally ill patients rigged up to an electroencephalograph (EEG) to measure brain activity, as a means to regulate their pain killers. He noticed that at the moment of their expiration, their brain showed full conscious activity for a period of between thirty seconds to three minutes. He surmised that this surge of electrical energy, released as the brain runs out of oxygen, could be the cause of near-death experiences:  "As blood flow slows down and oxygen levels fall, the brain cells fire one last electrical impulse," he says. "It starts in one part of the brain and spreads in a cascade and this may give people vivid mental sensations."

It's a fascinating finding, and has interesting implications. For instance, it correlates with the claim of some hospice nurses that dementia patients sometimes show full lucidity at the moment of death. But it doesn't really explain anything. Why those particular sensations?

For me, the inferences that Chawla makes underline the rough-and-ready nature of much scientific thinking about the relationship between mind and brain. Scanning technology has uncovered all kinds of correlations between mental states and brain areas, and this tends to give heart to sceptics and atheists. It proves that psychic and religious experiences are 'all in the mind'. But where else are they going to be? In the leg? The small intestine?

The acupuncture study, by contrast, is potentially quite significant. Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, tested her theory that the painkilling effect of having needles inserted close to the source of pain is caused by the stimulation of adenosine, a natural pain killer which works like a local anaesthetic and is released whenever a small injury occurs (like a needle being inserted).

Nedergaard used mice with a sore paw, comparing the effect on normal ones with those who lacked the gene to produce adenosine. The normal ones showed significantly lower pain after the treatment.  The mice had no expectations, so the result can't be dismissed as a placebo effect, the currently fashionable explanation. 

Simple and elegant, so why did no one think of it before? It's interesting that Nedergaard's colleagues bitched about her investigating acupuncture.  I'd have thought that they would have welcomed a purely physical explanation - or was that not what they were expecting from a scientific experiment?


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The findings of Chawla don't address the terminal lucidity cases you described.
In those cases of severe dementia, there is little functioning brain to begin with; a final flurry is not going to make a huge difference to observable behaviour! Also, these cases have been reported to last several hours, much longer than the 3 minutes reported by Chawla.
Interestingly, Gamma synchrony (which is posited as the signature of conscious activity) is absent in these cases. All that is observed is a burst of electrical activity, not to disimmilar from that observed in epilepsy.

good points! thanks, Michael

The information you provided is quite simple and clear for knowledge seeker. Thanks for your research anyways.

'All in the mind' is an interesting choice of expression. Aren't all our experiences ultimately in the mind? Then it seems we are back to square one - exactly what is 'mind'?

I (an interested layman) came to this site and found a lot of useful, thought-provoking discussions and presentations. At the same time, I also get the feeling there is a lot of I-said-you-said going on. Conceding I am aware that I have my mental limitations, unconscious hopes and fears, I would like to 'go wherever the truth leads'. On balance, I think the current scientific opinion has the best grip (so far) on 'consciousness' as a subject matter of investigation - despite scientists and the spiritualists trying to bite and gnaw each other for center stage. If things are leading towards our individual consciousness (our subjective experience) being an epiphenomenon without an independent existence, I see no problem in accepting it as at least a viable scientific proposition. We don't ascribe consciousness and self-awareness to inanimate things, but not everything that shows signs of life is conscious - if a bacterium self aware? Does a cockroach have subjective experience? If we accept that you do need somewhat of an evolved brain with fairly complex neural networks for an intact consciousness to be seated and rooted - then no, I don't think bacteria and cockroaches are conscious because they lack the equipment to host it.

While many people see a raging battle between science and spirituality on the question of consciousness, I don't see why it need to be so. I don't know about parapsychology, but the Buddhist view of consciousness is identical to what the science is telling us - that there is no separate and individual 'soul' and our subjective experience has a 'dependent origination'. That our self-hood is, ultimately, an illusion. Sri Ramana Maharshi, who was the guru of Mouna Swami that you wrote about in this site, exhorted people to inquire into themselves in order they may see through the illusion of an ego-self (soul, consciousness). Once one accepts this position - that individual consciousness is ultimately an illusion - then one must see all these paranormal phenomena, or the 'gifts', as being true only from a relative plane where consciousness is seen as an independent and separate entity.

I am not denying that psi phenomena (at least some of them) are possible. In fact, I myself have heard accounts of psi phenomena, first hand, from people who are close to me and whose mental balance is no worse than mine. But these accounts have only strengthened my belief that our ultimate reality is beyond our 'day to day' intellect and it can play out in many different ways according to our own fitness and predisposition - till we get to a stage (if at all) where all our ignorance disappears.

The article in Time by Steven Pinker (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394,00.html) is one of the most lucid accounts of where science is at with regard to consciousness. If we are looking for an exclusive, either-or answer to the question of whether consciousness is dependent or independent, then I am afraid neither science nor parapsychology will find a smoking gun. Ever.

'Eekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti' - 'There is but one truth; the learned call it by many names'.

Allow me to add to my post above. There is a lot of bickering going on between different religions on many issues. For example, Hindus (and the Buddhists) talk of reincarnation while the Christians don't hold with this view. Here again, I see no fundamental conflict. I accept the view of Unconditioned Reality as the ultimate reality, and everything else is a 'lower' truth - then from the perspective of this Highest Truth, there is no coming, going or reincarnating (which validates the Christian view). But if we see it from a lower plane of duality and self-identification, then everything is accrued to it (the Karma theory, reincarnation etc.).

Science, being what it is in terms of its scope and methodology, can only stick probes into the brain and watch 'consciousness' in RGB color on the computer monitors or print EEG reports based on electrical activity. This will inevitably reveal consciousness in its 'rooted in the brain' aspect, and also explain it in terms of evolutionary psychology and how the illusion of separate individuality helps us function as a fairly successful (if not necessarily wise) species. I say science is not wrong, it is not untrue.

On the other hand, spirit-oriented investigations and methodologies, including the psi phenomena, cannot hope to use 'scientific' methods and prove what are essentially subjective phenomena. True, there seems to be a lot of testimonial and statistical evidence to show something may be going on. But there is also enough 'scientific' evidence to show nothing is going on - especially when psi experiments are conducted in strictly controlled conditions. Ultimately, one has to rely on statistical and subjective evidence - you cannot hope to stick a probe in the air and catch a passing ghost. Having said that, as I wrote in the previous post, I have some 'personal evidence' that tells me that the scientific truth is not the only truth there is, even if I don't really know what it is.

Lastly, all these apparent contradictions seem to get integrated (at least intellectually if not experientially) in the theory of Relative and Absolute Reality that Buddha, Ramana and many others have propounded. That's why I hold with that view - because it seems to integrate what little we know.

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