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White Coats and Magic Mushrooms

The latest John Hopkins study on psilocybin has been getting a lot of favourable attention in the international press. Eighteen volunteers were given one session a month for five months, and almost all reported it to be either their most spiritually significant experience ever or in the top five. They also reported positive changes in their behaviours, such as improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice - claims that were objectively corroborated.

The study worked not with magic mushrooms but with pure psilocybin, so it was able to establish the ideal dose to get positive effects, and at what point anxiety starts to kick in. In all the studies to date, 100 volunteers have been given some 210 sessions, almost all with positive results.

The study's lead scientist, Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neuroscience, said: 'We wanted to take a methodical look at how its effects change with dosage. We seem to have found levels of the substance and particular conditions for its use that give a high probability of a profound and beneficial experience, a low enough probability of psychological struggle, and very little risk of any actual harm.'

All very good. Question: what use is going to be made of this information?

If it had been around when I was popping acid and mescaline in the early 1970s I could have saved myself some quite tense moments. You know, the ones that come on three hours after you've gone back to double the dose because nothing seemed to be happening, when you're clinging to your sanity by your fingernails.

The best way to avoid a bad trip, I hear someone say, is not to take a trip at all. Yes indeed. But what a miserable philosophy of life.

I guess the real purpose of the Hopkins research is to try to overcome policymakers' prejudice against the recreational or even therapeutic use of entheogenic substances. This encouraging quote from former US drug czar Dr. Jerome Jaffe is being widely quoted:

The Hopkins psilocybin studies clearly demonstrate that this route to the mystical is not to be walked alone. But they have also demonstrated significant and lasting benefits. That raises two questions: could psilocybin-occasioned experiences prove therapeutically useful, for example in dealing with the psychological distress experienced by some terminal patients?

And should properly-informed citizens, not in distress, be allowed to receive psilocybin for its possible spiritual benefits, as we now allow them to pursue other possibly risky activities such as cosmetic surgery and mountain-climbing?

Well, yes... In a sane world, a substance that can help turn a person into a healthy, fully functional member of society has got to be a good thing. And if scientific trials can establish the safe dose, a serious obstacle has been removed.

But the world is anything but sane, and if this helps to start a serious discussion about lifting the ban on psychedelics then you can bet there'll be all kinds of objections. I can anticipate the infuriating 'sending out the wrong signals' argument, but I wonder what other forms the opposition will take.

Perhaps the rigour of the science will be questioned. One distinctly sceptical comment, the only one I've found so far (in an admittedly quite incomplete search) complains that the study was not properly blind because of the degree of interaction between the researchers and subjects before, during and after the experiments.

When the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, and other well-known facilities, are engaged in research demonstrating that sustained, thoughtful contact between doctor and patient demonstrably produces favorable outcomes, it seems a pity that the researchers in this particular study chose to ignore the ways in which their behavior may or may not have influenced the subjective experience of the study's participants, and the directly observable effects that the active substance and placebo had on same.

What I think this means is that positive life changes might be attributed not to the substance but the human contact. It seems daft to me, but then I have first-hand knowledge of these sorts of things. It must seem rather mysterious to the uninitiated, who are not about to take the word of mere scientists on such matters. Any more than sceptics do on the subject of the near-death experience, where the transformative effects of nearly dying can be just as profound.

Carter vs Woerlee on Near-death Experiences

Anesthesiologist and sceptic Gerald Woerlee has had a go at Chris Carter's book on near-death experiences at Subversive Thinking, and Carter has made an extensive reply. It makes interesting reading.

Woerlee stoops from a great height to put poor Carter in his place. 'Imprecise and sloppy' statements; 'same tired old and discredited arguments'; 'disturbing points ... totally destroy the pretence of any scientific credibility'. Carter's discussion of quantum mechanics provokes in him a 'weary sigh'. Other knowledgeable physicists struggle to suppress 'impolite hysterical laughter' at such ideas. Etcetera and so on.

Why do sceptics talk like this? What makes them so superior?

On QM, Carter responds:

In my chapter I discuss the famous interpretation of quantum mechanics developed by mathematician John von Neumann and physicist Eugene Wigner. Von Neumann was one of the most important intellectual figures of the twentieth century, and his friend Eugene Wigner was awarded the Nobel prize for his work in physics. In my book I argue that this theory is by far the most rigorous and logical interpretation of the quantum facts. The von Neumann/Wigner interpretation makes quantum mechanics an inherently dualistic theory - that is, it requires the existence and action of a non-physical mind - and the several respected academic physicists that I quote in support of this interpretation do not seem to be "suppressing hysterical laughter."

Returning to the Pam Reynolds case, which he has persistently tried to debunk, Woerlee continues to insist that a patient showing no responses to 100 decibel clicks in her ears could nevertheless hear sufficiently in order to fabricate the content of a suppose out-of-body experience. Carter is surely right to call this 'desperate'. Woerlee's next observation is quite remarkable:

...the report of Pam Reynolds clearly tells us she could hear. She awoke to the sound of a "natural D". Pam was a musician, and many such persons have natural pitch. So by saying it was a "natural D", she meant a sound with a frequency of 293.6, or 587.3 Hertz. This fact together with the stimulus parameters reveals how she could hear the sounds of speech etc (I will write an article on this for the JNDS if they are interested).

If I understand this correctly - and someone please tell me he's not being this obtuse - Woerlee is using a paranormal element of Pam's paranormal out-of-body experience - a paranormal sensibility, in other words - to support his contention that no paranormal event occurred.

Another remark caught my eye:

Chris Carter ends the description of another seemingly remarkable case study with the words: "The skeptic must say that the dying person telepathically or clairvoyantly gains true information about a recently deceased friend or relative, ..." I find this a remarkable statement. A skeptic with even a basic knowledge of body structure and function also rejects belief in telepathy and clairvoyance. These are paranormal sensory abilities which the experiences of the blind, the deaf, and gambling casinos teach us simply do not exist.

I'll let Carter do the honours on that one. In my view his response is an excellent job.

Book Review: The Afterlife Revealed by Michael Tymn

The_afterlife_revealed I've been enjoying Michael Tymn's new book about afterlife. At one time I read quite a lot about mediumship, so over the years I'm used to coming across the same quotes and stories - I'm not often surprised by anything. But Tymn's reading of psychic research and spiritualist literature is far wider than mine, and I found plenty that was new to me. Stafford Betty, in his foreword, describes him as a master of the evidential approach used to evaluate spirit communications, and says 'there is perhaps no one living today who has dissected so many of them and argued so successfully for their authenticity'. I can believe it.

Tymn starts by revealing that at age 75 he is threatened by a blood clot which could do for him at any time. Not a nice thing to have hanging over you, but apart from the normal concerns, such as the pain of illness and worries about leaving loved ones behind, he is quite excited about the idea of death. That's problematic in a culture in which we are supposed to think of death with fear and dread - or not think about it at all. How does one respond to people who, naturally perhaps, argue that thinking about death is morbid, that it's better to concentrate on this life rather than worry about the next? Tymn responds that the best way to live in the present is to 'live in eternity', as recommended by great artists and thinkers of the past. Life is sweeter when we are prepared for death, wrote Shakespeare, while Montaigne said that 'to practice death is to practice freedom'.

That meant more in an age that believed in a world to come, but what about now, when 20% of Americans don't (as many as half the populations of other Western countries)? Tymn has harsh things to say about the philosophy of materialism, which has resulted in 'an era of moral decadence, a time of egocentricity, intolerance, hatred, hypocrisy, disorder, flux, strife, chaos, and fear' and reduced many people to 'hedonistic materialists, consumed with the pursuit of pleasure and sensory gratification.' He laments, too, the failure of organized religions to address the issue of afterlife. In writing this book, he says, he hopes that at least some people might 'begin to visualize a spirit world, thereby helping them make friends with death, at the same time making this life more meaningful.' Also, knowing about how things work on the other side can make passing a good deal easier, he adds.

Nine chapters trace various topics, starting with the emergence of mediums and their study in the nineteenth century, deathbed visions, the process of separating from the body, the transition stage after death through Hades conditions and the 'second death', the life review, the different spheres or planes, the creative power of thought and imagination and the consequences of dying with unfinished business. A necessarily short final chapter describes what little can be said about the higher spheres, and there are appendices that discuss cases of precognition of death, the effects of suicide and the question of whether or not reincarnation occurs.

Tymn naturally mentions highly evidential cases, such as the deathbed visions where the 'spirit' forms that gathered round the patient's bed included, to her great surprise, an individual she did not know was dead. The back and forth on this question was covered in his earlier book The Articulate Dead; in this book, by contrast, the implication is that the evidence can't realistically be interpreted to mean anything other than survival of consciousness, and I think that's fair enough. Sceptics will wave it away as 'anecdotal', the magic word which neutralizes the challenge and saves them having to think about it. But for many minds the body of accumulated material from mediumship, so ably represented here, overwhelmingly points in that direction. If it doesn't mean what it seems to mean, then what on earth does it mean?

My personal interest in this topic quickens the further on we get from the deathbed and the business of actually passing over. In particular I'm interested in the moral dimension so powerfully present in the life review, and in the experience reported through mediums of being well-and-truly dead. Tymn has quite a lot about this: the quotes are well chosen and often moving, as this early twentieth century communication through automatic writing:

How can I describe to you that which has no parallel on earth? I can give you an imperfect idea of what now occurred, though it came to me with a force hitherto unparalleled in either my earthly or my spiritual existence. The air seemed filled with a strange murmur, and clouds descended and shut from my view all outward objects ...

The story of my life was being told in tones that, it seemed to me, must reach to the farthest heavens, and its events were pictured before me by the tossing clouds. I use the words heard and saw, and yet I am not sure that I did either. But the impression made upon my mind was as if all senses had united in one grand effort to place my past life in its true phases before me. I sat appalled and dismayed, and then as the record of weaknesses and failures went on, I covered my face with my hands and sank in agony and shame to the ground...

I summoned all my courage, and since I must sit in judgment on myself, I resolved to do so bravely and thoroughly. How many sombre pictures there were! How many half light, half shade; but now and then there was a bright one in which some unconscious unselfishness, some little deed I had done and forgotten, without any thought of secret self-glorification, and which had not only been good in its results, but which had sprung from a fountain of genuine good within my heart, shone out like a jewel from the dark clouds which surrounded it.

I sometimes think this sort of reported experience is the only religious text anyone really needs.

The impression one gets from near-death experiences is that the judgment, or life review, happens immediately after death. Actually it's absent from most NDEs, although one might assume that it would have taken place if the experience had lasted a bit longer. On the other hand that is not borne out by mediumistic accounts, where the life review figures rather little. At the very least it seems to be delayed. Tymn surmises that the inconsistency might be explained in terms of the non-local aspect of time in the spirit world, and quotes a communicator who talks of the life review taking place when one is ready for it. He also quotes physicist James Beichler, who in his 2008 book To Die For speculated that

a person who has a highly-developed spiritual consciousness - one that has kept pace with the development of the mind - may not need a life review as the person has reviewed his or her life when alive in the flesh. At the other extreme, there are those not advanced enough in their conscious evolution to appreciate a life review, and still others who may not accept a life review because they deny their death and sense nothing at all.

It seems natural enough that the life review would be delayed until the time is right and one is morally and mentally prepared for it. (Although I can't agree that any self-examination while living could substitute for the intensity of the experience in the discarnate state, and if it was available surely one would eventually want to see it.) But it's still puzzling that the near-death experience implies the life review to be an immediate event, when this is not at all confirmed by mediumistic communications. It reinforces my personal - and admittedly highly speculative - sense that the life review in the near-death experience is not to be viewed entirely as an automatic process, akin to the biological process of dying itself, but at least in some respects as a planned campaign of enlightenment, brought on prematurely in certain cases for the benefit of the individual and in order to send a message to the living.

I admit to being fascinated by the idea of a world moulded by the imagination, which is what comes through mediumistic reports of afterlife conditions. There are plenty of good descriptions and quotes here from the likes of Mike Swain, Raymond Lodge, Frederic Myers and William Stead, which give a good sense of this. Actually I think this exploration might have gone a bit further - I found relatively little reference to Jane Sherwood's T.E. Lawrence and Helen Greaves's Frances Banks, and none to Albert Pauchard, the Swiss spiritualist who talks interestingly in his little book of having to be purged of unacknowledged moral defects and of symbolic imagery being employed in teaching experiences. But of course experience at this level becomes ever more a matter of speculation, and it's true that, as Tymn concludes, 'the celestial world does not easily lend itself to analyses by using terrestrial methods and reasoning'.

There are some key messages to take from this material, which Tymn covers deftly. One is the clear indication that we don't go empty-headed into the beyond, but on the contrary, remain burdened by a lifetime of habits, obsessions and unresolved conflicts. Unless we clearly confront these and deal with them before our demise, they may mould our experience and weigh us down.

Another pressing issue is the consequence of suicide, which emerges as a serious no-no. Cutting short a life, it appears, not only robs the individual of the chance to learn important lessons but leaves him/her in a desperately weakened state akin to a coma. On this, more than any other subject, communicators are agreed, Tymn says. But obviously there are major issues here. As western society wrestles with the idea of assisted suicide, and the desperate wish of those with appalling conditions like motor neuron disease to have some control over their demise, one is bound to ask what, from a spiritual perspective, the true moral criteria really are. Tymn rather sidesteps this question, but he does at least offer a quote from Silver Birch, the spirit teacher channeled by Maurice Barbanell:

It depends upon the soul's progress; and, above all these things, it depends on the motive. The churches are wrong when they say that all suicide comes in the same category; it does not. While you have no right to terminate your earthly existence, there are undoubtedly in many cases, ameliorating factors, mitigating circumstances, to be considered. No soul is better off because it has terminated its earthly existence. But it does not automatically follow that every suicide is consigned for aeons of time into the darkest of dark sphere.

Certainly that would be a hard punishment for simply saying no thanks to a death by slow strangulation. From a human perspective it's hard to deny that a person who takes a trip to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, or gets a friend or relative to administer poison in order to avoid this ghastly fate, would be a good deal 'better off'. And those of us who take psychic and near-death reports seriously, and believe they carry an important message about the after-death state, will have increasingly to try to reconcile these apparently divergent positions.

But in the meantime this is an excellent book, and I can thoroughly recommend it. It's absolutely packed with quotes and anecdotes, not just bland descriptions, a here-it-is-make-of-it-what-you-will approach that I've often come across, but showing a passionate engagement with the material with a clear message about its implications. It should do well.

Shared Death Experiences

I've been doing some reading and re-charging batteries. One book I looked at is Glimpses of Eternity, Raymond Moody's latest collection of NDE anecdotes. This describes what he calls 'shared death experiences', where family and friends of a sick person themselves experience some kind of event at the moment of the patient's passing. Most probably fall into the category of 'deathbed visions'. However there are also a few near-death experiences in which the living get to see what the dying are experiencing.

This addressed a question I've been asking about the life panorama, which appears both in NDE reports and in communications through mediums. It's said that you can access your entire life, and that it's spread out in front of you like a diorama, so you can enter into each memory and relive it. But I wondered, does that mean anyone can access the same memories? Are you an open book for anyone you associate with to read? And if so, how would you feel about that?

The concept of privacy does seem to exist in afterlife accounts, where people describe being able to withdraw from company if they feel the need. On the other hand, when they are with others they can't conceal anything they are thinking, which is as obvious as if they were jabbering out loud.

Here's a an account given to Moody by a woman whose shared life review with her husband was vivid and contained images and events that she had previously been unaware of. It occurred when her husband died of cancer.

I was beside him the whole time in the hospital and was holding onto him when he died. When he did, he went right through my body. It felt like an electric sensation, like when you get your finger in the electrical socket, only much more gentle.

Anyway, when that happened our whole life sprang up around us and just kind of swallowed up the hospital room and everything in it in an instant. There was light all around: a bright, white light that I immediately knew - and Johnny knew - was Christ.

Everything we ever did was there in that light. Plus I saw things about Johnny... I saw him doing things before we were married. You might think that some of it might be embarrassing or personal, and it was. But there was no need for privacy, as strange as that might seem. These were things that Johnny did before we were married. Still, I saw him with girls when he was very young. Later I searched for them in his high school yearbook and was able to find them, just based on what I saw during the life review during his death.

In the middle of this life review, I saw myself there holding onto his dead body, which didn't make me feel bad because he was also completely alive, right beside me, viewing our life together.

By the way, the life review was like a 'wraparound'. I don't know how else to describe it. It was a wraparound scene of everything Johnny and I experienced together or apart. There is no way I could even put it into words other than to say that all of this was in a flash, right there at the bedside where my husband died.

Then, right in the middle of this review, the child that we lost to a miscarriage when I was still a teenager stepped forth and embraced us. She was not a figure of a person exactly as you would see a human being, but more the outline or sweet, loving presence of a little girl. The upshot of her being there any issues we ever had regarding her loss were made whole and resolved. I was reminded of the verse from the Bible about ' the peace that passeth all understanding'. That's how I felt when she was there.

One of the funny things about this wraparound view of our life was that we had gone to Atlanta in the seventh grade, to the state capital, where there was a diorama. So at one point we were watching this wraparound and watching ourselves in another wraparound - a diorama - where we stood side-by-side as kids. I burst out laughing and Johnny laughed too, right there beside me.

Another thing that was strange about this wraparound was that in certain parts of it were panels or dividers that kept us from seeing all of it I don't have the words to this, but the screens or panels kept particular parts of both of our lives invisible. I don't know what was behind them but I do know that these were thoughts from Christ, who said that someday we would be able to see behind those panels too.

Quite a striking account. I'm struck by the statement that yes, some of it was 'embarrassing and personal' but at the same time there was no need for privacy. I tend to assume that when the time comes we won't be judgmental about our private goings on, or those of other people - and that we'll see all that in a different light.

Here's another, by a woman in her seventies describing her experience of tending to her dying mother. As her mother died the light in the room suddenly became much brighter and more intense and she felt a rocking motion through her whole body. She then found herself seeing the room from a diferent angle, from above and to the left side of the bed instead of from the right side.

This rocking forward motion was very comfortable, and not at all like a shudder and especially not like when a car you are riding in lurches to the side and you get nauseous. I did not feel uncomfortable but in fact the opposite; I felt far more comfortable and peaceful than I ever felt in my life.

I don't know whether I was out of my body or not because all the other things that were going on held my attention. I was just glued to scenes from my mother's life that were flashing throughout the room or around the bed. I cannot even tell whether the room was there any more or if it was, there was a whole section of it I hadn't noticed before. I would compare it to the surprise you would have if you had lived in the same house for many years, but one day you opened up at it and found a big secret compartment you didn't know about. This thing seemed so strange and yet perfectly natural at the same time.

The scenes that were flashing around in midair contained things that had happened to my mother, some of which I remembered and others that I didn't. I could see her looking at the scenes to, and she sure recognised all of them, as I could tell by her expression as she watched. This all happened at once so there is no way of telling it that matches the situation.

The scenes of my mother's life reminded me of old-fashioned flashbulbs going off. When they did, I saw scenes of her life like in one of the 3-D movies of the 1950s.

By the time the flashes of her life were going on, she was out of her body. I saw my father, who passed seven years before, standing there where the head of the bed would have been. By this point the bed was kind of irrelevant and my father was coaching my mother out of the body. I looked right into his face and a recognition of love passed between us, but he went right back to focusing on my mother. He looked like a young man, although he was 79 when he died. There was a glow about or all through him - very vibrant. He was full of life.

One of his favourite expressions was 'Look alive!' and he sure did look alive when he was coaching my mother out of her body. A part of her that was transparent just stood right up, going through her body, and she and my father glided off into the light and disappeared.

The room sort of rocked again, or my body did, but this time backward in the opposite direction and then everything went back to normal.

I felt great tenderness from my mother and father. This entire event overflowed with love and kindness. Since that day I wonder: Is the world we live in just a figment of our imagination?

Glimpses of Eternity is quite a slim volume, and much of the later part is taken up with old research into deathbed-visions. So it seems there's not a lot of material to make an identifiable category of shared NDEs. I certainly haven't come across anything like it before and I suspect it's quite rare. But I'd be interested to hear of any other experiences like these.