Well… that’s not strictly true or at least I might be jumping the gun a bit.
The above title is something I suspect will be plastered all over the Daily Mail and various other tabloids not to mention ALL the various parapyschology websites in about three years time and when it does happen it will be down to this research.
I came across this research a while back but was reminded about it over the weekend when it was mentioned during a talk at the God in the Lab event. In case anyone doesn’t feel like reading the short BBC article, here is what it says, in a nutshell:
There is a large 3 year study currently underway across 25 different hospitals/centres to examine the near death experiences of patients who suffer cardiac arrests. The researchers have decided that a good way to test whether patients who claim to have out of body experiences are really experiencing what they remember/claim will be to ask them about pictures which are going to be placed on a special shelving area visible only from the ceiling. This research is going to be carried out under the scrutiny of Dr. Sam Parnia from the University of Southhampton and is titled as the AWARE project.
Now, at first glance this may seem like reasonable research, and it is certainly an interesting topic, but here’s the problems I see with it:
1. It is being conducted by Dr. Sam Parnia. Dr. Parnia has not conducted this study yet but has already appeared all across the media (including Richard & Judy) promoting it in a very sensationalist manner. He has even published a book on the topic! From interviews I’ve heard with him it’s clear he really wants there to be something going on but, more worryingly, he repeatedly misrepresents the science surrounding the issue.
In particular, he tends to make it sound as if there is a massive scientific controversy about the process of death when, in reality, there simply is not. Instead, there are a small group of scientists, typically with parapyschologist leanings, who have fringe theories about life after death and a host of anecdotal stories to support them. This is not generally the basis for a good scientific theory. Worryingly Dr. Parnia also frequently appears alongside these researchers agreeing with them enthusiastically.
2. He envokes ‘quantum physics’ as a potential explanation for his positive results (which of course he hasn’t collected yet).
3. There is no indication that his researchers or the hospital staff will be prevented from seeing the images and indeed it would not be hard to look at the top of a shelf where pictures are being kept for a number of months. If people in the hospital know what is there, then there are many ways that patients can find out aside from having ‘out of body’ experiences. There is no indication that this is being controlled for or taken into consideration.
4. From the interviews and articles I’ve read it seems that there are going to be a series of pictures on each shelf. This sounds ok but it is basically increasing the chances that people get hits simply by guessing. I am also curious as to how they will score hits and misses. For instance if someone says I saw a square object near something green would that count for a picture of a house? Interpretation by researchers is clearly going to be key here and if the researchers know what the pictures are then the chances of them leading the subject to a ‘correct’ answer even unintentionally should be an issue of significant concern- I sincerely doubt that this will even be controlled for.
5. Apparently not all the images are going to be on shelves visible only from the ceiling, some are simply going to be in ‘special places’ which patients will be able to see if they open their eyes. This Dr. Parnia explains, is not a silly idea because patients who are suffering cardiac arrest should not be able to look at anything . This sounds dubious to me and once again relies on patients being unable to find out information about pictures which are clearly visible to others at the hospital via any other route. The warning bells are going off in my head that Dr. Parnia seems to be hedging his bets, so that if he cannot get the result he wants from the shelving pictures he has another, better chance with these visible pictures.
5. Dr. Parnia wrote in an article for the BBC:
“If after 36 months, hundreds of patients report being “out of body” yet no one can report seeing the images, then we must consider these reports to be nothing more than illusions.
If on the other hand there are hundreds of positive reports, then we will have to redefine our understanding of the mind and brain during clinical death.”
This is seriously overestimating the potential influence of his study. First of all, before his results are even considered, his trial methodology needs to be properly scrutinised. I’m no qualified expert and since even I can see significant potential problems with the study (if it is carried out as reported) that doesn’t bode well for the studies validity.
However, even if it turns out that his trial methodology was better than it looks in the articles, his results still will not result in the conclusions he claims. If the trial is negative 1. I will be very suprised but 2. it isn’t necessarily the final word on the subject, you would really need further studies to be carried out by different research teams to validate the findings. And if the trial is positive it will require replication and the testing of the controls to make sure there is no alternative- more mundane- explanation. What one study will not do, however, is overturn the existing research on the mind and the brain which consists of the information gained from thousands of trials and experiments.
I hope I’m wrong about all this but let’s see in three years!
Oh and just for fun my own guess is that the pictures on the shelving unit will be a house, a sailboat and a hill.