New Evidence for Life After Death?


About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!

The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:

“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.


Near Balance Experience (& Skeptiko No.101)

On the 16th April 2010, another episode of the pro-parapsychology show Skeptiko addressing the topic of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) was posted by its host, Alex Tsakiris. This was part of a series of episodes looking at NDEs and featured the return of a previous skeptical guest Dr. G.M. Woerlee. Dr. Woerlee is an anesthesiologist and has written a couple of books on NDE from a skeptical perspective. As for the content of the interview itself, I recommend anyone interested in NDEs ignore the dismissive title and introduction and take a listen, as there is some good discussion to be heard.

The first thing to note about the episode is that the interview itself is actually quite balanced. Alex makes his case for why NDEs are simply unexplainable by current medical knowledge and Dr. Woerlee responds by presenting and discussing the natural explanations for NDEs. As you might predict, Alex does not find such explanations compelling and Dr. Woerlee similarly does not find Alex’s conclusions- that NDEs prove dualism correct and that consciousness can survive bodily death- to be convincing. However, despite the disagreement a respectful tone is kept throughout the interview and Alex gives Dr. Woerlee the time to present his case and respond to points he raises.