Sunday, December 7, 2014

Near Death Experiences: The Only Thing Missing Is "Death"

More fun from Unbelievable...


The good folks at Unbelievable from Premier Christian Radio in the UK had an interesting episode Saturday the 6th of December. The topic was Near Death Experiences (NDE). The True Believers were represented by Eben Alexander, a physician who recovered from a grievous illness with an interesting story, and Graham Nicholls, who claims to be able to have Out of Body Experiences (OBE) at will, complete with veridical accounts no less. Defending the scientific view was neuroscientist Dr. Jane Aspell, PhD, MBPsS (Dr. Steven Novella of Neurologica blog and The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, was originally slated to participate but did not). Host Justin Brierly was evenhanded, even favoring the science side of things, perhaps because his evangelical outlook is cautious of non-biblical mystical experiences. These are my comments on the show sent to Justin via email and posted under the show notes:


When it comes to the Near Death Experience (NDE) the first and most important thing to remember is that they don’t involve death. The brain is not dead. It may be poorly oxygenated and operating well below normal levels, but the reason there are reports of NDEs is because the resuscitation effort was both continuous and effective. When does the brain stop perceiving stimuli and stop laying down memories? We don’t know for sure, but the brain doesn’t quit the moment we close our eyes and remain dormant until the moment we open them again. As in dreams, we have no reason to believe “reality testing” and our sense of elapsed time are accurate while in a coma. The more we learn about the limitations of eyewitness testimony the more we realize that memory is a highly mutable thing. If the ability to lay out events accurately and in their proper sequence is challenging in a waking state, imagine how the brain might conflate images, memories, wishes, and stimuli while its body fights for its life. 
Apart from 20th century quantum mumbo jumbo, the allegedly new pseudoscience of non-local consciousness is essentially a rehash of ancient theological, philosophical, and pre-scientific intuitions regarding the body, soul, spirit, life, death, the cosmos, and the nature of reality. Except for the minority of those whose NDE takes them on a visit to hell, the beatific visions frequently share some common features, but are also wildly divergent in the fine details. As with mystical religious experiences, newly minted true believers promptly cleave to their holy books and discard their former commitments to science, logic, and critical thinking. Among the first things a new pseudoscientist does (other than to write a book) is ask that long accepted standards of evidence be relaxed. There is no such thing as “materialist science,” there is only science. There is of course rigorous science and poorly done science. Most studies of NDE and OBE necessarily take the form of phenomenology - evaluating reports of subjective experience - which is not science in the way we normally think of it. Randomized, placebo-controlled, blinded studies that can be duplicated remain the Gold Standard of scientific evidence. True Believers would insist on it if it supported their case, until then they will rely on special pleading. 
Spiritualists, mind readers, and faith healers are notorious for the number of hucksters in their ranks. Then there are the credulous wishful thinkers who no longer recognize their confirmation bias. As for those who claim veridical experience, there is precious little evidence for it and none of it is good. While we can all agree that creating NDEs in the lab is unethical, those who claim the ability to have OBEs at will (like Graham Nicholls) ought to be able to prove their claims, using criteria established in advance. That hasn’t happened, even though there’s a million dollar prize on offer for anyone who could actually do it. The few names - Greyson, Parnia, Sartori, Van Lommel - repeated over and over by Alexander and Nicholls are just about all the big names in this pseudoscientific parapsychological field. Alexander touts four books (two of them his; buy them for the details), but the overlapping fields of neurology, psychology, psychiatry, cognitive science, neuro-imaging, etc. publish thousands of papers and hundreds of books each year. 
NDE and OBE effects can be duplicated by stimulation of the temporal lobes, hallucinogens, meditation, breath control, hypoxia, brain injury, certain forms of epilepsy, extreme emotion, virtual reality machinery, and other stressors. As with other mystical experiences, several of which have given rise to whole religions, there is no reason to believe these events occur anywhere but within our embodied brains.

UPDATE: Dr. Novella did debate Dr. Alexander earlier this year.

ANOTHER UPDATE: In the immortal words of John Candy in Splash "They published my letter!"  Justin read about half of my email during the comments sections the following week.


When it comes to the Near Death Experience (NDE) the first and most important thing to remember is that they don’t involve death. The brain is not dead. It may be poorly oxygenated and operating well below normal levels, but the reason there are reports of NDEs is because the resuscitation effort was both continuous and effective. When does the brain stop perceiving stimuli and stop laying down memories? We don’t know for sure, but the brain doesn’t quit the moment we close our eyes and remain dormant until the moment we open them again. As in dreams, we have no reason to believe “reality testing” and our sense of elapsed time are accurate while in a coma. The more we learn about the limitations of eyewitness testimony the more we realize that memory is a highly mutable thing. If the ability to lay out events accurately and in their proper sequence is challenging in a waking state, imagine how the brain might conflate images, memories, wishes, and stimuli while its body fights for its life.  
Apart from 20th century quantum mumbo jumbo, the allegedly new pseudoscience of non-local consciousness is essentially a rehash of ancient theological, philosophical, and pre-scientific intuitions regarding the body, soul, spirit, life, death, the cosmos, and the nature of reality.  
NDE and OBE effects can be duplicated by stimulation of the temporal lobes, hallucinogens, meditation, breath control, hypoxia, brain injury, certain forms of epilepsy, extreme emotion, virtual reality machinery, and other stressors. As with other mystical experiences, several of which have given rise to whole religions, there is no reason to believe these events occur anywhere but within our embodied brains. 

Image credit: Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mystery Science Theater 3000

Or MST3K for those of you in a hurry...


Mystery Science Theater 3000, at once low-brow and witty, cynical and hilarious, is the main reason I first paid for cable.

"Welcome to the Satellite of Love, the orbiting home of legendary hosts Joel Robinson and Mike Nelson, along with their robotic companions: Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo and Gypsy. Join them in this cult favorite series as they embark on a journey of gut-busting riffs on the classic cinematic missteps of yesteryear." - Shout Factory MST3K page

Of the 197 television episodes broadcast from 1988 to 1999, I've seen 71 - some of the best 6,390 minutes of my life. Another 22 are in my my Netflix queue. Others pop up here and there from time to time. There are but a few episodes in which the source material was so execrable that even Gypsy, Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Joel Robinson or Mike Nelson could not keep me glued to the tube (I'm talking to you, Episode 1009 - Hamlet!)

I've caught the few episodes of The Film Crew. These days the Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax are pretty good too, though none feature the Satellite of Love.

This last Thursday I enjoyed much of the MST3K Turkey Day Marathon for the first time. I hope to never miss it again.

Have I ever forgiven Sci-Fi Channel (SyFy, puh-leeze!) for canceling MST3K? No. Will I ever? Nope, not never.


Hey, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Might! Not! Suck!



There's plenty of press regarding the first trailer, released a mere 13 months before Star Wars: The Force Awakens actually arrives at your favorite movie house.  

I must admit I am skeptically, reservedly, cautiously optimistic.  It' nice to feel that way about the series again.

Even if you promised yourself you'd never watch another Stars Wars movie again as long as you lived, don't miss the Lego version of the trailer.

PS, Mr. Abrams, If I see any sign of Jar Jar Binks, anywhere but an epitaph on a tombstone that is, I am going to be very, very disappointed.  Oh, and if there are any Ewoks, they better have shaved, started wearing pants, and taken to toting blasters...

UPDATED: Not everyone is so sanguine. Star Wars "Expanded Universe" nerd-dom is freaking out like Wookies in a Holiday Special.

Friday, November 21, 2014

We're Back, Pitches!

I have guilty pleasures...


And a sequel to one of them, Pitch Perfect 2, is on the way to a theater near you...us...me...whatever!

Four syllables, pitch pipers: Anna Kendrick