Study Day No. 60: Ordered Minds with Disordered Brains

The Study Day, introduced by Julie Rousseau who is the current chair of the SPR Survival Research Committee,  dealt with Near Death, End-of-Life, and Out-of-Body Experiences.  Research in this area, with its implications for the question of survival, provides replicable data which can be examined within the field of neuropsychiatry. It could also help us achieve a better understanding of ourselves, and better palliative care.
The day started with Dr Peter Fenwick, long-familiar to SPR audiences as one of the leading authorities on NDEs and related issues, talking about terminal lucidity. This term describes the little-understood phenomenon whereby people who are incapacitated in various ways – comatose, weak, paralysed, demented – suddenly regain their faculties just prior to death (recognising relatives, saying goodbye to the living, welcoming the dead who seem to come for them).  
Naturalistic explanations, such as sudden brain stimulation or fluctuating levels of toxicity in the body, need to be taken into account, but it would be difficult to use them to explain some of the cases quoted by Dr Fenwick from the research into experiences at death carried out at hospices. They represented a spectrum of varying strength, from such episodes as sudden alertness or expression of pleasure, through arousal from a semi-conscious state, or unusual strength and return of mobility, to a change from total non-recognition (by a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s disease) to being fully aware of the family. The quoted examples embraced not only cases involving terminal lucidity, but also death-bed visions, where conscious people were being “collected” by deceased relatives. Many issues, such as celebral activity during clinical death, deep coma, or the nature of vegetative states,  remain to be investigated, but the one firm conclusion which can be drawn from current research is that terminal lucidity has a beneficial effect, facilitating the dying process and a tranquil departure.
The next speaker, Dr Michael Nahm, a biologist and author of Evolution and Parapsychology , followed with an overview of terminal lucidity based on an impressively wide-ranging survey of literature from Europe (in a number of languages) and the USA, dating from before 1800 to the present day, concerning cases where mental clarity was restored before death in persons with psychiatric and neurological disorders (such as stroke, brain tumour, dementia, schizophrenia, or meningitis). Dr Nahm quoted numerous examples, such as a case of a 91-year old woman, speechless and paralysed after two strokes, who regained mobility and joyfully called out her husband’s name just before she died. 
These phenomena pose far-reaching questions: could all these cases be explained by brain chemistry, or does an alternative explanation for terminal lucidity involve the soul loosening its bonds from the obstructive brain matter acting as a filter or a channel?  No firm conclusions were on offer, and the subject awaits investigation.
The afternoon session was devoted to the wider implications of end-of-life experiences. Dr Fenwick, took us through the process of the dissolution of the structure of consciousness at death; on the basis of data collected over five years, illustrating the process with specific cases, he described the transition process involved in dying, identifying a number of fractures which may mark its stages.
The first fracture may involve premonitions, suggesting the possibility of obtaining information about the future.  The second fracture, shortly before death, may manifest in unexpected death-bed coincidences – e.g., apparitional visitations initiated by the dying person to someone of emotional significance. Finally, at the moment of death, comes the third fracture, possibly with terminal lucidity and accompanying external events, such as clocks stopping or machinery malfunctioning. At that time, the dying person enters some other reality, perhaps like the world described in the near-death-experience. It is important to note that the experiences described by people who undergo NDE during cardiac arrest (which severely compromises brain function) are the same as those whose NDEs take place in situations of extreme fear (where there is no radical change in the brain functioning), as well as serious illness, dreams or meditation. If NDEs result from abnormal brain function rather than entering a transcendent reality, the question remains of how those who experience them obtain veridical information when normal channels are unavailable.  The AWARE project, launched in 2008, which involves 22 hospitals where target information is placed in key locations to be seen only by cardiac arrest patients should they undergo an NDE, is continuing, and may provide relevant evidence.
Such experiences lead us to profound questions about the nature of mind and the surrounding reality. Should we be looking to such concepts as non-locality (with mind as a non-local information field beyond space and time which separates at death), or a five-dimensional manifold, with the fifth dimension withdrawing from the fourth at death? The answers are unlikely to be forthcoming soon, but hearing about the search for them was an extremely exciting and stimulating experience.
The final paper was presented by David Rousseau, who chairs the SPR’s Research Activities Committee. Basing his ideas on the research into NDEs which he is currently conducting, David presented a proposal for an innovative philosophical and scientific model of the mind-body relationship. The model starts by inferring from veridical NDEs which take place during cardiac arrest that the mind is distinct from the body.  In order for this perspective to be a naturalistic one, the mind must be located in space and endowed with physical as well as mental properties (lack of spatial extension and of physical properties being the two fundamental objections to scientific consideration of the possibility of mind existing independently of the body).  Drawing on the concept of multiverse, the scientific framework of systems philosophy, and the evidence of cardiac arrest NDEs,  the model postulates the existence of both a physical and a mental environment, and minds which can interact with both. A framework where some interactions take place in a mental environment offers a way of accounting for the transformative nature of the NDE experience, as well as mystical and spiritual experiences.
While much remains to be done, a model in which both mind and body are complex structures, together forming a system connected by multiple and diverse channels and mediated by physical and “mental” fields, has the advantages of allowing one to define various aspects of psi positively, and to make distinctions that are obscured in models which propose a unitary view of psi.
The panel discussion which followed the presentations raised the question of possible theoretical interpretations of the phenomena of terminal lucidity, which need to be seen in terms of a spectrum. There was a need for caution, particularly in relation to older cases, since current testing methods point to significant involvement of the brain in mental activity, as well as a high degree of brain plasticity and ability to take over impaired functions.  
Altogether, this highly informative and interesting Study Day gave one pause for an encouraging thought. The evidence presented could hardly be described as “anomalous”, since it formed part of universal human experience, observed on a broad and regular basis by members of the medical and caring professions. Yet the questions it raises for philosophy and physics are very much the same as those raised by the evidence from psychical research.
Report by Zofia Weaver, photographs by Tom Ruffles
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