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Scientist Says Mind Continues After Brain Dies.
June 29, 2001 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Scientist Says Mind Continues After Brain Dies. This articles raises an interesting new theory on how the mind works, suggesting that perhaps a person's consciousness exists independent of the brain, with the brain acting as a sort of receiver of thoughts. Interesting and scary.
posted by mcsweetie (51 comments total)

 
That is very cool. I'm of course extremely skeptical that anyone could ever prove the existence of a soul through earthly research, but still--that is some interesting reading. Especially the part about the kid who was 2 1/2 years old...
posted by fusinski at 8:08 AM on June 29, 2001


this is my greatest fear: dying, and finding out i'm still awake in there...
posted by o2b at 8:26 AM on June 29, 2001


I'd like it if they showed more about the patient's beliefs going into the temporary death. Was there any correlation about the likelihood of NDE among those who believed in things like souls and stuff?

Also, what does it mean to be "clinically dead" in this case? When you die, does everything stop working at once, or do some cells tick on until they run out of supplies? Is it like, that little green line goes flat and the intermittent beep turns into one long tone like the movies, but my muscles are still using ATP and voltage-gated ion channels are still opening and stuff?
posted by jeb at 8:26 AM on June 29, 2001


Sounds like 5 cent baloney to me, these 'test subjects' have clear religious views and even if they had nothing happen to them to them they're 99% prone to making it up. You'd be surprised how sad and pathetic a lot of these people are, priests can go about their entire lives stabbing their hands to show they're blessed. It's downright sick. If they did then certainly there's much more we can learn about the human brain. Most of the nde stuff has been proven to be bunk.
posted by tiaka at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2001


and, like, no one thought that these guys merely imagined that they'd communicated with people after their brain stopped functioning? that, perhaps, they thought they should have done these things and are therefore convinced they did? or perhaps they (for example the so-called "pagan") did not want to just fuck with the doctors conducting this study?

are these guys idiots, or merely gullible?
posted by moz at 8:29 AM on June 29, 2001


This study makes an invalid assumption: That if someone remembers something then it must have actually happened.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 8:29 AM on June 29, 2001


oh, and the kid's the best.

When they asked what the balloon was he said, 'When you die you see a bright light and you are connected to a cord.' He wasn't even 3 when had the experience,'' Parnia said.

no one told him to say that! i swear!
posted by moz at 8:30 AM on June 29, 2001


My mom had an NDE. She was in a near-fatal car accident and she was declared legally dead in the ambulance. She said she saw a bright light and felt really peaceful, and then she heard a voice say that she had the choice whether to live or to die. She said the light was so beautiful and she felt so at peace that her instinct was to go towards it, but she still remembered she had us kids, very young at the time, and she decided to live.
My mom's a little nutty anyway, a very spiritual ex-hippy type person. I don't really believe in this stuff myself, but one thing I can say is that she isn't making it up. She really and truly believes this happened to her. Steven's right though, that doesn't make it real.
posted by hazyjane at 8:33 AM on June 29, 2001


[From the link, emphases mine] During the initial study, Parnia said, 63 heart attack patients who were deemed clinically dead but were later revived were interviewed within a week of their experiences.

Of those, 56 said they had no recollection of the time they were unconscious and seven reported having memories.


Hmmmmm. I think I'm having a Near-Nonissue Experience.
posted by Skot at 8:39 AM on June 29, 2001


I'd like it if they showed more about the patient's beliefs going into the temporary death. Was there any correlation about the likelihood of NDE among those who believed in things like souls and stuff?

From what I've read from Morse, Ring, and Moody belief in itself doesn't give a better chance of having a NDE as much as it changes what it will be like. A jew will have a vision of Moses, a xtian will have Jesus, agnostics might have ambigious entities and lots will have past family members and friends. Of course many will have nothing and others will have frightening hell and brimstone visions.

It looks like classic symbol interpretation, given ambigious or semi-ambigious phenomenon one fills in the gaps as one would expect. NDE's probably are the usual sort of paranormal phenomenon that science is not designed to tackle (anecdotes, stories, etc aren't observable facts) or as Melvin Morse sums up below are probably things that can't be truly understood using the "common sense" thinking mode of our time.


I seek nothing less than a complete obliteration of the tired “skeptic” vs. “believer” debate which has dominated near death research so far. Instead of promoting true scientific inquiry, the so called skeptics use the science of the nineteenth century attempt to debunk the spiritual philosophies of the eighteenth century.

posted by skallas at 8:45 AM on June 29, 2001


Hmmmm.... sounds just like you can believe this stuff is a load of BS, but that doesn't make it true either....
posted by prototype_octavius at 8:46 AM on June 29, 2001


man, i once saw this tales from the crypt episode like this, where this guy died but was still in his body... the worst is at the end, when he was getting all cut up for his organs.... ick... wish i remembered more of the details.
posted by lotsofno at 8:47 AM on June 29, 2001


The word "scientist" doesn't describe someone who would say this:

"The brain itself is made up of cells, like all the body's organs, and is not really capable of producing the subjective phenomenon of thought that people have, he said."

I'm not saying he's wrong... just that he's clearly either not trained in the scientific method, or he didn't understand that training. What's the evidence supporting that statement? What a crock!
posted by muppetboy at 8:48 AM on June 29, 2001


Yah, seriously, its not interesting or scary -- maybe just a little sad.

Religion is a fine thing, but attempts to nail it down with pseudo-science bullshit are just pathetic.

If I wake you up, and you tell me about a dream, and I say "exactly what time did that dream start and end?" you arent going to have a damn clue -- why would a pre-death hallucination be any different? Maybe they experienced this feeling before they died, brought on by the drugs and adrenaline. Is dissassociation so uncommon when the body is stressed?

Bleh.
posted by malphigian at 8:49 AM on June 29, 2001


lotsofno: Dude, I remember that episode too! Very freaky indeed!
posted by prototype_octavius at 8:50 AM on June 29, 2001


ever see "Crossing Over with John Edward" on the Sci-Fi Channel? He's a medium and after seeing quite a few of his shows, it's hard for me to doubt we exist after death.
posted by Zebulun at 8:51 AM on June 29, 2001


nobody fully grasps how the brain generates thoughts.

at least he got one thing right for sure.
posted by rabi at 8:57 AM on June 29, 2001


"Crossing Over"? How fake can you get? Not a good standard to decide by at all.
posted by prototype_octavius at 9:00 AM on June 29, 2001


*cough* If you're going to accept science's fundamental axioms (and most of us do), Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained will tell you why consciousness without the brain is impossible. Cartesian dualism, which all of this (and most of us) typically assume is logically self-contradictory. Sorry folks. These people were probably projecting memories of experiences that occured while their brain was functioning onto the time when it was not. (Or do you think that your perception of time is always accurate? Sorry, chuckles.) Dennett's "Multiple Drafts" model describes how this is possible. (The book is an absolute must for any psychologist or philosopher interested in the opposite field.)
posted by tweebiscuit at 9:01 AM on June 29, 2001


Zebulum, a note, don't trust anyone who calls himself a 'medium' seriously. bwah!
posted by tiaka at 9:03 AM on June 29, 2001


I'm not saying he's wrong... just that he's clearly either not trained in the scientific method, or he didn't understand that training. What's the evidence supporting that statement? What a crock!

the author of the article was probably paraphrasing.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:06 AM on June 29, 2001


lotsofno: Dude, I remember that episode too! Very freaky indeed!

me three! it was actually the first thing I thought of when I saw the article title.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:09 AM on June 29, 2001


Another thing: when people take dissociatives(pcp, ketamine, dextromethorphan), don't they sometimes report similar experiences? I wonder if any of the things happening to the brain under these stresses are similar to the state that these drugs bring about and if there is some tendency of the brain, in the absence or presence of some factor or factors, to generate this "floating outside the body, looking back" sense-experience-collection.

Tweebiscuit - just to play devil's advocate, have you ever read McGinn's essay, "Can we solve the mind-body problem?" He tries to argue from something that looks like science for a sort of pseudo-supernatural attitude towards the mind. I don't think it's a very good essay, but since you brought up Dennett, I figured I'd bring up one guy who, if right, would give the "we don't understand how the mind arises from the brain" guy some working room.
posted by jeb at 9:16 AM on June 29, 2001


He's a medium

No, he's a fraud. A real "medium" would not need underlings to perform preinterviews with the guests in order to collect information.

Not that there is any such thing as a real medium.
posted by aaron at 9:19 AM on June 29, 2001



there was once a time when the concepts of bacteria and germs were considered ludicrous.

I'm by no means a religious person, but I definitely believe that there is more to a person than some random matrix of chemicals. if we just sit for a while and not discount something just because it's incongruous with our mostly accepted orders of thought, maybe we can find out for sure.
posted by mcsweetie at 9:24 AM on June 29, 2001


as an aside, has anyone else seen that banner ad on yahoo thats like "take a free FREE free Free free survey!" ? maximum annoying!
posted by mcsweetie at 9:26 AM on June 29, 2001


Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained will tell you why consciousness without the brain is impossible

I don't think a strict materialist pop science book is exactly the answer to all or important questions of consciousness. Consciousness is still very much a mystery, if you're willing to make x amount of assumptions I'm sure its very convincing but I'd like to see some hard evidence, research, reproduction, etc before declaring some book be it this, the bible, or life and life as being the truth. I'm definately reserving judgement and am wary of materialists as much as their counterparts if not more so.
posted by skallas at 9:27 AM on June 29, 2001


skallas - what are your arguments against materialism? Why are you wary of them?
posted by jeb at 9:40 AM on June 29, 2001


skallas - what are your arguments against materialism? Why are you wary of materialists?
posted by jeb at 9:41 AM on June 29, 2001


Am I the only one that's curious to know how they define brain activity? I mean, even after all the brain activity we typically measure stops, the brain itself is still there. We don't have a very clear idea of how consciousness arises from the activity of the brain. I would assume it's perfectly possible that, after it has stopped functioning properly, the brain is still changing in some way that would manifest itself by either (1) giving people the experiences described above or (2) forming memories of the experiences described above.

Which is not to say I'm absolutely convinced of materialism, just that these observations don't even seem like the sort of evidence you'd look for if you wanted to disprove it. As for Dennet, for all he seems to adore science, he's still very much a philosopher, and I've not seen any evidence that he can make a convincing scientific argument for anything.
posted by moss at 9:42 AM on June 29, 2001


While I would like to believe this study, I recently read about another discovery that could explain new and/or false memories being created.

Essentially, memories are recalled electrically, but stored chemically. So even if they are not recording any brain activity, that is electrically activity. That wouldn't stop new memories from being created chemically.

One more thing ... John Edward is a punk.
posted by quirked at 10:16 AM on June 29, 2001


One, who called himself a lapsed Catholic and Pagan, reported a close encounter with a mystical being.

Huh? Being a logic pedant, but Catholicism and "Pagan" are usually mutually exclusive.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:23 AM on June 29, 2001


I'm by no means a religious person, but I definitely believe that there is more to a person than some random matrix of chemicals.

I am proud to be a random matrix of chemicals.
posted by rushmc at 10:24 AM on June 29, 2001


mcsweetie, I don't think anyone's saying people are just a random combination of chemicals. even if we are nothing more than chemicals and electricity, it's a very specific set, and that's what allows us to know anything about the physical nature of our brains (and other contsituent parts) at all. granted, a lot of scientists and doctors and pharmaceutical companies like to pretend they know more about the way neurotransmitters work than they actually do, and I agree with you that much of neuroscience is far too reductionist to be useful, but just because someone thinks the idea of a soul completely separate from the physical brain is "ludicrous" doesn't mean they think the brain is just a bunch of discrete chemicals and cells and stuff. and even if it is just a bunch of things that we understand individually, that doesn't mean we think we understand the combination.
posted by rabi at 10:24 AM on June 29, 2001


That wouldn't stop new memories from being created chemically.

Wow! Thanks, quirked, that's exactly the sort of suggestion I was hoping for, without knowing enough about the brain to state it more precisely. In thanks, I offer:

One more thing ... John Edward is a punk.

John Edward is a punk,
Sam Parnia's a runt,
They both went out and offered evidence for dualism
And oh I don't know why,
Oh I don't know,
Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah, perhaps they'll die.

Second verse, same as the first:
John Edward is a punk,
Sam Parnia's a runt,
They both went out and offered evidence for dualism
And oh I don't know why,
Oh I don't know,
Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah, perhaps they'll die.

Third verse, different from the first:
John Edward is a punk,
Sam Parnia's a runt,
And Sam confused electrical activity with life...
And oh I don't know why,
Oh I don't know,
Perhaps they'll die, oh yeah, perhaps they'll die.
posted by moss at 10:32 AM on June 29, 2001


I once passed out in the middle of a workout - pressing too hard, stood up too fast, hit the ground too hard. The entire episode lasted less than five seconds, but I had a very vivid dream during that time that seemed to go on for several minutes. Malphigian's comment above about not being able to trust "dream time" is right. The subjects entire "remembered dream" could have occurred in the brief second before they lost brain activity or in the brief second after they regained it. The story is interesting, but doesn't provide any proof either way about the existence, or lack their of, of a nonmaterial source for consciousness.
posted by edlark at 10:33 AM on June 29, 2001


The kid's "you see a bright light and are tied to a cord" sounds to me like a birth memory.

The elusiveness of time while dreaming is well-established. I once saw a show on "alien encounters" in which one "abductee" explained that "the aliens must have control of time, since even though my examination lasted for hours, when I woke up, only a few minutes had passed." A far simpler explanation is that he dreamed the entire thing.
posted by kindall at 10:46 AM on June 29, 2001


She really and truly believes this happened to her. Steven's right though, that doesn't make it real.

Well it's definitely real to her, and in the end that's all that really counts. And as far as any brain activity being recorded, or not recorded, maybe the flaw is in that mechanism or measuring device. We don't really know whether that's accurate, I mean it seems to work... sometimes.
I guess the point is that scientific thought is really not a whole lot different from religious thought, in that they are both models of explaining the world around us and lending some kind of order to the whole mess. We look back at the science of the past and can scoff because now we know, but don't think that people in the future won't be doing the same to us.
The main difference between science and religion would probably be empirical observation and an ability to change based upon the observations of others. Still, these observations are subjective though.
posted by Sellersburg/Speed at 10:47 AM on June 29, 2001


hehe moss. also, parnia's explanation of dualism makes no sense. he compares it to a television set interpreting and displaying waves that it yanks out of the air. (at least, I assume that's his comparison, since it's sort of paraphrased in the article.) then he says the brain is doing a similar thing with consciousness, and that the reason brain damage leads to a loss of functionality or a change in personality is not because there's a change in the the soul (or the mind) itself, but because "the apparatus is damaged."

following with this simile, wouldn't a real near-death experience during pronounced brain death be like an unplugged tv playing next week's episode of the simpsons?

or is the analogy flawed because the tv is either on (damaged or otherwise) or off, but the brain has that whole electrical-and-chemical thing going on?
posted by rabi at 10:50 AM on June 29, 2001


I am proud to be a random matrix of chemicals.

Damn straight - the more random the better :)

When you die, you die. There is no real evidence to the contrary. Religion is a psychological crutch to comfort us against the concept of endless nothingness, and a whip to keep us from asking difficult questions.
posted by UncleFes at 10:58 AM on June 29, 2001


. Religion is a psychological crutch to comfort us against the concept of endless nothingness, and a whip to keep us from asking difficult questions.


The same thing could be said about any philosophy, belief, etc. I could take a strict scientific materialist view because I need the "crutch" to explain my surroundings and the more materialistic the more of an incentive I have to dismiss the difficult questions of existance or phenomenon that goes against my assumptions.

The "crutch" explanation is really a stylish insult. I can't see how someone could grow to intellectual adulthood without the simple need of knowing whats going on. Are all pre-scientific thinkers "crutch users" and the recently enlightened suddenly supermen? The cultures that produce the wheel, alphabet, etc was quite steeped in superstitions and religious beliefs. This freethinkers bumpersticker is droll and cute, but very simplistic and has a this modern arrogance stink about it.

As to why I'm wary of scientific materialists when discussing philosophy, consciousness, and subjective life is the same reason I'm wary of the New Agers: I don't think you can make an informed decision with the information at hand. The more sure someone is that there is life after death or that death is the end the less credibility they have with me. In the meantime I'll remain happily agnostic, but I'm not going to knock those pushing boundries and doing unpopular research be it scientific or not.

Also, why did this suddenly become a religious issue. Is all 'life after death' explorations truly religious? Does it require things as gods, heavens, hells, etc? I really don't think so, as you can easily come up with "secular" theories of consciousness being a sort of non-local information matrix and such.
posted by skallas at 11:21 AM on June 29, 2001


all of you claiming that this is obviously false are just as much "idiots or merely gullible" as the people claiming that it's true. there is no definitive proof either way. you're just arguing theories not facts.

belief in a theory by a majority doesn't make it any more true.
posted by brig at 11:45 AM on June 29, 2001


I'm sure Jung would have been amused to see attempts to verify the collective unconscious by experiment.

Brain science hasn't been this much fun since the 1660s, actually. And it's just as contentious: while the methods have become massively more intricate and the data more complex, people are still asking the same questions as Descartes, Willis, Locke and Boerhaave.

And I'd recommend Gerard Edelman as a good read on this topic.
posted by holgate at 11:52 AM on June 29, 2001


go skallas! go skallas!
posted by mcsweetie at 12:20 PM on June 29, 2001


brig: the more people who believe, the more likely it is to be true. Joe Nutjob may be the only one who believes that pencils have a sophisticated culture which we cannot comprehend, but...

Ahhhh, ferget it.
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:35 PM on June 29, 2001


The cultures that produce the wheel, alphabet, etc was quite steeped in superstitions and religious beliefs. This freethinkers bumpersticker is droll and cute, but very simplistic and has a this modern arrogance stink about it.

No one's questioning their capacity for invention. But only in recent years have we been able to retrieve real scientific data as to the physical aspects of the brain at death AND have the capability to revive those who have suffered braindeath. And the information gained from that ability lends credence to the theory that there is not too much happening after you die. If you're looking for arrogance, you'd be more likely to find it on the other side of the argument, since to presume that there must be some sort of life after death assumes that humans have some special spiritual significance in the universe, that there is some God(s) looking out of our well-being. If that's not arrogance - I'm so special that I have all-powerful beings preparing for my death - I don't know what is.

Also, why did this suddenly become a religious issue. Is all 'life after death' explorations truly religious? Does it require things as gods, heavens, hells, etc? I really don't think so, as you can easily come up with "secular" theories of consciousness being a sort of non-local information matrix and such.

Because this question is typically handled in the realm of theology. But you're right, you can certainly come up with several non-theological theories as to what happens after you die. I personally liked the theory outlined in the movie What Dreams May Come. It was very pleasing and comforting. But not very scientific, and without much evidence to support it. For this study, it comes back to this: Of those, 56 said they had no recollection ...

So if we're going to pretend for a moment that we're conducting an experiment here, rather than looking for pseudo-scientific crapola to back "theories" we already believe, you got a 89% "nothing comes after" rate.

In the end, people will believe what they want about anything, regardless of evidence or lack thereof. And as far as this question, it really doesn't matter what you believe - we will all find out for certain all too soon.
posted by UncleFes at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2001


Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained will tell you why consciousness without the brain is impossible.

Dennett's book builds a huge castle on just a few observations about how we process visual information. His "multiple drafts" model is an interesting possibility, but it's mostly speculation. Moss is right on about him Dennett being a philosopher rather than a scientist. We're a long long way from really understanding what's going on in our heads.
posted by straight at 1:45 PM on June 29, 2001


Dennett's book builds a huge castle on just a few observations about how we process visual information. His "multiple drafts" model is an interesting possibility, but it's mostly speculation. Moss is right on about him Dennett being a philosopher rather than a scientist. We're a long long way from really understanding what's going on in our heads.

I agree, although I haven't quite finished Consciousness yet. However, he does explain perfectly why Cartesian dualism is a logical impossibility given the assumptions of empirical science, or even the representation/causal model of perception. (To a solipsist such as myself, the question is moot.) Dennett does a great job of explaining how consciousness could arise from the brain (rather than some sort of ethereal stuff), but he still makes no headway on the questions of what consciousness is. Even if you accept a materialist explanation, how are we to know that death can't be followed by, say, reincarnation? Still, it's basically inherently false to claim that a person can think, reason, possess visual images, etc., when their brain is completely inactive.
posted by tweebiscuit at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2001


All your brain are belong to XENU!!!!!!!!!
posted by blackholebrain at 9:20 PM on June 29, 2001


I'm surprised none of those guys saw Elvis
posted by matteo at 6:55 AM on June 30, 2001


Dennett's thesis is not the only hypothesis out there (see the Churchlands, and many others), but it makes a lot of sense in many ways and is consistent with what we do know about brain function.

Just because we don't have a final, unassailable answer to a question doesn't mean we can't eliminate preposterous competing explanations. This is a logical fallacy which many people seem determined to fall prey to.
posted by rushmc at 11:44 AM on June 30, 2001


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