March 30, 2011
Let’s get this straight right off the bat: this is not the post where I provide a body of replicated scientific findings so persuasive that it demands acceptance from even the most ardent of skeptics. Rather, this is the post where I present a well-documented instance of a proposition that–if true–directly supports the idea that human consciousness can exist outside the physical body. I’ve pieced this together from several books, articles and papers across the internet, so please be sure to correct me if anything jumps out as a red flag, detail-wise.
Dr. Michael Sabom is a cardiologist in private practice and on staff at Northside and Saint Joseph’s hospitals in Atlanta, Georgia. Among other works, Sabom is the author of Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation (1982), and Light and Death (1998). A self-described liberal Christian, Sabom first learned of NDE via Raymond Moody’s Life After Life, and like many, he was initially skeptical due to the “unscientific, anecdotal nature” of the accounts in Moody’s book. At the behest of a woman at his church who endorsed NDE, Sabom, then a first-year cardiologist at University of Florida, decided to undertake his own study. His goal was to probe for details that would not ordinarily be known to non-medical personnel. IOW, he would test for veridical experiences.
Sabom was confident that he would debunk the phenomenon, as he reports here:
…I would pit my experience as a trained cardiologist against the professed visual recollections of lay individuals. In so doing, I was convinced that obvious inconsistencies would appear which would reduce these purported visual observations to no more than an “educated guess” on the part of the patients. [Sabom, 1982 p6-7]
Sabom compiled data on 116 individuals who had a “close brush” with death. Of these, 71 reported varying degrees of NDE. In Light and Death, Sabom relays the case of singer Pam Reynolds, under Dr. Robert Spetzler at Barrow Neurological Institute, Phoenix, Arizona. Reynolds suffered from a large aneurysm in the wall of her basilar artery at the base of the brain. Medical personnel may be acquainted with Spetzler’s procedure of hypothermic cardiac arrest. Nicknamed Standstill, the procedure lowers patient body temperature to 60 degrees Farenheit, stops heartbeat and breathing, extinguishes all electrical brain activity, and drains the blood from the head.
Pam reported lucid veridical and non-veridical conscious experience throughout this entire procedure. According to Pam, her experience began around 9:00 a.m., shortly after Dr. Spetzler had begun to carve out a section of her skull, with a Midas Rex:
The next thing I recall was the sound: It was a natural D. As I listened to the sound, I felt it was pulling me out of the top of my head. The further out of my body I got, the more clear the tone became. I had the impression that it was like a road, a frequency that you go on… I remember seeing several things in the operating room when I was looking down. It was the most aware that I think I have ever been in my entire life… It wasn’t like normal vision. It was brighter and more focused and clearer than normal vision… The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and it had a dent in it, a groove at the top where the saw appeared to go into the handle, but it didn’t… the saw head had interchangeable blades, too, but these blades were in what looked like a socket wrench case. [Sabom 1998, p41]
Shortly after this time, a female cardiac surgeon attempted to prepare the femoral artery and vein in Pam’s right groin [for the cardiopulmonary bypass machine]. The vessels proved too small, so the left side was prepared instead. Pam was able to recall this with significant detail:
I distinctly remember a female voice saying “We have a problem. Her arteries are too small.” And then a male voice: “Try the other side.” [ibid]
Medical records confirmed that a female cardiac surgeon did in fact say this, despite the fact that well-affixed, small speakers tested her auditory nerve center with loud, 100-decibel staccato clicks at an interval of a little under 11.5 seconds, which–so long as we are working with a functioning brain–would presumably cause the electrogram to spike. By 11:00 a.m. the morning of her operation, Pam’s body temperature was 25 degrees below average, her heartbeat in ventricular fibrillation. Sabom writes:
Five minutes later, the remaining electrical spasms of Pam’s dying heart were extinguished with massive intravenous doses of potassium chloride. Cardic arrest was complete. As Pam’s heart arrested, her brain waves flattened into complete electrocerebral silence. Brain stem function weakened as the clicks from the ear speakers produced lower and lower spikes on the monitoring electrogram. Twenty minutes later, her core body temperature had fallen another 13 degrees to a tomblike 60 degrees Farenheit. The clicks from her ear speakers no longer elicited a response. Total brain shutdown. Then, at precisely 11:25 a.m., Pam was subjected to one of the most daring and remarkable surgical maneuvers ever performed in an operating room. The head of the operating table was tilted up, the cardiopulmonary bypass machine was turned off, and the blood was drained from Pam’s body like oil from a car. [Sabom, 1998 p43]
Elsewhere, Sabom wrote:
The question is not when Reynolds’ NDE began but when it ended. Reynolds described her NDE as an uninterrupted, continuous experience perceived to be as real at the beginning, during her “out-of-body” experience, as it was throughout. According to her, the NDE ended at the close of surgery around 2:00 p.m., a time frame that included the period of “standstill” and “flat EEG.” My construction of Reynolds’ combined autoscopic and transcendental NDE as a continuous, unbroken encounter was based entirely on her testimony–testimony correlated at times with events in the operating room. Interestingly, Reynolds’ claim of continuity within her experiences is consistent with virtually all other reports of combined NDE’s that I have studied over the past 30 years. [Sabom, “Commentary on ‘Does Paranormal Perception Occur in Near-Death Experiences?'” p258]
How do we explain such lucid perception throughout this procedure? As Chris Carter writes in Science and the Near-Death Experience (2010):
By three clinical tests–flat EEG, no brain stem activity, no blood flowing through the brain–Pam’s brain was dead, with almost certainly no activity whatsoever. Yet Pam reported the deepest NDE ever investigated by Sabom. (p226)
Sabom paid special attention to the anticipated objection that Pam simply overheard the surgeons:
Steven Cordova, Neuroscience Manager at the Barrow Neurological Institute, who was the interoperative technologist responsible for inserting small molded speakers into Spetzler’s patients in the early 1990s when Reynolds’ surgery was performed, told me that after these speakers were molded into each external auditory canal, they were further affixed with “mounds of tape and gauze to seal securely the ear piece into the canal.” This “tape and gauze” would “cover the whole ear pinnae” making it extremely unlikely that Reynolds could have physically overheard operating room conversation one hour and twenty minutes after anesthesia had been induced. [Sabom, “Commentary on ‘Does Paranormal Perception Occur in Near-Death Experiences?'” p259]
100 decibels is the average volume of a jackhammer, folks. If sophisticated scientific equipment verifies that Pam’s brain cannot detect the equivalent of a jackhammer in each ear, doesn’t it seem a little desperate to argue that Pam overheard the surgeons? Pam did not report hearing these clicks, which would suggest that she somehow “heard” without her physical sense of hearing throughout at least some parts of her experience. On CBS’ 48 Hours, Dr. Spetzler testified as to the certainty of her physical condition:
If you would examine that patient from a clinical perspective during that hour, that patient by all definition would be dead. At this point there is no brain activity, no blood going through the brain.
A while back, I asked dguller [a commenter here] to give his definition of a dead brain, and promised that I would deliver cases that conformed. He replied,
I would like to see a flat EEG and a functional MRI that demonstrates no cerebral blood flow anywhere in the brain. That would be a rigorous demonstration of brain death, I think.
Pam’s case meets both criteria. Even the skeptic would seemingly have to admit that if her brain was non-active and she was clinically dead, Pam’s experience provisionally falsifies one or more materialist accounts of mind, for example both wCCH and sCCH as shown here.
So, where does this leave us? The way I see it, if you’re a committed materialist, the only thing you can do is attempt to cast doubt on the integrity of the data–and that’s exactly what I expect committed materialists to do. Fair enough, I suppose, as there always remains the logical possibility that some legitimate oversight[s] might mitigate Reynolds’ experience. Though, I think the burden definitely falls to the skeptic to identify a specific weakness Sabom, Spetzler, or anyone else overlooked, and show how this weakness is strong enough to be a mitigating factor, as opposed to a straight-forward and non-biased interpretation of data.