Wednesday, August 14, 2013

More on Near-Death Experiences

Near-death experiences are back in the news, with a new study that tracked the brainwaves of dying rats. Researchers found that after their hearts stopped, the brains of the rats exhibited rapid firing, raising their brainwave frequencies into the gamma range (>30 hz). While there are all sorts of caveats surrounding this research as it was done on animals rather than humans, the researchers still believe that this rapid firing may explain what people going through NDE's perceive.

"When you turn off a light switch, the light immediately goes from on to off," explains a neuroscientist who was not involved with, but was impressed by, the research. "The brain doesn't immediately go off, but it shows a series of sort of complicated transitions." The BBC explains further: The scientists measured an increase in gamma oscillations, high-frequency brainwaves that connect information from one part of the brain to another. How to explain this? The lead researcher thinks the surge in brain activity may be "the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself," as well as to make sense of what's happening.

Where this gets interesting is that there's another possible explanation. Gamma-frequency brainwaves have also been detected in advanced meditators and linked with mystical states such as samadhi reached during their practice sessions. While many neuroscientists tend towards reductive explanations, the idea that individuals could have mystical experiences while undergoing the process of dying is an ancient one. It may be that only now science is starting to catch up with it.

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Nerd said...

First of all, these scientists are measuring the "brain," which is a Sea of Marrow that houses the process of sensation and passes the sense data through the orifices of the heart, for experience by the corporeal soul.

This is where the mind is located.

What these scientists might be measuring is the remaining yang floating upwards, as it is no longer balanced by the yin of the corporeal soul, after it has left the physical body upon death.

Scott Stenwick said...

Essentially what's going on with the scanning process is that the brain is as far as our tools will take us. I agree with you that the mind is a phenomenon in and of itself, and is not simply the aggregate result of neural firing. However, I also believe that neural potentials strongly correspond to mental activity and as such can be used to make certain inferences about what might be going on in the mind.

I write relatively often here about the "consciousness measure," a hypothetical device that does not yet exist at our current level of technology. I firmly believe that someday such a thing will be invented, and once we have it we will be able to directly observe mental activity for the first time. Until then, though, the latest scanning techniques are producing a lot of remarkable data.

Vigilius Haufniensis said...

How do you account for out of body experiences?

Scott Stenwick said...

It depends a lot on what the underlying mechanism is, which is where our measuring instruments currently can't reach. If the phenomenon is brain-based as reductionists contend, then what's going on is simply a loss of proprioception and spacial orientation related to the position of the body.

On the other hand, if (like me) you tend towards less reductionist explanations and hypothesize that the gamma spike represents a form of samadhi, then what's going on is a true mystical experience in which consciousness is centered elsewhere than the body.

Essentially, that's what we would want a "consciousness measure" for. It would be able to tell us what was going on with consciousness itself, not just tracking the neural correlates of conscious experience.

Nerd said...

I like Varela's idea for "first person methods" in empirical research. The "brain" is merely an object in consciousness.

Problem with Varela is, he talked a good game, but he really didn't satisfactorily implement his ideas.

Also, we still need an Orgone Field Meter.

Scott Stenwick said...

The trouble with first-person methodologies is the same problem that the structuralist movement in psychology ran into about a hundred years ago. Without some objective measurement criteria, it's very difficult to separate the subjective from the objective. Structuralism was based on introspection and as a result it wound up with many competing models and ideas, but without any tools to separate the personal from the general.

I would love to be able to go at the study of cognition from a consciousness-first perspective - and the minute somebody invents a tool that can do that, I'll be there, whether its a consciousness measure or orgone field meter or, really, whatever. Until that gets invented, though, neuroscience is pretty much the only game in town. I'm also of the opinion that they're tracking neural correlates to consciousness functions rather than consciousness itself, but even that can provide some useful insights in terms of what might be going on within our fields of awareness.