Consciousness beyond life.
''Consciousness beyond life'' by Pim van Lommel, M.D.
Amazon review (4 out of 5 stars).
September 8th 2010.
- Simon Laub
Pim van Lommels study on near-death experiences caused
when it was published 2001 in the renowned medical
journal The Lancet.
According to van Lommel, the near-death experience is an authentic
experience that cannot be attributed to imagination, psychosis,
or oxygen deprivation. Furthermore, he suggests that current views on
consciousness held by most physicians, philosophers and psychologists
are too narrow for understanding the phenomenon.....
Obviously, ''medical orthodoxy'' will lean towards saying (something along the lines of) that
''the near-death experience is nothing more than a brief spell of
abnormal brain activity resulting from oxygen deficiency''.
And, indeed, most of the ''evidence'' presented in this book is only
''anecdotal evidence''. Still, it is presented in a very persuasive way. And,
at the very least, it will make us question and refine our current models,
which (undoubtedly) always is a good thing.
Van Lommel notes, that current ''orthodox'' examinations of the near death experiences
aren't comprehensive enough:
a) A study of fighter jet pilots is often cited as a possible
explanatory model for NDE. Indeed, the fighter pilots also experience
a tunnel vision, a sensation of light and brief fragmented images from
the past. But, according to van Lommel, this cannot be compared to
the reports of life reviews, or out of body experiences seen in the
b) Electrical stimulation (or dysfunction/impairment) of the temporal
and parietal lobes have been said to cause out-of-body experiences.
But, according to van Lommel, these experiments only gave atypical and
incomplete out-of-body experiences, where near-death experiences
involves a verifiable perception - from a position outside and
above the body.
Indeed, we certainly need to hear both sides of the argument. And
at the very least the reader will be convinced that we
need more research in these areas to understand exactly what is
It has been claimed that near-death experiences are constructed just
after regaining consciousness (after trauma)?
Van Lommel notes:
c) A flatline EEG is one of the major tools for diagnosing brain death.
Concerning brain death everyone seems to agree that consciousness can not
take place with a flatline EEG.
After a cardiac arrest, the first symptoms of oxygen deficiency are recorded
6.5 seconds later. If the heartbeat is not restored, the complete loss
of all electrical activity in the cerebral cortex follows ten to twenty
If the cardiac arrest last longer than thirty seven seconds, the
EEG does not normalize immidiately. According to van Lommel it is highly
unlikely that the near-death experience takes place immediately after
regaining consciousness, as is sometimes claimed.
Normally the time between a successful resuscitation and the recovery of
consciousness varies from five minutes to seventy two hours - which is much later
than when the reported perceptions during resuscitation must have taken place.
Does current brain scans give us a full understanding of
exactly how consciousness is produced in the brain?
In the book van Lommel argues for a no:
d) Neurologist John Lorber has given a description of a healthy young
man with a university degreee in mathematics and an IQ of 126. A brain scan
reveals that 95 % of his skull was filled with fluids and his cerebral cortex
measured only 2 millimeters. The weight of his remaining brain was only
100 grams (compared to the normal 1500 grams) - Yet, his brain
function was unimpaired.
In another case, doctors at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore
have surgically removed half the brain of a young girl (because of
epilepsy). She is now developing normally, doing well in school. Actually, doing
as much much with only one half a brain as other people do with
According to van Lommel: Surely such brain damage
should be somehow noticeable in behaviour, if our current
understanding is all there is to the matter?
Still, obviously you have to be an neurologist to really be able to
answer these questions.....
I remember an article about Life without a Cerebellum:
''The human cerebellum is reported to contain ~85 billion neurons, around half the number in the entire brain (Azevedo et al., 2009). Thus, it is source of considerable wonder that a full adult life is possible in cases where the cerebellum does not develop at all or where only vestigial signs of a cerebellum are present....''
''....So there is plenty of evidence here that life without a cerebellum is anything but normal. But (glass half-full) this woman leads a useful though simple life, and is able to work in an electronics workshop....''
Perhaps the overall lesson of this fascinating case should be to highlight the remarkable redundancy of the developing human brain that allows at least partial compensation for the absent neocerebellum....''
So, other sources seems to suggest that weird things are indeed possible within the
current framework of explanations, but there are certainly things there to make you wonder ....
And on it goes. Does the images we gain from brain-scanners really tell us anything about what goes on inside the brain?
I.e. is it possible to see what thoughts someone else is thinking?
According to van Lommel there are huge problems:
e) Sure, thoughts can often be deduced from behaviour. But only the subject has
direct access to his thoughts. So can we ever obtain knowledge
about consciousness? When direct access to the brain is purely
subjective, via introspection?
In one experiment, subjects were placed in a fMRI scanner, where
they had their feets tickled. Sometimes they could also see the tickling in
a mirror. The experiment sought to identify differences in the way
the brain processes such information.
And here comes the good part: When tickled one subject decides
that he will think about football, and when he can also see the tickling
in a mirror he will think about his cats funeral .... without telling this to the
If the experiment were precise enough, this subjects brain
scans should come out as being unusual. And the experiment leader should then have
asked what was going on .... (But, ...It didn't happen). And, if the subject had continued to lie
(Saying that he was following instructions, when in reality he was thinking about his cats funeral),
would it have been possible to catch the lie?
So far, we have only measured a correlation between registered
activities in the brain and experiences in consciousness.
In order to say that ''consciousness is always activities in brain'',
it should be possible to map all conscious thoughts to activities in a brain.
And, obviously, this is outside of what is possible.
The book has a long section about quantum physics.
Here van Lommel tries to convince us that consciousness cannot be understood
in classical terms, but must be understood in quantum mechanical terms.
f) True. Many prominent quantum physicists have supported the radical
interpretation that observation decides (creates) physical reality
(''Schroedingers cat'' etc.). A position that regards consciousness as more
fundamental that matter or energy....
van Lommel takes it one step further though, and seems to think
that consciousness is not produced by matter, but it is the other way around,
where physical reality is completely formed by consciousness?
Sure, van Lommel is indeed right to say, that Kant argued that we can only know reality
as it appears to us and not reality as it is in itself. True reality
(Das ding an sich) is, according to Kant, unknowable. So, in principle anything
could be right ...
But, from our current vantage point van Lommels conclusion
(that current models are totally inadequate)
seems somewhat premature.
Still, questioning the current understanding is obviously
always a healthy thing (if done in a thoughtful way) and a necessary starting point
Surely, more research is needed into these phenomenons.
In the end, it is only further research that can settle whether these near-death phenomenons can be explained within
the current ''orthodox'' framework, or if we need to somehow update current theories to make sense of these phenomenons.
Posterous: Van Lommel book review.
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