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 a sensation,
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 near-death experiences.
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 going on.

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 seconds later. 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 both halves?

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 experiment leader...
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 for progress.
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.

  See also:
  Posterous: Van Lommel book review.

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