Interview with Parapsychology researcher Dr. Caroline Watt explains why, despite criticism, she maintains, “there is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences.”
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with University of Edinburgh professor Dr. Caroline Watt, co-author of, There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them. During the interview Watt discusses her research into near-death experiences:
Dr. Caroline Watt: The leading researchers in the NDE field may publish their papers and have them reported as well. It’s an open forum. If it says something interesting, then it will be reported. Everybody can have a say. It’s not like I have some kind of privileged access.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m not suggesting that. I’m saying that what gets picked up and perpetuated through the science media is reflective of the current position, even if that position isn’t supported by the best data.
I’m saying your paper got traction even though there’s not a lot behind it. I’m saying you cited references incorrectly. And you referenced skeptics like Dr. Susan Blackmore who admits to not being current in the field.
Dr. Caroline Watt: As I said, it was intended to be a provocative piece. It’s not claiming to be balanced. The paper, if it wasn’t limited to two or three pages, I could have dealt more thoroughly with many different aspects because there’s more to near-death experiences then the dying brain hypothesis. It would have been a longer and more in-depth paper, but that wasn’t the paper that we wrote.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. Caroline Watt to Skeptiko. Dr. Watt is a founding member of the Parapsychology Unit at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, and has taught and researched parapsychology for 25 years. She is well published in the field, many peer review journals, and is also the author of the most popular textbook in parapsychology, An Introduction to Parapsychology. If we can add to all that, we can also mention that she has also served as a president and board member of the Parapsychological Association.
Dr. Watt, it’s a great pleasure to have you on Skeptiko. Thanks for joining me today.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Thanks, very much, for inviting me Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Caroline, you are well known within the parapsychology community. For those folks who don’t know much about your background, can you tell us a little about how you got started in the field, and maybe some of the highlights of your research, if you will?
Dr. Caroline Watt: Sure. I did my undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. There we had no teaching at all in parapsychology, but we had a final exam called Contemporary Issues where in the degree exam, we were supposed to answer questions about new developments in the field of psychology. That was way back in 1984, just when the Koestler Chair was starting up in Edinburgh.
Because there had been a lot of press interest in the Koestler Chair, one of my teachers set a question in the exam about the Koestler Chair, and I answered it. That was my first formal contact with parapsychology.
The question was: You are applying to be the new professor at the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University. Outline what research program you might follow.
Alex Tsakiris: There’s some foreshadowing.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Yes, indeed. That was really the first contact I had, although I’d always had an interest in the subject. I’d always been a fan of, for example, Lyall Watson and his Super Nature books. It really had captured my imagination from my younger years.
After that I graduated. Because the Koestler Chair had started, and I was curious; I actually wrote to Bob Morris, who was the Koestler professor back then. I said to him, “I’m interested in your subject. I have a psychology degree. If I can be of any use to you, I’d love to get involved.” Bob said, “Why don’t you apply? We’re looking for some researchers.” I had the basic qualifications that he was looking for, which was curiosity and some scientific training in psychology, so I was very fortunate to get the job.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit about the current state of the field of parapsychology. On one hand, this should have been somewhat of a banner year for the field with Daryl Bem from Cornell publishing a major study on precognition that received a lot of publicity, at least over here in the United States. I’m not sure that that really got much traction in terms of the overall field of parapsychology. How would you sum up what the state of the field is?
Dr. Caroline Watt: I’ve been in the field for a long time, and I think I’ve seen a bit of a shift in the center of gravity. When I started in 1985, I felt then that North American parapsychology was stronger then it was in Europe. For example, the Parapsychological Association conventions used to happen nearly every year in the USA, and only occasionally in Europe.
I feel there’s been a bit of a shift, partly as a result of the activities of the Koestler Chair and Bob Morris, in supervising PhD students who then went out to get jobs and to study and research parapsychology further.
There’s been a little bit of a shift towards Europe. I feel that in Europe parapsychology feels stronger. We have a bit more of a foothold in academia and higher education institutions, compared to what I feel is going on in the states.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s interesting. That’s one way to look at the divide, is this geographic divide. There also seems to be this major divide in the field that no one seems to talk much about, and that’s the divide between skeptics and believers, to put it crudely.
There seem to be a group of parapsychology researchers like Chris French, yourself, we might even throw Dr. Richard Wiseman in there, who fit very comfortably into this camp we would call skeptics. In fact, they’re even popular presenters at these skeptical conferences.
Then there’s this other group of parapsychology researchers, like Daryl Bem who I just mentioned, Dean Radin, or Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, that are the polar opposite of that. They’re really scorned and harassed by these same skeptical groups. What do you think is going on with that divide, and how do we explain it?
It seems extremely strange to me that in a field, you could have two such seemingly diametrically opposed groups who really couldn’t more or less sit in the same room together.
Dr. Caroline Watt: That’s not my experience. I wouldn’t, first of all, classify myself as a skeptic in terms of a counter advocate. I am a skeptic in the dictionary sense of the word, which is questioning; I hope we all are. That’s the scientific approach. I don’t think I take a dogmatic stance in that the research and teaching that I do, and the contents, for example, of our [inaudible 06:03] which you mentioned very kindly in the introduction. It depends what your understanding is of the term skeptics.
Bob Morris, who I greatly respected as my mentor, was regarded in the field as someone who was quite balanced in his approach. He always took a lot of care whenever he made his presentations to first of all deal with what’s not psychic, but looks like it. He really spent quite a lot of time talking about illusions that may cause people to believe that they’ve had a psychic experience, which may on the face of it sound rather skeptical. What he’s doing there is showing that we have to be aware of the different sides of argument in order to be able to draw any conclusions.
I think it’s perhaps an oversimplification to say there are these two camps. Of course there are some people who have very extreme views, but I wouldn’t regard myself as being at the extreme end of that spectrum.
Alex Tsakiris: You can, of course, put yourself anywhere in that spectrum and I wouldn’t object to it. I do feel like there’s a certain papering over of it when we talk about it in these nice academic terms. When you really get down to the nuts and bolts of who’s talking, who’s being invited to conferences; again, I point out these skeptical conferences that do at least try and be somewhat scientific in the way they approach things.
These groups couldn’t be further apart. The Chris French’s and Richard Wiseman’s are really heroes among these skeptical groups, and the people like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin couldn’t be more of the villain to these groups.
I think in the general public, there is this divide between skeptics and believers. I just want to make sure we’re not papering that over, number one. Number two, I’d ask again, how does that really play itself out within the formal academic parapsychology community?
Dr. Caroline Watt: I’m still stuck at the very start of your question there, because you gave Richard Wiseman as an example of a skeptic and Dean Radin as an example of a believer. In one of the more recent published studies that Richard was involved in was a piece of research co-authored with Dean Radin, Marilyn Schlitz, and myself. There were four of us working together. This is the [inaudible 08:42] studies, the staring studies looking at experimental effects.
That was a good example of where there was collaboration and cooperation. Ultimately, a publication arose out of it. I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to characterize the field as polarized like that.
A really interesting thing that happened in the history of parapsychology occurred in the Ganzfeld debate, where there was a polarization. There was a published debate between Ray Hyman, the skeptic, and Chuck Honorton, the “believer” or proponent.
They had this distant disagreement about how to interpret the Ganzfeld database, and then met at a conference and talked face-to-face for the first time. When they met and talked face-to-face, they discovered they actually agreed on quite a few things.
That was very productive and led to the publication of the Joint Communique; it was published in the Journal of Parapsychology. It was a statement on what they agreed on, and then on what they agreed needed to be done to move the field forward.
I think that’s a really good example where if you take people who have differing viewpoints, and you actually get them to talk to each other, that can move the field forward. That led to the development of the autoganzfeld.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, I’ll let that go. I just have to tell you, I’ve interviewed, for example, Richard, multiple times on this show and actually hosted a debate with him and Rupert Sheldrake. I think the divide is much deeper than that. That’s my view of it. Likewise with Dr. Dean Radin, who I’ve interviewed multiple times as well.
Dr. Caroline Watt: It’s just an interesting thing to talk about. I haven’t got to that, if you like. I suppose the point I was trying to make was, if you take people who have contrasting positions and they don’t speak to each other, then their positions can drift further and further apart. It can be counter productive if you stay in your camp and don’t talk to the other side.
I think there are quite a few examples in the history of parapsychology when opposing camps have gotten together, they’ve actually discovered that (a) they don’t hate each other like they thought they did, and (b) they actually have a few things they agree on. The question would be, how can we foster that kind of collaboration?
In areas like experimenter effects, which are big questions for parapsychology and are actually quite fruitful areas for people with contrasting viewpoints to collaborate, because then the nub of the question is how does the belief of the investigator effect the outcome of the experiment?
Actually, there are some areas in parapsychology which are very fruitful for collaboration between people who have different viewpoints.
Alex Tsakiris: Perhaps. I mean that honestly; perhaps that’s right. Perhaps there’s a deeper world view difference that leads people to the same kind of divides we see in other culture, war, and political debates that are really unresolvable by getting together.
After hosting these debates, that’s my take away. My take away is, Rupert Sheldrake doesn’t trust Richard Wiseman. He doesn’t think he’s an honest investigator, and he’s said exactly that in the debates that we’ve had, and in the follow-on to it.
He’s been public about it, but others have said that privately. I think there is a deep seeded distrust among those two camps, but that’s just my read of it from my little position here.
I accept what you’re saying as your position. Certainly, what you paint as a way to possibly bridge that lack of trust and understanding of the other person’s worldview is certainly to talk more and collaborate more, so we’re in agreement on that.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Good.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit about survival of consciousness. In particular, this paper that you co-authored titled, There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them. Tell us a little bit about the history behind this paper.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I’m really glad you’ve asked me this, because not very many people know the context of this paper. It’s published in a journal called, TiCS: Trends in Cognitive Sciences. It’s in a particular strand. There’s a category of articles in that journal called Forum: Science & Society.
These articles are deliberately designed to be provoking of debate. The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review. It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example. It’s a bit like an opinion piece, like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate.
The history of this article is that I’m the second author on it. Dean Mobbs, who’s the first author, is a neuroscientist. Dean contacted me with the idea of writing for that audience, for the neuroscience audience. Our paper that was more popular, because it’s not a heavy research paper. It’s basically talking about the experience of near-death reports and what a neuroscientific explanation might be put forward for them.
Dean contacted me because he was a neuroscientist and I was the parapsychologist, but it was basically his idea to do it. We actually initially submitted it; it’s been around the house, as it took a while for it to get published. We initially submitted it with a much more moderate title, which was, “Can neuroscience explain NDEs?” with a question mark at the end of it.
Because it ended up being directed to this category in TiCS, this Science & Society type of article, which is meant to be provocative, the editor requested that we change the title to something which is much more bold and deliberately making a statement that would provoke a reaction.
It ended up with that changed title, which in fact I didn’t know about until I saw the published paper. I think it’s fair enough, given the Science & Society category of article.
Alex Tsakiris: Do you stand by the title?
Dr. Caroline Watt: It’s suitable for that type of article. You have to see it in context.
Alex Tsakiris: Is it suitable in terms of representing your position? It’s quite a statement. It doesn’t represent you.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Yes. It’s a bold statement, which is suitable in the context of that class of article, which is something to provoke debate. However, I believe it’s an overstatement. It’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal, because we don’t have all of the evidence in yet.
As I said to you when you approached me about this interview, this is actually not my area of specialty. It’s probably my one foray into near-death experiences, and I probably won’t be publishing on it again. It was as a result of Dean’s approach that I collaborated on the article.
I think the title, which is deliberately provocative, is going too far because it’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal. The content of the article itself is not saying anything new. It shouldn’t really be controversial, although it’s an eye-catching title.
The content, you’ve all heard the arguments many times already; I’m sure you don’t agree with them. The argument is that there are NDE-like features seen in many different circumstances that do have a neurological basis. Therefore, it would seem to be a fruitful area to investigate for a possible explanation of these experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. It’s really not a matter of whether I agree with it so much. It will be for this interview, but what really seems particularly odd to me, and I guess this gets back to that skeptic versus believer debate, but all the main researchers in the NDE field; Bruce Greyson, University of Virginia; Pim van Lommel, who you cite in the paper; Jeff Long; Peter Fenwick; all of them agree in saying a conventional medical explanation of NDEs doesn’t fit the data.
I don’t know where you can point to any prominent NDE researchers that would support the title like that. It’s provocative, okay, but is it representative even of the field and of the research?
Dr. Caroline Watt: I don’t know if there’s a cultural difference here, but there certainly are European researchers. There’s somebody called Klemenc-Ketis based in Slovenia, who’s published on the effects of carbon dioxide on near-death experiences. There’s Olaf Blanke, who has done quite a lot of work.
Alex Tsakiris: Can we start with that first one, because I covered it pretty extensively on the show? Are you familiar with that research?
Dr. Caroline Watt: I’ve read the paper, yes.
Alex Tsakiris: There were just 11 participants, and actually, the CO2 levels were really not that elevated, no more so than a scuba diver would be. Also, the whole CO2 issue with regard to NDEs has really been well-trotted territory in terms of Pim van Lommel and Bruce Greyson. Many, many people have covered that and have not found any corroboration for that. It was very small, not elevated, and it seems to be an outlier in terms of what they found.
Dr. Caroline Watt: The van Lommel study is a landmark. We’re talking about a [inaudible 19:24] one here. It’s a landmark study, and I think it’s a really wonderful piece of research in that it’s prospective, it’s taken across a number of different research centers, and it’s taken a lot of different measures. It’s got this longitudinal aspect to it as well, the two year and eight year follow-up. I think it’s a really helpful piece of research and does add a lot to the field.
Where I disagree with van Lommel is in his conclusion that his findings support…he doesn’t say it as strongly as this, but he’s basically saying that it raises questions about the physiological model of near-death experiences. I don’t feel that his data supports that conclusion or that interpretation.
For example, none of his studies report the level of anoxia in his patients, if you want to look at that in that particular question. I feel [inaudible 20:37] is a logical leap. He’s done a really thorough piece of work, but then he concludes because only 18 percent of his participants had a near-death experience, even though they were unconscious and their hearts had stopped, he concludes that that supports the idea that there’s a non-physical explanation.
I don’t see the connection there. The evidence is that there are great individual differences in how people respond to what’s going on in their physiology; if it’s a rate of onset of anoxia, for example.
You would expect there to be variability; that’s consistent with a physiological explanation. It’s not, to me, consistent with a kind of extended consciousness explanation.
Alex Tsakiris: There’s a lot to pull apart there. Let’s start by saying, if that’s your position, that you object to the conclusions or have a different way of interpreting the conclusions of the van Lommel paper, then I think you’re obligated then in your paper to cite van Lommel, and then cite where you disagree with him. I don’t see that in your paper.
You seem to throw in that citation, but there’s never any mention of—you get the credibility of that paper, but you never offer any kind of real explanation for why you would object. Something even harder to explain, and this is probably just an oversight on your part, but it was first pointed out to me by Dr. Jan Holden from the University of North Texas, who was the co-author with Dr. Bruce Greyson of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences.
In the paper, your first citation for van Lommel doesn’t seem to be correct. You site this case; here’s from your paper. “Yet a handful of scientific studies on near-death experiences do exist.” We could talk about whether there’s only a handful or not, but let’s move on to say, “One example is a case study in which a patient with diabetes reports a near-death experience during an episode of hypoglycemia. There’s REM…” At the end, it’s cited as being in the Van Lommel paper.
I can’t find that in the van Lommel paper; I have it pulled up right here. Did I miss something? What is going on there?
Dr. Caroline Watt: I’m not sure exactly what’s going on there, because I’d need to track back where that came from. The fundamental point that the paper is making is that there are clues from neuroscience and other areas, like the training of fighter pilots, from what happens when people have brain pathologies and visual defects, that I believe can inform our understanding of near-death experiences.
The paper is not claiming to have a model, complete understanding. It’s not saying that; it’s basically saying, “Here are a few suggestive clues that would suggest that the most appropriate place to look for an understanding for these experiences, is in the neuroscience domain, if you like the organic model.”
I just think it’s complicated. I don’t think you can have a single factor. I don’t think anoxia would explain everything; it might not be the main factor at all. I think there are psychological dimensions, both in terms of disassociation, personality, and expectancy factors. Memory comes into it, and a lot of things our paper didn’t look at, at all. We didn’t look at the veridicality question.
We’re taking one area, which is the organic side, and saying that we think there’s a good reason to take these ND-like experiences, I grant that they’re not the same, as being suggestive of an alternative explanation in terms of organic factors.
The thing that I noticed van Lommel does do in his paper, and I would agree with him, is to question the paranormal thing, and what do we mean by paranormal. I think where you have to get to is, can you validate visions or objects that have been seen. Veridicality claims that have been seen when someone believes that they’ve had an out-of-body experience as part of their NDE.
van Lommel is saying that that’s where you should be looking. If we’re trying to get evidence for a non-physical component, we’re going to have to start to ask, “Can we demonstrate that consciousness has gone somewhere where the physical body can’t go?” I think that’s a really interesting question, but I don’t think it’s been answered yet.
Alex Tsakiris: That is an interesting question, but I have to pull you back to the van Lommel paper on a couple of counts here. Number one, you seemed to suggest a while ago that the intriguing thing for you about the van Lommel paper…you were not convinced by his conclusion about the percentage of people that did experience an NDE versus the number of his cardiac arrest patients who didn’t.
Let’s go back and retrace this for folks who maybe aren’t familiar with it; we’re talking a lot of inside baseball here. As you mentioned, he did a prospective study of NDE patients. He’s a cardiologist in the Netherlands, and he has people who have heart problems come in. He asks them before hand, “We’re going to do this study and ask you some questions after your treatment, and see about this near-death experience.” It’s prospective; it’s before it even happens.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Hang on a sec. I’m not sure he actually does that, because he’s collecting data from a number of different research centers or hospitals in this case. It ended up, I think, 10 hospitals contributed data. There certainly were more than that, because he said in his paper that some of them violated the protocols, so they didn’t include them.
I think it’s prospective in the sense that they were taking consecutive cases from hospitals that have agreed to take part in the trial. I’m not sure he reports anything about saying to the patients before hand, “If you fall unconscious, we will ask you questions afterwards.”
I don’t think it’s prospective in that sense, but I think it’s prospective in the sense of agreeing with these centers, collect cases for us. Alert us when someone has a cardiac arrest. We will come out and interview within hopefully a few days. That’s the sense in which it was prospective, which I think is a good thing and very useful. Sorry, carry on.
Alex Tsakiris: As opposed to retrospective of someone who says, “I had a near-death experience two years ago.” “Oh, really? Sit down and tell me about it. Let me do a survey,” which also has some value, but is different and has some problems associated with it. That’s why many researchers really like this prospective approach that van Lommel took in a medical center, particularly in a cardiac ward, because psychologically we know so clearly what happens to brain function after cardiac arrest.
We should also mention that; that that’s the other reason, as opposed to a near-death experience from someone who’s jumping off of a building, or drowning. There are all sorts of different psychological events that can be happening, versus when we limit it and say we’re just looking at cardiac arrest patients. We have a much more controlled set of physical parameters that we’re looking at, right?
Dr. Caroline Watt: Yes, right.
Alex Tsakiris: Here’s the point, I guess. What I read, I’m going to read directly from his paper on his findings, and this is the most important point. Occurrences of the experience, the near-death experience, were not associated with duration of cardiac arrest—that’s very important, or unconsciousness, medication, or fear of death before cardiac arrest.
This directly contradicts what your inclination or theory about what some of the causes would be. That’s why this was such a landmark study, because they looked for these things on the physiological or psychological front, and they didn’t find it. I guess I’d come back to saying, if we’re really going to push against this, then I think it behooves you to put forward some data.
The second point…
Dr. Caroline Watt: Hang on, you haven’t let me answer that point.
Alex Tsakiris: All right, yes. Go ahead.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I disagree with you on that, because I don’t think van Lommel or anybody else has yet provided the evidence that the experience occurred during the time when the patient was clinically dead. All we have is the report that the patient makes when they’re fit enough to speak after they’ve regained consciousness. We don’t know—I know this is an old argument, but I don’t think van Lommel has provided the evidence against it.
All we know is that the patient has reported a memory. We believe the memory, it might not be, but we believe it’s a memory; let’s take it at face value after they’ve regained consciousness. We don’t know at what time in that whole interval, whether it was as they were falling unconscious or as they were resuscitated, even in the days before the interview took place. We don’t know what time this experience forms for the individual.
I think the only way that we can know that, and no other researchers have said this; I don’t know if it’s possible to do it, but it would be to stick someone in a brain scanner and be watching their brain activity at the time at which they are clinically dead. Otherwise, how do we get around the problem of it always being a retrospective report? Even in a prospective study, it’s always a report that’s made upon regaining consciousness.
Alex Tsakiris: At least we’re now down to the central question. This is the central question, which is another complaint I have about your paper; it never talks about this.
The reason we’re interested in near-death experiences is because it suggests that these people are having hyperconscious, hyper-lucid experiences, during a time when they have no brain electrical activity, or at least a severely impaired brain. That is really the central issue.
We can get away from talking about fear of death or all these psychological factors, that’s really the central point. To that, I’d ask you to respond to—I’m going to play a clip for you from Dr. Pim van Lommel when he was on the Skeptiko show. Let’s listen to what he has to say, because he is really quite clear on this point, and I think his position is directly the opposite of yours.
As a long-time cardiologist, well respected, having worked with these patients, he feels very confident as I think you’ll hear him say that he can pinpoint the moment of these experiences, and it is at a time when they had a severely disabled or really completely disabled brain. Can I play that clip for you?
Dr. Caroline Watt: Sure, go ahead.
Dr. Pim van Lommel: …an out-of-body experience, where they have [inaudible 32:57] perception. These aspects can be corroborated by doctors, nurses, and family members. It’s important, because it not only can tell us what they perceived, but also the moment that it happened can be corroborated. That what they perceived from a position out of the body really happened at a time that they were unconscious. In other words, no cardiac function; there was no brain function at all.
Alex Tsakiris: If I can, I’d just add this. He goes on in that quote, then, to cite the paper by Dr. Jan Holden, who I told you we just had on in the previous episode to talk about this paper. She did a peer reviewed published paper that did exactly that; it followed up with people, and found that their perceptions were significantly more accurate than the control group. We’ve also had Dr. Penny Sartori from the UK who’s done a similar study, and had similar findings. I think we can pinpoint and say that these conscious experiences are happening during the time when there is no brain activity.
Dr. Caroline Watt: The reason why researchers like Sam Parnia are calling for a prospective study of this nature, and why some studies have been done, is that the feeling is that it is not enough to have—these are spontaneous cases of paranormal experiences which one has a lot of difficulty in validating, because how does one control for what a patient will already know or have inferred about in a particular area.
One can and does hear accounts of…there’s a famous Pam Reynolds case, for example. Most researchers I believe, have tried to move towards, which I think is a good move, towards the model where you have the target information. For example, on a monitor at the top of the rim, pointing towards the ceiling where nobody can see it, which is randomly changing, therefore nobody else knows.
If you had an ESP experiment where the experimenter knew the answer, then it would be regarded as an invalid experiment, because it would feel that there’s a possibility of information leakage. Unfortunately, everybody in the operating theater knows the answer and what’s happening in the area.
I’m not saying it’s not possible. I know you’ve got me down as a skeptic, but I do do research testing the psi hypothesis, and I do think it’s worthwhile to test this idea that the consciousness can leave the body and see information that couldn’t be observed or known by anybody, not just the person who’s unconscious; it could not be known by anybody in the theater, or inferred by anybody.
I think it’s worth testing that, and I don’t think the data is in yet. That’s why I said the title of the paper overstates the case, but it could be tested. More work needs to be done, and that’s why Sam Parnia keeps calling for this.
As far as I know, he’s not been able to get the funding. You may know more than I; I think you have interviewed him. He hasn’t got funding for what he wishes, which is a multicenter test where you do place hidden targets.
These out-of-body experiences are actually quite rare when you tabulate their frequency. Even when people have a near-death experience, they don’t always have an out-of-body experience as part of it, so it takes a lot of time to gather the data.
As you probably know, there have been five studies that have attempted to do this, and none of them have found any evidence of the symbols or hidden information being seen. The reason for that is that hardly anybody had an out-of-body experience, so it’s not been properly tested yet. I’m not saying there’s no evidence for it; I’m saying the evidence hasn’t come in yet for this.
I think that would be the place to look. I think it’s easier to make the case that there’s something paranormal going on there, because I don’t know how you can get inside a person’s head during the period that they’re actually having the near-death experience.
That’s going to be very tricky to ever be sure that when the physiological consciousness was gone, there was still some awareness taking place. I think that’s going to be difficult to pin down. I think the question is more in terms of remote viewing kind of research; can we get evidence that the consciousness has obtained information that nobody else knew at the time. For me, that’s the place to go.
Our paper didn’t deal with this question of veridicality at all.
Alex Tsakiris: Why not?
Dr. Caroline Watt: Why not? Because it wasn’t actually as one of the core features. Kenneth Ring doesn’t list that as a core feature of a near-death experience; out-of-body experience, yes, but the veridical experiences don’t happen that often. They’re actually relatively rare.
In van Lommel’s categorization, and he had large numbers of cases so we’ve got reasonable percentages, but he didn’t have a major category for veridical perceptions. He did have out-of-body experiences. It was regarded as a relatively minor aspect of the near-death experience. That may be the one that’s theoretically really exciting for some people, but it’s not the major characteristic.
For people who have a near-death experience, it’s not the veridicality question that they find convincing, it’s the totality of the experience. I feel it’s theoretically interesting if you’re a parapsychologist or a consciousness researcher, but there’s more to it than that. There’s the question of what’s the rest of the experience got to tell us about the brain. That’s why our research and our paper focused on that, because it’s aimed at a cognitive neuroscience audience.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I don’t know how many times I can keep coming back to this, but I do keep coming back to the paper itself. So you want to talk about Sam Parnia? Yes, we have had him on the show. The last I heard, he has collected quite a few of these trials where they’re trying to see this hidden object. They’re also collecting a bunch of other data along the same lines that Dr. Penny Sartori and Peter Fenwick, who are colleagues of his, have collected in the past.
I think that’s ongoing. That’s great if somebody sees the card; we can get into that. Those are also questions that I asked Dr. van Lommel, and he was not too favorably inclined to think that that research had much chance of success. Part of the reason was because people report consistently when they’re outside of their body, but that isn’t the kind of data they might be likely to bring back.
I guess I’m going down that path; let me go down it a little bit further.
Dr. Caroline Watt: But, hang on. Can I just answer that point there? The Kimberly Clark case; that was an odd [inaudible 40:10] and, “I saw the tennis shoe on the ledge of the window.” That’s not the sort of thing that you would expect someone to say either, so I don’t understand van Lommel’s point there. What does he mean by that? That’s quite a curious thing to say, and it does seem to undermine that kind of effort that is going on to test the veridicality of these experiences. It’s a difficult thing to test.
Alex Tsakiris: There are many problems with the way that Parnia has framed up the experiment. Number one, I’m kind of concerned that there’s so little research done in this field, that they’re ramping up this rather large for this field area of research, and they haven’t done any preliminary work, as you mentioned, that yields successful results of this.
“We’ve run the trial a few times. No one’s found the target, so let’s scale it up.” Moreover, if you just look at the practical part—I was going to mention this before, but a researcher that we’ve had on that you don’t mention is Dr. Jeff Long. He’s another MD. MDs seem to have a really different kind of perspective on this ND research, because they’re just much more pragmatic. It comes up in their practice, and they need to deal with it.
He’s compiled probably the largest database of NDE accounts, and has done some very insightful analysis that I think would contradict a couple of things that you’re saying. One, the veridicality of the evidence and the number of percentage of people who have had an out of body experience is much larger. Hundreds and hundreds in her survey have experienced that, and have reported that.
Dr. Caroline Watt: How would you explain that discrepency? There have been a number of hospital-based studies now that have really tried to characterize what these experiences are and what their frequency is. It does seem that the NDE, itself, is relatively rare and the OBE is not a reliable component. It does happen, but it’s not a reliable component. Sometimes it’s the feelings of joy and euphoria, sometimes it’s the bright light; it’s not necessarily the whole suite of experiences.
How would you explain the fact that he has a completely different frequency occurring in his research?
Alex Tsakiris: I don’t think he does have a completely different frequency.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I thought you just said he did. Maybe I misunderstood.
Alex Tsakiris: We’d have to pull out the different research that you’re referring to, but I think what he establishes in his book is that the percentages that he found are consistent with most of the other research that’s been done out there on just those kind of things; the number of people that have out-of-body experiences, the number of percentages overall that have a near-death experience versus had that brush with death and didn’t.
All that data is out there. I think it’s going to take us a little bit outside of the focus of what we’re talking about here.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I look forward to reading it. I’m not familiar with his work, but if you can tell me where it’s published, then I shall have a look at it. I do know that on the self-target question, the hidden target thing; it’s not that people haven’t been trying.
If you count the number of years of research that have gone into that, it’s 10 years worth of studies. It’s just that they haven’t had sufficient numbers of people—these are hospital-based studies, haven’t had sufficient numbers of people arresting, and then reporting an OBE in order to answer the question.
I feel that is a place to look, because I think that answers some of the problems that are associated with the more spontaneous, “I saw something from above when I was out of my body.” “The doctor had this kind of saw.” These are problematic to really evaluate.
Alex Tsakiris: I’m glad you got me back to that, because I lost my train of thought. I don’t think they’re as problematic as skeptics say, and you are kind of taking the skeptical position here.
This kind of first-person account immediately after some medical procedure is used all the time in medicine. All pain research is like that. A good percentage of the psychology research that you’re familiar with is first-person reporting on accounts or on different experiences that people have had.
If you just take these experiences and the continuity of the experiences; so the near-death experiencer says, “I remember being wheeled in. I looked down, and there was blood all over. I remember the white lights of the hospital above me flashing, and then suddenly, boom! I was up and outside of my body, and I was looking down. I went to heaven, and the next thing I know, I came back in a smash, and this was happening.”
There is a continuity of experience there that normally, if it wasn’t so controversial, we’d be much more accepting of and go forward with the kind of data analysis that all these people are doing like Jan Holden or Jeff Long is doing.
We’d say, “That makes sense. It seems to hold together in this way and that way.” I think we’d be much more accepting of it. I’m not sure that we have to immediately jump to discounting all those experiences because they weren’t hooked up to an FMRI, we’ll never know, and all the rest of that. I just don’t think we can go there.
Dr. Caroline Watt: It’s really interesting, Alex. It’s just like the debate that’s going on in the experimental parapsychology versus spontaneous cases throughout the history of parapsychology, which is how much can you learn from spontaneous cases.
The movement in the field of parapsychology was from the field into the lab precisely because a majority of researchers, not everybody, felt that in order to be able to draw conclusions with any confidence about whether a person can obtain information from another room, you need to conduct a controlled experiment where you’ve got, for example, decoy targets as well as the actual target that the sender saw.
I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound patronizing here, but there was a move into the lab, which is not necessarily a good thing in terms of ecological validity; it becomes an artificial situation. But the move into the lab was precisely in order to try to get away from the drawbacks of the first-person accounts. It’s not that the first-person accounts don’t have value.
Alex Tsakiris: Hold on, Caroline. Let me just jump in here for one second, because this is also the problem I have with the paper. We can go off and talk about all that, and you can talk about parapsychology, but we have to come back to the fact that these people had no brain. They have no brain.
They’re in a cardiac arrest ward after they have cardiac arrest. Within 10 to 15 seconds they have no blood flow to the brain; within a few seconds after that, they have zero brain activity. There’s some physiological stuff going on here that sends us way behind a conventional medical explanation.
To pull it back down and to talk about it in parapsychology terms, we have this huge problem to overcome; that’s the brain state.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Okay, well, you’ve changed the subject. We were talking about first-person accounts, but if you want to pull it back…
Alex Tsakiris: We are talking about first-person accounts, because if there’s any validity to the first-person account at all, then we have this huge problem, because you shouldn’t be having a conscious experience when you don’t have any brain. It defies our current understanding of how consciousness works.
Dr. Caroline Watt: I don’t think it has been proven yet that the experience happens when there is, as you say, no brain. By definition, these people have regained consciousness, and sometimes several days elapse before they are interviewed about their experience if it’s a prospective study.
The difficulty is how you can be sure that the experience occurred at the time, and that participant’s brain was clinically not functioning.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s the debate. You are opposed in your position then to Dr. Pim van Lommel, who we just played and said, “Yes, we can pinpoint the time.” You are opposed to Dr. Jan Holden, who we had on, who did the research and said, “We can pinpoint it.” And you’re opposed to Dr. Bruce Greyson.
I have to read this quote, because we’re going to go around and round in circles.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Hang on a sec, because you’re…
Alex Tsakiris: Let me just throw this last quote. I’ve been dying to get this quote in. Please. This is Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia, and it’s a great response to your article.
His quote is, “If you ignore everything paranormal about NDEs, then it’s easy to conclude, there’s nothing paranormal about them.” That’s what I think I hear over and over again. Let’s ignore this, and then we can talk about how they’re not paranormal.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Do you want me to respond to that quote?
Alex Tsakiris: You can respond to that one, or Pim van Lommel…
Dr. Caroline Watt: Dr. Greyson is entitled to his view. As I said, if you take the paper out of context, you would be right to be upset about it. It is better understood within the context, which is trying to stimulate debate, which I think it has done, and making a very simple point. It’s not actually making a new point; it’s making a simple point that there are striking similarities between certain organic conditions and experiences that resemble near-death experiences.
I think that that suggests that that’s a fruitful place to look to develop an understanding of these experiences. Most near-death experiences do not—there’s no claim of veridicality, anyway. When the veridicality issue is laid on top of it, I think that becomes more interesting from the point of view that it’s testable.
I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as a known conscious component to us, but it’s how do you pin it down? I think what van Lommel is saying in his paper is, you do need to try to test it.
In the interview clip that you played me, he was talking about reports that are being made of events that are happening during the operation. I think these are problematic, as I’ve already explained. I do think that it should be possible to test the idea that consciousness is actually obtaining information that nobody else knows, not just the patient on the table. Then I think we throw an interesting question into the mix.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I’m very glad that you’ve cleared up the origins of the paper and where you saw it positioned. I still have the problems that I’ve mentioned in the last hour about the paper, but that’s okay. We’ve hashed those out.
The other thing that upset me about the paper was the way this gets played out in, really, it’s a culture war debate. This paper, then, gets picked up by all the major science publications; Scientific America, NPR, BBC, Discovery, Discovery News. They all pick up this paper.
I don’t think it’s a super-strong paper. You’ve said, more or less, there isn’t anything new here. It’s kind of a rehash. Yet, it gets echoed back through the mainstream science media as some kind of new breakthrough in this debate about near-death experiences. Even though it doesn’t really offer anything new and directly contradicts all the leading researchers in the NDE field, it still gets positioned that way.
Dr. Caroline Watt: The leading researchers in the NDE field, they may publish their papers and have them reported as well. It’s an open forum.
Alex Tsakiris: It is.
Dr. Caroline Watt: You can submit your paper. If it says something interesting, then it will be reported.
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Everybody can have a say. It’s not like I have some kind of privileged access.
Alex Tsakiris: No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting that the echo chamber effect, what gets picked up and perpetuated through that channel that we have, which is the mainstream science media, is reflective of the current position, even if that current position isn’t supported by the best data.
Dr. Caroline Watt: If there was a paper that said, “Here is the evidence that there’s something paranormal,” that would be picked up pretty damn quickly and would be all over the world. It’s more newsworthy to say that you’ve got something new; you’ve got evidence of consciousness leaving the body. Don’t tell me that that would not be of interest to the press.
Alex Tsakiris: It is, but there’s the Journal of Near-Death Studies that I think is published; they have multiple articles every issue. You could pick up any one of those and say that about it, but it isn’t happening.
Jeff Long who I mentioned, his book becomes a bestseller, and Pim van Lommel sold a hundred thousand books in Europe alone, I don’t know how many he sold in the US. I can’t pretend that the other voice isn’t being heard, but it does seem disproportionate, to me, the traction that this paper got given that there isn’t any new research here or any real ground cover that hasn’t been pretty thoroughly covered before.
Dr. Caroline Watt: It may have got traction because it’s a high-impact journal; it has a wide readership. I don’t want to be critical of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, but if it doesn’t have such a large readership, it might be harder to bring it to attention, but you can submit articles to that journal. You can submit articles to higher-impact journals, and they’re more likely to be picked up.
I don’t buy the argument that a paper that says there’s nothing paranormal happening is more newsworthy than a paper that would say there is something paranormal happening. I actually think the press would be knocking down your windows to speak to you if you were publishing that.
It’s a case of getting into perhaps the right place where it will catch people’s attention, but I think there’s a hungry audience out there who would love to hear that.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. We’re arguing two different things there, or putting forth two different things. I’m just saying that this kind of article gets a lot of traction, and there’s not a lot behind it.
You’ve said as much in terms of saying there’s really nothing new here, and you’re just kind of rehashing some issues. I’m going further and saying, “I’m not sure that you cited the papers correctly.” “I’m not sure that you contradicted the papers that you cited in an effective way.”
You also reference people like Susan Blackmore in the paper. We’ve had her on. She said, specifically, “I’m no longer a researcher in this field. I shouldn’t be considered a researcher in this field,” and yet she’s cited, even though her research has been pretty thoroughly countered in, for example, the Handbook of Near-Death Experiences by Greyson and Jan Holden. They cover all that stuff.
There seems to be a little lack of balance, but that’s my perspective on it.
Dr. Caroline Watt: As I said, it was intended to be a provocative piece. It’s not claiming to be balanced. The paper, if it wasn’t limited to two or three pages, I could have dealt more thoroughly with many different aspects because there’s more to near-death experiences then the dying brain hypothesis. It would have been a longer and more in-depth paper, but that wasn’t the paper that we wrote.
We were focusing on the implications for our understanding of the brain, the audience for this paper, and cognitive scientists. To them, it probably is new. I know it’s not new to you and me, and most of your listeners.
The argument that there are physiological explanations for near-death experiences is new to that audience, so I’m not saying that the paper is not of any value; it wouldn’t have been published otherwise. But I think it’s new to that particular audience.
Alex Tsakiris: Okay, fair enough. Dr. Watt, tell us what else is going on with you. I thoroughly appreciate you delving into this so much, because you did qualify at the beginning saying survival of consciousness isn’t a main area of your research, and it’s not something that you plan on returning to. I do appreciate you spending all the time in dealing with this.
What else is going on? I saw some very interesting ideas or illusions to you might being doing work, or are doing some work with precognitive dreams, which is a fascinating area.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Thank you for asking about that, Alex. My main activity at the moment, if I’m not teaching…I teach parapsychology and supervise PhD students and undergraduate students doing parapsychology projects. I also have an online parapsychology course that I teach, and the next one starts in April.
When I’m not doing that, I’m trying to find time to do research. Last year, I was very fortunate to win a grant from the Perrott-Warrick Foundation to do a three-year program of research into precognitive dream experiences.
I think these are particularly interesting. They are somewhat neglected experiences. They were popular with the [maimonides] studies; there was a flurry of research. They are among the most common, spontaneous, paranormal experiences, but they haven’t actually had a great deal of research since the [maimonides] studies.
They’re interesting to me, because they have both angles. There is definitely a psychological component to some of these experiences; memory may play a role, and the propensity to see connections between a dream and subsequent events may play a role. I think they’re very ripe for testing the psi hypothesis, as well, and actually see is there objective evidence when you take away the issues about anecdotal reporting, and so on. When you run a control study, you can test the idea of whether people can dream about future events.
It’s fascinating to me. It’s a subject that I can look at. I have a number of different students working on it, coming at it from all these different angles; from the psychology and the parapsychology/psi angle. I’m really enjoying looking at this question. I’ve got a couple of years yet to go on it, so not many answers yet, but it’s fascinating for me to look at.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it is fascinating. We’ve had several guests on our show who have experienced that and have written some books about it. I find it just a very fascinating area, and it does seem to be quite fertile for research. I don’t know who’s really digging into it very much.
We certainly wish you best of luck with that. We’ll also have a link up to the online parapsychology class that I know will probably spark some interest among some of our listeners.
Dr. Caroline Watt: Thank you, very much.
Alex Tsakiris: You’re most welcome. Thanks, again, for joining me today, Dr. Watt.
Dr. Caroline Watt: It’s my pleasure.
Related topics: Near-Death Experience, near-death experience, parapsychology, skepticism, skeptics