104. Dr. Steven Novella Dead Wrong on Near-Death Experience Research

Skeptiko show considers claims of Yale University Neurologist regarding near-death experience research.

Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for the first in a two-part series with Yale University Neurologist, Dr. Steven Novella.  The shows examine whether near-death experiences are best explained by conventional medical science.  Novella, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, recently stated that research into the near-death experience phenomena is, “triangulating on the fact that this is probably a brain experience”. But, according to Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris, “Dr. Novella isn’t just a little bit wrong, he’s completely at odds with the large body of published research on near-death experience… the science of researchers we’ve interviewed like, Dr. Jeffrey Long, Dr. Peter Fenwick, Dr. Penny Sartori and others like Dr. Bruce Greyson and Dr. Sam Parnia and Dr. Michael Sabom, Dr. Pim Van Lommel, and many, many others all point in the opposite direction.”

The show also examines Dr. Novella’s recent analysis of research linking the CO2 blood levels in cardiac arrest patients with the near-death experience.   According to Tsakiris, “Dr. Novella’s statements seem to contradict the very research he’s reporting on… his conclusions are also significantly different from the authors of the study.”

The second part of this broadcast, including an interview with Dr. Novella’s, is scheduled for June 2010.

Read Keith Wood’s analysis of Steve’s comments

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Alex Tsakiris: Welcome to Skeptiko, where we explore controversial science with leading researchers, thinkers, and their critics. I’m your host, Alex Tsakiris, and on this episode of Skeptiko I was planning on interviewing Dr. Steven Novella, who is the host of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, as well as being an academic neurologist at the Yale School of Medicine. We were going to talk about near-death experience and Steve’s public statements about that recently. We’re still going to do that, but Steve had a scheduling conflict and we needed to reschedule that for a couple of weeks.

So here’s what I thought I’d do: I’m going to play some of the clips from Steve’s recent show and offer my critique – and I have a lot of them – and then Steve has agreed to come back on after that and we’ll have a dialogue about his views on this topic as opposed to the views that I’ve developed after talking to all the guests who you’ve heard from on this show.

So Dr. Novella is someone who I genuinely respect. He’s a smart guy, very articulate. His show is extremely popular, as well it should be. But all that brain power made it even harder to accept and understand this recent broadcast of Steve’s where he touched on so many of the topics that are commonly brought up in near-death experience and even the topic of this recent study that we’ve been talking so much about with the CO2 and the blood thing. We’ll get into that. But I think as we get into this, you’re going to see all the elements that we’ve been talking about. How a materialistic view can blind people in terms of really looking at the data.

So with that, let’s jump into what Steve had to say during his April 17, 2010 broadcast of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. Here goes the first clip:

“Skeptical neuroscientists like myself and others point out that these experiences are remarkably similar to what happens to the brain when it is deprived of oxygen. And in fact, we could induce all the components of that experience, floating outside one’s body for example, with either medications – now we can do it by using transcranial magnetic stimulation to turn off parts of the brain. I’ve had patients who’ve had that experience while having a seizure. So a lot of evidence sort of triangulating on the fact that this is probably a brain experience, not any kind of dualistic mind separate from body experience.”

Okay, so there’s actually quite a bit to unpack there, but let me start with the big picture, because what Steve is saying, and you’ll hear this over and over again from, as he says, skeptical neurologists, skeptics in general, and mainstream scientists who haven’t looked at the data. What you’ll hear over and over again is the research is heading towards a conventional explanation of near-death experience. And here’s the thing. I’ve got to say – that’s not just a little bit wrong, that’s completely the opposite of what’s really going on.

Take a step back and look at this body of research. Look at the large number of highly-qualified, diverse researchers who publish studies that conclude that a conventional explanation is not what’s coming our way. Kenneth Ring, Bruce Greyson, Dr. Peter Fenwick, Sam Parnia, Dr. Jeffrey Long, the list goes on and on. I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of really great researchers, but there’s just so many of them. Go look at the body of research! It’s enormous.

Now go look at the research. We’re going to ask Dr. Novella to do this, too, but go look at the research that’s usually cited by skeptics and materialists that supposedly refutes the near-death experience phenomena. Well, there really isn’t very many and the guys who are out there, we’ve had most of them on the show. You like the magnetic stimulation explanation? Michael Persinger. We had Persinger on the show. I don’t think that holds up at all and we covered that in great depth.

You like the REM intrusion idea? Kevin Nelson? We had him on. I think his explanation is completely refuted. We had Dr. G. M. Woerlee on and he really summarizes Susan Blackmore’s – you can’t really call it research – but her speculation. He has his own speculation about NDE by CPR.

We’ve tried to deal with all of these on this show. I’ve even put out a call for “What is your best skeptical theory that counters this near-death experience research?” I don’t see where it’s coming from.

Hopefully, when Dr. Novella comes on he’ll be able to bring forward research that really does look at the near-death experience phenomena and not just research that seems to be tangentially related because it creates some of the symptoms that they somehow think are related to near-death experience. I’ve referenced back very briefly to when Steve talks about the tunnel vision and stuff like that.

Well, again, if you go to the near-death experience researchers like Dr. Bruce Greyson, the reason that the tunnel effect isn’t in his survey and isn’t in Dr. Long’s survey is that they found that that isn’t as common as people think in terms of being a common element of a near-death experience. So again there’s just a real lack of knowledge about the particulars of the near-death experience. We’ll see if Steve can maybe fill in some of the blanks in terms of what he’s thinking when he comes back on.

Back to the main point. This idea that there’s this body of research that’s converging toward triangulating, I think was his term, towards a conventional explanation of near-death experience is exactly the opposite of what the research is really concluding. What the research is concluding over and over again is that the near-death experience defies a conventional explanation.

Okay, let me get back to Steve’s clip because I want to play you another segment from that. Here goes:

“These experiences are remarkably similar to what happens to the brain when it is deprived of oxygen.”

Here Steve is invoking the cerebral hypoxia explanation for NDE. The brain isn’t getting enough oxygen so that’s creating all this that we see from the near-death experience. Again, like I said before, this isn’t just a little bit wrong. It’s completely the opposite of the way things really are.

So the symptoms that are commonly reported, the most common symptoms for cerebral hypoxia – look this up on the Web and any kind of medical journal you want. The common symptoms are inattentiveness, poor judgment, confusion, amnesia, and we have all sorts of research on hypoxia, right?  And we also have hypoxia in a bunch of different situations: airline pilots, choking, being underwater. All these different things where we have hypoxia. And we see these same symptoms cropping up. They come out a little bit differently in different ways, but it’s always this inattentiveness, confusion, amnesia.

Now let’s look at the symptoms of a near-death experience: increased awareness, increased lucidity. If you remember when we had Jeff Long on the show where he did this research and he surveyed 1,300 near-death experiencers and he found that 76% of them, when asked the question “What was your level of consciousness during the near-death experience?” responded that it was greater than everyday consciousness. So these patients are telling us that they were more aware, more conscious during their NDE than they are during their normal waking life.

And they say things like – and these are exact quotes:

  • “I was more conscious and alert than normal.”
  • “Very real,”
  • “Realer than real,”
  • “Reality is over there,”
  • “Felt like I was awake,”
  • “It was the most real I’ve ever known.”

Here’s one of my favorites: “I was unconscious physically, but more alert/conscious than I have ever experienced before or since. Like a window had been cleaned and that you didn’t know was dirty until you saw the difference.”

So if you’re just going to follow the data, and if you’re going to look at the symptoms of hypoxia and compare that with the symptoms of near-death experience, you have to conclude that they are exactly the opposite. Inattentiveness versus increased attentiveness. Amnesia, confusion versus highly lucid, highly memorable experience.

At this point, some of you have to be thinking or asking yourself, “How can Alex be so bold as to say that he knows more than this guy who’s a neurologist at the Yale School of Medicine? Who’s otherwise highly competent, highly trained, has much more expertise on this topic than Alex does? How can he be so wrong?”

Well, since that’s really what Skeptiko’s been all about, I’m not going to go into it in great depth in a general sense. But instead, I think I can give you a concrete example by skipping ahead a little bit in this broadcast that Steve did to get to the point where he talks about the CO2 near-death experience research that we talked about on the last show. I think I’m going to have some real concrete examples to show you how even otherwise smart, careful researchers like Dr. Steven Novella can just get this stuff wrong, probably because it so conflicts with their worldview. Here’s the quote on the CO2 research:

“So the new news item, the reason why we’re talking about this, to put things in context, is a new study that was published where they essentially looked at a series of people who had cardiac arrests and were resuscitated. They had cardiac arrests outside the hospital and then were brought in and resuscitated in the emergency room.

 

Typically, about 10 to 15% of people who undergo that will have a near-death experience. The other 85% or so do not. It’s not really clear why that is. Whenever you have two groups like that, you’re going to ask questions. What’s different about the two groups? And that’s what they did. They looked at a host of metabolic parameters and what they found is the only thing that correlated with having a near-death experience was increased carbon dioxide levels in the blood.”

Okay, let me stop it there so we can break this down a little bit. I’ll get to the rest of Steve’s quote in a minute.

But first, to recap: this is a study that was published a couple months ago by this group of Slovenian doctors who took the survey of Dr. Bruce Greyson from the University of Virginia, a very prominent NDE researcher. They translated that survey into Slovenian and they gave it to people who were admitted to the hospital after suffering cardiac arrests. Then they looked at the results of the survey and compared it to some blood work that they did and they came up with the conclusion that Steve just alluded to.

Let’s break down what Steve said:

They had cardiac arrests outside the hospital and then were brought in and resuscitated in the emergency room.”

This is just completely wrong. Actually, what the study says is, “We studied out of hospital cardiac arrest survivors who were successfully resuscitated out of hospital setting.” So you may be tempted to think at this point about whether they were resuscitated outside the hospital or inside the hospital is rather minor, but actually it’s really not when you’re analyzing research like this. And it leads to compounding errors of analysis, which you’ll see in just a minute.

But before we get there, I wanted to take a minute and make a special mention of thanks to Keith Wood, who helped me analyze and break down this research. Keith has helped me in the past and really did a fine job on this one, as well. I have a link in the show notes to a full article that Keith did.

Let’s get back to Dr. Novella’s comments. I think we can skip ahead to the next point on the CO2 study and again you’ll see how this compounds with the first mistake that he made:

“The major problem I have with this study, actually, is the premise that the people who are having the experiences are having them while they’re undergoing CPR. Because that’s when they measure the carbon dioxide and everything else. That’s when their CO2 levels were elevated. But what if the experience that they’re having is occurring an hour later or a day later, while their brains are slowly recovering?”

 

So the main point Steve is making here is about the timing of the near-death experience, and I want to get to that in just a minute. First I want to break down the detail of what he had to say because it gets back to this idea of compounding errors of analysis. Let me play just a small clip that you heard inside what he just said:

“…the people who are having the experiences are having them while they’re undergoing CPR. Because that’s when they measure the carbon dioxide and everything else. That’s when their CO2 levels were elevated.

Again, this is completely wrong. The study says that they did the blood tests after the patients were resuscitated and if you remember, these were patients that were resuscitated outside of the hospital. They’re outside of the hospital; they come in; they’re admitted to the hospital; they’ve been resuscitated; and now the blood test is done.

So Steve has just said that we have this data from the time during which they’re undergoing CPR. I think he’s making the link of we have the blood tests from when they were having a near-death experience. And we don’t. We have the blood from the time after they’re resuscitated. That’s a very important difference.

But I also want to address Steve’s larger point, this idea that these memories are formed after the fact. Here goes:

“But what if the experience that they’re having is occurring an hour later or a day later, while their brains are slowly recovering from the experience? Then by the time they become conscious, they conflate all those memories. They have no time sense. To them it just happened, right? And it just happened so it must have happened while they were getting CPR. They were floating outside their body, but they could have incorporated memories from the last two days when they were delirious, when their brain was slowly recovering…”

 

Participant: Why would their sense of time change? Because I think when I sleep I have a sense of time.

 

“Yeah, but have you ever had full general anesthesia?”

 

Participant: Yeah.

 

“Was there any passage of time?”

 

Participant: I don’t remember.

 

“No. Yeah, right.”

 

Well, there are quite a few problems with what Steve is saying here, and if you go and listen to the larger clip there are even more twists in logic that I think you’ll have a field day with, and our forums I’m sure will tear apart. But I want to try and hone in on this idea of when these memories are formed and whether these memories are conflated.

This is really Near-Death Experience Research 101 so again, it was kind of surprising that Steve didn’t have a better handle on this. By that I mean he didn’t have a better handle on the actual research that’s been done to look at this question. This is a basic question and it’s something that we’ve looked at a little bit on this show with some of our guests.

The first one I’d point you to is Dr. Penny Sartori, who appeared on Skeptiko a while back. You can go back and listen to that interview. Her research is very interesting and it sought to directly address this question. She interviewed patients who were recovering from cardiac arrest and she asked them to recount their resuscitation in the hospital. Then she compared the group that had a near-death experience and were out of their body observing the resuscitation with the group that didn’t have a near-death experience, that had the blank slate, everything black.

I’m paraphrasing here a bit, but she said she found a stark contrast between the highly accurate memories of the near-death experiencers versus the inaccurate, conflated memories of the non-near-death experiencers.

Dr. Sartori’s research is corroborated by the research of Dr. Jeffrey Long, who you heard on this show a few episodes back, where they attempted to tie the memories to independent people who had observed the situation and tied it back to exactly the time when they were being resuscitated. So there’s really some good research to look at when we ask the question, “When are near-death experiencers really having this experience?”

On the other hand, if we look at Steve’s speculation – that’s really all we can call it – there’s no research there. He doesn’t cite any research. I’ll be very surprised if he has any when he comes on the show because I’m not aware of any of it out there. So we have the research that suggests that the timing of the near-death experience is what the patient says it is.

And then in addition to that, we have the actual patient accounts. We have plenty of accounts of patients who’ve recovered on the operating table and have immediately told medical staff, the doctors and the nurses, that they’d just had this near-death experience. They describe all the element of it. There are also accounts of people recalling information that happened while their surgery was going on. Here are two such accounts, and these are from the NDE Research Foundation website of Dr. Jeffrey Long.

The first one is from this guy, Larry. He has cardiac arrest, pulls over on the side of the road. His whole account is really, really fascinating, but I’m going to skip ahead to the part that’s relevant to what we’re talking about. Here’s Larry’s account:

“Then all of a sudden there was this voice. It wasn’t male or female. It wasn’t nice; it wasn’t mean. It wasn’t soft. It was this voice. There’s only one voice like it. The voice said, ‘You’ve got to go back. We’re not ready for you.’

 

Now, I’m back in the hospital. I’m coming to on the gurney and I’m looking up at these people and I’m sweaty and cold and my mouth is going 90 miles an hour. I start telling the doctor what happened. I said, ‘I saw the tunnel, the light, the voice.’ He said, ‘You’re fine, Larry.’ Then he left the room and everything started going black again.

 

I remember him coming back in and pushing on my chest and I came back again. Later, when I told them about what happened, the doctor said, ‘I’m a medical doctor. We’re not supposed to believe this stuff. But it happens.’ “

 

Again, whether you like these first-person accounts from near-death experiencers or not, the important thing on this one is that the guy recovered in the operating room and immediately told the doctor what had happened, so we have third-party, independent verification that these memories were not formed after the fact.

Again, it fits into the symptoms we’ve been talking about: lucid experience, highly real experience, remembers the whole thing in chronological order and that hasn’t changed over time. It didn’t change when he woke up on the operating table and told the doctor. It didn’t change a day after, a week after. In fact, as you’ll find when you talk to these near-death experiencers, it doesn’t change 20 years after. They still remember it exactly the way that it happened because it’s such a significant experience. This directly flies in the face of Dr. Novella’s speculation.

Let’s look at another case. This is from someone who experienced a near-death experience. His name is Arnie:

“During my surgery I found myself up in the corner of the operating room ceiling where I could look down from overhead on my surgery. I could see the operating team and the equipment surrounding the table, but the large overhead lamps blocked much of my view. So did the surgeon, who moved around the large open cavity in my body. But I was able to hear some things that were said.

 

After I was transferred from the intensive care unit, my surgeon visited me in my room. I joked and told him that I guessed he was surprised to discover an old guy like me didn’t have a fatty heart. He asked, ‘Who told you that?’ I said I heard him say it during the surgery. He said, ‘That’s impossible.’ I was too deep under anesthesia for me to hear anything. Then I told him the very words he used. ‘I’d have bet $1,000 this guy’s chest cavity would be loaded with fat. This thing’s like a young man.’ I asked him whether he said those things. He said yes, but he still didn’t believe me.”

 

So again, here we have a case that directly contradicts the line of reasoning that Steve was going down. Let’s bring it back and put this into focus. These case histories are part of a larger medical survey that was done, and we have to add that these kinds of medical surveys are really the bedrock of modern medicine.

It’s the same kind of survey work that was done in the CO2 NDE research that we talked about. It’s the same kind of work that Kevin Nelson did in the skeptical REM intrusion near-death experience research. So it’s not just like NDE proponents are doing this kind of research. It’s the only way to do it. You have to gather the experience from the folks who’ve had it. It’s the same kind of information that you gather from people who have pain if you’re doing pain research. The only way you can do it is to ask the person, “Were you in pain? How intense was the pain?”

It’s the same kind of research, same kind of questioning that you do when you’re doing research with someone who’s depressed. “Were you depressed? How much were you depressed?” This kind of work is the bedrock of medical science, so don’t go down that whole path.

If you don’t like the individual accounts, take a step back, look at the data. You still have the big picture of the symptoms of near-death experience: highly lucid, highly coherent, realer than real, conscious experience. It just so happens that the actual accounts back up that finding in quite a dramatic way, as I think that one does.

So that about sums up the timing issue, which is one of Steve’s major problems with this NDE research, and I think NDE research in general.

If we return to Steve’s broadcast, there are a couple other points that he draws out that I hope we’ll have a chance to talk about when he comes back on. I’m not going to play you all those clips in the interest of time, but let me summarize a couple of them.

Steve talks about the cultural aspects of NDE; whether or not near-death experiences are culturally specific. As you might expect by now, I think Steve has this backwards again. His interpretation of the data is completely the opposite of what we’re hearing from near-death experience researchers. So we’ll have that to discuss when he comes on.

Then there’s the issue of the big picture message from this research that both Steve gets wrong, and most other science journalists have completely glossed over. Let me just go into a little bit of detail on that to tee it up a little bit. And that is if you look at the study, they really paint a picture that’s much more in line with what other NDE researchers have found, than the materialistic explanation that Steve and other folks drew.

They concluded that the NDEs could not be explained in terms of physiological processes and that NDEs push our knowledge of consciousness and mind-brain relations to the edge of our understanding. I think that’s a very polite, scientifically appropriate way of saying, “We call into question the whole materialist explanation for NDEs.”

So be sure to stay tuned for my follow-up dialogue with Dr. Novella. Hopefully it will be in a couple weeks from now and we’ll get it up right away. In the meantime, if you’d like more information about this show and all our previous shows, be sure to check out the Skeptiko website. It’s at Skeptiko.com. There you’ll find links to all our previous shows; a link to the forums that we mentioned where you can jump in on the dialogue about this; you’ll also find an email Facebook link to me; and a bunch of other stuff.

That’s going to do it for today. Until next time, bye for now.