Sam Parnia, with Josh Young. The Lazarus Effect. The Science That Is Erasing the Boundary Between Life and Death. Rider, 2013
This is a book in two parts; the first part is the scientific part, the one that explores the dramatic new breakthroughs in bringing back people from what is traditionally assumed to be death, after much longer periods than used to be thought possible. It was these techniques that lay behind the astonishing survival of the footballer Fabrice Muamba last year, a survival essentially due to the coincidental presence of a leading cardiac consultant in the crowd. When a similar episode occurred in Italy there was no such luck and the player died.
These techniques involve cooling down the body to slow down the deterioration of the brain’s cells to a minimum, and similar long periods of survival have been possible when people have been out in the cold, very much a case of you are only dead until you are warm and dead. Further advances may be possible, even if we don’t go in for science fictional ideas about nanotechnology. Perhaps you are only really dead when you are rotten and dead.
Not all of Parnia’s conclusions are as positive as this, as he points out that much CPR is ineffective, not least due to the enormous sustained physical effort required of resuscitators. It doesn’t help of course, if, like the middle class district in which Parnia lives in his time in the Unites States, you only have volunteer ambulances!
Of related interest is Parnia’s discussion of the recovery of some form of consciousness in patients who have been presumed to have been in a persistent vegetative state, and the possibility that they may be able to communicate through a code involving imagining different types of activity.
The second portion of the book, though the division is not as sharp as two clear cut sections, is his involvement with the study of Near Death Experiences in something called the AWARE project. Here the science tends to creak and at times snap. Parnia is clearly more than half convinced by these studies that “consciousness” is something apart from the brain, the reason being his claim that the brain must shut down within seconds of being deprived of oxygen. He tends to take such experiences very literally, even to the point of having drawings placed high on the walls of emergency rooms in case any patients have out of the body experiences while in there, and they can fly up and see them.
It comes as no surprise that the only two patients who reported mundane out of body experiences in Parnia’ study just happened to have them where there were no drawings. For the study is a fool’s errand, because no one has ever seen disembodied eyes floating around hospitals, so whatever the sight like memories refer to, they do not involve actual sight.
Parnia includes cases where people appear to have complex memories of events that happened when their hearts had stopped beating, many of these are experiences of transcendental realms, which are not subject to any kind of empirical test; though any one reading them can often see the influence of culture, and as I have argued in previous reviews, much of the standardisation in such accounts, like those of alien abductions comes from the investigators.
Of more interest are more anomalous memories, those which appear to be memories of what went on in the hospital, for example one patient recalls what happened to his false teeth, another the features and dress of one of the nurses. Others claim to have heard the medical staff discussing their case.
However as I pointed out above this information cannot have come through sight at least, so if one assumes that this veridical information it must have come through some form of ESP (whether the E stands for extra or exotic is a matter of personal choice) and is then memorised as a “sensory” experience. We are then left with problems of what kind of ESP could gather information about false teeth.
Parnia refers to what is often called “the hard problem of consciousness”, how can it be that patterns of electrical and chemical activity can generate consciousness. This leads Parnia to suggest that consciousness is something else. However dualism simply replaces one hard problem with another, how can a “non-physical” mind gather information from and influence the physical environment. Part of the problem seems to me lies in treating consciousness as a thing rather than what it is, a property, a second part consists in having very confused ideas as to what exactly is meant by consciousness, and a third is to only think of consciousness in human terms.
If we strip consciousness back to its most basic essentials, it simply means being aware of the internal bodily and external environment, having experiences, being aware of hot and cold, warm and dry, light and dark, pain and pleasure and so on. Consciousness helps animals keep out of danger, gain mates, look after its young; get food and other simple practical problems. It gives creatures an “interest” in being alive.
On this view what we called has been assembled upwards from something a lot lot simpler. It is a property of nervous systems (at the very least) and the more complex nervous systems and brains become the more complex consciousness becomes. Humans normally do not experience these simple forms of consciousness and proto consciousness, but a glance of what they might be like comes from people who have corneal implants, who reported that when a light is shone on the implant they have the subjective experience of a point of light.
Of course it might be that something even simpler might exist from which even the “consciousness” of a jelly fish has been assembled up, David Chalmers has argued that any information processing and storage system may have a dim proto-several hundred-protos form of consciousness and even atoms at level at which the protos run into billions. But of course that would nothing whatsoever like anything human beings would recognise as consciousness.
These views of consciousness strike me as much more useful than vague notions of “subtle matter” (our old friend the astral body and a hangover from the days of billiard ball atoms, and no better solution to the “hard problem”, and source of many more additional problems (do earthworms have astral bodies?) or fields (what use would consciousness be to a field).
Though Parnia claims to be open minded, I noticed one central theme, dogmatically stated throughout, that activity in the brain must cease after a dozen seconds from the heart stopping beating. Can we be certain that this is true completely and in all cases, is all activity in the whole body down? If consciousness of a kind is a property of all nervous systems, then that of the rest of the human body is at least as complex as that of say a crayfish, so might it not have no very dim form of consciousness of its own, and acquire experiences which might be downloaded into a reviving brain.
That the “near death experiences” are located more at the time that the brain is booting fully back up would make sense; the famous life review would be the memory circuits coming back “online” and being reintegrated, and if there really has been some sort of exotic information input, a creature coming back to life might need all the information it can get about its current environment.
The division in this book between the scientific and non-scientific chapters is so marked; it is as if the Parnia were living in two different worlds at times. Perhaps this is because this is not an entirely neutral study. There is an agenda, which while not hidden, is not perhaps immediately apparent, and that is to promote the philosophy of a Ostad Elahi (a pre-revolutionary Iranian judge) and his son Baham Elahi. The Elahis, father and son, are quoted here from time to time rather in the manner that writers in the old Soviet bloc used to sprinkle the words of wisdom of Marx, Engels and Lenin in their works, whether on agriculture, medicine, space exploration, music or cookery. Whether this is because Parnia is a devotee of their teachings or because an organisation dedicated to the same has provided the funds for the study is unclear.
The division is marked by contradictions at times, for example “occultist” Parnia argues memories may not be encoded in the brain; whereas “scientist” Parnia argues that perhaps the reason why only 10% of those resuscitated report NDE’s is due to the lesser brain damage and hence memory circuits of the remembers. Indeed it might be argued that Parnia’s whole career represents such a contradiction, for if you really believed in an afterlife, especially the sort of post-mortem Disneyworld described by many NDE’s why would you devote so much of your career to dragging them back. Of course such a disjunction between the scientific and religious world views in the same individual would be by no means unique. In my view it is the scientific work of Pania and others that is by far the most important. – Peter Rogerson.