Science, Pseudoscience, and Souls

This article, Near Death Explained by Mario Beauregard, doesn’t actually explain what out-of-body experiences are. What it does is propose non-scientific answers derived from fallacious reasoning.

Which is intensely frustrating, because Beauregard is writing about an awesome topic: What happens in our brains when we have out-of-body experiences (OBEs)? I mean, who wouldn’t want to know that?

What makes this even more worrisome is that Beauregard (who holds a Ph.D. in psychology) obviously knows his neuroscience, and has a solid sense of where the gaps are in our current scientific understanding of consciousness. But when he starts talking about those gaps in detail, he just can’t resist slipping into pseudoscience.

Before we get into this, let me make one thing clear: If Beauregard wants to believe in an afterlife, I have no right (or desire) to deny him that comfort. But when he tries to slip his ideas about a “soul” into scientific discourse, that’s where I draw the line.

Believe it or not, this was the least cheesy image of Heaven I could find.

So let’s break this sucker down.

The article starts out on firm scientific ground, walking through the details of a cutting-edge neurosurgery in which the patient’s body temperature is brought so low that the person clinically dies for a short time:

The low temperature would … soften the swollen blood vessels, allowing [the patient’s aneurism] to be operated on with less risk of bursting.

Even the author’s description of one patient’s near death experience (NDE) simply relates what she reported, and compares it to similar experiences reported by other patients in a variety of cultures. Reasonable enough so far – as long as we remember we’re in subjective territory.

But that’s exactly when the Beauregard’s approach begins to unravel, revealing his true feelings about life after death:

Some skeptics legitimately argue that the main problem with reports of OBE perceptions is that they often rest uniquely on the NDEr’s testimony — there is no independent corroboration … But during the last few decades, some self-reports of NDErs have been independently corroborated by witnesses.

Oh, so one person’s subjective testimony is corroborated by another individual person’s testimony. Because, of course, we all know how perfectly objective and reliable eyewitness testimony is.

But wait. It gets so, so much weirder:

Despite corroborated reports, many materialist scientists cling to the notion that OBEs and NDEs are located in the brain.

By “materialist scientists,” Beauregard means scientists who think that all mental phenomena – including NDEs – are ultimately rooted in brain activity. This, of course, begs the question, “As opposed to…?” As we’ll see, not only does Beauregard fail to answer that question in any definitive way – he never even suggests a framework by which scientists might investigate it.

"Cheerleaders' locker room, here I come!"

Instead, he cites some studies in which simulated brain death failed to replicate all the criteria for NDEs, and uses this data to “back into” the conclusion that NDEs must not be caused by brain activity.

Beauregard starts by citing a 2002 study by Olaf Blanke and his colleagues at University Hospitals of Geneva, in which researchers generated OBEs in an epileptic patient by electrically stimulating her angular gyrus – an area of the parietal lobe that helps integrate sensory information into our sense of self.

Beauregard doesn’t seem to disagree with any of the study’s premises – more than anything, he seems upset by the fact that the “materialist” scientific community got so excited about data gathered from a single patient:

The article received global press coverage and created quite a commotion. The editors of Nature went so far as to declare triumphantly that as a result of this one study—which involved only one patient—the part of the brain that can induce OBEs had been located.

This is a very legitimate concern on Beauregard’s part – this study didn’t, by any means, prove that “all experience is derived from the brain,” as one skeptic declared in the press.

For contrast, Beauregard cites a 2004 study by Blanke and his team; this study established that artificially induced OBEs involve a “false sense of reality,” as opposed to the independently “verifiable perceptions” of genuine OBEs.

That’s an interesting point, and I’ll come back to it.

But first, I want to run through Beauregard’s third citation – some research performed by James Whinnery at Texas A&M University in the 1990s. In these experiments, fighter pilots endured intense gravitational forces in a giant centrifuge, inducing brief period of unconsciousness that Whinnery called “dreamlets.”

Whinnery noted that these dreamlets incorporated most of the features of NDEs – a sense of leaving one’s body, visions of tunnels and bright lights, visits from deceased relatives and friends, feelings of overwhelming peace, and so on – but Beauregard insists that they don’t count as True NDEs.

The Centrifuge: stay conscious the whole time and you win a free beer!

Why does Beauregard claim this? Because Whinnery’s volunteers awoke from their dreamlets feeling dizzy and disoriented (perhaps because they’d just been whirled unconscious in a giant centrifuge), and they didn’t report “life transformations” as a result of their dreamlets. People who awake from NDEs don’t report those negative aftereffects, and many do report life transformations.

One could, of course, argue from this that we need to redefine NDEs as experiences that occur only under specific circumstances, or that involve certain traits (e.g., subsequent life transformations) but not others (e.g., dizziness). This kind of iterative refining of classifications is crucial to scientific progress – it helps us sort the world into more and more accurate categories as we learn new things about it.

But that’s not where Beauregard’s headed with this at all. Instead, he leaps on to a sweeping declaration:

If the “dying brain” is not responsible for NDEs, could they simply be hallucinations? In my opinion, the answer is no.

Wow. So already we’ve got a No True Scotsman claim and an instance of Begging the Question – and we haven’t even gotten to the real meat of Beauregard’s philosophy yet.

After addressing some research by Karl Jansen in which the dissociative/hallucinogen ketamine also fails to produce True NDEs®, and some studies by Michael Persinger in which transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) produces some “NDE-like” experiences that also don’t quite fit the bill, Beauregard finally homes in on the real point of all this:

These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity. As we have seen, such a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience—while their hearts are stopped—vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies.

That brings us back to the point I promised to return to: The “verifiable perceptions” and “veridical information” that – according to Beauregard – distinguish True NDEs® from pseudo-NDEs. I won’t deny that those perceptions present an intriguing puzzle. After all, how can someone who’s unconscious – or even clinically dead – know the locations of objects in the surgical ward, or recall conversations that happened over their unconscious body?

The answer is, I don’t know for sure. And neither do any neuroscientists, and neither does Beauregard. What I will say is that consciousness isn’t an “all-or-nothing” proposition, and even people with severely disrupted brain activity can still understand and remember sensory data their bodies process. Just because we don’t understand how a person’s brain could’ve received a piece of data doesn’t mean we need to propose a mystical explanation that’s impossible to prove or disprove.

But that’s exactly what Beauregard does:

After physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.

What Beauregard’s doing here is conflating the view held by many scientists – i.e., that the world of matter and energy is all we’ve conclusively discovered so far – with the formal materialist position that material reality is all that exists. But that isn’t what science is really about.

And then there's the other kind of materialism...

See, contrary to what some people seem to think, science doesn’t work by coming up with new ideas and trying to prove them true – it works by coming up with formal, highly specific hypotheses – and trying to prove them wrong. The hypotheses that survive become theories, facts – and over time, whole new fields of study.

But Beauregard’s “transcendent level of reality” isn’t a formal hypothesis, nor is it an idea that can be conclusively proven or disproven with new evidence. Meanwhile, the distinguishing feature Beauregard proposes for True NDEs® – “veridical information” – is dependent on the subjective reports of patients. And no matter how baffling it is, it certainly doesn’t demonstrate, in and of itself, that consciousness can function independently of brain activity.

Google Beauregard’s name, and you’ll see for yourself why he tries to shoehorn these ideas into scientific discussion. For years, he’s been pushing the idea that the brain’s synaptic plasticity is dependent on “quantum effects” that require a “mind” independent of the brain.

It’s not hard to understand why human consciousness inspires such strange ideas – it’s a deeply weird phenomenon; one that defies any simplistic classification. But the data gathered in some of these studies is incredible – for example, the fact that we can induce an OBE in the lab is pretty mind-blowing, and worthy of further investigation – and that’s what makes Beauregard’s obsession with the unscientific aspects of these experiences so disappointing: He seems to prefer comfort over curiosity.

As I said before, Beauregard is free to believe in a soul or mind if it’s comforting to him. I certainly can’t prove that such a thing doesn’t exist.

But of course, that’s my whole point. For a neuroscientist, the question isn’t “Does such a thing exist?” but “How can we objectively prove or disprove hypotheses about it?”

So, while this is all interesting philosophy, it sure as hell ain’t science.

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