Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, May 8, 2023

The dying of the light

In the brilliant, funny, thought-provoking, and often poignant television series The Good Place, a character named Simone, who is an Australian neuroscientist, ends up in heaven (the titular "Good Place") and flatly refuses to believe it.

The whole thing, she claims, is merely a hallucination cooked up by her dying, oxygen-starved brain.  That she died (or was in the process of it), she could believe; but knowing what she does about neurophysiology, it is simply impossible for her to accept that what she is seeing is real.

The more you know about the brain and its sensory/perceptual system, the easier it is to understand how an actual neuroscientist would come to that conclusion.  As we've seen here at Skeptophilia a good many times, what we perceive is fragmentary and inaccurate, and that's even while we're alive, wide awake, and all the relevant organs are in good working order.  As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it, all too accurately, "The human brain is rife with ways of getting it wrong."

Oh, it works well enough most of the time.  We wouldn't have survived long otherwise.  But to assume that what you're perceiving, and (even worse) what you remember perceiving, is at all complete and accurate is simply false.

It gets even dicier when things start to go wrong.  Which was why I was so fascinated with a study from the University of Michigan that was published a couple of weeks ago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that looked at EEG traces from comatose patients who had experienced cardiac arrest and died, and the researchers found as the patients died, their brains showed a surge of activity in the regions associated with consciousness and perception.

Gamma wave activity -- associated with awareness -- spiked, as did signaling at the junction of the temporal, occipital, and parietal lobes of the cerebrum.  This area is correlated with dreaming, hallucination, and other altered states of consciousness, and the high activity there might be an explanation for the commonalities in near-death experiences, like the familiar "tunnel of light" that has been reported hundreds of times.

This story was reported in a lot of popular media as providing support for claims that "your life flashes before your eyes" as you die, but that seems to me to be a significant stretch.  For one thing, the study was small; only four individuals, understandable given the specificity of the criteria.  For another, the spike of activity in the temporal-occipital-parietal junction is correlated with altered states of consciousness, but it doesn't tell us what these people were actually experiencing.  And we can't ask them about it, because they're dead.

[Image from Punch, 1858, is in the Public Domain]

So what this says about the experience of dying is in the category of "interesting but very preliminary," and what it says about the possibility of an afterlife is "nothing."  My guess is people who already disbelieve in an afterlife will, like Simone, add this to the evidence against, and the people who already believe in it will add it to the evidence in favor.  In reality, of course, the new study only looks at the threshold of death, not what happens after it occurs.  I'm still agnostic about an afterlife, myself.  I recently read an article written by by Stafford Betty, professor emeritus of religious studies at California State University - Bakersfield, who stated that survival after death was "a near certainty" and that doubters are simply ignoring a mountain of evidence.  "They are so dug into their materialist worldview," Betty writes, "that they refuse to investigate research that contradicts it.  They are afraid of getting entangled in a worldview, often religiously based, that belongs to a past they 'outgrew.'"

Well, maybe.  I've read a lot of the research, and I don't think it's as clear-cut as all that, nor is my skepticism due to my clinging to materialism or a fear of getting trapped in religion.  In fact, I can say without hesitation that if I found out there was an afterlife, I'd be pretty thrilled about it.  (Some afterlifes, anyway.  I'm not so fond of the ones where you're tortured for eternity.  But Valhalla, for example, sounds badass.)  It's more that the evidence I've seen doesn't reach a level of rigor I find convincing.

But I'm certainly open to the idea.  Like I said, the other option, which is simply ceasing to be, isn't super appealing.

Anyhow, the University of Michigan paper is fascinating, and gives us a unique lens into the experience of someone while dying.  It's the one thing that unites us all, isn't it?  We'll all go through it eventually.  It reminds me of the passage from my novel The Communion of Shadows, where the main characters are discussing the fear of death:

“Aren’t you scared?” came T-Joe’s voice from behind him, after a moment’s silence.

“Scared? A little.”  Leandre paused.  “It’s like when I was a child, and I used to climb an oak tree that leaned out over the bayou.  You’re there, hunched on the branch, nothing but the empty air between your naked body and the water’s surface.  It looks like it’s a hundred feet down.  You think, ‘I can’t do it.  I can’t jump.’  Your hands cling to the branch, your heart is pounding, you’re dripping sweat.  You know once you jump it’ll be all right, you’ll swim to shore and in a moment be ready to do it again.  But in that instant, it seems impossible.”  He paused, giving a lazy swat at a mosquito.  “I’m once again that skinny little boy in the tree, looking down at the bayou, and thinking I’ll never have the courage to leap.  I know I can do it, and that it’ll be okay.  Think of all the people who have passed these gates, endured whatever death is and gone on to what awaits us beyond this world.”  He turned around with a broad smile on his face.  “If they can do it, so can I.”


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