Resuscitation specialist Sam Parnia continues to darken already murky waters of thanatology, by offering his colleagues to carefully examine stories of people returned from the dead. In his view, which will be fully supported by any competent philosopher, these stories shed light on the nature of human consciousness.
“Consciousness does not disappear at death. There is no such discrete point in time. Death is a process,” he claims.
In the middle of the XX century, with the discovery of methods of cardiopulmonary resuscitation, the study of death has entered a new phase. Initially capable of resuscitating a person within few minutes after clinical death, now people who “died” more than half an hour ago can be brought back to life. New technologies developed in the recent years can yield remarkable results when the heart begins to beat after several hours of inactivity.
But let us go back to the subject. Once resuscitation had become a routine procedure, the specialists learned plenty of stories from patients containing strange fact that after death the patients continued to see and hear, although their brain, according to the medical equipment was not functioning. These stories had been told in the past, but because it was impossible to explain these visions based on neuroscience, these stories had been mostly dismissed or preserved until the time when the equipment would become more advanced, and enough knowledge about the human body would be accumulated.
It seems that these times have come: Mr. Parnia is the head of a research project AWARE, which meticulously records stories of resuscitated patients in 25 hospitals across North America and Europe. In his previous interview, Mr. Parnia briefly talked about the phenomenon of human consciousness, and this time he provides a more incisive perspective when recently interviewed for the “Wired” magazine.
First of all, it is worth noting that Mr. Parnia suggests to forget the term “near-death experience” and replace it with a post-mortem experience (after-death experience), because from a medical point of view, cardiac arrest and cessation of blood flow into the brain constitute physical death. Thus, the strange and unexplained visions experienced by patients occur after death.
Mr. Parnia found that 10% of cardiac arrest survivors recall interesting things after resuscitation. The stories resemble one another in their narrative: the state of tranquility and meeting a perfect being expressing love and compassion. The Hindus claim it is a god in the pantheon already known to them, the Christians make reference to God or Jesus, and the atheists explain it as encountering some abstract entity. Similar descriptions are given even by children three years of age. Many survivors of this experience no longer fear death, assured by the knowledge that their existence is meant to last forever.
The most important question, which Mr. Parnia is so determined to find an answer to, is when are people exposed to these visions? Could it be during a full shutdown of the brain, or during those brief moments when patients are being revived, but still unconscious?
The second option seems more convincing, but there is one problem. The truth is, when patients regain consciousness, they can recall conversations and even describe the clothes of people around them 10-20 minutes before resuscitation commences, when the brain is non-functional. Mr. Parnia, despite his interesting research subject, is a scientist to the core, and therefore he is inclined to believe that cases like these could be the result of a successful resuscitation, when the brain becomes functional sooner than expected. But this hypothesis has absolutely no evidence.
We need to emphasize here once again that when the brain does not receive blood, it does not function at all. Also, it is sometimes subjected to deep freezing to avoid killing the cells. Strange visions cannot be attributed to weak brain activity undetected by medical equipment or to some yet to be discovered part of the brain.
In this respect, the science has to answer the same question about the relationship between the brain and the mind. Materialists say that consciousness is generated by electrochemical processes in the brain, according to the law of transformation of quantity into quality. And they will add presumptuously that we can have the brain without consciousness, but can never have consciousness without the brain. However, we have just mentioned some examples when consciousness exists without a brain. The conclusion is that either we do not know enough about the human brain, or consciousness can exist apart from the brain.
To an attempt to accuse him of toying with the supernatural, Mr. Parnia responds: “We are trying to explain the situation with the help of the scientific methods, but possible explanations using science are limited. If someone says that there is something inexplicable to science, it does not mean that he is superstitious or mistaken. When electromagnetic waves were discovered, which at the time not only were unobservable, but could not even be measured, many scientists just laughed at the possibility of their existence.
To this date, not a single experiment has been conducted that would show exactly how functioning of the brain cells transforms into consciousness. It is impossible to look at a cell using a microscope and say, yeah, the test subject is now hungry. “
“Perhaps, the psyche and the consciousness”, the scientist continues, “represent unknown to science types of physical interaction that is not necessarily directly generated by the brain. Yes, the study of brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging has allowed specialists to see a connection between the excitation of a particular area of the brain, and certain processes involving conscious thinking. But it does not answer the old question about the chicken and egg problem: whether the electrochemical activity of cells gives rise to thought, or vice versa”.
The scientist also reminds his readers that it is still unknown how the brain switches between the conscious and unconscious states. If we had an answer to this question, we would be able to learn how to bring patients from vegetative state back to life or help those spending years in a coma.
P. S. In anticipation of a heated discussion which can appear as comments to this post, we would like to add the following. Philosophers have long noted the fundamental difference in the perception of the physical and conscious processes, since we cannot study these processes using the same methods or describe them in similar terms. It is mentioned, for example, in the second chapter of First Corinthians (leaving aside the religious meanings of the text), and in the famous Descartes’ “Discourse on Method”, in which the author, emphasizing this distinction, wrote that the thought does not need to be tied to a physical state or depend on any material thing. Please note that we are talking about generalized descriptive terms without trying to assess existence in a spiritual context.
Apparently, Mr. Parnia is preoccupied by the same question: how a neuroscientist could correctly describe the presence of visions when the brain is turned off, without the need to base everything on mysticism? He is not going to advocate the existence of non-material world that awaits us after death.