Now, I’m sceptical about many things — UFOs, ghosts, god (actually, the latter goes a lot further than mere scepticism!), Gordon Brown’s ability to steer us through these difficult economic times, you get the idea. So it was with interest that I read of a new academic book, written by an intensive care nurse from Swansea, on the subject of near death experiences.
Many books have been written on the subject, but I’ve seen nothing (or very little, anyway) that could be described as “academic”. I therefore thought that this might be the book for me. A clearheaded study of the phenomenon by someone in a profession that allows her to have firsthand experience (okay, second-hand experience — but you know what I mean.)
Judging by the BBC website article, however, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to buy the book any time soon (and, no, this isn’t because said book costs an exorbitant £85 — though that certainly doesn’t help matters!)
Now I think it’s important to state at this stage that my comments cannot be considered an assessment of the book because, of course, I haven’t actually read it. This is more about the way the book is presented — which possibly grossly misrepresents it (though if it does, Penny Sartori, the author, is certainly complicit in this.)
The first thing that struck me was that we are immediately presented with the usual anecdotal “evidence”, the kind of thing we hear quite often when this subject arises. Bright lights, dead loved ones, floating above the room, lives flashing before them in an instant — nothing all that new or spectacular, as one might expect. Fine, anecdotal evidence is pretty much all we have got, but in an academic study I would hope that it’s used appropriately.
The second point that really hit home, however, was the blithe acceptance by the author of what she was told by patients. For example, this:
“In another case a patient reported encountering a dead relative who gave a message to pass on to another member of the family who was still alive.
Ms Sartori said the information had stunned the receiver because it had been a secret and it was impossible the patient had prior knowledge of it.”
Impossible? Impossible? Do we have solid proof of this? What was the secret? What was the information? Wasn’t it possible, in fact, that the patient had somehow deduced the secret and supplied an appropriate message?
In another case…
“[…] a critically-ill patient, who also had cerebral palsy, awoke from a near-death experience able to use his right arm normally, even though it had been bent and contracted since birth.
“It shouldn’t have been possible without an operation to release his tendons, but he could open his arm freely,” said Ms Sartori.”
Your point, Ms Sartori? The angels did it? How does this fit into an academic study? It says nothing, either for or against any particular argument. Yes, it’s intriguing. But does it tell us anything about near death experiences? And if it does, is it anything beyond the anecdotal?
With regard the often used explanations for near death experiences of endorphins, abnormal blood gases or low oxygen levels, there appears to be nothing in her findings to support this. A genuinely important piece of information. Her comment, however, that “All the current sceptical arguments [my italics] against near death experiences were not supported by the research” suggests a bias that I find offputting.
The penultimate paragraph is a real doozy, however:
“Current science says it is a by-product of the brain. But it may be that consciousness is around us and the brain might be a mediator, an antenna, instead of controlling consciousness.”
And it may be that green and purple-spotted aliens come down whilst the patient is unconscious, insert a phallus into the patient’s right ear and impregnate the fertile brain with this admittedly fascinating experience — but, personally, I’ll leave all that spooky, New Age nonsense to the people who are really good at it.
Academic? I hope so — but based on this article, I somehow doubt it.
[Edit: This quite possibly provides a better insight into Penny Sartori and her work.]