Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

By Mary Roach


In the words of the late Francis Crick, “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”

But can you prove that, Dr. Crick? P. 13.


Ian Stevenson, MD, has investigated 800 cases of alleged “reincarnation” over a thirty year period, during which he served as tenured professor at the University of Virginia and contributor to peer reviewed publications such as JAMA. The University of Virginia published four volumes of his reincarnation case studies, and Praeger published his two thousand word opus, Biology and Reincarnation. P. 24.


The individual studies usually include a chart summarizing the allegedly reborn child’s statements about a past life and about people the child recognizes. For each of the statements and recognitions, a witness and the witness’ comments are recorded. The chart is typically eight to ten pages long and wears down skepticism with the grinding accumulation of names and tiny print. P. 29.


In Biology and Reincarnation, facets of a past life are suggested as an explanation for all manner of characteristics. Take a child and her hundreds of unique features: how hard would it be to find one or two of them that seem linked to a feature of someone you know who has died? P. 39.


Gary Schwartz is a psychology professor at the University of Arizona, and founder of the university’s Human Energy Systems Lab;  a mix of academe and spirituality. He is best known for his lab tests of mediums, which is the subject of his book The Afterlife Experiments. His data have led him to conclude that there are rare gifted people who can communicate with people who have died. P. 152.


One of main beefs with medium brokered encounters with the dead: they never seem to talk about the things all of us not-yet-dead are madly curious about: what do they do, how does it feel being dead, what can you see, etc.  The dead typically come through in cryptic little impressions.  Schwartz and his mediums suggest that the dead cant speak sentences into the medium’s head; Impressions are all that comes through. P.154.


Julie Beischel, a University of Arizona psychology post doc, proposed an “Asking Questions” program to specifically ask the spirits specific questions. Matla and Zaalberg van Zelst, Dutch physicists, and Arthur Findlay also provided alleged responses to specific questions about their existence. P. 156-157.


“[On a followup study to The Afterlife Experiments ]…there was no statistically significant evidence that the medium was receiving information from the sitter’s dead loved ones.” P. 160.


One of Schwartz’ mediums produced a more or less even mix of hits and misses in a reading of Roach’s deceased mother, with many of the hits being common to a sizable percentage of the population. Roach was about to dismiss the whole thing when the medium said “I’m showing a metal hourglass, that you turn over. Does your brother have one?” “My brother collects hour glasses. I was impressed, not only by its accuracy, but by its specificity and obscurity….” P. 167.


[On electronic voice phenomena (EVP), whereby the dead are said to communicate via playback of a tape recording, with no sounds being heard during the original recording. In about 1971, a Cambridge University parapsychology student, David Ellis, proposed to investigate the EVP phenomena as the subject of a two year Fellowship. ] “In the end, I would have to agree with Ellis’s conclusions: ‘There is no reason to postulate anything but natural causes- indistinct fragments of radio transmissions, mechanical noises, ad unnoticed remarks- aided by imaginative guesswork and wishful thinking, to explain the ‘voice phenomenon.’’” Ellis’s conclusions are supported by the experiments of Imants Baruss, published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. P. 187.


Wilson van Dusen was chief psychologist at the Mendocino State Hospital in northern California for many years. This was an inpatient facility for the severely mentally ill, so he spent a lot of time hearing his patients talk about their “others”: the voices in their heads. Van Dusen tried to talk to the voices themselves, with the patient being the intermediary. “In this way, I could hold long dialogs with a patient’s hallucinations”. After interviewing twenty such patients, he decided that he agreed with the patients that their “others” were not hallucinations but inhabitants of a different order of beings. He came to this conclusion because he is a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg, and he noticed that his patients “others” fell into similar camps of good and evil, withn the evil well outnumbering the good, and that they shared numerous traits with Swendenborg’s entities. P. 191. He wrote his conclusions in a pamphlet called The Presence of Spirits in Madness.


The link between electricity and spirits is tenacious. The heyday of spiritualism- with its séances and spirit communication, coincided with the dawn of the electric age; the age of  Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, and Bell’s partner Thomas Watson. Watson’s faith in mediums was unique among the great electricians. Edison, Tesla, and Bell believed the soul survived death, but did not buy into the medium claims. As Edison wrote in his diary: “Why should personalities in another existence or sphere waste their time … play[ing] pranks with a table?” Edison tried to build a device for conversation with the dead. P. 204.


In the 1980’s, an electronics buff Willaim ONeil, developed Spiricom, a devise for spirit communication. He claimed to have lengthy two way conversations with a deceased NASA physicist named George Mueller. O’Neil and George Meek published hundreds of pages of transcripts of alleged conversations.  Meek and O’Neil had no apparent plans to profit from this project; others published the books, and they gave away the blueprints for Spiricom at a press conference, encouraging others to try to replicate what they had done. No one succeeded. P.207.   


In 1988, Michael Persinger compared the dates for thirty-seven years of Fate magazine haunting reports with geomagnetic activity for those dates, and found a significant correlation. Roach asks “Are those people whose EMF-influenced brains alert them to “presences” picking up something real that the rest of us can’t pick up, or are they hallucinating? P. 216, 223.


Vic Tandy is an acoustics engineer. He found that unusual phenomena; like things moving, seeing something in your peripheral vision, vibrating visual field, etc can be caused by infrasound (1-20 Hz) The visual hallucinations are caused by the eyeballs having a resonate frequency of 20 Hz.  P. 227 f.


Cardiologists – not parapsychologists- have published some of the most widely read studies on near death experiences (NDEs) Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel published such a study, interviewing 344 cardiac arrest patients, in the Lancet in 2001. He marvels at the medical paradox of the cardiac arrest NDE: consciousness, perception, and memory appear to be functioning during a period when the patient has lost all functions of the cortex and brain stem. Oxygen deprivation, medications, fear, religious belief, gender, and educational level appear to not be factors in these experiences. Van Lommel suggests, in the Lancet, that the NDE is a “state of consciousness … in which identity, cognition, and emotion function independently from the body, but retain the possibility of non-sensory perception. P. 267.


[As of 2005] the University of Virginia was one of only three American universities with a parapsychology research unit, thanks to a bequest of millions of dollars to study the question of survival of consciousness after death.


Michael Sabom, as a professor of medicine and cardiology in 1975, had read psychologist Raymond Moody Jr’s book Life After Life . He was intrigued but skeptical, and did his own sudy,  a specific study of near death patient’s recall of specific medical details in an out of body experience during cardiac arrest. Six of 116 cardiac arrest survivors provided enough information, compared with a control group, to suggest the validity of their experiences. P. 270.


Michael Sabom’s book includes an appendix of “all” twenty-eight “transcendental environments” glimpsed or visited during subject’s near death experiences. Half of the environments consisted of nothing but sky. The other half consisted of gardens or pastures, often with a gate. The heavenly farmland is generally deserted; the exceptions being one pasture with cattle grazing, and one landscape of people “of all nationalities, all working on their arts and crafts.” Author Roach believes these people are experiencing something dazzling and euphoric and totally foreign, and interpreting it according to their image of heaven. Bruce Greyson,  another medical professional studying the NDE phenomena agrees. P. 282-282.


London psychiatrist and ketamine (LSD) authority Karl Jansen, used to believe that since LSD can produce NDEs, this meant that surgical or cardiac arrest patient’s NDEs were similarly hallucinogenic. He has of late changed his mind. “The fact that NDEs can be artificially induced does not imply that the spontaneously occurring NDE is ‘unreal’ in some way.” Writes Jansen in his book Ketamine.  it has been suggested that both may involve a ‘retuning’ of the brain”. So, it may be possible to preview death by taking ketamine, which is what both Timothy Leary and John Lilly did. P. 284.


Pure Land Buddhists, who date back to A.D. 400, believe that certain extreme forma of meditation can induce the NDE. These guys were the original NDE researchers.  One of the junior monk’s duties was to sit at the deathbed of elders and write down their visions of the Pure Land. By the eleventh century, ore than a hundred accounts of the Pure Land had been transcribed.  P. 286.


Researcher P. M. H. Atwater, who interviewed more than 700 people about their NDEs, reported that 105 had unpleasant experiences. P. 286.


So how do we know the NDE isn’t a hallmark of dying, not death? What if, several minutes down the line, the bright light dims and the euphoria fades, and your just dead?  We don’t know Bruce Greyson says.  Roach asks Greyson, Sabom and van Lommel what they really think. Greyson believes we may or may not survive death; Sabom and van Lommel are both convinced that consciousness is independent from the body. P. 289-290.


Greyson believes that NDEs are evidence of something we cannot explain with our current knowledge. P. 294.