Death and Beyond: Science at the Edge of the Known


April 2012 saw a decidedly unorthodox scientific forum take place in the leafy conservative suburb of Fitchburg, Madison, in Wisconsin. The two day forum was about the process of dying and the near death experience (known as NDEs). Unsurprisingly, much of the presented data challenged our assumptions about the nature of consciousness and being. This is not a bad thing of course. Indeed, it is surely healthy to have one's tacit view of reality rattled now again. The event was organized and hosted by the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTCI) who run cutting edge science-based symposia every year. Previous forums have centred around psychedelic drug research and consciousness studies -- so the organizers are no strangers to controversial areas of inquiry. What marked out this year's event was the degree of uneasiness that it provoked. After all, if you are fit, healthy, and avidly enjoying the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness, the last thing you want to mull over is death. Indeed, how can living consciousness consider its own negation? Death, at least in the conventional sense, simply does not make sense, it does not compute: our consciousness and our being cannot really embrace it-in the same way that the number one cannot be reconciled with zero. In other words, either we totally cease to be when we die (in which case there is really nothing more to say about the matter), or our life/being continues in some way (in which case a realization of this might have a great impact upon our culture).

As conceptual issues go then, death is clearly a tough nut to dwell upon, let alone crack. In the context of our own future deaths, all our dreams, hopes and aspirations seem as nothing. I am reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's movie Hannah and Her Sisters where Woody is relieved to find out he does not have cancer, but then falls into a suicidal existential crisis because he realizes that even though cancer won't get him, he will still die one day anyway. On the face of it at least, death is the ultimate bad news. Whilst life might be a fascinating trip, in the end it kills you (I think that was a wry Woody Allen observation as well!).

Despite its eerie nature and unpleasant connotations, we are nonetheless all forced to think about death at one time or another, particularly if we lose a loved one, or we hear about the death of another, or if we start wondering how long we might live and how we might spend our last moments. In fact, one of the things that marks out what it is to be a human being is precisely this oft troublesome relationship we have with our own mortality. Whereas our pet cats and dogs presumably have no inkling as to their own inevitable deaths, we may ponder our future physical demise and be inexorably led to the haunting conclusion that one day we will cease to be. Or will we? How do we know biological death is the end of us? Indeed, what exactly are ‘we' in the first place? Are we just complex physical stuff in motion? Or do we consist of something that is independent of brains? Are we spirit perhaps? Or are we souls as  C. S. Lewis boldly declared? Or can we grow potentially immortal souls during our lives as Gurdjieff taught? Can consciousness exist beyond what we call the physical world? Can consciousness and memory, in the form of information, be preserved in some way?

All this is the challenge of this final frontier, this perplexing problem of biological death. Is death a final full stop at the very end of our life story or is it a kind of phase transition to a sequel? And how do we avoid blatant wishful thinking when it comes to making judgements regarding some kind of life after death? After all, many people just smile casually and say that we go to heaven after we die and that everything will be hunky dory. Yet these people never seem to be in that much of a hurry to go there do they? One suspects that woolly wishful thinking influences many people when it comes to views about life after death.

Death is assuredly the most formidable of philosophical beasts -- at least if we are trying to make sense of it and blend it with everything else we know. Like Woody Allen's character, we might think through everything and eventually avoid suicidal depression by reasoning that we should forget about our eventual physical demise and simply enjoy life moment by moment. Indeed, when you think about it, all that we really know is the living moment. Right here and right now. Everything else is sheer speculation -- or, at most, bridges that can be crossed when we reach them. Having said as much, there is still this niggling element at the back of our psyche, a sort of uncomfortable itch that occasionally demands some measure of attention. What happens to the core of our being at death? Will I -- will all that is me and all that I am -- one day simply cease to be like a flame being extinguished? Or does Nature -- the vast system that birthed us and sustains us -- offer post-death potentialities undreamed of by conventional thinking?

It was with these difficult thoughts on my mind that I attended, along with 300 or so other curious people, the BTCI forum on the science of dying and NDEs. Being the author of a book on psilocybin, my principal interest was, initially, to see what similarities there were between NDEs and the psychedelic psilocybin experience. To be sure about it, I knew very little about NDEs. Like most people, I was familiar with the ‘bright light at the end of the tunnel' scenario, and stories of entire life histories being flashed before the dying mind's eye, but that was all I knew. As it turned out, I was forced to grapple with a number of tough research findings, the result being the formation of a new concept concerning the creative nature of the unconscious. I'll get to that later.

The first speaker at the event was cardiologist and author Pim van Lommel. Lommel explained that during the 1960s the introduction of new medical technology meant that patients were being revived after suffering cardiac arrest and that this was what instigated NDE reports, the first of which appeared in the following decade. The thing to bear in mind with cardiac arrest of course, is that there ceases to be blood flow to the brain and so it is difficult to see how one can have a conscious experience under such drastic cortical circumstances. In other words, how can the brain/mind system yield some sort of conscious experience when it has effectively shut down? Moreover, according to Lommel, there have now been millions of NDEs reported around the world. Many people do indeed experience a bright light, along with extreme positive emotions. Many also appear to meet dead relatives. Also, out of the body experiences are quite common (known as OBEs). However, Lommel also noted that about 82% of people who are resuscitated after cardiac arrest have absolutely no memory of being clinically dead. In fact, this statistic was borne out by research quoted by some of the other presenters at the forum. Which is curious. As was Lommel's claim that no correlation had been found between NDE patients and specific psychological traits. In other words, apart from not knowing what causes an NDE, science also does not yet know why only one in five resuscitated people report having had them.

Regardless of our ignorance, Lommel reported that many NDE patients said their lives were transformed by the experience and that they no longer had a fear of death. Further, common NDE aspects include the feeling of interconnectedness along with the conviction that one has attained a kind of ‘higher' objective consciousness beyond the confines of ordinary space and time. This is very interesting as it is pretty much identical with commonly reported components of the psychedelic experience.

Lommel ended his talk by introducing the notion of non-local consciousness, stating that: "Our brain has a facilitating function, and not a producing function." His implication was that consciousness can exist outside the brain and that this is how NDEs occur. So even though the brain stops functioning during cardiac arrest, consciousness can somehow continue ‘outside' of the brain/mind system.

Another speaker of note was Penny Sartori. A nurse and medical researcher, she described a five year study of NDEs in a UK intensive care unit. In line with Lommel's findings, the incidence of NDEs in resuscitated cardiac patients was 18%. Bright lights were described, extreme feelings of joy, meeting dead relatives, and so on. There were also reports of OBEs wherein the patient felt that they had left their body and could see their physical bodies below them. Interestingly, Sartori has placed hidden symbols in elevated areas in the intensive care unit where she works, the idea being that if patients really are having an OBE and are somehow hovering above their supine bodies, then they will be able to perceive those symbols. Alas, there have been no positive findings as of yet. One imagines that should a 'hit' be attained, it would make world news headlines. Having said that, Sartori noted OBE patients who seemed to know details about things taking place in the recovery unit whilst they were clinically dead. There was also a ‘miraculous recovery' of a congenital condition in one patient after an NDE. A slide was shown of the patient's hand that had somehow become unfrozen after an NDE episode. According to Sartori, this was apparently a medical impossibility. She also went on to explain that there was a qualitative difference between hallucinations and NDEs, that NDEs were described as being ‘realer than real'. This again gels with the psychedelic experience as it is usually felt to be more real than normal reality.

Sartori ended her fascinating talk by noting that the lesson to be learned from such research is that NDEs need to be acknowledged as a very real phenomenon and should be openly discussed by both the scientific community and the general public. She had a point. For I observed that I was initially a bit sceptical of NDE reports, because they seemed so ‘far out'. But I realised that many people probably think of the psilocybin experience as being ‘far out' as well -- yet I obviously want people to take such experiences seriously. In other words, I realised that I needed to listen to NDEs open-mindedly in the same way that I would want people to listen to psilocybin experiences with an open mind. Admittedly, it is harder to fathom a radical state of consciousness in a non-functioning brain than it is to fathom one in a brain that is under the influence of a powerful psychoactive drug. But despite the uncanny nature of NDEs, the evidence for them is, as the forum showed, plentiful. Thus, NDEs have to be taken seriously. Something strange is going on.

As good fortune would have it, the forum was actually treated to a lucid firsthand account of an NDE. Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who, in 2008, suffered a coma and almost died. He repeatedly stated that his cortex had totally shut down during this time, yet he had an extremely powerful life-changing NDE involving a transcendental state of consciousness and hyper-real encounters with deceased loved ones, ‘angels', and other spiritual beings. Coming from a neurosurgeon who had always assumed that consciousness was totally dependent upon the brain (which is certainly the most common scientific view), Alexander's story was remarkable, and it is no surprise that he is soon to publish a book on his experience (which is anticipated to be a bestseller). I actually shared a taxi with Alexander at one point, and I must say that there was an almost dreamy quality about the way he talked. Four years on from his NDE and you could tell he was a changed man, someone ‘born again' as it were, and equipped with a new worldview in which consciousness is not tied to brain events and in which there is an afterlife. It seemed unlikely that he was making it all up. Which means he definitely had an extraordinary experience. As with all other NDE reports, the chief question is how we interpret such experiences? This also applies to transcendental psychedelic experiences. Radically altered states of conscious in which time and space are transcended and in which some sort of higher guiding intelligence is felt and accessed are certain and real. The only uncertainty is how we interpret them. As it happens, Alexander caused some controversy during his talk as he asserted that his NDE was not comparable to the psychedelic experience. He was adamant about this. Yet given so many similarities, it seems likely that there must be some deep relationship between these two altered states of consciousness.

Another provocative speaker was NDE researcher Dr. Raymond Moody. He made some good points about what we need to do if we are to integrate NDEs into our conceptual frameworks. Moody suggested that a new kind of logic was required, one that might be able to nail down what the afterlife actually is. This would likely require that we abandon notions that consciousness needs a brain to manifest, and that consciousness can, rather, be non-local in nature. What Moody didn't suggest, however, is that such a new logic would perforce need to re-evaluate regular life as well. For how can we know what life after death is if we do not rightly understand what life itself actually is? Of course, it might be argued that we know perfectly well what biological life is. We know about the genetic code, DNA, proteins, cells, and so forth don't we? Sure we do. But we don't know why the Universe consists of such Lego-like stuff and why it has such masterful powers of genetic creativity and genetic engineering, and why it is able to craft cortices able to sustain consciousness. In other words, if consciousness really can be non-local and if there really is some kind of life after death, then a new logic able to take on board all of this would surely have to incorporate everything else we know. In short, it would all have to be connected. Which is to say that any new conceptual theory that accounted for non-local consciousness and an afterlife would need to link all that up to the world that we know and give a reason why consciousness exists in the first place and why it appears, at least according to NDE research, to be on a sort of evolving journey.

In the panel discussion that followed, the question was raised as to whether science was the measure of all that is real. I think it was clear to most of the audience by this point that science was severely limited when it comes to certain areas of understanding. This is especially the case with consciousness. As alluded, regular everyday consciousness is yet to be fully understood, let alone transcendental states of consciousness. It is true that science has become more and more interested in exploring the mysteries of mind and its relationship with the brain over the last few decades, yet NDEs present some of the most challenging data at hand. The orthodox view that consciousness is generated by the brain seems to be on the wane. It is quite common now to hear talk of the brain's capacity to convey or receive consciousness in the same manner that a radio receives radio waves. If this is so, if consciousness is some sort of ‘informational stuff' that brains convey, or serve to focus, then it is not too radical to infer that it could exist outside the brain in some way, or at least be a fundamental aspect of the larger field of reality in which brains are embedded. Certainly NDEs -- which occur when the brain is shut down -- point in this conceptual direction. Then again, one might still argue that whilst a brain system has ‘shut down', it is still a system with integrity and coherence and that maybe it is still functioning -- at least enough to sustain an NDE.

All these notions were on my mind and causing me some confusion at the forum when I came across some information that seemed to throw new light on everything. During a break, I met a lady who told me that ten years earlier her three year-old daughter had almost drowned in a swimming pool (she apparently turned blue). She was revived and hours later she (the lady I met) asked her daughter if she could remember what happened. The little girl replied that she had seen daddy and that he wanted to take her toward the light. This story had a big impact on me. Mainly because a three year-old has limited language and limited worldly experience -- yet here they were attesting to a classic NDE! My immediate thoughts were that the creative unconscious was at work, that when a brain/mind system is in danger of shutting down, some kind of preservative process occurs that involves the unconscious and that serves to sustain ‘being'. By ‘unconscious', I mean the same unconscious that speaks to us through certain dreams and whose tutorial influence reveals itself in the psychedelic visionary state. Its language is that of symbols and myth. It is both us and not us. Moreover, it is the source of wisdom and gnosis.

In other words then, in light of the three year-old girl's experience, the suggestion that formed itself was that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel' is a symbolic instruction, like a glaring sign on a map. Indeed, what more elementary and primal instruction could there be than to follow a bright light? If death involves a birth into some new dimension of reality and we are like helpless babes at that moment, the simplest way to cajole us onwards would be to proffer a bright alluring light. And maybe loved ones -- autonomous patterns of information spun out by the unconscious -- likewise act as symbolic guiding influences. This is akin to Jodie Foster's character in the movie Contact meeting an advanced alien intelligence that donned the guise of her long dead father. The idea I am suggesting here is that the wise providential intelligence encountered during an NDE is the unconscious and that, when needs be, it can guide us via ‘instructions' conveyed in the form of powerful symbols and imagery. In essence, I felt that the little girl's unconscious was acting as a guide for her. This wise guidance manifested itself in the form of her father (I assume he was alive at the time) as her father would have represented strength, reassurance and trustworthiness. And her unconscious was also instructing her to move on. Here is a light. See how bright it is. Move towards it. Maybe all this represents the informational dynamics that transpire when ‘being' is forced to move, or progress, to another dimension, or ‘space'. In fact, a good analogy might be the process whereby we awaken from a dream. Obviously there is a great difference between a dream state and normal awakening. To wake up from a deep powerful dream requires a transition process -- no matter how brief that transition might be in terms of time. So maybe at death we must undergo a similar kind of transition from one mode of being to another, the difference being that the transition from this life to an afterlife is accomplished via a powerful symbolic dialogue issuing from the unconscious.

Needless to say, I cannot prove any of this -- these are just my current metaphysical musings as catalysed by the apparently chance meeting with the lady. I confess that I wrote of similar ideas regarding the tutorial capacity of the unconscious in my psilocybin book -- but the ideas seemed to re-emerge in force during the forum. I suddenly suspected that the unconscious was bigger, more powerful, and smarter than I had previously imagined. I now see the unconscious as a sort of coherent field of self-organizing information that underlies us (and maybe everything else for that matter) and that comes more forcibly into play (i.e. enters into our consciousness) in certain key situations such as when the brain/mind system is in danger of shutting down.

Back to the forum. The second day included a talk by psychology professor Stan Grof -- whom I knew about from his pioneering psychedelic research. Grof summed up the West's attitude to death by pointing out that we tend to think of consciousness as a sort of fluke that has arisen out of an essentially accidental and purposeless universe. Obviously, if we think that, then death really is like an absolute full stop, with nothing following on. Thus, apart from passing on our genes, there is deemed to be no real function to our (conscious) lives and, in consequence, no scientific interest in dying or NDEs. This also means that there is little psychological help for dying people. On the other hand, as Grof pointed out, in various ancient cultures, death was considered to be important and consciousness was considered to carry on in some manner. The ‘beyond' was thought to be populated by deities. There were notions of reincarnation and the idea that human life was a kind of preparation for death, or a journey, or cosmic process, and that one could prepare for life after death by having experiences in which one was ‘loosened' from the body-centred ego.

Grof was followed by psychologist William Richards of Johns Hopkins University who has been involved with psilocybin research for almost 50 years, along with Dr. Jeffrey Guss who is involved with psilocybin studies with end stage cancer patients at New York University. Although there has, of late, been a resurgence in studies that show that psilocybin can help people through the last phase of their lives (which was recently covered by the New York Times and CNN), it was intriguing to see some archive footage of a 1977 end-of-life psilocybin therapy session conducted by Richards. After being given psilocybin, a dying cancer patient reported that he came to appreciate life more, accepted his situation, was more relaxed, and was better able to cope with the constant pain he was in. It emerged that this moving piece of footage actually went out on a USA TV show at the time, yet Richards received not a single phone call afterwards! He reckoned this was because we fear death (i.e. we fear the unknown) and don't want to think about it, let alone talk about it. Interestingly, Richards noted one psilocybin patient who reported a visionary experience remarkably similar to an NDE. The patient found themselves at the end of a rocky path covered in roses and with angels singing some way beyond. Richards confirmed the idea that the creative unconscious is at symbolic play in these powerful experiences, that the unconscious is forcefully integrative and a source of both wisdom and intelligence.

Up next was Marilyn Schlitz, president of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an organization with an avid interest in consciousness and new paradigms. Schlitz raised a number of interesting questions about the fate of consciousness at death. For example, are our conscious experiences ‘stored' somewhere? Which is to say, if consciousness and memory involve information, then is all this information stored in the brain or somewhere else? Likewise, is there a ‘quantum soul' embodied in the quantum activity inside microtubules within brain neurons? In other words, is consciousness associated with quantum activity at the deepest level of reality, and, as such, bound up with the essential fabric of reality and able to exist beyond the neurons of which the brain is composed?

Schlitz assuredly had it right when she concluded that we simply don't know about life after death. We may theorise and come up with all sorts of weird and wonderful ‘escape clauses' and such, but the bottom line is that death represents the unknown. Yet, as the research has shown, many people who return to life after being clinically dead report astonishing states of consciousness. At the very least, given what we know about brain cells and brain activity, this implies that consciousness is not associated solely with neuronal firing activity, but must operate at a deeper level, perhaps all the way down to the quantum level. Certainly it is the case that the brain is a vast complex system and does not simply vanish at the moment of death. The complex system remains, albeit with less observable activity, and it is tenable that mindful processes are still continuing. This is especially so if consciousness is linked to the quantum level of reality. Indeed, if consciousness is not tied down to the firing patterns of neurons, then there are all kinds of possibilities regarding the existence of consciousness beyond the brain. A good analogy here might be light. Pinhole cameras, optical lenses, and video cameras all serve to focus and ‘capture' unique arrays of light photons, but it would be erroneous to say that light depended upon these instruments for its existence. What such instruments do is receive unique perspectives of light, light being ‘out there' and not dependent upon us. Similarly, brains might serve to receive unique conscious perspectives of the larger conscious (or unconscious) world -- the formation of individual minds within a greater Mind at Large as Aldous Huxley called it. The idea is that consciousness, like light, exists outside of instruments that focus, or receive, it.

One thing seems clear to me as I ponder these mysterious issues. And that is that if consciousness is fundamental in some way and more real than what we call physical reality, and if consciousness likewise has a distinct language of its own, then the answers we seek about our fate may not actually lie in convoluted quantum explanations and quantum equations because these are themselves products of consciousness. We might do better to focus on the primal symbolic language of the unconscious -- like the bright lights and the feeling of a journey that always seem to crop up in NDEs. Add to that the rich dialogue with the unconscious that can occur in the psychedelic state and you can begin to see that maybe Terence McKenna was right when he said that reality is made of language. If it is, and if we, like everything else, are expressions of that language, then reality seems more and more to be like an ongoing story, or narrative, in which we are component players one and all. Moreover, there appear to be different layers to this language, with different modes of expression and different dynamics. Yet, as William Richards attested, some kind of guiding wisdom infuses them all. So the lesson is to always accept the creative flow, pay attention to the wisdom inherent in the creative flow, and to go with that creative flow, wherever it should take you. Death may be no more than a dimensional shift in the flow. How fitting then may this quote be with which to end my conceptual foray:

I have good reasons to assume that things are not finished with death. Life seems to be an interlude in a long story. It has been long before I was, and it will most probably continue after the conscious interval in a three-dimensional existence. --C. G. Jung


Image by Rachel McLeod Kaminer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.