In long-form piece on death, The Guardian avoids crucial research

by | Apr 25, 2024 | Consciousness, Consciousness Theories, Life & Death, Near-Death Experiences (NDE), Story Ideas | 0 comments

April 2024

A long-form story in The Guardian purports to cover the latest research on the process of dying and on Near-Death Experiences (NDE), the “extraordinary psychic journeys” some people have between cardiac arrest and resuscitation.

However, the piece revolves around the findings of one particular neuroscientist, Jimo Borjigin, and gives little attention to the extensive research that has been done on actual NDEs, although it mentions pioneers like Raymond Moody and scientists like Bruce Greyson, Pim van Lommel and Sam Parnia.

The article identifies three categories of near-death researchers — spiritualists, parapsychologists and physicalists — and clearly sides with the latter group. An effort is made to defend the idea that the mind cannot exist independently of the brain, which means that NDEs should not be able to happen if there is no activity in it. Notwithstanding, the writer does present some of the main pieces of evidence to the contrary.

In her research, Borjigin tries to determine not if activity occurs, but what activity in the brain could be responsible for the strong experiences some people report.

Her initial study, published in 2013, showed that rats’ brains briefly produced a “storm” of certain neurotransmitters after their hearts stopped and the flow of oxygen to the brain ceased. That study was criticized by NDE researchers Bruce Greyson (with a reply from Borjigin) and Robert Mays. Some mainstream media falsely portrayed the study as evidence that a dying brain produces heightened consciousness (which the paper did not say it proved).

Borjigin wondered if this brief brain activity could explain NDEs. She and three colleagues conducted a similar study on dying humans, primarily on one person named Patient One. The researchers found that when oxygen was cut off, some areas of the brain briefly had a “surge” of activity and a “synchronisation” of gamma waves.

Because Patient One died, there is no way of knowing whether that person had a profound NDE or not. Borjigin is waiting to analyze brain activity data from dozens of other deceased patients, which entails the same problem.

In a commentary to this latest study by Borjigin, Greyson and van Lommel wrote: “The researchers reported no evidence whatsoever that these brain activities were correlated with conscious experiences in those two patients” (a Patient Three was studied, as well).

Writer Mark Mahin points out that, judging by the charts of the two papers, nothing special happened either in the rats’ brains or in the brain of Patient One:

“What they observed was simply the brain waves … quickly dying off to become a flat line.” Mahin contends that the word “surge” is misused, both in the rat study and the human study. What was detected was rather a “blip”.

This begs the question why such minuscule brain activity should give rise to some of the most extraordinary human experiences.

There are other scientifically based reasons to be cautious with the results by Borjigin et al.: Motion and muscle activity in other parts of the dying body also show up on EEG readouts, and there is a lot of gamma wave activity during deep sleep as well as under deep anesthesia.

Graphs of brain activity, be it small or big, of course say nothing about subjective conscious experience. Any knowledge about that requires words from the mouth of a survivor.

According to the research on survivors – the only people who can report NDEs – it appears that for a genuine NDE to occur, it is crucial that the brain is unplugged and “out of the way”.

Anders Bolling

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