6. Death and the Mind

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6. Death and the Mind

Who are we? What are we? We emerge, seemingly from nothingness, into the physical world. Is it to nothingness that we return? Are we our physical bodies? Our personalities? Or are we a field of pure consciousness through which our thoughts, sensations and emotions flutter like so many butterflies?

Much of the parapsychological evidence for the survival of death, including that from mediumship and reincarnation cases, suggests that the mind is able to survive death with large portions of its memories, skills and personality intact. There is, however, an overwhelming amount of evidence that one’s emotions, patterns of behavior and cognitive skills are intimately tied to the state of one’s brain. For instance, damage to the right hemisphere of the brain can turn a depressed musician into a happy-go-lucky, tone-deaf individual. Damage to the frontal lobes of the brain can turn an upright citizen into a raincoat-opening exhibitionist. Surely the removal of one’s entire brain at death would change one’s state of consciousness profoundly!

Memory also appears to be intimately dependent on brain structures. There is an abundance of evidence that damage to the hippocampal and thalamic areas of the brain can destroy one’s ability to store new long-term memories. People with such a condition live in a kind of dream state. They will not recognize the nurse who has been taking care of them daily for years, but will greet him each time as if meeting someone new. There is also an increasing amount of evidence that some memories may be stored in localized regions of the brain and may be erased when these areas are damaged. For instance, in a bilingual patient who speaks, say, English and Greek, it is possible to interfere with his inability to speak Greek by electrically disrupting one area of his brain and to interfere with his ability to speak English by disrupting another area. (Ojemann, 1983).

Michael Gazzaniga (1989) describes a case in which a localized brain lesion rendered a woman incapable of naming the color of red fruits, although she could name the color of non-red fruits such as bananas as well as of red objects such as fire engines. Kinsbourne & Warrington (1964) report a case in which a very circumscribed brain lesion rendered a patient unable to name colors altogether. Localized memory traces have also been demonstrated in nonhuman subjects. Memory for a conditioned eyeblink response has, for instance, been shown to reside in the cerebellum of the rabbit (see Squire, 1987; and Krupa, Thompson & Thompson, 1993). There is also a considerable body of evidence that the storage of memories is dependent on changes in the synaptic connections among the neurons of the brain (see Squire, 1987; Baringa, 1990; Zhong & Wu, 1990; Rose, 1992; and Fanselow, 1993).

Even the avowed dualist Sir John Eccles believed that long-term memories are stored as changes in synaptic connections between neurons. Eccles did, however, feel compelled to postulate the existence of a second, nonphysical memory system in which “recognition memory” (which monitors the correctness of recalled information) resides, even though he maintained that memories of the details of the events in one’s life are physically stored in the brain and hence lost at death (Eccles, 1979; Eccles & Robinson, 1984). The prominent reincarnation researcher Ian Stevenson (1981) likewise proposes that there are two memory stores, one physical and one nonphysical. He suggests that, although brain mechanisms may control access to all memories before death, this does not prove that the memory traces themselves are physical.

The parapsychologist Alan Gauld (1982) has also questioned whether memories are stored as physical traces in the brain, noting that memories are sometimes gradually recovered after brain damage. David Lund (1985) makes the argument that the brain may be the transmitter rather than the generator of consciousness, a view that goes back to William James (1898/1992). Under this analogy, a damaged brain may simply be unable to receive the signal from an intact consciousness. On the other hand, Barry Beyerstein (1987) has argued that a nonphysical mind should be able to compensate for the effects of brain damage. Why, he asks, can the mind allegedly separate from the body in an out-of-body experience and perceive the environment if it cannot overcome perceptual deficits caused by brain damage (such as blindness arising from damage to the visual cortex)?

What Could Survive?

Obviously, the physical body does not survive the death of the physical body. As we have just seen, it appears unlikely that our memories and personalities could survive the dissolution of our physical brains. What, however, constitutes our essential selves? Are we our bodies? Our personalities and memories? Or are we in fact pure centers of consciousness with the remaining aspects of our personalities just so much baggage to be checked (and inevitably lost) as we board the celestial starship for yet another ride?

Many philosophers see the physical body as an essential part of one’s self. In Terence Penelhum’s view, for instance, it makes no sense to talk about people surviving their deaths in some sort of disembodied state. If such a disembodied ghost were to communicate through a medium and relate memories of the person’s life, this would prove nothing according to Penelhum, as memories might be illusory. He thinks that people can only be identified on the basis of their physical bodies and that therefore it makes no sense to talk about people surviving the deaths of those bodies (Penelhum, 1987). Of course, physical appearances can also be deceptive. Persons can disguise themselves as someone else, for instance. Thus, it is not clear that physical appearance is a foolproof means of identifying a person either.

Peter Geach (1987) is another philosopher who maintains that personality traits and memories are not a sufficient basis to identify a person. He compares the transfer of personality traits and memories from one body to another, such as might occur in one of Stevenson’s reincarnation cases, to the spreading of a disease.

The noted philosopher Antony Flew (1987, 1991) also contends that immaterial souls would not be identifiable. In Flew’s opinion, the idea that a person survives death can only be made intelligible if you assume that people possess some sort of quasi-physical astral body, on the basis of which they could be identified. Flew views the ideas of disembodied survival and incorporeal souls as incoherent notions. He maintains that the word “person” refers to a flesh and blood creature and that it therefore makes no sense to talk of a person surviving the death of his physical body.

All of these writers contend that some sort of physical body is necessary in order to establish the continuity of personal identity. It is not clear why we should put so much more stock in physical appearance than in mental appearance. If we are in fact our physical bodies, then what survives in the long run is a fossilized skeleton, seemingly devoid of consciousness (although the panpsychists may give us an argument on this point) and a dispersed collection of elementary particles, some of them “reincarnated” in animals, plants and other living things and some of them finding lodging in inanimate objects, also seemingly devoid of consciousness (but again, as the panpsychists may argue, perhaps associated with a rudimentary form of “protoconsciousness”).

We now turn to an examination of the evidence amassed by psychical researchers that the human personality or some portion thereof survives the death of the physical body. Such survival is a central tenet of many major religions such as Islam and Christianity as well as the mythological and shamanistic traditions. As already noted, the findings of neuroscientific research in the past half-century have established an intimate dependence of the personality, including one’s memories, thoughts and emotions, on the physical state of the brain. This body of research makes the survival of the personality of the death and dissolution of the brain a much more improbable prospect that it was in the days of the early physical researchers such as Frederic W. H. Myers and William James. Nevertheless these researchers and their “descendants,” including a significant minority of the parapsychological community today, have amassed a considerable body of evidence that the human personality, or some portion thereof, may survive the death of the physical body. This evidence includes: out-of-body and near-death experiences; hauntings; apparitions; dreams; some poltergeist cases; evidence provided by mediums and “psychics;” cases suggestive of “obsession” and reincarnation, in which people report memories of past lives or are seemingly influenced by discarnate spirits; and miscellaneous attempts to photograph, weigh, record or otherwise physically measure and detect souls or spirits.

In Chapter 7, we will turn to an examination of the nature of the self, and in Chapter 8 explore the possibility that the self, construed as a center of pure consciousness, could survive the death of the physical body.



Out-of-Body Experiences.

We begin our study with possible glimpses of the afterlife that occur prior to the actual death of the physical body, that is with out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs). NDEs often incorporate OBEs as well as apparent visions of another realm and its inhabitants.

In OBEs, people are apparently able to separate from their physical bodies and travel to near and distant locations. OBErs often report that they experience themselves encased in some sort of “astral body,” usually resembling the physical one (often even wearing ”astral clothes”) during these wanderings.

Some people experience but one OBE in their lifetimes, whereas others experience OBEs repeatedly. In some cases, the OBE occurs without any conscious effort to induce it; in others, the OBE occurs as a result of a deliberate induction or incubation process. The following is an example of the former type of OBE and is taken from the collection of Susan Blackmore, an unusual researcher who is at once one of parapsychology’s harshest critics and at the same time a prominent investigator of OBEs:

I crossed the road and went into a well-lit wood. My distant vision began to blur and within five or ten seconds I could only see a distance of a few feet, the rest was “fog.”

Suddenly my sight cleared and I was looking at the back of myself and the dogs from a position eight or ten feet behind myself and about a foot higher than my height. My physical self had no sight or other senses and it was exactly as if I was simply walking along behind some-one, except that some-one was me… (Blackmore, 1982a, p. 9).

The following case is provided by Hornell Hart:

Sometime before 1907, a well-known physician in New York City…was on a river steamer…He had been having some curious sensations of numbness and of psychological detachment for some days. During the night on the steamer he found that his feet and legs were becoming cold and sensationless. He then ‘seemed to be walking in air’…In this state he thought of a friend who was more than 1000 miles distant. Within a minute he was conscious of standing in a room…and his friend was standing with his back to him. The friend turned, saw him and said: ‘what in the world are you doing here? I thought you were in Florida,’ and he started to come toward the appearer. The appearer heard the words distinctly but was unable to answer.

Then he re-entered his physical body.

On the next day he wrote a letter to the distant friend whom he had perceived in this excursion. A letter from the friend crossed his in the mail, stating that he had been distinctly conscious of the appearer’s presence, and had made the exclamation which the appearer heard (Hart, 1954, p. 133; as cited by Steinkamp, 2002, p.72).

Such cases, in which the OBEr’s presence is felt or seen by witnesses at the remote location are sometimes called “reciprocal hallucinations” (a term that is perhaps somewhat prejudicial as to the explanation of the phenomenon).

Involuntarily experienced OBEs can occur for no apparent reason, as in the first case above, or they can be the result of fatigue, drug intoxication, sensory deprivation, and psychological or physical stress, as in the second case. A most dramatic form of out-of-body experience occurs when a person is rendered nearly unconscious and near death but is able to witness attempts to revive or resuscitate her physical body from a perspective well above the body. Often such a person feels herself being pulled back into the body at the moment of successful resuscitation. Such cases may be regarded as one form of the near-death experience. Near-death experiences will be discussed in greater detail in the next section.

Obviously, there may be nothing paranormal about OBEs in and of themselves. They may simply be a kind of delusion, hallucination or dream in which one experiences oneself outside of one’s body. OBEs have been of interest to parapsychologists for at least two reasons. First, they suggest the existence of a mind or soul that is capable of traveling beyond the confines of the physical body in ways that are not explainable by current theories of physical science. Also, many people experience themselves as being encased in a secondary body while in the OBE state. Often this secondary body takes the form of a duplicate of the person’s ordinary physical body. This has suggested to some researchers that there may exist a nonphysical or quasi-physical “astral body” in which the soul or mind may be housed during its extrasomatic sojourns. If so, this body would be of a type unknown to current theories of science. Of course, the fact that people experience themselves as possessing astral bodies could be explained in terms of hallucination and fantasy, unless some means of detecting such astral bodies with physical instruments could be devised.

Several parapsychologists have in fact attempted to use some sort of physical measuring device to detect astral bodies, as will be discussed in greater detail below. Most parapsychologists remain skeptical about the reality of astral bodies due to the fact that people generally perceive themselves as being clothed while in the astral state. This would seem to indicate that astral bodies are merely hallucinations (at least as literally perceived), unless one wishes to assume that clothes have astral bodies too!

A second reason parapsychologists have become interested in OBEs is that there are many anecdotal reports of persons becoming aware of information during out-of-body travel to remote locations that would have been inaccessible to them at the location of their physical bodies during the OBE. For instance, the well known psychiatrist and consciousness researcher Stanislav Grof (1990) describes a case in which a woman who was undergoing cardiac arrest felt herself leaving her body and exiting from her hospital room. She then seemed to travel in the out-of-body state to a point outside of the hospital, and she felt herself rise to a point near a tennis shoe that was sitting on a ledge near a third floor window. A subsequent search revealed that there really was such a shoe on the ledge. (A determined skeptic, could of course always argue that the patient might have caught a glimpse of the shoe when she was admitted or when entering the hospital on a previous occasion, as her admission took place at night.) Incidentally, Roach (2005) reports two similar cases involving a red shoe and a plaid shoe (the latter being understandably noticeable even to one in a comatose state). Roach observes that the “OBE traveller’s affinity for foot wear must remain a mystery” (Roach, 2005, p. 277).

The following case, taken from the journal of a British army officer (Ogston, 1920), is cited by Cook, Greyson and Stevenson (1998):

In my delirium night and day made little difference to me. In the four-bedded ward where they first placed me I lay, as it seemed, in a constant stupor which excluded the existence of any hopes or fears. Mind and body seemed to be dual, and to some extent separate. I was conscious of the body as an inert, tumbled mass near a door; it belongs to me but it was not I. I was conscious that my mental self used regularly to leave the body…until something produced a consciousness that the chilly mass, which I then recalled was my body, was being stirred as it lay by the door. I was then drawn rapidly back to it, joined it with disgust, and it became I, and was fed, spoken to, and cared for. When it was left again I seemed to wander off as before….

In my wanderings there was a strange consciousness that I could see through the walls of my building, though I was aware that they were there, and that everything was transparent to my senses. I saw plainly, for instance a poor R. A. M. C. [Royal Army Medical Corps] surgeon, of whose existence I had not known before, and who was in quite another part of the hospital, grow very ill and scream and die; I saw them cover his corpse and carry him softly out on shoeless feet, quietly and surreptitiously, lest we should know that he had died, and the next night - I thought - take him away to the cemetery. Afterwards, when I told these things to the sisters [senior nurses], they informed me that all this had happened….(Cook, Greyson and Stevenson, 1998, p. 383).

Cases such as these have led parapsychologists to perform experiments in which people have tried to travel to a remote location in the out-of-body state in order to identify target materials placed at that location. These experiments will be discussed later in this section. Of course, if these experiments are no more successful than ordinary ESP experiments, it would not be necessary to assume that the subjects literally traveled out of their bodies; instead, one could simply assume that the subjects used their ESP abilities to identify the target.

On rare occasions, witnesses present at the location to which an OBEr has traveled in the out-of-body state may experience an apparition of the OBEr or otherwise become aware of the OBEr’s presence. Such cases are sometimes given the (somewhat prejudicial) label “reciprocal hallucinations,” because both the OBEr and the witness have mutually consistent experiences, as in case of the physician on the steamer presented earlier in this section.

Perhaps the most famous instance of reciprocal hallucination in the annals of psychical research is the Wilmot case, reported in Myers (1903). It has in fact become almost obligatory to cite the Wilmot case in an introductory work on parapsychology. The events in this case occurred in the 1860s, so it is a very old case indeed. A Mr. S. R. Wilmot was sailing from Liverpool to New York when his boat passed through a severe storm. During the storm, he had a dream in which he saw his wife come into the door of his stateroom, hesitate and then bend down to kiss and caress him. Upon awakening, his fellow passenger William Tait said to him, “You’re a pretty fellow to have a lady come and visit you in this way.” When Wilmot pressed him for an explanation, Tait said that, as he lay awake in the upper bunk, he saw a woman enter, hesitate and then kiss Mr. Wilmot.

When Mrs. Wilmot greeted him upon his arrival in Watertown, Connecticut, she almost immediately asked him if he had received a visit from her on the night in question. She said that she had been anxious about the severity of the weather and the reported loss of another vessel. She had lain awake for a long time and at about 4:00 A.M. she had the sensation of leaving her physical self and traveling across the stormy sea until she reached her husband’s stateroom. She said she saw a man in the upper berth looking right at her and so for a moment she was afraid to go in. But she did enter, kissed and embraced her husband and then departed.

One major drawback to this case is that the principal informants did not give their testimony until about twenty years after the events in question.

Alan Gauld (1982, pp. 222-223) provides a more recent case of reciprocal hallucination. He quotes from a statement sent to the American Society for Psychical Research by a 26-year-old woman from Plains, Illinois. This woman experienced a dream on the morning of January 27, 1957, in which she seemed to travel to the home of her mother in northern Minnesota, 926 miles away:

After a little while I seemed to be alone going through a great blackness. Then all at once way down below me, as though I were at a great height, I could see a small bright oasis of light in the vast sea of darkness. I started on an incline towards it as I knew it was the teacherage (a small house by the school) where my mother lives.… After I entered, I leaned up against the dish cupboard with folded arms, a pose I often assume. I looked at my Mother who was bending over something white and doing something with her hands. She did not appear to see me at first, but she finally looked up. I had sort of a pleased feeling and then after standing a second more, I turned and walked about four steps.

Gauld also quotes a letter the woman received from her mother:

I believe it was Saturday night, 1.10, 26 January, or maybe the 27th. If would have been 10 after two your time. I was pressing a blouse here in the kitchen…. I looked up and there you were by the cupboard just smiling at me. I started to speak and you were gone. I forgot for a minute where I was. I think the dogs saw you too. They got so excited and wanted out—just like they thought you were by the door—sniffed and were so tickled.

Your hair was combed nice—just back in a pony tail with the pretty roll in front. Your blouse was neat and light—seemed almost white. [Miss Johnson confirmed in correspondence that this was an accurate description of her subjective appearance during the OBE.]

It is difficult to decide whether to classify this experience as a dream or as an OBE.

Philosopher Michael Grosso (1976) suggests that the OBE is just one in a continuum of states of consciousness encompassing schizophrenic, meditative, drug, reverie and dream states. He further argues that ESP, “traveling clairvoyance” (in which a person seems to project his mind to a distant location and to become aware of events happening at that location), and the OBE may merely represent three aspects of the same process.

There are a few other states of consciousness that also bear a resemblance to the OBE. Psychiatrists use the term “depersonalization state” to refer to instances in which a person feels himself to be detached from his emotions, actions and even his body. A person undergoing feelings of depersonalization may describe himself as hovering over his body and watching his body perform actions without really being a part of them himself. Janet Mitchell (1981) argues that depersonalization states differ from OBEs in that depersonalization states, unlike OBEs, may involve feelings of derealization (in which one’s environment is felt to be unreal). It should also be noted that the flattening of affect (that is, diminished emotional reactions) that is often a characteristic of depersonalization states is not usually reported by people undergoing OBEs.

Irwin (1996) notes that the reporting of OBEs is correlated with the reporting of childhood traumas, and he suggests that a tendency toward dissociation and the experiencing of OBEs may a type of defense mechanism. Irwin (2000) also reports evidence of elevated somatoform dissociation in persons reporting OBEs. In addition, he found that OBErs scored more highly on the trait of psychological absorption (e.g., the ability to “lose” oneself in a book one is reading).


Autoscopy is a state in which one perceives a double or apparition of oneself in the external environment, such as across the street. Autoscopy thus differs from the OBE in that the person’s location of consciousness seems to remain located in the physical body rather than in the double. Tyrrell (1953, p. 144) reports the case of Archbishop Frederic, who saw an apparition of himself after awakening from a deep sleep. He stated that the apparition was “luminous, vaporous and wonderfully real” and that the apparition was looking at him. This state lasted for a few seconds, after which the apparition disappeared. A few seconds later, the specter reappeared, only to vanish once again after a few more seconds.




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