Top positive review
5 people found this helpful
on 23 June 2013
The first half of this book is devoted to the emerging science of resuscitation; the author details precisely how people die, and how they are - or can be - brought back to life. He bemoans the lack of organisation in terms of critical care that leaves a majority of those who suffer cessation of critical functions, who could be 'recovered' but aren't, prematurely dead, because of a failure of understanding, coordination or simply availability of resources. I found this of only moderate interest, though I acknowledge the information is something many others might appreciate knowing. Certainly, the author does a good job of explaining highly technical and often complicated procedures in comprehensible terms.
It is only in the second half of the book that Sam Parnia begins to examine what happens to the consciousness, rather than the body, of those who die, and then, often after several hours, come back to life. He is especially intrigued by the accounts of a number of survivors that seem to show they continue to enjoy the use of faculties - sight, hearing, thought - registering as scientifically non existent during the period between their clinical death and their subsequent recovery.
He examines most of the explanations put forward by fellow scientists for this phenomenon; and in straightforward, layman's terms, details why they fail to hold water. As a scientist himself, he is not dismissive of the various 'brain failure' hypotheses as cause for what he prefers to term ADEs (actual death experiences) rather than NDEs (near death experiences); but the case for these is so weak, he is forced to conclude something other than physiological forces are at work.
He devotes the remainder of his book to explaining what he believes these forces are. That is, he methodically examines what it is that makes us individuals, by exploring the origin, seat and motive force of our psyches - by which he means individual consciousness. His tentative suggestion (he is too circumspect to call it a 'conclusion') is what I found most interesting about the entire book. He first points out what should be obvious to the meanest intelligence. Science is only able to verify what it can currently measure.
At present, it can't explain, never mind isolate, consciousness. It assumes, somewhat blithely, that it - consciousness - must be the result of brain activity, since the two so closely accompany one another. That it might be the other way around, with the brain 'channelling' consciousness, seems unthinkable. However, as Parnia points out, parallels exist. Electromagnetic rays have been in existence since time immemorial. They 'predate' humanity. Yet, until 'science' learned how to measure them, the opinion of the day would have been that they didn't - couldn't - exist.
Parnia thinks it is reasonable to suppose there might be other elements, or entities, that exist, and always have existed, but that science is currently unable to detect, or explain. One of these, he believes, might be consciousness. His suggests this is likely to be because it - consciousness - is irreducible. In other words, it requires something other than the current measuring tools of science in order to be properly recognised, beyond it's obvious 'effects'. Parnia is confident the necessary tool will one day be found. In the meantime, he is content to work in areas which are readily accessible. Chiefly, that means studying reports of those who have clinically died but claim to have had conscious experiences of living outside their bodies while 'dead', and verifying, or proving false, their claims in as objective a way as he can.
To that end he describes the current state of play in the AWARE project, which aims, amongst other things, to study reports of ADEs and NDEs first hand, and to try and establish any corroboration between what is claimed by a person when 'out of their body' and what occurred at 'ground level'
I don't think this is a great book on the subject, but it is a useful addition. Nothing the author says shows that it has yet been proved that individual consciousness can continue to exist after brain death, still less persist indefinitely. Quite what would constitute convincing proof is open for debate. Science would like something more than an endless succession of anecdotes, which are proving tantalisingly difficult to verify. Some of these anecdotes have become near myths in their own right. The 'shoe on the ledge', the 'false teeth in the drawer'. Sceptics love to tear these accounts apart, to show how risible the subject is.
I suppose 'extraordinary claims' do require 'extraordinary evidence'; but I occasionally experience a sense of wonder that in courtrooms across the world, people are being convicted of crimes, and sentenced, on the basis of testimony that is no more certain than anecdote. Often, the word of a casual witness is taken as fact, whereas the accounts of those who have experienced NDEs are regularly derided, primarily as being unreliable.
Still, that is the way science works. It will resist anything outside its comfort zone, until it is blue in the face. It has to do this, because generally, ninety nine wacky theories clamouring for its attention will fall by the wayside, having been correctly labelled false. Whatever is persistent enough, though, usually has an element of truth to it. Eventually, science relents, and in the blink of an eye, proclaims its new understanding from the pulpit, as if it had been heralding it all along. Only time will tell what will happen concerning the study of consciousness. My money is on our brains having evolved to filter it, rather than it having evolved as a function of brain. I think Dr Sam Parnia believes this, too; but he recognises there is a long way to go to prove it.