Thursday, 18 September 2008

Watching death

BBC News have this morning reported that doctors at 25 UK and US hospitals plan to test people's experiences of near death - those cases where a heart attack brings a person to the brink of death before they are revived.

This was one of the 'Most important psychology experiments that's Never been done' cited by Dr Susan Blackmore in our special anniversary feature last year.

Apparently the new experiment will involve placing images on high-up shelves that will only be visible to patients if their consciousness really does leave their body. The researchers, led by Dr Sam Parnia, also plan to image the brains of the patients.

The official press release refers vaguely to 'cerebral monitoring techniques', which may not match the accuracy of PET or FMRI. Nonetheless, what's planned does sound very close to the experiment proposed by Blackmore at the BPS Research Digest last year. She wrote:
The most important experiment that’s never been done is to take fMRI or PET scans of people as they die; either those who really do go on to die, or those who suffer clinical death but are resuscitated. If this were done we would be able to test theories about how Near Death Experiences and mystical experiences are generated in the dying brain, and answer questions about the timing of the experiences. Perhaps even this would not resolve the final question once and for all, but it would certainly bring us a lot closer to knowing what happens when we die.
If evidence were found for patients' consciousness existing beyond the confines of the body, we would obviously have to re-write everything we know about the link between the mind and brain. I expect the results will show that Near Death Experiences are caused by brain activity during the heart attack, and that no patients will see the images placed on the shelves.

Link to Southampton University Press release.
Link to Susan Blackmore writing for our special feature 'Most important psychology experiment that's Never been done'

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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