Near death, rehashed

Beauregard's reaction to out-of-body science criticisms proves my original point

Topics: Neuroscience,

Near death, rehashed PZ Myers (Credit: Wikipedia)
This originally appeared on PZ Myers' blog. It was written as part of a continuing debate over the recent excerpt from Mario Beauregard's "Brain Wars" (HarperOne), about near-death experiences, republished on Salon.

The story so far: Mario Beauregard published a very silly article in Salon, claiming that Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) were proof of life after death, a claim that he attempted to support with a couple of feeble anecdotes. I replied, pointing out that NDEs are delusions, and his anecdotal evidence was not evidence at all. Now Salon has given Beauregard another shot at it, and he has replied with a “rebuttal” to my refutation. You will not be surprised to learn that he has no evidence to add, and his response is simply a predictable rehashing of the same flawed reasoning he has exercised throughout.

In his previous sally, he cited the story of Maria’s Shoe, a tall tale that has been circulating in the New Age community for decades, always growing in the telling. This story is the claim that a woman with a heart condition was hospitalized, and while unconscious with a heart attack, her spirit floated out of the coronary care unit to observe a shoe on a third-floor ledge. As has been shown, she described nothing that could not be learned by mundane observation, no supernatural events required, and further, that the story is peculiarly unverifiable: “Maria” cannot be found, not even in the hospital records, and no one has been found who even knew this woman. The entire story is hearsay with no independent evidence whatsoever.

Beauregard attempts to salvage the story by layering on more detail. The description of the shoe was very specific, he says, right down to the placement of the laces and the pattern of wear, and she could not possibly have learned this by overhearing staff talking about it because “it would have been difficult for Maria to understand the location of the shoe in the hospital and the details of its appearance because she spoke very little English.” This is a curious observation; the claim is that she could not understand a description of the shoe, but she was able to describe the shoe herself to a woman, Kimberly Clark Sharp, who did not understand Spanish.

“When I got to the critical-care unit, Maria was lying slightly elevated in bed, eyes wild, arms flailing, and speaking Spanish excitedly,” recounts Sharp. “I had no idea what she was saying, but I went to her and grabbed her by the shoulders. Our faces were inches apart, our eyes locked together, and I could see she had something important to tell me.”

The question isn’t whether a seriously ill woman with poor command of English could see the shoe; it’s whether a healthy, ambulatory, English-speaking woman who has made a career out of the myth of NDEs could see the shoe. Beauregard’s additions to the anecdote do not increase its credibility at all.

Beauregard adds another anecdote to the litany, the story of another cardiac patient who was resuscitated and later recounted seeing a particular nurse while his brain was not functional. Seriously — more anecdotes don’t help his case. He threatens to have even more of these stories in a book he’s in the process of publishing, but there’s no point. He could recite a thousand vague rumors and poorly documented examples with ambiguous interpretations, and it wouldn’t salvage his thesis.

This new anecdote is more of the same. The patient is comatose and with no heart rhythm when brought into the hospital; over a week later, he claims to recognize a particular nurse as having been present during his crisis, and mentions that she put his dentures in a drawer.

I am underwhelmed. I must introduce Beauregard to two very common terms that are well understood in the neuroscience community.

The first is confabulation. This is an extremely common psychological process in which we fill in gaps in our memory with fabrications. I described this in my previous response, but Beauregard chose to disregard it. The patient above has a large gap in his memory, but he knows that he existed in that period, and something must have happened; he knows that he was resuscitated in a hospital, so can imagine a scene in which he was surrounded by doctors and nurses; he knows that his dentures are missing, so he suspects that someone put them somewhere, likely one of the people surrounding him during the emergency. So his brain fills in the gap with a plausible narrative. This whole process is routine and unsurprising, and far more likely than that his mind went wandering away from his brain.

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The second term is confirmation bias. Only positive responses that confirm Beauregard’s expectations are noted. The patient guessed that a nurse he met during his routine care was also present during his episode of unconsciousness, and he was correct. What if he’d guessed wrongly? That event would be unexceptional, nobody would have made note of it, and Beauregard would not now be trotting out this incident as a vindication of his hypothesis. This is one of the problems of building a case on anecdotes; without knowledge of the range and likelihood of various results, one can’t distinguish the selective presentation of chance events from a measurable phenomenon.

While unaware of basic concepts in science, Beauregard seems to readily adopt the most woo-ish buzzwords. His explanation for this purported power of the mind to exist independently of any physical substrate is, unfortunately and predictably, quantum mechanics. Every charlatan in the world seems to believe that attaching “quantum” to a word makes it magical and powerful and unquestionable. I have to accept Terry Pratchett’s rebuttal: “‘Let’s call it Quantum!’ is not an explanation.” And neither is Beauregard’s feeble insistence that the universe possesses quantum consciousness, that psychic powers represent quantum phenomena, or that there is an infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence.

Beauregard then accuses me of having an ideological bias, and that I’m a fanatical fundamentalist. He, of course, is the dispassionate, objective observer with no ax to grind, only interested in reporting the scientific facts. Unfortunately, his book “The Spiritual Brain” reveals to the contrary that he has some very, very strange beliefs.

Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being (or primordial matrix). That is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe, including both physics (material nature) and psyche (spiritual nature). Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical world…it is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe.

If I am an ideologue, it’s only in that I demand that if you call something science, it bear some resemblance in method and approach to science, not mysticism. Beauregard insists on trying to endorse the babbling piffle above as science by reciting the number of publications he has made, and how much grant money he’s got, when I’m looking for verifiable, reproducible, measurable evidence.

I would also remind him that Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable.

PZ Myers is a biologist and associate professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris. He is the science blog Pharyngula.

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