Is The AWARE Project Really Finding Answers? NDE’s And The Science Of Death

If you’ve been keeping up with my work at all over the past year or so, you’re familiar with my interest in the mind-body question.  That is the question of whether we, humans, have souls or if consciousness is the result of neurological processes alone.  A big question to be sure, but one that a select few people believe they are close to answering.

One such person is Sam Parnia M.D., PhD.  For those in the Fortean community, Parnia probably needs no introduction, but for those of you unfamiliar, Parnia is a Critical Care physician and Director of Resuscitation Research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York.  A global authority on the scientific study of death, Parnia is considered to be a leading expert on the mind-body question and specifically Near-Death-Experiences.  He approaches the issue of death and how it relates to consciousness in a wholly scientific manner, as opposed to the historically popular theological or philosophical treatments we all know so well.

Dr. Sam Parnia

Among his colleagues, Parnia is renowned for being the best known proponent for updating current medical practices regarding resuscitation in hospitals.  The current mindset in emergency rooms or critical care units is of cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) being used as a last ditch effort to bring back a person who has succumbed to our ultimate end.  This mindset, Parnia (and others) contend is responsible for many thousands of people being lost to correctable ailments with little or no effort put toward bringing them back.

Parnia claims that procedures, such as those practiced in Japanese hospitals currently – namely drastically cooling the body immediately following death to minimise neuronal degradation, and artificially oxygenating the patient’s blood to ensure that their heart will function properly upon resuscitation – will drastically improve both the chance that a person can be brought back from the brink following a correctable incident (a heart attack for instance) and will also increase the time allowed between death and successful resuscitation; to several hours in some cases.[1]

‘Ascent of the Blessed’ A Hieronymous Bosch painting (c.1490), thought to be the earliest depiction of a Near-Death-Experience

The above is arguably considered to be Parnia’s primary focus in research, though many people have latched onto one of his more flamboyant research projects with a fervor.  That project is the AWARE Study, or AWAreness in REsuscitation which has been undertaken by the Human Consciousness Project.  Most are aware (no pun intended) of what this project is, though probably not by name.  AWARE is a presumably scientific study into Near-Death-Experience or NDE as most know it.  In this particular study, researchers, led by Parnia, are working with some 25 hospitals in Europe, Canada, and the US.

“During the AWARE study, physicians will use the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest. At the same time, they will also be testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above.”[2]

Many people in scientific, metaphysical and paranormal/Fortean circles have been anxiously awaiting results from this study, though, to our disappointment, those results have been slow in coming.  This is due in part to the fact that such research takes a great deal of time.  While people die every day, controlling the circumstances in which they die, as well as where they die, so as to make use of any anecdotal testimony they may share following resuscitation is quite difficult to arrange.  Parnia and colleagues have also been somewhat tight lipped about their progress, and understandably so.  Though this leaves those of us who are out of the loop to fumble for numbers and sound bites to play with.

Parnia has recently published some preliminary findings in his book (with Josh Young) Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting The Boundaries Between Life And Death (HarperOne 2013).  And to my mind, those results are less than encouraging.  In lieu of reading the book, which I have not yet done myself but fully intend to (as I would encourage anyone reading this to do also), Parnia participated in an interesting interview with NPR[3] which highlights my point.

Methodologically, there are problems with this study that might be barriers to its success.  In the NPR interview, Parnia admits that only about 1 out of 1000 patients has remembered an NDE that included an OBE or out-of-body-experience (which is necessary for the gathering of data points in this study).  This is due to the conditions I mentioned above, wherein it’s exceedingly difficult to control the conditions of a person’s death, so as to ensure that their experience will qualify for inclusion to this study.  Add to this the fact that the confirmed numbers of people who have what could be called an NDE following “clinical death” – a term Parnia loathes – are fewer than 15% of those who died and were resuscitated.

When questioned about the fact that more than eighty percent of those people who die as a result of a cardiac condition and whom are resuscitated do not report an NDE or OBE, Parnia claims that those numbers are inaccurate, describing a process that appears similar to one forgetting a dream after waking, with memories of the NDE/OBE fading quickly after gaining consciousness.  Which may appear to be a reasonable answer, but in reality if the patient does not recall a Near-Death-Experience, then they cannot be said to have had one, which excludes them from the statistical results of the study.  What Parnia attributes as a cause for this situation does nothing to strengthen these preliminary conclusions, which are that few of the participants in the AWARE Project have shown positive results.  That is, few have had experiences that support the purpose of the study, and to-date, not one patient has relayed the content of the placards, or even noted seeing a placard at all.

A negative result is still a result though.

This view of the numbers gives perspective, but no one is claiming that NDE’s with OBE components don’t happen.  The skeptical view is that those experiences are much too subjective to be considered reliable testimony on the reality of an after-death landscape.  As I’ve written in the past, there is a drastic dichotomy between the typical scientific assessment of this issue and the typical philosophical position.  The AWARE Project is a common sense attempt to bring a little science into what has historically been a spiritual subject, but while many people are setting up camp directly under the ‘confirmed’ sign, Parnia’s comments don’t really seem to warrant such.

I would encourage those interested to pay close attention to this study and to the Human Consciousness Project, as I’m quite certain they are our best hope for finding an answer to this question.  To be clear though, while the results of the AWARE Project hold the potential to shed light on issues that we’re all interested in – namely the after-life, ghosts, the existence of the soul, etc. – Parnia makes clear that his purpose is not that grand.  He is not in search of a religious affirmation of the after-life, nor is he hoping to prove that ghosts exist (and his study would do little in that regard anyway), he is simply trying to better understand the process of death and how it relates to cognition and the successful resuscitation of people who might yet have the potential for a long and productive life.

[1] Adams, Tim. Sam Parnia – The Man Who Could Bring You Back From The Dead. The Guardian.

[3] – ‘Erasing Death’ Explores The Science of Resuscitation. February 20, 2013.

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