Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Near-Death Nation

November 8th, 2010 · 7 Comments

Readers who’ve been checking this space for a while may remember that I have a longstanding fascination with near-death experiences and the ways in which they can alter lives. And so I was struck by this line from a recent Wall Street Journal piece about researchers’ continuing attempts to determine why, exactly, folks on the verge of death tend to have awe-inspiring visions of a culturally appropriate Great Beyond:

At least 15 million American adults say they have had a near-death experience, according to a 1997 survey—and the number is thought to be rising with increasingly sophisticated resuscitation techniques.

That’s an aspect of medical progress that I’d never before considered: As more and more people survive trauma, we’re going to have a lot more folks walking the streets who have been fundamentally changed by the hallucinations that often precede death. (For the record, I believe that these visions are the product of a neural mechanism that seeks to maximize a person’s odds of survival by limiting their pain and panic. But I could be totally wrong.) That means millions more people are going to take radically different directions in life upon recovering from their injuries. And that could really be a net positive for the nation, as those who’ve undergone near-death experiences are often predisposed to take risks that can lead to greatness. My favorite case in point: James Michener:

During World War II, at age 40, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a naval historian to investigate problems on various islands and write reports. Observing the interaction of two different cultures and inspired by the beautiful setting of the South Pacific, he began to make notes with no specific goal in mind. A near fatal landing at dusk, on the Tontouta Air Base in French New Caledonia, changed his life. He recalls in his autobiography, “As the stars came out and I could see the low mountains I had escaped, I swore: ‘I’m going to live the rest of my life as if I were a great man.’ And despite the terrible braggadocio of those words, I understood precisely what I meant.”

I remain convinced that medical science will eventually figure out a way to simulate the effects of near-death experiences, in order to provide psychological therapy to people suffering from depression and malaise. But at present, as the WSJ notes, the only way we can do this is by either applying great gobs of pressure to the brain, or administering Special K. Tough to foresee the FDA approving either one of those methods.

(Image via BBC Local Cambridgeshire)


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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    This is exactly why I would like to see the restrictions on research with hallucinogens loosened. There’s so much we can learn about how the mind works with those tools. The fact that tiny chemical changes in those compounds can lead to radically different results indicates just who exquisitely delicate all of those interactions are. I can’t wait for people to figure out what’s going on.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: I agree with you, but I think there are some key ethical concerns to sort through. As we’ve discussed, the results of using these compounds are very hard to predict, and vary from subject to subject. We’d be asking test subjects to assume a lot of risk. I think IRBs would be skeeved out by the liability issues, even if willing volunteers sign waivers.

    But, yeah, that is certainly untapped research terrain, and a line of inquiry that could prove really valuable to our comprehension of the mind.

  • Jordan

    Eh, I think there are enough well-known compounds at this point that we could get some good work done without a whole lot of trouble. Especially for pilot studies, you could do dose escalation each time, starting with sub-critical doses and working up. That way you don’t given anyone a heroic dose to start with.

    I think there’s also less risk these days because we have a much better understanding of things like set and setting than researchers did back in the 40s and 50s, when experiments with hallucinogens would often be carried out in sterile, white hospital rooms, which is pretty much the opposite of what you want when you’re tripping. There are some complications from priming, but being able to explain some of the possible effects of the compounds beforehand would help a lot as well. Last, but not least, the fact that researchers would be using pure compounds in known quantities would go a long, long way towards making such trials safer.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Interesting points, thanks so much for the reply. I agree that this is potentially important research, and I hope we can figure out a way to get it done in the safest, most efficacious manner possible. I just worry that we’re a long way off from doing so, due to the host of questions that would need to get sorted out. Like, how do you select test subjects in order to minimize the odds of negative effects? How do you handle liability issues? (Presumably with a blanket waiver, but is that feasible?) And is it possible to compare to placebo?

    Tough hurdles to clear, but not insurmountable. And as you note, I don’t think we’ve even begun to understand the potential knowledge that could be gleaned from such research.

  • Ian Carey

    But isn’t the more pertinent part behind the life-changing aspect of these experiences not the sensation, but the fact that the patient really believes he or she was at the brink of death and returned? Seems like trying to induce these “spiritual” states chemically would be a little like giving someone a placebo and telling them it’s a placebo. It might be interesting, but not likely to lead to enlightenment if you knew you were never really in danger.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Ian Carey: Good point–I can see how we might be having some correlation/causation problems here. I’d like to know more about how depth/vividness of an NDE relates to post-event life choices. Maybe there’s a confluence of factors at work–not just the relief at having escaped the Reaper, but also something neurochemical.

    If it does turn out that you’re 100 percent correct, though, perhaps we’ll someday have services that create the total experience for unsuspecting clients–that is, people whose friends or relatives hire such services. (Think of the company in David Fincher’s “The Game.”) Like, they’ll totally make you believe that you were on the edge of death, while assuring your pals/relatives that everything is under control. It’ll be the ultimate Xmas gift–a jolt out of one’s malaise.

  • minderbender

    See also God Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian, by Kurt Vonnegut. I read it a long time ago and I remember liking it quite a bit.