Friday, May 30, 2014

Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death

Book Review: Science and the Near Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death by Chris Carter (2010 Inner Traditions

This is really an excellent, non-biased overview of all the research and studies on these phenomena. The title is good as the book is both about science and the NDE. The nature of science is examined in regard to the implications of NDEs and similar phenomena that defy the materialistic paradigm – which, as the author demonstrates – can be akin to an ideology. The subtitle is stretching it a bit, as there is only the pretty good suggestion through examining the data, that consciousness survives death.

Part I of the book examines the question of whether consciousness depends on the brain or not. A full 50+ pages are devoted to “physics and consciousness” and include some interesting quantum mechanical theories of the mind. The mind is also examined from the view of neurology. Since this book is more like two books in one, this will be a long review of both the possible Quantum effects of consciousness and of NDE research.

Humans have considered immortality for aeons and organized preparation for an afterlife was a feature of early civilizations. The Greek atomists (Democritus, Epicurus, and the Roman Lucretius) defined the soul in terms of atoms. Lucretius argued that mind and body were virtually inseparable. This is perhaps the beginning of a materialistic view of mind. Thomas Huxley in the 19th century argued that consciousness was merely an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Darwin disagreed. Bertrand Russell noted that mind and matter cannot be fully comprehended by causal logic since the nature of matter is subjected to the uncertainties imposed by quantum theory and mind is subjective. Russell merely considered the possibility of “disembodied mind.” Gilbert Ryle’s influential work – The Concept of Mind – (this was the textbook in a ‘Philosophy of Mind’ class I took at college) – argued that mind and body were inseparable, that mind is merely the “ghost in the machine,” and to conjecture that there are psychological laws beyond physical laws is to make a “category mistake.” Another behaviorist/materialist advocate was the humanist writer Corliss Lamont who wrote that “man is a unified whole of mind-body or personality-body so closely and completely integrated that dividing him up into two separate and more or less independent parts becomes impermissible and unintelligible.” These are mostly philosophical positions but there are many behaviorist/materialist advocates in neurology too. Perhaps it is the physicists who are most open to mind/consciousness as stretching beyond the boundaries of the physical due to the paradigm-shattering paradoxes of quantum theory. A key question is whether consciousness can exist independently of body. Hippocrates referred to the brain as a messenger or interpreter for consciousness. Does the brain produce consciousness or does it receive and transmit consciousness? This question is considered throughout this book. French philosopher Henri Bergson suggested that “matter and consciousness interact, with both being elemental components of the universe, neither reducible to the other.” William James first brought the question to the forefront with his idea that the brain does not produce or permit consciousness but transmits it. The brain may receive, limit, and selectively transmit consciousness – as James conjectured. It has been pointed out that both the production and transmission hypotheses of consciousness can be supported by research in neurology and psychology although most neurologists seem to favor a more materialistic approach.

A section on consciousness and neuroscience includes the work of Wilder Penfield with ESB – electrical stimulation of the brain, and epilepsy. Penfield did many experiments. He concluded that the brain and stimulating certain areas of it may give rise to neurological phenomena but they don’t give rise to consciousness itself. In other words, brain activity alone cannot account for consciousness – but it may be a necessary condition for consciousness (as we know it). Still the question remains whether the mind can exist and function independently of the brain. Penfield thinks it can and does. The author refers to this idea of mind independent of brain as a dualistic model of mind-brain interaction. Neuroscientist John Eccles also favors this view. He noted time discrepancies between neuronal activity and conscious experience. He utilized Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” metaphor so he was at least partially a materialist. He saw a two-way interaction between mind and brain. Mind gives brain a willed action and brain returns a conscious experience. Neuroscientists tend to favor the production hypothesis (that the brain produces consciousness) but the same data (neural correlates of consciousness, ESB, and the effects of brain lesions) could equally support the transmission hypothesis (that the brain transmits consciousness). The author uses the analogy of the TV set as a transmitter of signals into moving pictures. My own view is that the mind is indeed separate from the brain – it seems intuitive enough. I seem to favor the transmission hypothesis.

Physicist James Jeans noted that: “the universe begins to look like a great thought rather than like a machine.” The author sees our modern scientific worldview as a legacy of classical Newtonian physics, and thus flawed in various ways. Both Newton and Descartes thought that human consciousness and free will were beyond the realm of the physical world. Descartes included animals in the mechanistic universe as mindless automatons. Others followed later with all life, including consciousness and free will, being in the domain of the mechanistic universe, with mental processes seen as epiphenomena, mere by-products of brain activity.

In the early twentieth century quantum mechanics was developed. “Quantum mechanics replaces the deterministic universe described by classical physics with a probabilistic universe.” The role of the observer is emphasized in quantum physics and observation is dependent on consciousness. There are three main views of quantum physics among scientists: 1) the Copenhagen interpretation that suggests conspiratorial determinism, 2) Von Neumann’s version where the consciousness of the observer fits into the Copenhagen interpretation, where consciousness collapses the wave function replacing the conspirator with the observer 3) the hidden variable theory, and 4) the many worlds hypothesis. The last two are described here as attempts to rescue determinism. The Von Neumann interpretation seems most relevant. The author does note that all four of these interpretations are consistent with observed facts. These quantum theories are considered to be metaphysical rather than physical but they are supported by experiment and mathematics. Psychokinesis experiments also suggest that in addition to the conscious observer collapsing the wave function he or she may also shift the odds in certain directions – mentally. Such a suggestion gives consciousness a hint of creative power.

Bell’s theorem provides mathematical and experimental evidence that the universe is non-local. Non-locality supersedes classical physics. Along with non-locality and the related concept of entanglement, another feature of quantum mechanics is nonmechanical causation. Examples would be nonlocal instantaneous influence of phase entangled particles, the collapse of the wave function by conscious observation, and the so-called quantum Zeno effect where a continuously observed unstable particle does not decay.
Quantum theorist Henry Stapp has noted that in the probabilistic quantum universe, a potentiality is more like an idea of what might happen than an enduring material substance. The author examines three Quantum Mechanical Theories of Mind, those of Henry Stapp, John Eccles, and Evan Harris Walker. All of these theories follow the Von Neumann/Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics.

“ … today most quantum models of consciousness place the mechanism of mind-matter interaction at the level of the neural synapse – the tiny gap between the electric tentacles of the nerve cell.”

Eccles was key in discovering how neurons communicate with chemicals, neurotransmitters, across the synapse, to cause or inhibit firing of adjacent cells.

“Most mind-altering drugs achieve their effects by altering the transmission of neurotransmitters, which gives us important clues about the consciousness-sensitive areas of the brain.”

Eccles notes that “consciousness affects brain activity by manipulating the way chemicals are released into the synaptic gap.” The neural sites are so small that some consider that quantum uncertainty may dictate whether the release mechanisms are activated. Apparently, at the level of more smallness the role of quantum uncertainty is increased.

Henry Stapp’s model is similar to that of Eccles but he places the critical juncture between mind and matter at the level of the calcium ion which is about one-millionth the size of the synaptic site but is essential to the operation of the synapse. Stapp suggests that when we will to do something consciousness collapses the wave function of the calcium ions in our brains that are responsible for initiating the “template” for such an action. The template is based on previous similar actions through first learning then habit. These ideas could have an interesting tie-in to Sheldrake’s “habitual memories of nature” through “morphogenetic fields.” However, Stapp thinks that the quantum randomness of nature tends to dilute conscious intent. The templates of conscious intent may be preserved as needed, according to Stapp, by the quantum Zeno effect which keeps the template from decaying. He also noted that animals who can sustain a quantum Zeno effect the longest and more effectively would gain a survival advantage so that (in the words of Stapp:

“… the rules of quantum mechanics can endow conscious effort with the causal efficacy to permit its evolution and deployment via natural selection.”

Stapp also noted that distraction saps will so that a given “quantum template for action” will be more likely to decay with less application of will. Fascinating stuff there about how will, consciousness, and quantum effects may function as a system.

Evan Harris Walker’s quantum theory of consciousness favors the electron as the mind-matter interface – one-hundred thousandth the size of the calcium ion. Quantum tunneling electrons traveling instantaneously to even far-away synapses are proposed as the basis of a proposed second (quantum) nervous system. Walker’s theory has been mostly ignored by neuroscientists but it is apparently the most developed of the quantum models of consciousness. The author notes that all three of these theories are dualistic in that they “postulate a nonphysical mind that also exerts a real influence in the physical world.”

According to the author the quantum mechanical models of mind can explain: 1) the placebo effect, 2) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), 3) psychic abilities, and 4) the NDE. Non-materialist neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz writes, “The time has come for science to confront the serious implications of the fact that directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function.”

The author also goes through materialist theories of mind. Thomas Huxley’s notion that the mental activity is an epiphenomenon of brain activity was not supported by his friend Darwin nor by Karl Popper who noted that our mental activities influence our behavior and thus our evolution. One noted problem in this field is known as the “interaction problem” – how can mind and matter interact? Philosopher Daniel Dennett stated that interaction of mind and matter was not possible because it violates physics. Henry Stapp counters that while it may violate the laws of classical physics it does not violate the mechanisms of the Von Neumann interpretation of contemporary quantum physics. There is the question whether the mind is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain, that it emerges with brain activity, or whether it is an elemental property of the universe itself. The latter seems more intuitive to me. One may call these notions mind/matter dualism but there is much more implied than what Descartes proposed as mind as director of body.

Experiments to determine where memories are stored have revealed neural correlation in several parts of the brain and suggest that no one place or structure stores them. Cells and structures decay and are replaced. Memories may change but often they can exist far longer than the structures that are thought to support them. There is even the possibility that memories are stored outside the brain. Neither materialist nor non-materialists have adequately solved the memory-storage problem.

The author compares two main theories of life: vitalism and the mechanistic theory.
Developmental biology stressed a concept called morphogenesis, the development of one form from another – such as the development of an adult from an embryo or a plant from a seed. Cells and body parts of creatures also regenerate. Machines cannot do such things. Vitalists claim that morphogenesis cannot be explained mechanistically and stress the possible presence of non-material vital factors, ie. souls or fields. Biologists have proposed the idea of morphogenetic fields that influence development. Rupert Sheldrake proposed the Formative Causation Hypothesis which is based on what he calls “morphic resonance” where nature develops habitual patterns mainly at the species level that can be interpreted as species memory or on a wider scale, the habitual memory of nature. In Sheldrake’s idea there is no transfer of energy but only of information. His ideas have been controversial but it is clear that he is on to something about how self-organizing systems develop. His ideas support the possibility that memories and information can be stored beyond the brain. Aldous Huxley, in describing his experiments with mescaline, became convinced that the brain filters sensory and mental data to a finely selective set. A situation like experiencing hallucinogens bypasses the filter to variable extents and brings what is often described as expansion of consciousness with accompanying distortive effects. He called this unfiltered mind, “mind-at-large.” Thus, he was a strong advocate of the transmission theory. The author points out that certain features of the NDE also support the selective transmission theory. The first hundred or so pages of this book set up the scientific evidence for the transmission theory and its implications: that mind and memory could possibly exist independently of body. Now we come to Part II – The Near-Death Experience.

The NDE phenomenon may shed light on the mind/body interface. Various estimates for the frequency or NDEs experienced by those on the brink of death range from 5 to 30%. In the ancient past there are hints such as Plato’s legend of Er and Bosch’s painting – Ascent into the Empyrean. The visions of seers and shamans may have been influenced by NDEs and accounts of the NDEs of others. Systematic study of NDEs began in the 1970’s with Raymond Moody’s 1977 Life After Life. The Journal of Near Death Studies continues to accumulate data. The large amount of data has enabled researchers to present a composite experience as well as features of the NDE. These features may or may not occur in sequential stages as given in this order: 1) Feelings of peace – while there may be periods of sadness and anxiety, accounts overwhelming indicate peaceful and joyful feelings. 2) Separation from the body – a high percentage report these OBEs, yet most don’t remember leaving the body, just appearing out of it. Reports indicate that the OBE experiencers feel that they are clear, rational, and that the experience is vivid. The author gives several accounts. He notes that from a researcher’s perspective the OBE part of an NDE is most important since it is the only part that could possibly give independent corroboration. Later in the book he gives a few intriguing examples. 3) Passage through darkness – often this is seen as going through a tunnel, a corridor, or some pitch black surroundings. Interestingly, descriptions of shamanic journeys also often involve going through a tunnel. 4) Seeing a Light – often the light is describes as brilliant but not blinding and the passage through darkness to a new place of light is often interpreted as entering a different realm, often with different qualities. 5) Encountering the deceased or a presence – these encounters are reported in about 40% of cases and often include the deceased in a youthful and healthy state. Most encounters of a “presence” are not in terms of one’s religious beliefs. There are a few interesting examples of encountering someone very recently deceased that was not known to be deceased by the NDE experiencer. 6) Life Review – this occurs in about 3-25% (avg 13%) of cases. This part may be the only distressing part of an NDE to some as painful memories are invoked but not always. NDEs are often profound and life-changing to those who experience them. After-effects include a thirst for knowledge, increased compassion and tolerance, reduced interest in material possessions, and increased interest in spirituality (but rarely religion or dogma), reduced fear of death, and increased belief in an afterlife. Type of near-death trauma does not seem to influence the experience.

There is a chapter on – Horrific Near-Death Experiences. Fundamentalist Christian cardiologist Maurice Rawlings wrote a book which he says shows the literal existence of hell but it appears to be strongly biased and he suggests that encounters with hellish realms are forgotten by NDE experiencers. Though some may experience prolonged situations described as a’meaningless void’ the author acknowledges Rawlins bias as B.S.
Some frightening accounts changed to blissful when the person gave up and accepted that they were dying during the NDE. Hellish NDEs are pretty rare in the accounts and some (classical hot hell experiences) were extensions of heat stress during an accident or treatment – such as suffering a heatstroke or being in a heat cage. In a few rare NDEs though, there is fear and panic, sensing an evil presence, or entering a hell-like place. One might also see frightening NDEs as similar to the underworld or lower world journeys of heroes, mystics, and shamans.

Interestingly, cross-cultural studies of NDEs indicate fairly similar experiences. There are some cultural influences but they seem secondary. Life reviews seem to be  more common in a Chinese study. Indian accounts seem to have the highest percentage of dogmatic influence. There is a recurring theme of Yama, the lord of death, and his assistants, called minions, or yamadoots. Another recurring Hindu religious theme in Indian accounts is that of the man with the book, Chitragupta, who consults a book – akin to the so-called Akashic records, that contains the life deeds of the person and their karma. This could also be considered a kind of life review. Other than this the NDE is more or less the same with most of the other features, with the notable exception of the tunnel. NDE-like experiences of some indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, and peoples of Guam, are also given and though they often show relations to landscapes, the other features are more or less similar, which does kind of confirm the cross-cultural similarities of NDEs. However, the life-review was often not a feature among indigenous folk and some researchers think it is more of a feature of those concerned with morality and karma in the context of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, and Christianity.

Proposed psychological explanations of the NDE include: 1) Fantasy and wishful thinking – this has very little merit and is not supported by the data. 2) Dissociated states – these are defense mechanisms associated with intense psychological stress. These states have been associated with realization of immanent death or injury and include dissociation, derealization (where the environment feels unreal), and depersonalization (one’s existence as a person becomes uncertain). Psychiatrist Russel Noyes has studied these phenomena and NDE. According to Noyes these dissociated states include an “altered sense of time, increased speed of thought, a sense of detachment, a feeling of unreality, a lack of emotion, sharper vision or hearing, flashbacks of memories, and a sense of harmony or unity with the universe.” He thinks that perception of immanent death is the prerequisite to such states as well as to full development of the NDE. Others disagree regarding NDEs since there are several cases where NDE experiencers seemingly had no time to consider a threat to their lives. Noyes’ case studies were mainly of those who were psychologically, rather than physically close to death. Descriptions of dissociated states, however, differ from the NDE and many researchers, including Sabom, have thrown much doubt that NDEs can be explained as dissociated states. It seems likely that dissociated states are a different phenomenon, though there are some similarities. 3) Imaginative reconstructions – cardiologist Michael Sabom basically debunked this idea that NDE experiencers who noted the details of their own resuscitations were merely reconstructing them based on what they know about how such resuscitations happen. The details in many cases were far too precise. 4) Semi-conscious perception – again from Sabom’s work it is clear that many who have had an NDE as well as experienced multiple semi-conscious states due to anesthesia and illness can clearly distinguish between them. 5) Memories of birth – Carl Sagan actually favored this explanation but it has been rather soundly discredited. The similarities of birthing to the tunnel, light, and OBE of the NDE state have certainly been noted but there is little to no evidence linking them to a memory of birth. While there may be some connection of the two phenomena in the psyche, it seems unlikely that there is an actual correlation. Features of the NDE such as seeing deceased relatives, feelings of peace, and the life review seem to have no connection.

Proposed physiological explanations include: 1) Endorphins – the role of endorphins is usually attributed to the first stage of the NDE – feelings of peace and joy. However, in NDE accounts the pain-free time does not continue after the NDE and pain returns upon re-awakening and since endorphins last much longer this is a blow to the endorphin hypothesis. Other, shorter acting neurotransmitters such as enkephalins, have also been proposed. Many neurotransmitters are released under stress but this explanation would be hard to test directly. 2) Oxygen starvation (hypoxia) – this explanation is frequently invoked. However, in thousands of hypoxia experiments done on thousands of people, many to the point of unconsciousness, no NDEs have been reported. Blood gases have been monitored during resuscitations. In a few comparisons it was found that in those who had NDEs, their oxygen levels were actually higher than those who reported the typical confused states associated with hypoxia. Others, such as Susan Blackmore have proposed that oxygen starvation produces the tunnel effect. The lack of tunnel effect in Indian and other non-Western accounts may be significant. There are other accounts where a tunnel effect was noted but oxygen starvation was not occurring. Pilots in training routinely undergo acute anoxia to make sure they can don their masks in time and those that fail do not have NDEs or similar experiences. Others who have experienced both acute anoxia and NDEs note that the experiences were much different.
3) Excessive carbon dioxide (hypercarbia) – these effects are well-known and some do resemble features of the NDE – feelings of well-being, OBEs, and revival of old memories. However, blood gas monitoring during NDEs also suggests that hypercarbia is not an explanation as there are NDE cases with both high O2 and low CO2 recorded. There is, however, the question whether measurement of blood gases equates to oxygen in the brain itself.

Another interesting aside are records of rapid acceleration and accompanying unconsciousness experienced by fighter pilots. This can be considered to be acceleration-induced anoxia and hypercarbia. The U.S. Air Force has conducted extensive experiments in simulations with up to 5Gs. There are very short periods (seconds) of unconsciousness followed by equally short periods of confusion. Feelings of euphoria are reported as are long lasting detachment and dissociation and an occasional OBE. Short dreams similar to sleeping dreams have also been reported. Aside form the feelings of euphoria and the occasional OBE, the differences from NDE are more than the similarities. 4) Temporal lobe seizures – these may cause memory flashbacks, hallucinations, and occasional OBEs. Hypoxia may cause these seizures and possibly the release of endorphins at death. The author notes research by pediatrician Melvin Morse who considered the ESB temporal lobe experiments of Wilder Penfield and attributed NDE to such seizures but aside from Penfield’s observations that they can bring old memories to the surface there seems to be little else characteristic of NDEs. Neurologist Michael Persinger stated that by stimulating the temporal lobe with magnetic fields, NDE-like experiences were induced but others have criticized his research and a team of Swedish researchers attempted to replicate his findings with a double blind study and failed to find anything similar. They attributed Persinger’s results to suggestion and placebo. Persinger’s experiments were widely publicized but many other scientists strongly questioned both his methods and results. Persinger’s results included accounts of much more fear, sadness, and loneliness than in the NDE literature.

NDE-like effects of certain drug experiences are next examined. Ronald Siegel, an expert on drugs and hallucinations (see his good book on Intoxication for one) thought that set (expectations and attitudes) and setting (physical and psychological environments) determines hallucinatory imagery. While this may be true for hallucinogenic drug users it is not necessarily for NDE experiencers. The NDE-like effects of drugs are random and partial and not wholly characteristic of reported NDEs. Having experienced many different hallucinogens myself I have never experienced anything I would strongly associate as an NDE-like experience – a few “sort-of(s)” here and there though. Geometrical patterns (cobwebs. Lattices, honeycombs, etc) are often reported with hallucinogens (I have experienced many times) but not at all with NDEs.

Another drug that is said to produce NDE-like effects is ketamine. I have never experienced this one but some scientists have claimed that they can basically induce an NDE with it. Timothy Leary considered it a voluntary way to experience a death-like state. Anesthetist Barbara Collier conducted large studies of the effects of ketamine. Many people had undesirable experiences in the hospital setting. Common features were kaleidoscopic effects of light, floating in space (OBE), a sense of fear, and depersonalization. Experiences were similar to those associated with sensory deprivation and it is thought that ketamine suppresses sections of the brain responsible for processing sensory information. Many accounts involve OBEs but only a few accounts resemble NDEs. It seems that ketamine experiences involve a wider range of phenomena than NDEs. Some have suggested that the brain may synthesize a chemical similar to ketamine as a protective function that occurs near-death. This is called the “glutamate hypothesis.”  The author notes that “the ketamine model is the most sophisticated attempt so far to provide an explanation for the NDE in terms of brain chemistry.” Ketamine experiences may depend on set and setting but NDEs do not appear to depend on a person’s previous mental state. Brain trauma of most every sort is associated with mental confusion rather than states of clarity so the idea of NDE being based on a protective brain chemical emitted during brain injury seems unlikely. Some have argued that the NDE may be experienced when consciousness is lost or recovered. However, severity of brain injuries is often gauged by the length of amnesia following them. Famed consciousness researcher John Lilly has experimented with ketamine on a large scale and is convinced that it is a chemical method of inducing an OBE. Other researchers such as Stanislav Grof and Rick Strassman tend to agree. The author notes that the possibility that ketamine causes a separation of mind and body needs to be verified with “veridical perception during a drug-induced OBE.” Apparently, there are some examples of veridical perception during an NDE which are recounted later. According to Scott Rogo, most of the NDE-like effects of ketamine were produced in patients recovering from surgery and most recreational users don’t report such intense effects. This may be due to the higher dosages required for anesthesia and/or the hospital surgery setting where patients are concerned with death. NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has used ketamine and notes that no effects he had resembled an NDE. Psychiatrist Rick Strassman also notes that in his hallucinogenic research trials with ketamine that the effects do not resemble accounts of NDEs. Ring noted that it is not known whether any NDE-ers ever experienced ketamine to compare. The author sees the ketamine model as both speculative and vague and that more research could be done to examine it.

A chapter examines psychologist Susan Blackmore’s Dying Brain Theory described in her book, Dying to Live. Her stated goal was to explain NDEs in a purely physiological/neurological and materialistic manner. She thinks the brain creates a new model of reality when the older model can no longer be sustained – so that it is a type of imaginative reconstruction which utilizes existing memories. She talks about neural disinhibition (where neurons are only excited rather than both excited and inhibited) brought on by anoxia. This, she thinks, causes random excitation of whole brain areas. Drugs, fever, exhaustion, brain chemicals such as endorphins, and temporal lobe seizures can also cause cortical disinhibition and these phenomena are associated with OBEs and possibly NDEs. Blackmore’s theory does not account for encountering deceased relatives. The author notes that “a major difficulty of all dying brain theories of the NDE is that they assume that clear memories can be formed at a time when cerebral function is severely compromised. An important consideration and one with significant variation is the question of what makes one clinically dead. It is not possible, according to modern neuroscience, that some residual consciousness remains during a flat EEG and no oxygen gets to the brain. Patients attribute NDEs to a time of unconsciousness although no one knows if time itself is altered. Scientifically, it seems unlikely that they occur during loss or recovery of consciousness but with severe time distortion it remains possible – though the author discounts it. The best evidence against the dying brain theories of NDE are the veridical perceptions during an NDE where people actually described things in sufficient detail happening to them while unconscious as they were in an OBE state. 

The author gives several examples of more recent accurate perceptions from those in an unconscious OBE state during an NDE. NDE researcher Janice Holden reviewed the available cases and found quite a few where details that could not have been known beforehand were described by those in the state. The author gives several examples that are fairly convincing. One was during a daring surgery to remove an aneurysm involving induced hypothermic cardiac arrest where the patient’s body temperature was lowered, her heartbeat and breathing stopped, and the blood drained from her body, so by some accounts she was clinically dead. The operation was a success and the patient had an NDE during the procedure. She described parts of the surgical procedure and details of the tools used that she could not have known about. She experienced a deceased grandmother and uncle. The uncle took her back through the tunnel and presumably into her body. It is a fascinating case.

Accounts of NDEs of blind people (many blind from birth) often involve them experiencing sight. Accounts are very similar to non-blind people. Some involved seeing accurately things in the house that they would not have known about.

The author also presents a scientific challenge to materialism involving philosopher Neal Grossman, philosopher of science Karl Popper, and NDE researcher Greyson. Grossman notes that science is a methodology of discovering reality but materialism often becomes dogmatic. Somewhat controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake has also written extensively on the dogmatic leanings of materialists in the modern scientific community. Materialists may be guilty of model-fitting and ignoring evidence that does not fit the model.

It is debatable whether those that have experienced NDEs were really dead. They may have just been at a gateway environment so it is also debatable whether NDEs are evidence for life or survival after death. Is death an irreversible state? With the advent of CPR and resuscitation death has come to be defined as loss of brain function. But some parts lose function before others so the debate continues. The author gives the following features of NDE that suggest survival:

1)      Normal or enhanced mental processes at a time when brain processes are severely impaired or entirely absent.
2)      Out-of-body view of one’s own body and of the surrounding environment
3)      Perceptions of deceased acquaintances
4)      Corroborated perception of events not accessible to one’s biological sense organs, apparently while out of the body

The first feature is most common and suggests that clarity of perception is not entirely dependent on proper brain function. These features only suggest survival. They do not prove it. The author, however, adds other phenomena that also support survival such as accounts of reincarnation, apparitions, and communication from the deceased.

There is a fascinating section on deathbed visions. Apparently, many people see an apparition that has come to take them away and then die within minutes. Others have had accurate perceptions of events (such as a recent death) that they could not have known about. Osis and Haraldson did studies in the West and in India and they note that “When the dying see apparitions, they are nearly always experienced as messengers from a post-mortem mode of existence.” Their studies also concluded that deathbed visions in the West and in India were nearly identical in format but with some cultural variation. In the West the apparitions were mostly defined as deceased relatives while in India they were religious figures or unknown persons. Another difference was that in the West the patients were generally eager to give their consent to go but those in India were not eager to give their consent. Apparently, there is a teaching in India that if a person has good karma and has led a moral life then a pleasant yamadoot (or messenger of death under the death lord Yama) will appear to them and if not then an unpleasant one will appear. In any case we see cultural expectations influencing these visions. In the Tibetan tradition it is said that during the process of death that visions will appear and that they are projections of one’s mind and should not be readily accepted as real. This is perhaps significant and indeed the Tibetans also say that at death the mind and body separate. Such projections may be influenced by cultural expectations. In Osis and Haraldson’s studies it was also noted that religious affiliations did not seem to have any effects on the experience aside from those who experienced what they perceived as yamadoots. They also concluded that a slow death was more conducive to these experiences of deathbed visions that are broadly similar to NDEs. NDEs seem to be more associated with unexpected near-death through accidents, heart attacks, drowning, and suicide attempts.

Though it was a noble effort I don’t think the author’s data do more than suggest evidence for survival beyond death. But a suggestion is better than no suggestion.
It is certainly plausible.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman's Sexual Energy

Book Review: The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Woman’s Sexual Energy by Winifred Milius Lubell (Vanderbilt University Press 1994)

This is a neat book. It is a study of a feminine mythos. It is well illustrated and delves into the very roots of mythology. The study revolves around the figure of Baubo from the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Baubo was an elder nurse-maid for a queen in Eleusis. When Demeter was distraught due to the rape and abduction of her daughter Persephone/Kore, she wandered in disguise in search of her. She ended up at Eleusis disguised as a servant and was brought to this queen for work. It was Baubo who cheered her up with a gesture of lifting her skirt to reveal her woman parts which made Demeter laugh. It is likely that Baubo then came to serve Demeter when she was revealed to be the earth goddess. Baubo is also called Iambe.

Along with the reference to Baubo/Iambe in the Hymn to Demeter, a slightly different version of her role occurs in Orphic literature. In one of the Orphic versions the wandering Demeter encounters Baubo and her husband Dysaules and is welcomed into their humble cottage. Their herdsmen sons Triptolemos and Eubuleus witnessed the rape and abduction of Persephone. In another version, one of the sons guides Demeter into the underworld. The other brother Eubuleus provided the pigs upon which they traveled to Hades. The Athenian author Philochorus wrote that Iambe was the daughter of Pan and the goddess Echo and noted that there was a sanctuary to Echo on the way to Eleusis, suggesting (among other suggestions) that Iambe/Baubo had a role in the Eleusinian Mysteries. A different Orphic myth occurred in Phrygia in Asia Minor. Here Baubo was said to have a daughter, Mise. They were both witchy, nocturnal, chthonic creatures frequently associated with Hecate. Like Hecate they were also associated with frogs. There is also a curious story from Sardinia where the Virgin Mary was mourning the death of her son and was consoled by a female frog who said that her own grief was worse since she had seven children ran over bay cart wheels. This made Mary laugh. This seems possibly a version of the Demeter/Baubo story.

The author paints a picture, investigating Baubo/Iambe as a universal mythic form, giving possible correlates in many cultures. Baubo’s gesture of revealing her vulva is called the ana-suromai. Apparently this gesture occurs in similar jesting yet protective/healing contexts in several cultures and forms. Baubo was said to be first connected in writing to the vulva by the 5th century B.C. philosopher Empedocles. Baubo was also referred to as Bona Dea, goddess of women. The author suggests that the ana-suromai gesture may have had something to do with women squatting over newly plowed fields to offer their menstrual blood for fertility. Another possibility is that of female puberty rites. The vulva as a symbol of power is quite evident and ubiquitous in art from Paleolithic times. The rites of the vulva may have faded or fallen out of favor with the advent of the male-dominated Olympian gods. There is a current of feminist mythology here but it is scholarly rather than militant. The forward to the book was written by Marija Gimbutas and she was an advisor. Gimbutas is slightly controversial in her feminine-centric views of the past but was nonetheless a brilliant archaeologist and mythographer.

The author gives the two functions of Baubo as Sage Iambe and Raucous Baubo. It was once thought that Iambe was the source of inspiration for iambic meter but it is now thought iambic meter figured in the Eleusinian Mysteries where raucous gestures and jokes may have been a part. Iambos refers to mocking poetry. Some authors consider that this was a part of the Thesmophoria but not of Eleusis.

The name Baubo is found on a few inscriptions on an Aegean island along with Demeter Thesmophoria (bringer of law and civilization), Kore, Hera, and Zeus. Olender noted that the root word “bau” was used in a few words associated with nursing an infant – ‘to lull to sleep, to rock, a cradle, a pacifier.’ The author notes that the root word is not common to Greek and may have been a foreign import. For this and several other reasons she thinks Baubo was a foreign goddess – possibly arising from the Sumerian goddess Bau, a goddess of the dark waters of the deep, or void, who was listed on a clay tablet dated to 2500 B.C. as having seven hundred priests and priestesses at her temple – so an important figure. The Phoenicians and Syrians had a similar goddess Baalat (Anat), the wife of the storm god Baal. Egyptologist Margaret Murray favored an Egyptian origin for Baubo from the Egyptian Beb ot Bebt, female counterpart of the god Beb, although not much is known about these two, apparently popular in the VIIth Dynasty (2250-2050 B.C.). Another possible link to Egypt is the cult of the cat goddess Bast. Her main temple was at Bubastis, along the Nile. She was a goddess particularly venerated by women. According to Herodotus women would crowd onto a barge and travel down the Nile on their way to Bubastis, coming close to shore in towns and displaying their revelry and ribaldry. Much wine was drunk. They would play music, shout, laugh, and hike up their skirts. Another Greek traveler reported similar skirt-raising gestures to the bull Apis at the Temple of Serapis in Memphis in the first century B.C. Later. Baubo was associated with the Hellenistic Isis as reliever of her grief anxiety at the loss of Osiris. 

There is evidence of the usage of Eleusis as a ritual site since 1450 B.C. Underground chambers – possibly to store grain - have been dated to then. The Eleusinian Mysteries were practiced there for more than a thousand years. The height was perhaps the 5th century B.C. when there were buildings, gardens and tended areas, and people coming from all over the Mediterranean to attend the eight day festival. There were public rituals and private rites for initiates. The public rites of the first five days were attended by all classes of society, including slaves. The initiates then did a procession to Eleusis. Nearing Eleusis there was a curious custom of clowning on a bridge that marked a boundary. The clowning included making lewd gestures and shouting obscenities. Such activity is common in many cultures as a means to induce fertility and that may well have been the function of Baubo and her gestures. Aristophanes in his play “The Frogs” mentions such jeering and jesting on a bridge by drunken women as a treasured part of the feast of the Goddess. The final three days of the rites were conducted in secret. River immersions, drinking of potions, ritual drama, eating of consecrated cakes, and the sacrifice of pigs are thought to have been parts. The three day October festival, Thesmophoria, was more solemn and mainly a women’s affair. Here women gather to mourn and console Demeter on the loss of Kore. Herodotus wrote that the rites came from Egypt through the daughters of Danaus. After the mourning parts were finished the rites turned to joke and jest strongly suggesting Baubo and her function of relieving the anxiety of grief and promoting fertility. Some thought it was a puberty ritual but others like Karl Kerenyi thought it was a traditional veneration of menstruation. He noted that a woman’s period was evidence of her own fertility and as long as they had that they could influence the fertility of the earth. In the Thesmophoria the women were separated from the men just like in more primitive societies where women go away from men during menstruation. Here the women acknowledged their kinship with the earth. On one day they ate only pomegranate seeds, likely to identify with Persephone. They made a tea of lygos (chaste tree) in order to stimulate menstruation. Thus, the Thesmophoria is thought to have been focused around communal menstruation. Interestingly, Baubo’s gesture may symbolically show that comedy may arise from tragedy, that the emotional overtones of situations are more flexible than those immersed in them often realize. It is perhaps the notion of “comic relief.”

The author accords with the feminist notion that Attic Greece and the Olympian pantheon derived from a male-dominated conquering tribe and women, who once had the greatest of prominence in state and religious affairs, had been reduced by the new patriarchy. This may have happened way in the past but the aristocrats of Athens, in particular, seem to have been male-dominated. Some feminists have referred to it as a phallocracy! In that case, aristocratic women in Athens had less independence than women in the countryside. The author notes the familiar story from Hesiod of Pandora as the possible case of a venerated maiden-goddess of abundance reduced to a creation of Zeus. Her defiance of his orders not to open the jar causes curses on humankind so she is called a bringer of evil rather than a bringer of abundance. The author notes feminists who think that the women’s rites at Eleusis and the Thesmophoria were a means for them to release frustrations at their own oppression.

The author goes through scholarly references to Baubo, trying to discern how others have interpreted her. She compares Jane Ellen Harrison and Margaret Murray. Harrison was a scholar of Ancient Greece who began to consider the influence of pre-Greek matriarchal societies. Murray was an Egyptologist also interested in Witchcraft. Early Christian writers spoke of a sacred marriage (hieros gamos) rite at the Mysteries of Eleusis. French scholar Charles Picard (1927) concluded, based on Orphic sources, that Baubo was an integral part of this hieros gamos. Others as well regarded the Baubo and Baubon as wood and/or clay representations of the vulva and phallus used in the ceremony. Another French scholar, Mylonas, thinks that the accounts given by Clement of Alexandria (of the hieros gamos as part of the Mysteries at Eleusis) instead referred to later rites in Ptolemaic Egypt, where Baubo/Isis images became quite common. He does not think Baubo was a part of the rites at Eleusis. He distinguishes the trusted Iambe from the depraved Baubo. The author disagrees and thinks he is influenced by the Christian writers themselves in their denunciation of Baubo as an obscene female figure. She points out that the Aegian island inscriptions (of the name Baubo) alongside Demeter and other deities and the story in the Hymn to Demeter both refute a later borrowed tradition. Another author, Burkhart, thought that the Baubo and Baubon were not vulva and phallus, but mortar and pestle to grind corn for the kykeon, the sacred drink of barley, honey, and pennyroyal, described in the Hymn. Even so, one can hardly not note the sexual symbolism of mortar and pestle and the act of grinding! Burkhart considered Baubo to belong to the Thesmophoria rather than Eleusis.

Kerenyi noted an Orphic myth that had Demeter being drawn through the underworld in a chariot pulled by serpents. It was there in the underworld that she encountered Baubo and Dysaules. Kerenyi collaborated with Carl Jung on a volume of essays on the Demeter-Kore myth. Bruce Lincoln considered the myth of Demeter and Persephone to be the most important myth for women. His idea was that before Indo-European conquest of Greece around 1800 B.C. there was a prominent female puberty rite involving a ritual drama that was later incorporated into the Eleusinian Mysteries.

Next the author delves into the deep past of the Paleolithic and Neolithic with their abundant female figures to search for distant precursors to Baubo. The vulva was a frequent image, not only in Europe, but also in other parts of the world. The vulva was most often depicted abstractly. Other implements incorporated vulva and phallus in one sculpture and may have been used as a sort of ritual dildo for initiatory purposes. The figures are thought to represent creative power, life force, and perpetuation of the species. Many of these “Venuses” had no heads or arms. One Venus has an ample and mature shape and holds a horn or crescent moon with thirteen marks. The prominence of female figures continued into the Neolithic after the melting of the glaciers. Marija Gimbutas points out that it is mistake to suggest that these figures are simply fertility objects. She notes that fertility was a primary concern of the agricultural era but before that the great goddess was mainly concerned with life, death, and regeneration. She says that in the Neolithic the goddess was depicted as snake, bird, fish, frog, or hedgehog. Carved figures of the Fish Goddess from Neolithic Serbia have a resemblance to Sheela-Na-Gigs.  

The author notes three gestures common in feminine ancient art that apply to Baubo: arms up-raised, the frog-like squat, and Baubo’s gesture of the ana-suramai. Each of these gestures, she says, has both scared and profane connotations. Arms-upraised is a very ancient Mediterranean gesture of mourning and reverence for the dead. It also signifies epiphany and seeking or the receiving of a divine blessing. The squatting posture emphasizes the female genitalia. Anthropologists associate it with death and the underworld. It is also, of course, the posture of giving birth. It should be noted that throughout this book there are many pictures of these goddess-figures. The Egyptian frog goddess Heket (or Hekat) was venerated as “primordial mother of all existence.” She had her own temple at pre-Dynastic Hermopolis and some think she came originally from Mesopotamia. She was a midwife and crone, assisting the daily birth of the sun god. She shares many similarities with the Greek goddess Hecate, aside from the nearly identical name. Both were crones associated with witches, death, regeneration, the underworld, and frogs. Baubo may also have been associated with the Triple Moon Goddess form of Hecate. The “old toad” invective has become an insult to old women in general who became scorned and feared. Squatting is associated with birthing, urination, defecation, and menstruating – biological actions that are generally deemed private and profane.

Baubo is not depicted in representations of Demeter and Persephone. Statuettes thought to be of Baubo found at Priene in Asia Minor are odd in that that have no torsos, just legs reaching to faces. The faces are at the level of the vulva. Some hold baskets of fruit, flowers, lutes, and torches. They resemble dwarves. The author delves into depictions of ancient Attic Greek art, noting that genitals on male heroes were miniaturized, but on foreigners, slaves, and satyrs, were enlarged. She also notes the polarization of the sexes in aristocratic ancient Greek society. Women were depicted fully clothed. When Praxiteles created a completely nude statue of Aphrodite of Cnidus in 350 B.C., it was considered shocking.

The author makes an interesting study of Medusa, of the three Gorgon sisters. Hesiod described the Gorgon sisters, Stenno, Euryal, and Medusa. The first two were hideous but Medusa was beautiful. They arose early in the creation of the world and dwelled across the ocean near Night. The author considers the later myth of Perseus slaying Medusa at the behest of a jealous Athena, to be a later reworking of the myth. Robert Graves first noted such a scenario where he sees Perseus as one of the Archean aggressors conquering Libya and the Libyan supreme goddess Neith (as Medusa) being overthrown by the Greek patriarchal system with the aid of Zeus-born Athena. Perseus brought her head (or possibly the ritual mask of her priestess) back to Athens. Her mask (figuratively) may have been what was transformed into the Vagina Dentata (vagina with teeth) of the Middle Ages. Some feminist mythographers have come to see this myth of Medusa as a myth of the fear of women and the need to suppress their inherent power in Attic Greek society. Interesting ideas but I think much of this should be considered speculative. Athena then stripped off the skin of Medusa to make a breastplate. Drops of the blood of Medusa were considered both medicinal and poisonous. She was noted in Greek art as early as 1500 B.C. Marija Gimbutas considers her to be a pre-Indo-European goddess of life and death. By the seventh century B.C. images of Medusa became talismans, particularly to avert the “evil eye.” Medusa’s gaze came to represent being turned to stone – or bewitched with her evil eye. Her later use as a talisman against it can be seen as a form of homeopathic sympathetic magic – perhaps. There are images of Medusa and possibly of Baubo as well with an eye. Several other authors have pointed out similarities between Medusa (Gorgons) and Baubo – both as embodiments of female genitalia. Displaying genitalia – both male and female – is curiously a way of protecting againsts demons and witchcraft in many cultures. Early Christianity may have absorbed symbolism of the evil eye and the need to avert it – particularly the evil eye of the female witch archetype which in Christianity was strongly associated with evil.

The author notes a change in Hellenistic society where Greek women were freed up due to influences from other places. Religious syncretism became more common. The author notes Hellenistic Age figures of Baubo doing the ana-suromai found among the Scythians. This is also a time when the Hellenistic Isis had some synthesis with Baubo and figures of Isis/Bauabo in the skirt-raising gesture were apparently quite common among agrarian peoples. The Baubo/Isis figures definitely support the equation of the skirt-raising gesture with fertility as they also appear carrying baskets of fruit. One image from Italy shows Baubo riding on a sow, an animal long associated with agriculture – also Baubo’s husband and sons tended pigs and pig and piglet sacrifices were long a part of the worship of Demeter. Isis was also syncretized with Demeter as the Earth Mother goddess. The skirt-raising gesture was also part of the veneration of the Egyptian bull god Apis, a reincarnation of the supreme creator god Ptah. Here the gesture may have been for blessings to conceive, to heal, or for fertility of woman and land.

Further examining the dichotomy of feminine symbolism the author notes the Judeo-Christian conception of Eve as both the mother of all humans and the first sinner. The Romanesque grotesque female forms seen on churches are perhaps evident of this dual symbolism. There are mermaids, squatting crones, sheela-na-gigs, many revealing the vulva. Their function has been described as a means to scare sinners from sinning but some like to see a deeper function as regenerative goddesses. In any case, the old art form of the squatting goddess is well preserved at least in the architectural form of Christian tradition – though likely for reasons of warning rather than veneration. The author sees these depictions as a transformation of the once respected goddess of life, death, and regeneration into a lesser (Christian) function of averting evil and the urge to sin.

One of the later chapters considers the male aspect of these regenerative powers through the male genitalia. Particulary, Hermes and the “herms” where he is depicted in statue form with large erect penis, are examined. The author links Hermes and Baubo as the deified male and female genitalia. Like the ubiquitous talismanic carved Medusa heads of Attic Greece, the stone carved herms were everywhere. Piles of stone as milestones were replaced by herms. The herms are thought to have had more of a protective than a fertility function. In myth Hermes is a son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. He is a herder from Arcadia. Herodotus notes that images of the ithyphallic Hermes originated among the Pelasgians, or sea peoples that settled some Aegian islands. Both Hermes and Baubo were servants, she of Demeter, and he of Zeus. Both could move between worlds – both were considered chthonic. Hermes Chthonius escorted Persephone from the underworld. According to later Orphic accounts it was Baubo Chthonius who did the escorting.

There are two appendices. The first is an account, with commentary, of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The second is a series of myths from various cultures that sort of parallel the Baubo myth. The first of these is a Hittite tale, with a similar Sumerian version, which tells of the loss of Inara, a daughter of the storm god, in the Hittite version, and Telipinu, a son of the storm god, in the Sumerian version. Both tales were written down around 2000 B.C. They are clearly different versions of a similar story that has strong similarities to the story of Demeter as well. The lost son, or daughter, is angry and withholds fertility from the land. As in the Demeter story the gods are forced to convene and begin a search. They ask the ancient grandmother Hannahanna to help. She agrees and summons the bee. The bee finally finds the lost storm god and stings him on the hands and feet as instructed. This angers him and rituals must be performed in order for fertility to return. Apparently, there are quite a few Hittite and Sumerian versions of this myth. The withdrawal of the Telipinu, or Inara, or the healing goddess Kamrupsepa in some versions, may be seen as a trip to the underworld with the ensuing loss of fertility. Of course, the famous myth of the Descent of Inanna into the underworld has quite a few similarities to the Demeter/Kore myth. Inanna’s faithful servant Ninshubur may be similar to Baubo as servant of Demeter. Ninshubur was too valuable to Inanna to take her place in the underworld so she sends her beloved husband Dumuzi instead!

Two myths of Hathor are also given. Hathor was mostly a fertility goddess. Isis took on some of her attributes by Hellenic times. Her wrathful aspect was the lion goddess Sekmet. She was also merged to some extent with the cat goddess Bast. The first story from the Pyramid Texts is one where Sekmet quarrels with her father, the sun god, Re. She prepares to destroy the world and head for the desert of Nubia. She makes the land sterile. Re grows old and decides to end the quarrel. He sends Thoth and Shu, disguised as monkeys, to find Sekmet. They find her and tell her about the suffering of her people. She returns with much celebrating. The second story is The Great Contending of Horus and Set where they maul and maim one another in their constant battling. The gods convene to find a solution. A lesser monkey god, Baba, insults Re by saying that his temples are empty. Baba is banished form the proceedings. Hathor comes to visit her father who in his despair has withdrawn the sunlight. She unveils her nakedness in his face which causes him to laugh and apparently that is enough to change his mind.

Also given is the Japanese tale of the sun goddess Amaterasu. Her outrageous brother Susanawo causes problems. They quarrel much. He destroys her heavenly rice fields and shits in her temple but it is when he kills the colt of heaven and one of her weaving priestesses and destroys her weaving hall that she reacts. Amaterasu retreats to the Cave of Heaven, withholding the sunlight from the world. The Eight Hundred Gods try to change her mind. Finally, a goddess of dance and mirth, Ama-no-Uzume is summoned. She performs a special laughter-producing obscene dance. She strips for the gods and they roar with laughter. Amaterasu is curious and comes a little out of her cave and is pulled out by the gods. Balance is then restored.

Finally, the author includes a modern myth in the making from the mountains of the Phillipines. Here the Kalinga people were faced with the prospect of a large hydroelectric dam inundating their ancestral land. Their pleas to the officials were ignored. When surveyors came out escorted by soldiers the women of the Kalinga met them and removed their skirts and began wacking the men with their skirts. The men were dazed and embarrassed. It was a cultural taboo there to observe naked women and so the men did not resist. They also removed the clothes of the men who did not return home until after dark. The women played on the men’s cultural taboos. No dam was built – at least at the time. She gives a few other stories of wars in Persia, Lydia, and in the Celtic story of CuChulain, where women exposed themselves to shame men.