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713 The Nature of Consciousness

Consciousness is one of the great puzzles of modern neuroscience. Most scientists believe that awareness arises from interactions between neurons in the brain, but the details on how that works, exactly, are still unclear. And what happens as we die? Does consciousness disappear as soon as the heart stops beating? If so, how do we explain near-death experiences? Join us for a conversation with three scientists exploring these issues.

Guests: Bruce Greyson, MD, is Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia. He is also Director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia Health System.

Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the School of Medicine of the University of Southampton, U.K. He is founder and director of the Human Consciousness Project there. He is also a Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. Dr. Parnia is leading the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitaion), aimed at studying the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest. His book is What Happens When We Die; A Groundbreaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death. The photo is of Dr. Parnia.

Melvin Morse, MD, is a pediatrician who has studied near-death experiences in children. He is author of four books: Closer to the Light, Transformed by the Light, Parting Visions, and Where God Lives.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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It’s been a while since I’ve listened to this podcast, but it still sticks in my mind. What ever happened with the doctor that was going to install patterns on the floor that could be seen only from the vantage point of the ceiling? Did the people who came back describe the patterns?

Thought the program was excellent. Agreed program was presented specifically from a scientific standpoint. Author didn’t go looking for this subject; it found him and he’s studying it scientifically. The only prerequisite for this was an open mind. He doesn’t know where this is going or what it’s saying only that it’s saying something that needs to be looked at further and he’s doing that.
Would be interested in further research. I’ve heard this subject broached before with no research and appreciate his touching a difficult subject. Often times we refuse to acknowledge or dig into things that don’t fit in our box of explanations for fear it could take us to an area off-limits in our life. I appreciate his curiosity and courage to follow up.

It’s quite astonishing how effective the scientific wet blanket machine is at smothering mind /brain split heresy. The observations made by people who were comatose/temporarily dead and then brought back to life are accurate. There is no medical explanation for this, whatever the skeptics keep saying, and when you study the near death research properly, you begin to realize this.
The skeptics pet theory of mind models being created to explain OBE’s does not cut the mustard. Every human being knows the difference between a confabulated mental image and absolute reality otherwise we would modify our behavior on the basis that we imagined that we climbed mount everest for instance… or we slept with a beautiful film star. You cannot have the conviction that you have actually seen your body from a full OBE position, unless you actually have.

Very interesting, but to call the ideas discussed scientific, stretches the definition of science. The data are anecdotal. Even though very compelling, the investigators need professional assistance, such as a disinterested experimental psychologist, to assure they are simply not seeing and hearing what they want to see and hear. Medical people typically have little to no training in experimental procedures or issues, and are thus not well equipped to perceive the effect of their own bias.

Heard your show on consciousness and near death experiences. The question as to where the consciousness exists is indeed interesting.
I had heard that organ recipients sometimes take on personal characteristics of the donor. Could this suggest that consciousness or one’s essence does in fact reside throughout the body and just in the brain? Just a thought.

I listened to this program with my mother. We were both fascinated, and my mother shared a near death experience of her own, a story I had never heard before. Thank you for airing this program.

I found the program fascinating. I disagree with the first person who has posted insisting that this type of work has to be unscientific because there is not yet a lot of scientific evidence of consciousness separate from brain activity. I am not yet convinced that consciousness can exist outside of the brain, but definitely think the topic is worth researching and discussing.
I am not a “true believer” in the concept of mind and brain being separable but am open to the idea of something going on when we die or lose consciousness that is not yet explained. Years ago, in college, I worked with dying people (lifting, cleaning etc.) and in the process ended up hearing about things which I couldn’t deal with at the time as they seemed “unscientific,” and too far removed from my 20 year old experience to handle.
This included experiences like “visits” from dead relatives and spiritual beings among those who were close to death. I did not, at the time, work with anyone actually in the immediate moment of death as I had no medical qualifications– only young, strong arms, but I noticed that as people approached death they seemed to have experiences I could not share or explain, but that seemed to be common to many people.
Now in my 50s, I am fascinated with what goes on in the brain (perhaps the brain plus???) as people’s bodies shut down. I sat in my car for an hour listening to the speakers who were very interesting. I was glad to hear a discussion of this topic from people who are sensible and not asking me to believe something with no evidence. Up to this point I have heard little moderate discussion of the topic– only religious people telling me I have to believe a particular set of dogma, mediums telling me what temperature God has set the thermostat at in heaven, and people telling me that to even discuss these issues is “unscientific.” Thank you for taking on this difficult and edgy topic.

I am a nurse in an emergency department. I often wonder what the human beings I work with are experiencing as their bodies sputter, and then are revived. Your interviews today gave me new hope for the people I help and their lives after such a difficult time for them. Thank you.

I was absolutely spellbound by your program, “The nature of consciousness”. I caught part of the program on my way to work and didn’t want to turn the radio off and go into work. I couldn’t stop thinking about it all day and went straight to your website when I got home from work to catch the entire episode. I rarely call in or write about programing but I have to say this show is in the top 1% of all I have listened to in my life. Thank you so much from a faithful listener. Wayne

I listened this morning and had to take all this with a grain of salt. Consciousness only exists in our brain. Just like the software that runs this website exists on a computer. Nowhere in the hour did I hear any objective alternative explanations or anything to lead me to believe that the anecdotal stories were real or delusions. In most resuscitation cases there is no monitoring of brain waves– one comment implied there were none in one case but I am skeptical.
Since all the stories are so similar it seems to have to be a function of oxygen deprivation or sedation. I recently had a catheter ablation and I was out with no memory for 9 hours, but in recovery I had some vivid dreams weird dreams until the anesthesia wore off. These people could be having the same thing. It was not clear if the stories about kids were of emergencies or of kids that had been hospitalized for awhile.
All these stories have similar themes so it is more likely some kind of brain reaction to trauma, oxygen deprivation, or various drugs being administered. I remain skeptical about this except for the belief that the doctors main goal is to sell books.

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