Once again, the Internet is abuzz with claims of yet another paranormal event—life after death. This latest foray of the supernatural into the realm of science is the result of a new clinical study published by the respectable academic journal Resuscitation, titled "PaperAWARE—AWAreness during REsuscitation—A prospective study." As usual, the media, and a vast majority of the public (as inferred by the comments on these articles), have seriously misconstrued the facts. The goal of this article is to correct the blatant errors and poor assumptions made by the media and readers, not to attempt to disprove the supernatural.
Let me make clear from the start that I did actually read the full published article. If you do not have journal access, you can at least get the academic (not media-biased) summary here.
Fox News takes a lot of heat from the liberal and skeptical community, and rightly so in my opinion (pun intended). But like all other media outlets, without consumers, they will cease to exist. While scientists report findings, journalists tell and sell stories, which sometimes includes making wild inferences. The vast majority of scientific findings are underwhelming, but the media has become very good at massaging the message to "wow" their consumers. This results in misleading consumers to unwarranted conclusions at the expense of increasing what is called the "shock value" of their story. The following section should demonstrate this point nicely.
I cannot pretend that I am emotionally neutral here. As a social scientist, this blatant bastardization of facts works against everything I work towards, including educating the public and critical thinking. Here is just a sample of the article headlines on the first page of Google referencing this research (I wonder how many of these journalists actually read the paper?)
This is perhaps the most tame of the headlines found. The only "hint" of life after death is in the interpretation by those ignorant of the psychological processes that likely result in these post-death anecdotes. And this certainly is not the first, and probably not the "biggest" considering that data was actually collected from just 140 participants.
The study says no such thing. The temporal position of a memory cannot be determined scientifically. What may seem like a memory from moments ago could be from minutes, hours, or even years ago. At best, an accurate headline might read, "During a 4-year study, a single person accurately described events during what the doctors considered brain death." The colloquial use of the phrase "study says" or "study suggests" refers to the general conclusions of the study, not a single participant within the study.
Spoiler Alert: No.
Inferring such a claim from this article is like saying that the earth is flat because one guy interviewed said it was.
No, it doesn't. If anything, it "shows" the opposite by failing to provide a single positive result from the objective test. The findings of this study show that people claim to have experiences.
No, they don't.
This study is not about life after death. The study investigates claims of awareness during resuscitation after cardiac arrest (CA) in the interest of a potential cause of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The only mention of any "life after death" or "near death experience" is the authors dismissal of these terms as "scientifically imprecise." In the author's own words, "The primary aim of this study was to examine the incidence of awareness and the broad range of mental experiences during resuscitation. The secondary aim was to investigate the feasibility of establishing a novel methodology to test the accuracy of reports of visual and auditory perception and awareness during CA." In fairness to the media, claims of outer body experiences (OBEs) were tested, and the results were quite conclusive.
The study uses both quantitative and qualitative methods. To the layman, "quantitative" is often confused with "objective"—this is not the case in the social sciences. Quantitative means that the results can be quantified, or measured numerically. In this case, the quantitative data was gathered by surveys where participants rated their subjective experiences on a scale with each point represented by a number. There was an objective test, however, designed to validate the claims of OBEs:
"To assess the accuracy of claims of visual awareness (VA) during CA, each hospital installed between 50 and 100 shelves in areas where CA resuscitation was deemed likely to occur (e.g. emergency department, acute medical wards). Each shelf contained one image only visible from above the shelf (these were different and included a combination of nationalistic and religious symbols, people, animals, and major newspaper headlines). These images were installed to permit evaluation of VA claims described in prior accounts. These include the perception of being able to observe their own CA resuscitation from a vantage point above. It was postulated that should a large proportion of patients describe VA combined with the perception of being able to observe events from a vantage point above, the shelves could be used to potentially test the validity of such claims (as the images were only visible if looking down from the ceiling)."
Out of the 2060 participants used in this study, or perhaps more accurately the 140 that actually were well enough to give data to the researchers post cardiac arrest, exactly ZERO passed this objective test. This is the newsworthy content that the media should have picked up: "Four Year Study Objectively Measuring Claims of Out of Body Experiences (OBEs) Provides Exactly Zero Objective Evidence for OBEs."
What is written about in this study is the qualitative report of one (1) participant who accurately described things that were happening when he was presumed clinically brain dead. The statement from the one subject reads like a generic scene from any movie or television show, with the possible exception of some minor details that could have been collected post recovery, or just assumed based on probability (e.g., a chubby guy in scrubs). All of the interviews were collected between 3 days and 4 weeks after the event, given the participants plenty of time to gather information and confabulate a narrative to describe the happenings during their traumatic event.
I am not one of those skeptics who will wax rhapsodic about the brevity of life. I can't say I would want to live forever, but I know I would take virtually any opportunity to extend my life indefinitely. What I won't do is allow my desire for immortality (or something like it) to allow me to misinterpret data or conflate fantasy with fact. If such evidence does arise supporting life after death, I will certainly reevaluate my belief. Until then, reasonably skeptical, I remain.