Science of the Spirit


Consciousness after death: Strange tales from the frontiers of resuscitation medicine

© Emilio Labrador/Flickr
Sam Parnia practices resuscitation medicine. In other words, he helps bring people back from the dead - and some return with stories. Their tales could help save lives, and even challenge traditional scientific ideas about the nature of consciousness.

"The evidence we have so far is that human consciousness does not become annihilated," said Parnia, a doctor at Stony Brook University Hospital and director of the school's resuscitation research program. "It continues for a few hours after death, albeit in a hibernated state we cannot see from the outside."

Resuscitation medicine grew out of the mid-twentieth century discovery of CPR, the medical procedure by which hearts that have stopped beating are revived. Originally effective for a few minutes after cardiac arrest, advances in CPR have pushed that time to a half-hour or more.

New techniques promise to even further extend the boundary between life and death. At the same time, experiences reported by resuscitated people sometimes defy what's thought to be possible. They claim to have seen and heard things, though activity in their brains appears to have stopped.

It sounds supernatural, and if their memories are accurate and their brains really have stopped, it's neurologically inexplicable, at least with what's now known. Parnia, leader of the Human Consciousness Project's AWARE study, which documents after-death experiences in 25 hospitals across North America and Europe, is studying the phenomenon scientifically.

Parnia discusses his work in the new book Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death. Wired talked to Parnia about resuscitation and the nature of consciousness.


Whether human or hyena, there's safety in numbers

© Michigan State University
A study led by Joseph Cesario, Michigan State University assistant professor of psychology, suggests people see threats as farther away when they are part of a group and closer when they are alone.
Humans, when alone, see threats as closer than they actually are. But mix in people from a close group, and that misperception disappears.

In other words, there's safety in numbers, according to a new study by two Michigan State University scholars. Their research provides the first evidence that people's visual biases change when surrounded by members of their own group.

"Having one's group or posse around actually changes the perceived seriousness of the threat," said Joseph Cesario, lead author on the study and assistant professor of psychology. "In that situation, they don't see the threat quite so closely because they have their people around to support them in responding to the threat.'"

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the study appears online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

The study was inspired by MSU zoologist Kay Holekamp's research with wild hyenas in Kenya. Holekamp and her team played recordings of hyenas from other parts of Africa and found the hyenas listening to the voices were more likely to approach the source of the sound when they were in groups and more likely to flee when they were alone.


Babies have consciousness, study finds

© Sid Kouider
A mother holds a 5-month old baby wearing an electrode cap to measure the child's conscious experiences.
Infants have a conscious experience of the world at as early as 5 months of age, new research finds.

New parents may raise an eyebrow at the idea that their baby might not be a conscious being, but scientists have, until now, not been able to clearly show that infants react with awareness rather than reflexively.

Even in adults, much of the brain's processing of the world occurs without conscious awareness, said Sid Kouider, a neuroscientist at the Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique in Paris and the Technical University of Denmark.

One odd phenomenon, "blindsight," occurs in people with damage to part of their visual cortex. Although they cannot consciously see, they're able to "guess" the location of a visual stimulus or even catch objects tossed at them. Blindsight reveals that even unconscious processing in the brain can result in seemingly goal-directed behavior.

So when babies look toward a face or grasp an object, they, too, might be doing so without a conscious experience of what they're seeing.

"Infants might be responding in a kind of automatic manner," Kouider told LiveScience. Unfortunately, since babies don't talk, scientists can't test consciousness by asking infants what they experience.

Magic Wand

Sleepwalkers sometimes remember what they've done

© Ivan Kramskoy: the Sleepwalker
Antonio Zadra of the University of Montreal discusses his Lancet Neurology article.

Three myths about sleepwalking - sleepwalkers have no memory of their actions, sleepwalkers' behaviour is without motivation, and sleepwalking has no daytime impact - are dispelled in a recent study led by Antonio Zadra of the University of Montreal and its affiliated Sacré-Coeur Hospital. Working from numerous studies over the last 15 years at the hospital's Centre for Advanced Studies in Sleep Medicine at the Hôpital du Sacré-Cœur de Montréal and a thorough analysis of the literature, Zadra and his colleagues have raised the veil on sleepwalking and clarified the diagnostic criteria for researchers and clinicians. Their findings were published in Lancet Neurology.

Journalists are welcome to use the following responses in their own reports. Interviews and further information (including the original French text of this document) can be obtained by contacting media relations at the University of Montreal. The University of Montreal is officially known as Université de Montréal.

Question: What are the causes and consequences of sleepwalking?

A.Z.: "Several indicators suggest that a genetic factor is involved. In 80% of sleepwalkers, a family history of sleepwalking exists. The concordance of sleepwalking is five times higher in monozygotic twins compared to non-identical twins. Our studies have also shown that lack of sleep and stress can lead to sleepwalking. Any situation that disrupts sleep can result in sleepwalking episodes in predisposed individuals."

A.Z.: "Most sleepwalking episodes are harmless. Apart from the fact that the deep slow-wave sleep of sleepwalkers is fragmented, wanderings are usually brief and pose no danger, or when they do, it is minimal. In rare cases, wandering episodes may be longer, and sleepwalkers may injure themselves and put themselves or others in danger: some have even gone as far as driving a car!"

Question: It is said that the sleep disorder mainly affects children. Is this true?

A.Z.: "Many children transitionally sleepwalk between 6 and 12 years of age. It is thought that passing from sleep to wakefulness requires a certain maturation of the brain. In some children, the brain may have difficulty making this transition. Often, the problem disappears after puberty. But sleepwalking may persist into adulthood in almost 25% of cases. It decreases with age, however, because the older you get, the fewer hours of deep slow-wave sleep you enjoy, which is the stage in which sleepwalking episodes occur."

Magic Wand

Reactivating memories during sleep

© Unknown
Memory rehearsal during sleep can make a big difference in remembering later.

Why do some memories last a lifetime while others disappear quickly?

A new study suggests that memories rehearsed, during either sleep or waking, can have an impact on memory consolidation and on what is remembered later.

The new Northwestern University study shows that when the information that makes up a memory has a high value (associated with, for example, making more money), the memory is more likely to be rehearsed and consolidated during sleep and, thus, be remembered later.

Also, through the use of a direct manipulation of sleep, the research demonstrated a way to encourage the reactivation of low-value memories so they too were remembered later.

Delphine Oudiette, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology at Northwestern and lead author of the study, designed the experiment to study how participants remembered locations of objects on a computer screen. A value assigned to each object informed participants how much money they could make if they remembered it later on the test.

"The pay-off was much higher for some of the objects than for others," explained Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern and co-author of the study. "In other words, we manipulated the value of the memories -- some were valuable memories and others not so much, just as the things we experience each day vary in the extent to which we'd like to be able to remember them later."


Our futures look bright - because we reject the possibility that bad things will happen

People believe they'll be happy in the future, even when they imagine the many bad things that could happen, because they discount the possibility that those bad things will actually occur, according to a new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"I've always been fascinated by the changeability of people's perceptions of happiness," says psychological scientist Ed O'Brien of the University of Michigan. "On some days our futures seem bright and exciting, but on other days the same exact future event can feel stressful and terrifying."

With this new research, O'Brien wanted to explore whether fluency - how easy or difficult it feels to think about different events - might play a role in how people think about well-being.

He conducted five studies, asking participants to complete online surveys with questions that addressed past and possible future experiences and perceptions of well-being.

In line with previous research, fluency amplified the effects of past events on participants' reports of well-being: The easier it was for people to generate positive past experiences, the happier they said they were in those times. Likewise, the easier it was to come up with negative past experiences, the more unhappy people said they were.


Science of neuromarketing helping advertisers get in consumers' heads

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In the highly-competitive, multi-million dollar advertising industry, science is increasingly becoming an important tool in determining exactly what kinds of marketing campaigns and products appeal to a potential consumer - so much so that there is an emerging field dedicated solely to getting inside our brains to figure out what we really want.

This hybrid of science and advertising is known as neuromarketing, and according to Alex Hannaford of The Telegraph, it has actually been around for more than two decades.

Experts, such as Steve Sands of El Paso, Texas, use electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and eye-tracking technology to help measure biological changes experienced by a person in response to marketing-related stimuli, he explained. The technology measures an individual's brain signals, changes in blood flow and other physiological reactions to determine what really interests people on a subconscious level.

Sands uses his equipment to monitor people's reactions to a test-screening of Super Bowl commercials each year. He recruits approximately 30 people, has them don eye-tracking glasses and hooks them up to an EEG machine to monitor their brain waves as they watch the ads scheduled to air during the most expensive time slots in the advertising industry, Hannaford said.


Science discovers 'magic trick' that causes partisan voters to switch parties

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Researchers in Sweden have discovered a clever way to trick partisan voters into switching parties, through the application of a simple survey and some slight of hand.

Exploiting a known defect in human psychology called "choice blindness," researchers writing for the journal PLoS One got 162 voters to fill out surveys pinpointing their views on key issues like taxes and energy, then covertly switched the survey with one created to show the exact opposite answers. Participants were then confronted on why they gave the faux responses.

What the researchers found is astonishing: A whopping 92 percent of respondents did not catch that their answers were manipulated, and only 22 percent of the switched answers were noticed by participants. During questioning after the survey, 10 percent of the subjects actually switched their preference in political party, while another 19 percent of previously partisan voters said they'd become undecided.

Since 18 percent of the participants went into the study saying they were undecided to begin with, researchers noted that their findings suggest a full 47 percent were open to changing their vote. They also noted their findings seem to run contrary to the political wisdom of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who suggested months before election day that 47 percent of the country had already ruled him out.


In brain scans, music is a universal language

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People listening to music show very similar brain activation patterns, in brain regions responsible for motor planning, which may help explain why people tend to dance in groups
Music may truly be a universal language. When listening to the same piece, different listeners will show very similar patterns of brain activity, a new study of brain scans suggests.

Untrained listeners in the study responded very similarly to a 10-minute symphony, and the similarities cropped up not only in brain areas linked with sound processing, but also in regions responsible for attention, memory and movement planning.

The findings may help explain why music is such a powerful group experience, said study researcher Daniel Abrams, a neuroscientist at Stanford University.

"Evolutionarily, music is something people came together to do. People chanted when they worked together. It was to bring us together for rituals, and to some degree, that still happens when we go to concerts or a club," Abrams said.

Having the same brain response to music may facilitate collective activities.


A Conversation with a 9/11 Angell

“Victim” Identifies This as Real 9/11 Terrorist
I've been an enthusiastic student of 9/11 Truth for several years now. The evidence that no Boeing airliners crashed at any of the four sites is very compelling. One of the big questions that arises when you suggest this idea to someone is "What happened to the passengers?"

The facts suggest that there were far fewer passengers than even the surprisingly short and unrealistic passenger manifests presented. Flights are not usually carried out with such low load factors.

Many of the names don't seem to correspond to positively identifiable people. Additionally, at least seven of the alleged hijackers were seen alive after 9/11. Sadly, we may not ever know exactly who was on the planes.

Two "passengers" that we know for sure were real people and did die on 9/11 were David Angell along with his wife Lynn. David Angell was a writer for the sitcom Cheers and the co-creator of the hit shows Frasier and Wings. All three happen to be favorites of mine, especially Wings (coincidentally named, tragically).I watch Wings nightly on Netflix and as I viewed David Angell's name on the credits, an idea came to me.