A Closer Look: Science Weighs In

Neurons Firing Wildly. . .

Is there a scientific, rational explanation for near death experiences and psychic communication with the dead? Maybe. We talked to two experts, one a top brain researcher, the other a magician. Dr. Daniel Alkon (who 20 years ago had a near-death experience of his own) researches the cellular basis of memory at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. James Randi is a magician -- committed rationalist -- who has made a career out of debunking pseudoscience and the supernatural.

We talked to them about how science might explain life after death and psychic phenomena. Here's what they had to say.

On His Own Near-Death Experience

Dr. Alkon: "Twenty years ago, I had an undiagnosed gastric ulcer. One morning I woke up in excruciating pain. The pain increased, and I went over to the bathroom wall. As I slid down the wall I started to lose consciousness. In that losing of consciousness, I went through a review of my life's experiences - many of the important aspects of my life. I had the sense that I was dying, and it was very peaceful." [Dr. Alkon subsequently regained consciousness, was taken to the hospital, and was treated. He is fine now, and on an anti-ulcer diet.]

His Explanation For Near-Death Experiences

Dr. Alkon: "When we are awake we are suppressing a great deal of information. When we are asleep or unconscious, the inhibition is lifted. So therefore many of the primary thoughts that we've accumulated throughout our lives are released, and start to revisit us. So in our dreams, secret fears and goals start to come out to play, so to speak. They come out in a fairly haphazard way because we're not using the brain's ability to organize our thinking. What's achieved central importance starts to be released again. It's always there but it starts to come to the forefront."

Another, Related, Explanation For Near-Death Experiences

Dr. Alkon: "When we start to lose consciousness, from trauma or a physical threat to our lives, something else happens too. There's a reduced blood supply to the brain. What also happens is we start losing oxygen, which is called hypoxia. Now, let's go for a moment to a central player in memory: the hippocampus. The great majority of memories go through the hippocampus.

Find our more about Dr. Alkon's field of study. Visit the web site for the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, where he works as a chief researcher.
And when the brain is subject to hypoxia, the hippocampus starts to fire at ery high rate. So now we have a situation where you're losing consciousness, you've got a release from inhibition. At the same time, you have a hyper-excited hippocampus. To me, this sets up a reasonable scenario that under conditions of losing consciousness we have cells of the hippocampus discharging signals to the brain areas that store memories, and therefore eliciting memories in an uncontrolled fashion. So a lot of memories that are not normally easily accessed start to be accessed. And so very powerful memories, images that may have a great spiritual or emotional significance to the person, are being accessed in a fairly fluid manner. In other words the floodgates are let loose."

James Randi, left, watches a videotape of psychic James Van Praagh's session with a woman trying to contact her dead husband and parents. In the center is 48 Hours correspondent Bill Lagattuta. (CBS)

On Playing 20 Questions With Psychics

Mr. Randi: "Van Praagh [the psychic who did a reading on 48 Hours] was always on television, and we recorded a lot of his performances. The story's very clear. From the first 15 minutes you see what he is doing. He is doing nothing but asking questions. He doesn't tell anybody anything, he asks questions, gets feedback on them, and plays a game of 20 Questions, so to speak.

He asked her over 250 questions during the 16-minute period. That is more than one question every 14 seconds continuously. And the answer to 85 percent of the questions he asked:
--'Do you know women one named Marie?'
--'Mary maybe?'
It went on and on and on. Something like 85 percent of her answers were 'No'."

On How The Psychic Knew The Husband's Name

Want to learn more about Mr. Randi's intensely rationalistic ideas? Head to his web site .
Mr. Randi: "He asked her 'Do you know anyone named Jack, past, present, or future?' Is there anyone who doesn't know someone named Jack, past present or future?? She said to him 'That is the name of my husband.' At that point he had already given her 26 other names."

It's The Media's Fault

Mr. Randi: "The media is largely responsible [for the widespread belief in the paranormal]... The current belief in the paranormal is largely promoted by the media, unashamedly, even when they know better. When they have the truth at hand they choose not to use it because it is not politically correct to fly in the face of what people would like to believe. As if what people would like to believe i true. So they present it as if it is real and when they find out it is not real they make no effort to correct it."

But In The End, No One Knows For Sure. . .

Dr. Alkon: "The bottom line is that we don't know a great deal about our universe. We're just scratching the surface."

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written by David Kohn