Tuesday, 4 November 2008


From PopSci.com.au :
After countless accounts of near-death experiences, dating as far back as ancient Greece, science is now taking serious steps forward to explore the nature of the phenomenon. A new project aims to determine whether the NDE is a physiological event or evidence that the human consciousness is far more complicated than we ever believed.

The Human Consciousness Project sets out to explore the nature of human consciousness and the brain. The first step of the project is the "Awareness During Resuscitation" study, a collaboration among more than 25 medical centers throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe.
But the most intriguing aspect of the study is its attempt to study consciousness during clinical death. According to Parnia, the science of these "consciousness events" may be somewhat similar to the relation between Newtonian physics and quantum physics. Scientists once believed that Newtonian physics could answer all the questions in the universe. When they ventured into the sub-atomic realm, though, Newtonian physics no longer applied. But quantum physics did. Similarly, the near-death experience could be another state of consciousness with a different set of rules than what we currently understand, and beyond the limits of what current scientific methods can explain.

"When you study mind and brain, you see that, although in many circumstances this practical model we have developed -- mind and brain are the same thing -- is fine, when you go to an extreme environment like during a cardiac arrest…they don't seem to apply anymore," says Parnia. "It may suggest that there's something that hasn't been discovered scientifically."

Studies by Parnia and other researchers show that between 10 and 20 percent of who are resuscitated from cardiac arrest had a near-death experience. Various other studies show the frequency of near-death experience to be between 4 and 18 percent. The experience is typically described as a progression of stages. First, the person has a sense of peace, then a sense of separation from the body. The person then enters into darkness, and sees a bright light like the end of a tunnel. Finally, the person enters the light and interacts with an entity, described as God, Allah, or simply a universal cosmic force.
The initial phase of the study will outfit participating rooms with shelves placed high up on the wall. On the top of each shelf will be a picture, visible only from the ceiling. Doctors will test whether patients who report a near-death experience are able to recall the image. If patients -- as few as four or five -- can positively recall these static images, then the study will move on: randomly generated images will be projected onto the shelves, which will further test the ability of the test subject to recall images. If no patients can recall the static images, the study can conclude that the floating effect is a trick of the mind.
I expect the "trick of the mind" hypothesis to be proven. If it isn't though.... then the implications are staggering. We'll see, I consider the chance to be so low as to be not worth considering until the data is in. And if, as I expect, there is no such thing as an "Out of Body Experience", then we can prune great limbs off the decision-tree that is the study of mind and consciousness, a win either way.

I remain highly sceptical, despite having an experience similar to that of an OOBE when I had a light general anaesthetic during revision surgery. It would be nice to go back to that place, though there's far too much work still to be done back in this one for me to stay long. I felt I was Goofing off, not doing my duty. I knew that all I had to do was relax, and I'd have limbs and a body again, I'd re-integrate, but it still felt quite weird, almost un-natural to do so.

We try to find patterns even when there's none there, especially when there's none there, just inchoate firings of re-booting neurons.

Converging with these kinds of studies is another path, from a completely different direction. This one from the 2008 Singularity Summit, as described in the Next Big Future blog. It's a path I have more faith in. Emulating the Brain.

Click to enlarge

"An informal poll among workshop attendees produced a range of estimates where the required resolution for Whole Brain Emulation (WBE) is. The consensus appeared to be level 4‐6. Two participants were more optimistic about high level models, while two suggested that elements on level 8‐9 may be necessary at least initially (but that the bulk of mature emulation, once the basics were understood, could occur on level 4‐5). To achieve emulation on this level, the consensus was that 5×5×50 nm scanning resolution would be needed. This roadmap will hence focus on level 4‐6 models, while being open for that deeper levels may turn out to be needed."
What is really interesting is that this might tell us something about the role of "Quantum Consciousness", if it exists. Certainly we'd need something like that to explain any unexpected OOBE results in the experiments described in the beginning of this post. Failure here - that is, failure to make an intelligent being - could tell us something quite profound, not just about the mind, but about the universe at large, taking large parts of metaphysics and putting them in the physical realm.

I doubt it though. I think we will be able to manufacture mind - though getting it to emerge from a "persistent vegetative state" might be a real problem. If we do, we won't have explained the persistent belief in "souls" other than as a comforting falsehood, but we will have made (quite literally) a friend. Oh yes, immortality too, running the process that is our very self in more persistent (and more easily maintained) hardware. Either way it's a win.

More on the convergence of emulation and analysis is in previous posts about Analytic and Synthetic Brains, Mapping the Core, The Race for the Brain, Laminated Mouse Brains and From Laminated Mouse to Telepathic Cat.

No comments: