10 DECEMBER 1988, Page 9


Myles Harris investigates the

'out-of-body' experiences that challenge the clear divisions of conventional science

I WAS ten when I first heard about the shabby way Pope Urban VIII treated Galileo for telling the truth about the earth going around the sun. I was enraged. How was it possible that a man who wanted to advance man's understanding could be forced to recant and spend the rest of his days in prison? It would not have hap- pened if I had been Pope. Secretly I hoped one day I would meet a real life Galileo, somebody who held bizarre views and had suffered for them.

Opportunities are un- expected and come in strange guises. I began a few weeks ago to mount an investigation into out-of-body and near- death experiences. Out- Near-death experiences are equally real but even more exotic. Survivors report floating above their bodies, usually watch- ing doctors fighting to revive them, then entering long tunnels at the end of which await Christ, Vishnu or the unfolding of the cosmic order. A few have reported approaching an area of unspeakable evil.

I feared I would be entering the world of necromancy, table turning and Madame Blavatsky. A few ounces of good physiolo-

gical sense would show these ideas up for what they really were, the final hallucina- tions of dying minds, or wiring defects in the living and healthy. Visions before death or seeing yourself outside your own body, were, I was sure, no more real than the people a television set portrays exist inside the set itself. I began to read the subject up.

I was stunned to discover that a number of distinguished physicists have at least open minds, if not a firm belief, in the reality of such experiences. Even more alarmingly modern physics seems to deny the distinction between subjective and objective experience, object and observer are one. If you can believe that you can easily believe that out-of-body and near- death experiences are real — Heaven Q.E.D. A leader among such thinkers is Professor Brian Josephson, a professor of theoretical Physics at the Cavendish. I had once heard Josephson say at a lecture that he had managed to get A. J. Ayer to understand his ideas about out-of-body experiences for about four minutes.

I drove to Cambridge one Monday morning filled with misgivings. I had spent the weekend wrestling with a simpleton's guide to nuclear physics. What I had learnt from it had to some extent robbed me of my sleep.

According to nuclear physicists, the idea that objects fall to earth under gravity, water runs downhill, and time runs from the past to the present and into the future gives us about as good a notion of reality as a map of the underground gives us about the architecture of London. It allows us to get about, it runs in straight lines and more or less at a predictable I speed. But when we get

T down to the very small / or — paradoxically — , the very large print of :73 { physical reality, events :71 on a cosmic or super

microscopic level, such conventional notions be- come gibberish.

The ultimate particles of the universe can be here or there or both here and here. Time can run backwards, for- wards or sideways, space is curved and a particle on the far side of the universe can change, faster than the speed of light.

At the heart of the problem is the know- ledge that the quantum world of the subatomic particle is unpredictable. A subatomically thin beam of light, the nar- rowest light in the universe after which there is only the total absence of light, has the same effect on measuring a particle as dropping 200-ton concrete weights on pas- sing cars in order to measure their speed and position. It destroys the quantities you are setting out to measure. This is not some limitation of our instruments but a fun- damental barrier. The physicist Heisen- berg's uncertainty principle states that you cannot measure both the position and the speed of an subatomic particle simul- taneously, ever.

What we can see however are the origins and destinations of such unmeasurable particles. A particle sets out from A. In the world of the subatom we can never mea- sure its track, but only observe its destina- tion. But, insanely, we choose that destina- tion by looking for it. In the act of seeing there is, bizarrely, a choice. One observer will choose place C, another place D. The event lies in the mind of the observer. Either will occur. Reality is a creation of the mind.

At the Cavendish the switchboard oper- ator, who looked remarkably like an Irish nun in mufti, directed me up a flight of stairs hung with blackboards. I assumed they had been put there for passers-by seized with unstoppable attacks of numera- cy. Several of the boards were covered in frightening hieroglyphs. In front of one or two stood people with foreheads so large they could not have been healthy. There was a lot of Far Eastern art on the walls.

Josephson is an unworldly and gentle man, dangerously innocent, who looks remarkably like Woody Allen. He sat in a room staring quietly out of a long window at a vista of cows and sheep. He is not easy to talk to, not only because of his intimi- dating reputation as one of the world's leading minds — he won a Nobel prize for Nuclear Physics in 1973 — but because he is retiring and shy to the point of extreme fragility. With my loud voice it was like being in a room with a Renoir and a can of paint stripper. Nevertheless I began to wonder, as I stumbled over my first ques- tion, and groped at his careful, enigmatic reply, if he, or those who believe with him are this century's Galileos.

Josephson believes that thought might precede structure in the biological world, and that a universal consciousness may inform its workings. This is the old notion of vitalism, a theory about as blasphemous to the modern scientific mind as celebrat- ing a Black Mass in the Sistine Chapel would be to the religious. Many unusual events such as poltergeist activities, out-of- body experiences, telepathy and levitation may be examples of tapping into such a universal mind and using its power to create material events or to see outside the body. So far however we have no language for such a mind. On Josephson's desk stood a modest BBC computer. On it, or one similar, he had successfully developed a working computer model of the contem- plative developmental exercises required in the Vedic tradition to tap the source of universal consciousness. The Vedas share many ideas with modern physics such as space being a substance. Vedic meditations lead, the sages says, to the gaining of celestial hearing.

Josephson is at present working on the creation of a fundamental language that learns by its own mistakes. Would this I wondered, lead to the words that are the beginning of things, the language of crea- tion? 'In the beginning was the word . . . and the word was made flesh.' And what if somebody replaced his tatty BBC compu- ter, which staggers along at 100 calcula- tions per second, with the world's fastest, the Cray, which will perform a million per second?

I drove back to London on the Mll filled with unease at what I had read and heard. Was I having my leg pulled by some very sharp minds? I half expected to see Dr Who's telephone box materialise on the outside lane. Another uneasy ghost ho- vered near. Einstein, who discovered so many of the contradictions of reality in modern physics, fought them up to the day of his death. There had to be, he main- tained, a reality that comprehended the paradoxes that lay deep in the structure of the universe. He was defeated, not by philosophical arguments, but by the results of physical experiment. The huge mushroom cloud that hung over Alamo- gorodo, New Mexico on 16 July 1945 arose out of the notion of the fundamental unpredictability of matter calculated by quantum theorists.

In search of reassurance — the idea that the visions were real was too frightening — I visited the perception laboratory of Bris- tol University, a nest, I was assured, of Newtonian reaction. My first jolt was to realise that the laboratory was the old monastic school I had attended as a child. Twenty years of reductionism had not entirely eliminated the smell of soap, cheap monkish tobacco and childish sweat that I lived in for eight years. I sat talking with the scientist in a room she saw as a laboratory and I knew perfectly well to be a living fragment of my childhood. Here the brothers had proved the existence of God, leathered my unbelief and hammered home the principles of Euclid with fist and ruler. After Josephson did I really think this was pure coincidence? In front of me sat that most Pauline of God's creatures, a disappointed believer. Dr Susan Black- more, once an enthusiast for the paranor- mal, is now a research fellow in psychology at Bristol University. She takes a strictly utilitarian and reductionist view of out-of- body and near-death experiences. She had her first out-of-body experience at the age 01 18, while she was at Oxford, under the aegis of the then president of the Oxford University Society for Psychical Research, a young man in beads, kaftan and shoulder length hair who, similarly baulked of a spiritual view of the world in later life, is today a social security fraud inspector. To his distant shouts of encouragement she rose to the ceiling of St Hilda's College to see her body some 20 feet below her on a couch.

She got there, she said, down a tunnel of trees in a horse drawn carriage. She kept hearing the future fraud inspector shout- ing. 'Where are you?' I was looking down,' she said. 'I could see my mouth opening and shutting, and I could see the president.' She was aware of her `astrpl cord' a long silver umbilicus frequently reported in such experiences. It stretched from the mouth of her real body to the umbilicus of her floating body. Having returned twice to her real body to check the time, her final re-entry was more difficult. The first time she was too small and sat on her heart trying to get bigger. She did, but overshot and filled the entire room. At the third attempt she succeeded, which was just as well as her physical body needed to pass water. The priest had had an exactly similar difficulty. On returning to his cell he could not re-enter his body. It was so terrifying an experience that he never attempted it again.

Her experience, (she has had many subsequently), was exactly similar to other people's. There is a feeling of clarity, a memory of recent events, a knowledge of where the subject is, realistic colour and an awareness of how the subject got there. What is seen, Dr Blackmore said, is an altogether convincing replica of the world, until, she said, you look for detail. It is then that the model fails. Out-of-body and near-death experiences are pure memory, she alleges. No new material is ever seen in them and it is impossible to relate accurate details of a room or a place that you might not have noticed in life. Few people for instance in life can remember the exact number of windows a building has, so too with an out-of-body experience. Pressed for details such as this, most subjects fail wildly in their recollections. I remember the monk told me that the greatest puzzle to him was, if he had no eyes when he was out of his body, how could he see?

Dr Blackmore admitted to a lifelong interest in the paranormal and had found no evidence of it in a multitude of experi- ments. Out-of-body and near-death phe- nomena she believed were due to a distor- tion of our internal model of the world. Lack of sensation, as in the progressive loss of the five senses as we approach death, causes the body to switch to a new model of reality. In Dr Blackmore's internal cinema a near-death experience is the national anthem before total extinction. She looked very unhappy.

The brothers at my school used to talk of the boy who came to mock and stayed to pray. I was always immensely irritated by this. My fundamental objection to Christ- ianity was the boring nature of heaven, and in those days I was only too pleased to embrace science and medicine. But sud- denly to have all of Josephson's wonderful ideas knocked flat was terrible. Some- where inside me lurked the sneaking hope that the noxious old brew of Darwinist reductionism that has kept everybody quiet for the last 50 years was wrong and the monks and Josephson were right. There seemed little hope of that. The following day I was due to interview a neuropsychi- atrist about near-death experiences. Neuropsychiatrists are not a breed noted for a belief in celestial noise, the voice of god or Jesus the Light of the World.

I met Dr Peter Fenwick the next morn- ing in a crumbling NHS outpatients in St Thomas's Hospital. Like most people who have made a study of the subject, he was extremely guarded at first but he bright- ened up considerably when I suggested that Dr Blackmore, whom he knows, might be further down the road to Damas- cus than she thinks. To my surprise he wholeheartedly backed the notion of the reality of near-death experiences. The problem, he said, with reductionist views of the world such as Dr Blackmore's were that they insisted on distinguishing be- tween objective and subjective reality. As Professor Josephson would have told me, it is not possible to keep subject and object separate in modern physics. So such a distinction was nonsense. It would be like, I gathered, studying postage stamps but only including the stamp album, not the stamps.

Modern physical theory had overthrown the notions of Descartes and Bacon. They had divided the world into primary and secondary qualities, primary qualities such as temperature, weight and length, being, they said, measurable, while secondary qualities, such as religious feelings, love, ecstasy, delight were not. Up to now we had based all our scientific thinking on the former.

Mathematical work supported the physi- cists' view that secondary qualities were of equal importance in a scientific study. The equations for the transformation of in-' formation are symmetrical, Dr Fenwick said. The observer is a dependent part of an event so his secondary qualities cannot be excluded from it. There is no objective world, only internal models of it. As in, I thought, Josephson's computer model of the Vedic mind where modern physics and maths no longer denies the importance of secondary qualities. Dr Fenwick believed in the reality of out-of-body experiences but thought there is very little emotion attached to them. On the other hand near-death experiences have a huge emotional content. The ex- periences varied from being in the pre- sence of a power greater than yourself to a perception of the whole universe. Some people report an inward spiritual eye that has suddenly opened, an eye that is always composed of pure love. A nun reported, 'In one moment I saw the whole universe rearranging itself and going from order to order.'

I asked if there were any good reduction- ist explanations for them. He did not think so because reductionist explanations say nothing about the subjective qualities of near death experiences. The structure of a radio, Dr Fenwick said, is not the content of its programmes. If, he said, any conven- tional argument could be mounted against a reductionist view of near-death experi- ences it was the one about oxygen lack. In the dying brain there are large changes in its chemistry which would militate against it being able to form vast, illusive panor- amas for its victim. If consciousness and the brain are linked you would expect images to disintegrate as the brain's oxygen supply failed, not become more integrated and coherent.

Dr Fenwick dwelt upon the intense reality of these experiences. The more real the world is the more real is our behaviour toward it. People who have had a near- death experience consider it a benchmark of reality because they feel they have had a glimpse of absolute love and a vision of eternity. All these experiences are normal and common. Just under half of people who narrowly escape death have them. Because of their intense reality and fre- quency he thought they might, given time, point to a wider understanding of con- sciousness and reality.

I walked down the corridor of the grim old building immensely cheered. It had seen a lot of pain and fear. It was courageous thinking which invented anaes- thetics, taught doctors to wash their hands before operating, invented vaccines and brought us open heart surgery. Josephson and Fenwick might be completely wrong but it would be sad to think that such an exciting idea, as new as Galileo's in his time, and if true as much a signpost as the old astronomer's, will be ground under by a regiment of Pope Urban VIIIs, conven- tional scientists.