Life Before Life

Is reincarnation possible?

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Location: Charlottesville, Virginia, United States

Jim B. Tucker, M.D., a board-certified child psychiatrist, directs research into children’s reports of past-life memories at the University of Virginia Division of Perceptual Studies. Dr. Tucker is Assistant Professor of Psychiatric Medicine at the University of Virginia Health System, and he serves as medical director of the Child & Family Psychiatry Clinic. Dr. Tucker is the author of the book "Life Before Life: A Scientific Investigation of Children's Memories of Previous Lives."

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

Praying For Positive Results

A study of intercessory prayer that came out this spring received a lot of attention. Published in the American Heart Journal by a group led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University, this large study looked at whether patients undergoing coronary artery bypass graft surgery prayed for by church prayer groups did better than patients not prayed for by the groups. They did not.

This followed a large study published in the Lancet last year that also got negative results. Dr. Mitchell Krucoff and associates of Duke University examined whether either prayer or music, imagery, and touch (MIT) therapy would help patients undergoing heart procedures. Neither significantly improved the patients’ outcomes.

These studies come after others that have shown positive results for conditions such as heart disease and AIDS using either prayer or various techniques of distant healing, in which one person attempts to improve the health of another person some distance away. A review in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that out of 23 studies, 13 showed statistically significant treatment effects, which is far above what we would expect by chance. Nonetheless, the two recent large, well-done studies cast doubt on this line of inquiry as a whole.

There are a couple of reasons why we would expect researchers to have trouble getting positive results in prayer studies, even if prayer is effective. The first is that because of the need for double-blind conditions as well the need to maintain patient confidentiality, those praying have had no contact with the patients. In the Benson study, the prayer groups were given the first name of the patients and the first initial of their last names, and this is typical of these studies. This makes me wonder how intense the prayers can be when those doing the praying have no emotional connection to the patients. If we believe in prayer, would we expect the effects of someone praying for a stranger known only by a first name and an initial to be the same as that of patients or their loved ones praying for help?

This brings us to the second reason why getting consistently positive results could be difficult. The researchers can’t tell patients not to pray for their own health, and they can’t tell family members and friends not to pray for them either. The researchers just have to hope that the prayer by the study participants will add to the patient and family prayer enough so that the results will be significant. Unfortunately, the intense patient and family prayer, which can’t be controlled for in the studies, may well be much more powerful than the prayers of strangers, so it’s not surprising that studies would get negative results.

It has occurred to me that one way to avoid both of these problems would be to study owners praying for their pets undergoing a veterinary procedure. The placebo effect wouldn’t be an issue since the pets presumably wouldn’t know what their owners were doing, so it would be fine to have the owners, the people who love the animals the most, be the ones praying while the pets were undergoing the procedure. And there would be no worry about the prayer of patients confounding the results since the patients—the pets—would be unlikely to pray.

That study has never been done as far as I know, but a lot of studies have examined the effect that mental intention can have on other living organisms, looking at, for instance, rates of plant growth, growth of tumors in animals, growth of yeasts and bacteria, etc. This area is called DMILS—Direct Mental Intention with Living Systems. At last count (one done by Dr. Daniel Benor), out of 191 controlled studies that had been done, 124 had produced significantly positive results.

Given this, we certainly have reason to think that mental intention can have effects. I personally believe that prayer can have effects as well. I also think that proving those effects by getting consistent results in studies of people saying prayers for strangers may not be possible.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

My Blog and Welcome to It: God and Mushrooms

Welcome to my Life Before Life blog. I plan for this to be a forum that allows me to think about (and, of course, spout off about) topics generally related to my work with children who claim to remember previous lives. These include survival after death, parapsychology, and spirituality. It will be more informal than my journal articles and even my book, and I hope it’s at least as interesting and widely read as blogs in which people write about their various daily activities such as taking their cat to the vet.

This week, I’ve been thinking about a study that was in the news: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that giving psilocybin (as in psilocybin mushrooms) to volunteers produced mystical experiences, some of which were meaningful to the subjects at least two months after they occurred. (And I thought my research was out there.) The study was published online in the journal Psychopharmacology. It included the usual double-blind controlled conditions (with methylphenidate, or Ritalin, being used as a control), and when the volunteers were questioned two months after their experiences, over half of the psilocybin group rated them as among the top five most personally meaningful experiences of their lives. Many of them reported experiencing “a sense of unity without content (pure consciousness) and/or unity of all things.” (The news wasn’t all good. Some volunteers experienced temporary fear and even paranoia, so the authors point out the importance of a structured, supportive environment. Even so, I doubt they’ll have trouble finding volunteers for future studies.)

This study was similar to the so-called Good Friday Experiment in the 60s, in which theological seminary students were given psilocybin or a control during a religious service (which must have been quite an interesting religious service), and those getting the psilocybin reported positive changes in attitude and behavior at 6 months follow-up and even after 25 years.

These studies suggest at least three possibilities:

1. Psilocybin and substances like it are aptly named hallucinogens because they produce hallucinations that mimic meaningful spiritual experiences;
2. Psilocybin and the like are “spirit-facilitators,” as some call them, because they open the doorway to genuine mystical experiences; or
3. Mystical experiences, whether drug-induced or not, are simply creations of the brains of the people having them.

In the past, I’ve generally assumed the first possibility was true—that hallucinogens cause meaningless hallucinations—but I’ve begun to doubt that in the past few years. (I never gave reincarnation any thought either, but that’s another story.) Since I’ve never taken hallucinogens, I’m speaking without any first-hand knowledge, as I would guess the skeptics who dismiss the idea that spiritual experiences could be genuine are. Which brings to mind a paper I recently learned about. Dr. Karl Jansen studied ketamine, a hallucinogenic anesthetic that can produce phenomena similar to near-death experiences (NDEs). This led him to write an article in the Journal of Near-Death Studies called “The Ketamine Model of the Near-Death Experience: A Central Role for the N-Methyl-D-Aspartate Receptor”, arguing for a neurochemical explanation of near-death experiences. The journal devoted an entire issue to the article, commentaries about it, and Dr. Jansen’s response to the commentaries. All this took a while to compile, and in the end, Dr. Jansen added a postscript to his response in which he said that he was no longer as opposed to spiritual explanations of NDEs as his article would suggest. In fact, he said, “I now believe that there most definitely is a soul that is independent of experience.…Ketamine is a door to a place we cannot normally get to; it is definitely not evidence that such a place does not exist.” What presumably changed his mind was having an NDE himself after writing the first article, as he has subsequently acknowledged having had several NDEs.

Psilocybin and ketamine may be doors to the same place that mystical experiences such as NDEs provide a glimpse of, which at least offers the comforting possibility that dying may not be the only way to visit there. I’m not advocating that people do psilocybin mushrooms—as I said, I’ve never done them—but I do wonder sometimes what the world would be like if more people had, not just spiritual beliefs, but spiritual experiences as well.