Category Archives: Reviews

The Afterlife Experiments

The Afterlife Experiments is a lucid, well-written, thought–provoking book. The book starts out with a quote from the works of William James, the founding father of American Psychology, a man who actually accepted evolution and believed that our minds had evolved to help us survive! The words quoted state “In order to disprove the law that all crows are black, it is enough to find one white crow.” Presumably, the author has found not one, but five such crows!

Dr. Gary Schwartz, is described as a professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at University of Arizona and is the director of Human Energy Systems Laboratory.

Dr. Schwartz has published more than four hundred research papers in his field in prestigious journals and has more than eleven books to his credit.

Dr. Schwartz and his friend, Dr. Linda Russek, a psychologist who believes her dead father communicates with her, jointly conducted the experiments described in the book.

The author should be congratulated for running well-controlled experiments on Medium-received information and getting the work published.

The last set of experiments described in the book rule out the “Barnum Effect” as an explanation of the high ratings given to the readings by the participants. (“Barnum Effect” attributes the vagueness and generality of statements made by horoscope writers, to people believing that those statements correctly describe their personalities.)

The experiments mainly consist of having well-known “mediums” such as John Edward, George Anderson, Suzane Northrop, Rev. Anne Gehman and a relatively less-known newcomer named Laurie Campbell, to do readings for the same set of people, simply called “sitters”, and have the sitters grade the mediums’ statements on a rating scale as to the applicability and accuracy of the readings. The participants (both the mediums and the sitters) are also attached to EEG and ECG machines and the entire session is also videotaped and audio-taped for good measure!

The author is very aware of all the objections professional skeptics like James Randi and Michael Sherman (mentioned by name in the book) are likely to come up with. He discusses those objections thoroughly in his book, and takes great precautions to make his studies fool-proof by running blind studies and making sure that the identity of the sitters is not made known to any persons other than himself and his trusted partner, except at the last minute.

As they get better at designing fool-proof experiments, Dr. Schwartz makes sure that the mediums do the readings without seeing or hearing the sitters, first. They then continue with the reading after they have heard the sitter’s voice in a brief “hello”. The final set of experiments is conducted such that a “blind” silent sitter is given two readings to score. One is done for him or her by a “blind” medium, and the other reading is one that was done for some other blind and silent sitter. Both the readings are to be scored for personal relevance and accuracy. The results indicate that even with this protocol the sitters pick the reading that was done for them, as relevant, and assign a high score for accuracy to it, while assigning a score of “zero relevance” or close to a reading which was not meant for them. It is this part of the experiment that neatly dismisses the “Barnum Effect” as a plausible answer. Now all we need is replication of this part of the experiment by another reputable University or College.

Dr. Schwartz also relates what he thinks, is a very salient episode, via the transcripts of the sittings. As you read through the Medium’s statements and the Sitter’s yes/no responses, you realize that each of the five Mediums picks-up the violent suicide of one of the sitter’s sons. The words they choose to describe the tragic event differ, but it is clear that they all are referring to the same event. What is more, some of the mediums even ask the sitter directly, whether the person who died the violent death was her son, and whether or not he had committed suicide by shooting himself in the head! A very daring thing to do if someone is just “guessing”, and indeed, Dr. Schwartz and his collaborators are duly impressed.

However, it is not possible to rule out fraud in this particular episode because, the sitter, a Pat Price, was selected to sit, not by Dr. Schwartz, but by someone from HBO who taped the session for Television! When conducting Scientific Experiments, it is best not to involve the Media or any “for profit” organization. Another problem with the Pat Price reading is that the transcripts indicate that Ms. Price does not contradict the Mediums, even when the information given is blatantly incorrect in two instances. One is when the medium tells her that her husband is dead when he is very much alive, and the other when he says she must have had a miscarriage, when she had not had one. If her rating cannot be trusted when it is given out loudly and orally, how can it be trusted when she scores the statements silently, by herself?

Two other problems with the book are, first, Dr. Schwartz starts the book by talking about some code that he sets up with the help of a Mediumistic housewife named Suzy Smith and Dr. Linda Russek. Suzy Smith is supposed to help someone break the code and win a sum of $10,000.00 by divulging the code from “the other side”, after her death! Towards the end of the book, Suzy Smith is reported to have died, but there is no mention of her helping any body to break the code or any invitation to the readers to try to break the code!

The other problem is that the relevance of the massive amount of ECG & EKG data collected during the readings is not at all clear. This author wondered if Dr. Schwartz was referring to a phenomenon similar to evoked potentials, but did not seem like it. Dr. Schwartz talks of “detecting ECG triggered in the medium by the sitter” and vice versa, but does not explain it well enough to understand what he means by it and what exactly the “triggered” ECG has to do with the medium’s ability to convey messages from the sitter’s dead relatives. A “Control group” made up of people who are not Mediums, but who simply sit opposite the sitters and also get attached to ECGs is not mentioned.

Every Skeptic ought to read this book, even if the aim is to dissect every statement and dismiss it by relegating it to one of several categories described as “loose-procedure effect”, “self-deception”, “Barnum & Bailey Effect” or the skeptics favorite F word category…“Fraud”. All in all, a challenging piece of work. Hopefully it will get other scientists involved in experimental work regarding messages from the other side!

The Afterlife Experiments: Breakthrough Scientific Evidence of Life After Death by Dr. Gary E Schwartz, Ph.D. with William L. Simon, 1st Ed. March 2002, Pocket Books, New York. ISBN: 0-7434-3658-X

Has Deepak Done The Impossible?

Chopra Deepak (2003): How to Know God The Soul’s Journey Into the Mystery of Mysteries.  ISBN 0-609-60078-8 Harmony Books, 201 E 50th St. NY.NY. 10022.

In this rather rambling book, Dr. Deepak Chopra, former endocrinologist, takes on the impossible task of explaining the human mind and The God who created it. Chopra basically argues that the material world as we humans experience it is really the quantum world of energy packets as described by Science but connected by God or Supreme Principle, that connects the quantum world and creates the material world, and is itself, what Chopra terms the “Virtual World”.  Dr. Chopra then goes on to give instructions on how to contact this so called “Virtual World” or God.

One of the first things that a non-fiction writer ought to do, is to verify the so called “facts” which he/she uses to develop his/her ideas. I will bring up three such “facts” mentioned in the book, the first regarding sea-cucumbers, the second about Multiple Personality Disorder, and a third regarding meditation mantras.

Chopra says:

“In a similar act of communal awareness, the cells of a sea cucumber are arranged to give a mouth and a digestive tract to this primitive animal, which is little more than a giant feeding tube. You can puree a sea cucumber in a blender, pour the solution of brine and cells into a bucket, and after a while the entire animal will regroup itself from the unformed biological sludge.” (Chopra, pg. 249)

This sea-cucumber fact is used to explain ESP type phenomena. Chopra talks of a unified “Mind-field” which connects us all. This Mind-field is “intelligence” “information” or “God” and it also does the job of holding all the atoms together and giving them the shape and form that material goods have. It is the “virtual world” supreme principle that directs and allows the regrouping of the pulverized sea cucumber.

On reading this, I contacted the Information Officer for the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Isles at press@darwinfoundation.org and requested verification. Ros Cameron of the Foundation replied “Highly unlikely that any animal, even a system as simple as the sea cucumber could be pureed and then reform itself from the mix….Our marine staff who work with the sea cucumbers have never heard of this. Probably be worthy of a Nobel prize if ever proven to be true.” (Cameron, 2003, personal communication, emphasis added).

The second item is the enigmatic Multiple Personality problem. Chopra fills the reader in on the existing theories of the genesis of the Multiple Personality Disorder, including the one where MPD is seen as “role playing”. He seems to subscribe to the role-playing theory, and then goes on to explain it in terms of his “Mind-field” theory. Chopra says:

“Alter egos must come from a region beyond personal experience; they are like voluntary incarnations—or partial incarnations—activated from the storehouse of the mind field” (Chopra, pgs. 252-253)

There is however, no explanation as to why the Mind-field in all its wisdom produces these socio-pathic “alters” which make the life of the host personality a living nightmare.  Chopra then goes on to say:

From the perspective of the mind field, if an alter ego is strong enough, it can actually change the body to conform to it. Striking cases are on record in which one personality is menopausal, for example, while the others aren’t, or, or where each of the alter egos has its own menstrual cycle. In other cases a single personality may be diabetic or allergic to pollen while the others show no signs of these disorders. ….The diabetic personality may be insulin dependent and yet revert to normal blood sugar levels during the time when other personalities appear”. (Chopra, pgs. 252-253” emphasis added).

Different menstrual cycles for each alter personality? Talk about magical thinking! Wouldn’t it be neat if each personality also had its own pregnancy, its own gestational period and its own baby? So we could have one very straight laced, non-pregnant personality and one baby-kicking in the womb, soon-to-give-birth personality? Alas, Chopra himself does not provide any references. A survey of literature on MPD conducted by me indicated that even authorities on the subject like Frank Putnam (1987), Colin Ross, 1996 ; Eugene L. Bliss (1986), etc. do not record any such cases. Putnam talks of anecdotal evidence of different personalities being differentially dose-sensitive to psychoactive drugs, but goes no further.

Chopra has also failed to substantiate his statement regarding meditation. Chopra writes “-the vibration of the Mantra is the key. The word vibration means the frequency of brain activity in the cerebral cortex” (Chopra, pg.93. emphasis added). The above sentences make it seem like different EEG frequencies are linked to or generated by use of different Mantras, where the word “mantra” stands for a specific Hindu or Buddhist chant used for meditation. Again, Dr. Chopra does not provide any references. While there is scientific evidence especially that provided by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard, that meditation induces a relaxation response, and that EEG slows down to that of a tranquil state (Benson, 1984), there is no evidence that different chants are associated with different EEG frequencies or patterns. Providing references for such facts would have really enhanced the usefulness of the book.

Furthermore, although Chopra addresses various interesting anomalous phenomena and tries to pull everything into a neat little “quantum” package complete with a “virtual” God, and a recipe to reach him, it is fraught with discordant religious ideologies which he tries in vain to synthesize.

Chopra pulls in age old ideas from the Bible such as “Ask and you shall receive” and quirky new ideas from the writings of New Age writers, such as “mankind as a whole is evolving towards transcendence” or that God is a “Bright White Light” etc. which are a world apart. He draws from the Philosophy propounded in the Yoga Sutras of India (which Indian intellectuals uphold as the “true” teachings of Hinduism) and the teachings of Jyotish Shastra or Hindu Astrology, which reflect the actual religious practices of most Hindus and are a far cry from the teachings of the Yoga Sutras. Dr. Chopra merrily writes his huge treatise as if all of these philosophies were alluding to the same ONE God. The problem is they are not. Their “gods” are different and their world views are different.

The Bible professes one jealous Supreme Being that wants you to forsake other similar Supreme Beings. This God rewards those who comply with Biblical teachings and metes out punishments to those who don’t. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra professes an all-pervading principle, which one can access if one wants to. Patanjalli does not equate it with white light or synchronicity in life events. No specific punishment outside of common human misery is professed, if one does not access this principle.  The Yoga Sutras talk specifically of leading a disciplined, controlled life and using meditation and physical exercises to overcome pain and misery. In contrast,  the religious teachings of Seers like Bhrigu, the famous mythical astrologer from India, talk of the existence of various Gods, Goddesses, demi-gods, demons, ghosts, etc. and ascribe causality to eight planets/stars in our galaxy. Any one or more of these gods and also the planets themselves are to be worshipped and given gifts, etc. for a happy successful life, as per this Bhrigu ideology (Rao, 1991). One is also advised of sins committed in previous incarnations and is told which planet/god one should propitiate to mitigate the effects of those sins. Deepak Chopra takes all of these discordant dogmas and pounds them along with a hefty helping of modern Quantum Physics as a binding agent, in creating his new hodge-podge placebo.

After taking the reader through a labyrinth of various and sundry religious ideas, Chopra lists what he calls “Ground rules for knowing God”. Those rules are no different from advice given in any New Age book, such as knowing your intention, setting your intentions high, seeing yourself in the light, learning to forgive yourself and others, and bringing about miracles in your life and the lives of others, etc. There is no mention of those old fashioned moral values such as “thou shalt not commit adultery”, or any mention of giving gifts to the gods to get rid of sins committed in past lives.

Chopra’s main thesis is that every mind is on a journey of evolution where the final goal is to merge with the All-pervading connecting principle, which is pretty much the same as the Vedic Hindu idea of achieving “Moksha” and that there is a specific way in which one can achieve it. The eternal hell/heaven of the Biblical God sort of vanishes and is not discussed. Chopra goes on to say:

“Every mind is on a journey of evolution. The final goal is inevitable, to merge with god. It is better to cooperate than to resist. The soul is the source of truth and love. If you cooperate, your life will be organized with the help of infinite power and intelligence as it flows from God.”

What Dr. Chopra means by this, is that your life will be full of fortunate synchronistic events, and he narrates several fortunate synchronistic events that took place in his life, to support his statements.

Synchronistic events do take place in a person’s life. Sometimes they are fortunate, sometimes they are not! Chopra turns a blind eye to the horrific unfortunate synchronistic events that happen, so there are no answers as to why they happen or how to avoid them.

All in all, Chopra fails to impress scientific minded people because he fails to verify his facts and he leaves non-scientists just as confused as himself with all the discordant views mentioned without the rejection or elimination of any of them. The “virtual world” stuff thrown in for good measure does not help either. So, has Deepak Chopra done the impossible by showing us a way to Know the Unknowable? I don’t think so. But then again, like the movie title said, What the #$*! Do We Know!?

References:

Benson, Herbert & Proctor William. (1984): Beyond the Relaxation Response: How to Harness the Healing Power of Your Personal Beliefs Berkeley Publishing Group, A Division of Penguin Books. Penguin Putnam, New York, N.Y. ISBN 0-425-08183-4

Bliss E.L. (1986): Multiple Personality, Allied Disorders, and Hypnosis, Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0195036581

Putnam, Frank W. (1987): Diagnosis and Treatment of Multiple Personality Disorder. The Guilford Press, NY, London. ISBN 0-89862-177-1

Rao, R.G. (1991): Bhrigu Nandi Nadi, Ranjan Publications, New Delhi, India.

Ross C.A. (1996): Dissociative Identity Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment of Multiple Personality (Wiley Series in General and Clinical Psychiatry) Publisher: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-13265-9