Saturday, May 23, 2009
Anesthesia By Death and Other Mysteries
This post is dedicated to my mother-in-law on her birthday.
This past week NPR presented a series on "The Science of Spirituality." Barbara Bradley Hagerty, author of the book Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, aired the following articles:
I enjoyed this series very much despite one or two minor annoyances. I am always a little annoyed by the assertions that the existence of God is proven or disproven by the existence of specific kinds of electrical or neurotransmitter activity in the brains of people undergoing spiritual experiences. These findings prove nothing. If God exists, then of COURSE people's experience of God would manifest neurophysiologically, as all experience does. If God does not exist, but humans nevertheless have an innate capacity for mystical experience for whatever reason, then of course brain chemistry is the means by which that capacity is expressed. Maybe Richard Dawkins' brain isn't more evolved than a believer's, as he seems to believe about himself - maybe he suffers from a "mysticism deficiency" disorder! (I chuckle naughtily - couldn't resist.)
I also get a little irritated when scientists arrive at "conclusions" that have been known to theologians, philosophers, and spiritual thinkers for years. C.S. Lewis and Kierkegaard both wrote that prayer changes US, not God; now all of a sudden scientists concur that "Prayer May Reshape Your Brain...and Your Reality." And don't even get me started on all the "revelations" in quantum physics that have been commonplace as ideas - conceptualized a little differently, perhaps - in the minds of spiritual people for ages.
I enjoyed in particular the article about whether positive thoughts can help heal another person. When I was a resident some researchers were patting themselves on the back for proving that prayer for cardiac patients not only failed to benefit them but also, in fact, made their outcomes worse. When I read the study, I had to roll my eyes. I would not call what the subjects were doing "prayer," nor would I necessarily measure prayer efficacy by outcome.
Prayer is not a mumbling of words for disconnected strangers in the hope of happier results; that, in fact, is childish superstition. To me prayer is something far deeper: an act of humility and, most importantly, an act of love. Matter cannot move or live without energy; without the energy and connecting force of love behind all the heartfelt words and thoughts, prayer is inert, soul-less, a husk without substance. The article about physiologic manifestations related to positive thoughts "sent" by one loving spouse to another made me think of the power my own husband's love has had to transform me and our lives, and I felt an instant recognition. He often tells me, "My life is a prayer, honey." It's true.
Love has power. Prayer born of love and fueled by love has power. The two are meshed together; love is the ultimate prayer, and prayer is mindful love. To be critical of it (love or prayer) for not being able to cure a kid with cancer or guard a woman's safety as she crosses a park at night or change the outcome of an accident is to fail to understand its nature entirely, I think. It's not a magic spell; it's an agent for transfiguration that needs to be learned constantly and that cannot be understood in the ordinary language of time, space, observation, and fact.
Perhaps you believe that love, like everything else we experience including awe and anything transcendent, is merely the result of neurotransmitters and chemical reactions. Maybe. But if that's true, than the divinity lies there, in the very stuff of those atoms and molecules. I think there's more to the story, or we wouldn't be asking so many questions.
My favorite article in the series, of course, was the one about the person who had a near-death experience under anesthesia. Now, this was no ordinary anesthetic. This was circulatory arrest: a stopped heart, blood drained out of the patient, body cooled to cadaverous temperatures. Tell me that's not a DEAD person right there. Anesthesiologists prefer to conceptualize the state as "suspended animation": the closest you can get to death without actually crossing the line. I am not a specialist in cardiac or neuroanesthesia; I've only done this twice in my life, with help. I can still remember noticing my patients' eerie pallor - the phrase "white as a ghost" came to my mind - as I packed ice around their heads during cardiac standstill. It's very cool (no pun intended) but very...spooky, too.
Hagerty's article tells the story of singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds, who had a near-death experience in 1991 during surgery for a large aneurysm on her brainstem. During the operation she felt her consciousness leave her body through the top her head and found herself looking down at the operation from above. She overheard a discussion about narrow blood vessels in her leg. She saw the bone drill used by the surgeons. She saw twenty people in the room. She chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle. She heard "Hotel California" playing in the operating room as she re-entered her body. "The line was, 'You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.' And I opened my eyes and I said, 'You know, that is really insensitive!' "
Her neurosurgeon, Robert Spetzler, later confirmed all these details (with the exception of the dead grandmother and uncle) and said he could think of no scientific explanation for Reynolds' experience. Skeptics ascribe it to "awareness under anesthesia." Um, yeah - with her eyes taped shut, noise-generating, molded ear speakers placed into her ears, and zero bloodflow to the brain. If that's the answer, it's unlike any case of anesthesia awareness I've ever read about.
Alas, cases like this probably have to be relegated to the "we may never fully know" category - unless you're a staunch materialist and have an explanation for everything. I prefer a worldview that honors reason and science but also embraces mystery and stays open to the possibility that there's more to us and our world than the usual models can explain or express. On that note, I think I'll go alter my brain chemistry a little, and do a little meditation...or at least a little meditative oboe playing...