Seeing a bright light is commonly reported by survivors or near-death experiences [Credit: howstuffworks.com]
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Ever wonder whether science could shed light on so-called ‘near death experiences’ or what happens to us after we die? Ever wonder how long we might live? Or ponder whether we could we even life forever? What will be mankind’s ultimate future? Will we merge with machines?
These are some of the questions myself Sean Duke, and Colette Kinsella, explored here in episode e of the four part series What’s It All About? for RTE Radio 1
The near-death experience
In 1968 Gillian MacKenzie had a near-death experience during a complicated pregnancy.
Gillian was prepared for an emergency Caesarian section, and while she was being wheeled towards the operating theatre she describes the feeling of leaving her body through her head. She says she then floated towards a pinprick of light and entered a tunnel, where she was surrounded by white light and experienced feelings of bliss.
While surrounded by the light Gillian heard a male voice proclaim, “you know who I am!”. The voice then introduced her to her dead grandfather, who said she would have to put up a good case if she wanted to return. She told them that she had to go back as her husband Hamish “doesn’t know how to iron his shirts”.
She then remembers being up on the ceiling of the operating theatre looking down on herself haemorrhaging. She even saw the bags of blood being used for the blood transfusion.
Gillian has no explanation for her experience, which remains as vivid now as it was then. She is 80 years old and not religious but, she says, the experience has erased all fear of dying. “I’m travelling hopefully,” is how she describes her views of the afterlife.
How long can we live?
Nick Bostrom is a scientist, futurologist and philosopher and the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.
Is it possible that technology will change human nature? This is the type of question that Nick Bostrom considers on a daily basis in his work.
Technology, he believes, is changing human nature. Once we develop machines that surpass human intelligence – and he’s fully convinced this will happen– these machines may work out how to make humans live forever.
Part of this process may include uploading an entire brain onto a machine; by extracting and uploading the neuronic architecture of a person’s brain onto a hard drive, it will be possible to transfer a person’s memories, personality and consciousness into an engineered body.
For more on Nick Bostrom:
Can we defeat ageing?
Aubrey de Grey, 50, is the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation, a biomedical charity research organization based in California that was set up to defeat ageing.
De Grey believes that the ageing process in humans is similar to how a machine, like a car, ages. There is an accumulation of wear and tear over time, and without regular maintenance the doors of the car might fall off. With maintenance, this can be postponed.
There are a number of biomedical reasons why we age, says Aubrey. He believes these these issues will be addressed in coming decades, so that anyone aged 50 or younger might stand to benefit.
De Grey believes ageing can be defeated and that this is the natural course of medical development. He argues that medicine has always sought to extend life, and that it will eventually become possible to extend human life indefinitely.
For more on Aubrey de Grey:
Can we stay active and healthy for longer?
Advances in the use of stem cell technology means we will soon be able to perform effective repairs on various parts of our bodies.
This type of treatment is known as “regenerative medicine”, and it will be used to repair cells in arthritic bone, or even damaged heart or brain tissue.
Frank Barry is the Director of the REMEDI Institute at NUI Galway, and he explains what this technology can do now, and what it might be able to do in the future.
For more on Frank Barry:
Should science be striving for immortality?
Daniel Callahan, 83, is co-founder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center, a leading bio-ethical research centre in the US.
Daniel believes that a lifespan of around 80 years is sufficient for a person to achieve what he or she needs to over the course of a lifetime.
And while life extension might be good for individuals, he feels it won’t be good for wider society as an increase in population will accelerate global warming and drain resources, among other things.
He also thinks most old people don’t want to live forever. It’s interesting to note, he says, that the research into life-extending technology is driven by people in their 40s or 50s who, perhaps, find it hard to imagine letting go of life.
For more on Daniel Callahan:
Are we merging with machines?
Futurologist are predicting that humans will eventually become cyborgs, i.e we will merge with machines. But many of us are on that path already: if you have a prosthetic joint or an artificial heart valve, you’re already partially bionic.
But advances in neuroscience and robotics are ushering in a new era of human-machine interactions where thought-controlled artificial limbs are now a reality.
One of the leading labs spearheading thought-control research is that of John Donoghue, Brown University, in the US, who we talk to here.
John explains how his researchers learned how to translate thoughts into electrical signals that allow an amputee to control an artificial limb.
For more on John Donoghue:
Liam Geraghty talks to Danish man Dennis Sorenson, 36, who earlier this year received the world’s first bionic hand that provides its user with sensory feedback. Dennis lost his hand and most of his arm during an accident with a firecracker several years ago.
The economics of the afterlife
Millica Bookman is the author of Do They Take Credit Cards in Heaven? This book looks at cultural views of the afterlife from the perspective of economics.
Take “outsourcing”, for example. Millica describes how “sin eaters” in 17th-century England were paid to take away the sins of the dead by eating bread left on the chest of the deceased.
She also describes how the ancient Greeks believed they had to pay to enter the afterlife, which is why a coin was placed in the mouth of the deceased before burial.
Unusual traditions have sprung up in modern times too. In China, for example, people often place Viagra in coffins, while in the West people are often laid to rest with things like a bottle of wine or reading glasses for company.
Does consciousness survive after the brain dies?
Peter Fenwick is a consultant neuro-psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He has researched near-death experiences over many decades, as well as the science of what happens when we die.
Peter’s research led him to question the nature of human consciousness, and his results point towards the idea that consciousness continues in some form after the brain dies.
Steven Laureys is a Belgian neuroscientist and leader of the Coma Science Group at the Liège University Hospital in Belgium.
Steven studies near-death experiences in coma patients, and he believes that the near death-experiences of bliss, being out of body, and seeing a tunnel can all be re-created by stimulating the brain in particular ways.
For more on Peter Fenwick view interview below:
For more on Stephen Laureys: