Psience Quest Interview No. 8: Michael Nahm

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A big thank you to Dr. Nahm for consenting to this interview.

1. Your website describes your background in zoology and paleontology, and your current work is described as biology. What led you to take an interest in psychical research?
Biology is the study of life. It is therefore a very broad area of study. In my understanding, it concerns more than what is typically taught in biology lessons at school or universities. In order to understand life including the human mind in best possible terms, we need to take also further aspects of life into account. I was lucky that I had a biology teacher in high school who introduced us to biological questions outside of the habitual course of instruction. Apart from the required biological basics, he also taught us philosophical basics and stressed that we should remain curious specifically regarding open and controversial questions in biology, such as the origins of life and problems of evolutionary theory. I loved and followed this approach. Soon, I realized that psychical phenomena constitute important facets of life that must be considered when striving for an encompassing understanding of life and the mind. Hence, my first book concerns open questions of evolution and their potential links to parapsychology.
2. The Guardian credited you with coining the phrase "terminal lucidity," and you have argued that it and related phenomena would carry implications for theories of memory and the treatment of severe brain conditions. What would your ideal research project into terminal lucidity look like, and in the years since you first published on the subject, have any investigations begun that you find particularly promising?
Regarding the implications of terminal lucidity for the treatment of severe brain conditions, or rather: for enabling improved access to memories in cases of severe brain conditions, research projects could aim at elucidating the neuronal correlates of unusual lucid episodes and the potential triggers that elicit these episodes, also on a social and psychological level. This would imply monitoring for example late stage dementia patients in these respects to identify such correlates and triggers. Provided that fairly reliable factors could be identified, one could attempt to purposefully induce them to improve memory access. There are indeed current research projects that address these issues.
3. What is your familiarity with Sam Parnia's AWARE studies, and do you feel a comparable study could and should be undertaken on terminal lucidity?
Yes, I am familiar with the AWARE study. In a recent paper about the second phase studies, Sam Parnia and his team also used EEG devices to monitor brain activities after cardiac arrest, and found considerable activity in some of the patients – just as several teams of researchers already before them. Parnia et al. argued that such brain activity after cardiac arrest might account for lucid states of awareness during apparent periods of unconsciousness. However, they were only able to interview two patients from whom they obtained EEG data, and these two patients had *no* cognitive recall of anything that happened after their cardiac arrest. Hence, although such brain activities might well signify neuronal correlates of awareness during times of apparent unconsciousness, we still don’t know if this is the case, or if this would be a necessary precondition for cognitive recall. There might exist patients who have conscious recall of events that occurred during a time when their brain displayed *no* signs of activity indicative of awareness. This has already been reported by Adrian Owen from a comatose patient whose brain was examined twice in an fMRI scanner. According to the scans, his brain was completely dysfunctional. Yet, the patient later recovered and he had perfect recall of everything that happened.

In any case, episodes of increased brain activity *after* cardiac arrest in seemingly unconscious patients might not be relevant for terminal lucidity, anyway, since terminal lucidity always occurs *before* cardiac arrest and subjects displaying terminal lucidity are conscious. But in general, research into near-death states is very desirable. Sam Parnia and his team are performing very valuable work and I hope more research projects of this kind will be following, also with a focus on studying terminal lucidity.
4. You've also written about other near-death phenomena, including the similarities and differences between near-death experiences from different cultures. Given the differences that exist across time and culture, do you feel that there are limits to the investigatory value of NDE classifications systems such as the Greyson scale?
The NDE scale developed by Bruce Greyson is a very helpful tool in case one intends to compare specific sets of NDE reports. We need scales like this for such studies to ensure that we are dealing with largely comparable sets of data. I have also used the NDE scale already in a survey on NDEs. However, such scales can never cover the entire spectrum of subjective experiences. The NDE scale is no exception. For example, it doesn’t cover distressing NDEs. This is why researchers have attempted to develop a more refined version of this scale. But NDEs are so varied, complex, and subjectively meaningful that there will always remain aspects that are not appropriately covered by such scales. NDE researchers need to be aware of this limitation, and I suppose most of them are.
5. What do you feel is the most compelling case for replacement reincarnation?
In my opinion, this is the case of Shiva/Sumitra. It has been documented most extensively of all cases of replacement reincarnation I know.
6. You've done critical investigations of mediumship and reported on fraudulent activity by Kai Mügge. Has the discovery of fraud affected how you consider historical reports of mediumship from the likes of Daniel Dunglas Home or Leonora Piper?
Yes, I have become more critical. When I first participated in sittings with Kai Mügge, I was convinced that the phenomena we observed were very likely genuine. We sat with his family members, neighbours and others in a very friendly and cheerful atmosphere. Interested people had always been welcome and there was no charge for anything. I realized only later that Kai had purposefully betrayed us already at that time, e.g., by using a red LED light to simulate “the essence of ectoplasm” (he even confessed this fraud in 2014). In retrospect, it is obvious that I had been much too uncritical. In the light of my learned lesson, it is bewildering to see how many sitters and even researchers still repeat the same mistake, also regarding Kai: They are again much too uncritical, even after everything so much has been published about fraudulent mediums since 150 years. They simply cannot imagine that their medium “friends” like Kai cheat them, and they have far too much confidence in their own opinions about what is possible or impossible during sittings. This gullibility wasn’t any different in the past: Many researchers merely saw what they wanted to see, and some even crafted their reports accordingly. But I still think that there are and were genuine mediums, and I count D.D. Home and Mrs. Piper among them.
7. A frustration of mediumship studies is the unwillingness of many purported mediums to sit under proper controls. Were one willing to do so, what would your ideal sitting design be, and what would you accept as evidence for genuine abilities?
The details depend of course on what exactly is to be investigated. But as general rules, I’d recommend the following for ideal sittings for macrophysical anomalies:
  • proper controls of the room and the items in it before and after the sittings (including the clothes of the psychic claimant), removal of all unnecessary items before the sittings
  • ensure that the psychic claimant is constantly controlled / visible during the entire sitting
  • no sittings in darkness or very dim red light; documentation of phenomena with appropriate technical measurement and recording devices
  • make sure to be in charge of the sittings, don’t let the psychic claimant decide about all important matters.

It is likely that the probabilities for successful documentations of genuine anomalies are diminished under these conditions, but one nevertheless needs to take these restrictions into account. This is far better than being duped and opening the doors to fraud and fiction, and propagating erroneous claims about physical mediums. Unfortunately, this happened again and again in very obvious ways even in recent experimental sittings with fraudulent mediums, including Kai Mügge. Macrophysical anomalies HAVE been documented many times also under reasonable control conditions and in good light. Hence, insisting on darkness, etc., is nothing but an obsolete excuse and cannot be regarded to constitute a reasonable argument anymore for researchers with a sound knowledge about physical mediumship and a genuine interest in these phenomena.
8. You've written about the enigmas of evolution (the origin of life, mutation, selection, psi phenomena), and the inability of neo-Darwinism to address them. Are there any proposals that you consider promising leads on any of these enigmas?
Sometimes, it is very astonishing how fast new species of animals develop, for example on islands or in caves. In drastic cases, a few dozen generations seem to suffice. In such cases, it remains to be determined in how far such a rapid speciation can be attributed exclusively to random mutations, genetic drift, and subsequent selection of the best adapted individuals. Possibly, epigenetic factors play an important role here as well. However, mechanisms of epigenetic inheritance are not yet fully understood, and it might furthermore be possible that also a “psychic” factor comes into play.

This is why studying reincarnation cases is so important: In about one third of the cases, the new born subjects who speak of a past life possess also bodily features that correspond to the body of the person whose life they remember. They can also display behavioural correspondences of various kinds. All this can happen even when there is no genetic link between the two concerned families. Such cases constitute examples of a mode of inheritance that cannot rely on the genes or other physical modes of trait transmission. Who knows if such processes are much more common in nature than we think, and usually go unnoticed, but still influence the formation of instincts or other aspects of animal behaviour, or even their bodily evolution?
9. What led you to investigating the sudden whitening of hair as a hobby?
As mentioned already, there are many open questions in biology. For example, it is still not known how exactly mental expectations result in somatic changes, e.g. in placebo or nocebo effects. Such mentally induced effects can be very drastic, ex exemplified by spontaneous healings, somatic alterations under hypnosis (e.g. the generation of blisters and even stigmata following hypnotic suggestions), and somatic changes that come and go with the different alters being in charge in people with dissociative identity disorder. The sudden whitening of hair may only represent the most astonishing aspect of such mentally induced effects, since hair is dead matter. It contains no metabolism that might be responsible for bleaching hair shafts. It therefore may represent a phenomenon that links purely biological effects such as placebo effects to parapsychological phenomena such as psychokinesis. All these phenomena may be part of a continuous spectrum of effects, thus highlighting that parapsychological phenomena are not as weird and unusual as it is often assumed. They might well be a natural part of our biological life, but again go usually unnoticed.
10. Have you had any personal paranormal or religious experiences, and if so, what was the most profound?
The most impressive exceptional experience I had was an extensive out-of-body experience I had about 30 years ago. However, it didn’t contain perceptions of something that had been unknown to me before. Hence, even though it was very impressive and contained elements of veridical perception, it was not evidential in this respect from a scientific perspective.
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Those are some great questions and answers. I especially appreciated the insight that reincarnation claimants often have bodily features related to that of the claimed previous life, even when there is no genetic link, suggesting a non-physical mode of transmission beyond that of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. The lack of accounting for negative NDEs in the Greyson scale is something that's occurred to me in the past too, and worth pointing out. Thanks to Will and Dr. Nahm for conducting and participating (respectively) in this interview.
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Great interview, thanks for doing this Will!
'Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma...Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism.'

- Bertrand Russell

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Will, I echo the applause for you taking the considerable time, effort, and energy to get this interview.  Its GREATLY appreciated!!
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I was most surprised by Question 9. I asked it out of interest in what I thought were other hobby areas of research; it hadn't occurred to me to connect whitening hair to parapsychology!
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A big thank-you to both Dr. Nahm and Will for the time and effort in contributing and producing this interview.

I found something of interest or value in all the question/responses. The first one for example, how influences in our early years can help awaken a natural curiosity about the world - I know some of my teachers were better at that than others. The last one as well, regarding an out-of-body experience which while not offering the sort of veridical information often sought in studies yet nevertheless having a powerful impact on the experiencer. This is an area where science seems unable to reach, how the most dramatic personal experiences when put through a scientific sieve results in the output of 'nothing to see here, move along'.

I appreciated Dr. Nahm's serious acknowledgement of fraudulent activity while not causing an entire field to be dismissed. A balanced approach.

On the subject of a medium sitting in darkness or very dim light, I'm not convinced that a single approach (such as a well-lit environment) would be the only possible approach. Though there might be some solutions such as dark glasses or other physical means of reducing the light for the medium only. Or nowadays, technology such as sensitive low-light cameras - more than one to cover different angles. I'm certainly no expert in mediumship, but am aware of the effect of the environment in creating a mood, an atmosphere conducive to receptivity. In my own ordinary life, I regularly pass through a dark or dimply-lit passageway in my house and it can often produce a profound change of mood, a great calming effect which I do value.

Anyway, thanks again.
(This post was last modified: 2024-01-30, 11:33 AM by Typoz. Edited 1 time in total.)
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