What, if anything, survives physical death? That was the motivation behind this IONS essay aimed to advance the understanding of the complex and fascinating topic of survival of consciousness.
We can start by considering two extremes:
On the one hand, we have the idea that the material world is fundamental and that consciousness is an emergent property.
On the other hand, we have the theory that consciousness is fundamental and manifests all that we see around us.
The first perspective dismisses survival of consciousness after death as a possibility, while according to the latter, consciousness is all there is. People’s beliefs are not black or white but lie somewhere in the middle.
We can explore these nuances through four main questions:
- What survives?
- Why improve beliefs in the survival of consciousness after death?
- What are the major categories of evidence for survival?
- What experiments can advance our understanding of survival?
These questions inspired the creation of this award-winning essay, written by IONS scientists Dean Radin, Helané Wahbeh, and Arnaud Delorme.
The researchers established five levels of survival of consciousness to help evaluate the evidence categories more easily. Consciousness is defined as awareness and identity – a sense of subjective awareness that includes one’s surroundings together with a sense of self and personal memories.
The five levels were defined as follows:
- Level 0: Nothing survives. All aspects of being human are dissolved at the point of bodily death. This is compatible with the materialistic worldview where you are basically your brain – so when the brain dies, it could mean that all aspects of you do, too.
- Level 1: Pure awareness survives. Personal identity and memories vanish. What survives can be seen as a formless, transcendent state, with no perception of the environment being different than itself.
- Level 2: Awareness and limited sense of identity survive. Dying would feel like waking up from a dream without remembering who you are or where you are.
- Level 3: Awareness and identity survive. This includes memories of the immediate past life and perception of the environment.
- Level 4: Awareness and identity survive and can interact with the physical world. One’s sense of identity survives, as well as memories of environments and many past lives.
All levels except for level 0 include some level of survival. Since level 1 is pure awareness without identity, the researchers chose to focus on levels 2-4 in the essay.
Why improve beliefs in the survival of consciousness after death?
The question remains – why dive into this topic in the first place? It may seem like an impossible nut to crack, with little relevance beyond stimulating intellectual and existential curiosity.
This is not the case. Previous studies have shown that people who believe in some form of survival experience higher well-being. Believing in a life after death goes hand in hand with believing in justice for all, reduced psychiatric conditions, and a more peaceful life.
On the contrary, not believing in the afterlife is associated with the materialistic worldview, where objects and things are all that count, and one’s actions lack energetic consequences. It can feed nihilism and qualities like greed, envy, and selfishness. It can also worsen depression. What’s the point of doing anything if there’s no meaning?
The main focus from a well-being point of view could be to increase beliefs in the survival of consciousness rather than trying to prove survival as “real.”
What are the major categories of evidence for survival?
Here are the categories that may suggest survival, presented in descending order of credibility:
Category 1: Mental mediumship
Mental mediumship is undertaken sometimes as a seance with a medium and a group of sitters. The sitters are traditionally family members, friends, and loved ones of the deceased person. Sometimes it happens in one-on-one sessions.
The medium acts as a channel for the deceased person. They’re literally the medium by which the living and the dead can communicate with each other.
Sometimes, this happens through trance channeling, where the medium goes into a trance, and the non-physical being communicates through the medium’s body or voice. Other times, the medium “tunes in” and shares any messages they receive.
Most of the time, mediumship implies that the medium reaches out to the deceased person. But mediumship can also occur spontaneously through so-called drop-in communication. Verifying the information received makes it harder for skeptics to dismiss mediumship as invented messages.
Criticism against mental mediumship is that the information can be biased by so-called cold reading. This means that the medium picks up on non-verbal cues like body language from the sitter and adjusts their message accordingly. A solution is having proxy sitters who are people without a personal connection to the deceased.
Psi phenomena like telepathy are also hard to distinguish from pure mediumship.
Recent research has used triple-blind protocols to further separate the reader from the sitter. In a triple-blind setting, the medium is unaware of both the deceased person and the sitters. The channelings are recorded and transcribed. Experiments have shown results well above chance.
Another mental mediumship phenomenon supporting survival is xenoglossy, or when a person suddenly starts to speak a language unknown to them. This can also be expressed as suddenly mastering artistic skills such as painting or even playing chess.
Survival level: 3-4
Mental mediumship received a grade of B+ (good evidence) since it has been examined in many studies and presents some of the most compelling evidence of survival of consciousness. Multiple independent researchers have reported similar results. The reason it didn’t reach an A (strong evidence) is that some of the results could be explained by psi.
Category 2: Physical mediumship
Physical mediumship differs from mental mediumship in that some physical substance is manifested. These substances or materials are thought to be associated with the deceased person.
One common way is through the production of ectoplasm, a type of energetic material used by spirits to communicate with humans or interact with the physical world. Some physical mediums have allegedly had psychokinetic effects on photography by creating images on undeveloped film. This is once again at the tricky intersection between survival and psi.
Other mediums have created figures from paraffin or wax – shapes said to be evoked by spirits. Another related phenomenon is IVP, Independent Voice Phenomena, where the deceased communicates messages through a trumpet-like funnel.
The challenge with physical mediumship is that it’s hard to study since seances are often held in complete darkness. This is due to light purportedly destroying ectoplasm and thus blocking physical manifestations.
Survival level: 3
Physical mediumship fails to get an A since it’s so rare – there are less than ten credible cases.
Category 3: Reincarnation
Reincarnation refers to being reborn in another body. It is central in certain cultures and religions, notably Buddhism and Hinduism.
One of the most remarkable sources of evidence is the studies made by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson. He studied over 2,500 cases of reincarnation and wrote 12 books on the topic. There are several cases of children making verifiable claims about things they couldn’t know in any logical way. The most unambiguous ones are those where the child has gifts and talents that the deceased possessed or marks and deformities corresponding to an injury related to the cause of death of the supposedly reincarnated person.
The main challenge with investigating reincarnation as proof for the survival of consciousness is that only retrospective studies are possible. That means it’s hard (at our current level of consciousness) to imagine arranging an experiment commanding a person to reincarnate and prove that it’s them.
Survival level: 3
Category 4: NDEs
NDEs (Near Death Experiences) refer to an altered state of consciousness following a nearly fatal accident or event. It can happen after resuscitation and the physical body being declared dead.
People who have experienced an NDE report a feeling of “leaving the body” and seeing everything from above. This is generally followed by feelings of peace, joy, and ecstasy. The person can even experience traveling through a tunnel filled with bright light. Another common event is to meet and communicate with passed loved ones.
NDEs are often described as “hyper-real,” more real than reality. People experiencing NDEs often report positive life changes that are not present in those nearing death without having an NDE, such as loss of fear of death, increased love and compassion for their loved ones, and major life changes for the better. Most people who undergo an NDE have increased confidence in the survival of consciousness afterward. The experience is often described as transformative and can encourage exploring a spiritual path.
Non-believers may motivate the above experiences as mere hallucinations caused by an oxygen-deprived brain. However, the experiences can differ from what is known about that kind of hallucinations.
People’s ability to see and perceive things in the physical world during an NDE is a striking argument for its legitimacy as an indicator of consciousness separate from the brain. Remarkable examples are people who are in a comatose state or have a cardiac arrest on the operating table and report details about the conversation between the doctors or even what instruments were used during the operation – things that could not be possible since they were unconscious.
There are also anecdotes about blind people seeing during an NDE. What a striking suggestion that consciousness is not limited to the brain!
Despite these fascinating stories, NDEs have little validity from a strictly scientific perspective. This is because the evidence is purely anecdotal.
Survival level: 4
Category 5: Electric Voice Phenomena/Instrumental Transcommunication
The idea behind these phenomena is that spirits can communicate with the human world through the modulation of electric signals. For example, radio signals or other electric appliances. Messages created in steam or smoke can also fall into this category. These messages may contain words or snippets relevant to the deceased.
These phenomena are pretty rarely reported. For them to have any scientific validity, independent judges should evaluate the message. For voices, spectrographic analyses should be performed. As with many other phenomena, the challenge is to repeat the experiments in a controlled setting.
Survival level: 4
Category 6: Deathbed visions
Deathbed visions are reported weeks, days, or hours before transitioning. They involve visitations from deceased family members or friends, or a spirit, supporting the person through their transition.
An estimated 20-30% of hospice patients experience deathbed visions. Somewhat astoundingly, in some cases, other people present in the room report also seeing the vision! So-called take-away spirits were reported by 48% of caregivers in a study. The person who’s about to pass over can also see or feel a visitor sitting on their bed – this was reported by patients to 54% of caregivers.
Survival level: 3
Category 7: Apparitions
Apparitions refer to a fully or partially formed solid or transparent shape. It is often humanoid in appearance and may or may not show awareness about its surroundings.
Apparitions are often spontaneous, although there are methods to evoke them, such as crystal ball and mirror gazing techniques. They may appear in haunted places or coincide with a distant person’s death. Haunted places are also home to a similar phenomenon – that of a “felt presence.” Several logical explanations are possible, including vivid imagination or exposure to ionizing radiation. The supposed evidence for apparitions can also appear as strikes/blurbs on photos, disturbances in electric appliances, and inexplicable sounds.
Apparitions can be hard to verify and confirm. They could also be explained by psi – for example, apparitions coinciding with the passing of a loved one could be caused by clairvoyance or telepathy. Even cases where many people report seeing the same thing could be explained by some anomalous physical phenomenon rather than an actual mystical experience.
Survival level: 2-3
Category 8: Induced experiences of survival
Induced experiences of survival refer to altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelic medicines, like hallucinogenic plants, or hypnotic techniques like Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Hallucinogenic plants have been used for millennia by shamans to communicate with the spirits of plants, animals, and deceased humans. The experiences can be intensely vivid and transformative but are generally unsuited for scientific analysis.
EMDR and hypnotic past-life regression techniques are two drug-free ways to induce states suggestive of survival. They have proven to be efficient in reducing the trauma from grief over losing a loved one. Past-life regression has also proven to reduce chronic grief. It has sometimes had participants recount detailed episodes from previous lives.
However, as is the case for many of the other categories, induced experiences of survival struggle to be scientifically relevant due to all evidence being anecdotal in nature.
Survival level: 3
Category 9: After-death communication
After-death communication refers to spontaneously occurring events where a deceased person intends to communicate with a living person. Transmission can happen through sensory perceptions, dreams, symbols, or phone calls. Events like flickering lights or the sudden appearance of scents related to the person – for example, their favorite perfume – are also counted in this category. It can even include apparitional phenomena.
The message is often that the deceased person is doing fine. They can also express their presence and love for the living person.
Survival level: 3
All in all, mental and physical mediumship provide the strongest indications of survival of consciousness. All categories mentioned have legitimate cases. Some of them are harder to use for scientific studies due to the nature of the evidence (anecdotes) and lack of repeatability.
Ten experiments proposed
Going through the above nine categories, we can see many indicators suggesting that consciousness may survive bodily death.
However, many people are not aware of this very large body of evidence. We were curious to see what types of positive experiments would persuade people that there was survival after physical death.
422 scholars in the United States were then asked: how would a positive outcome of this experiment influence your beliefs about survival? The scholars were reported to be neutral in facing the question of survival.
Experiment 1: Apparition in the lab
This experiment would imply inviting a medium to ask for an apparition in a cloud of steam. The apparition would then be caught on a high-speed camera.
Experiment 2: Deceased person communicating through AI
In this experiment, a successful result would mean that a deceased person managed to influence an RNG to produce a meaningful message. In the first experiment, the process would be initiated by a medium asking the deceased person to send a message. Relatives to the deceased person would be invited to judge the relevance of the messages compared to randomly generated messages.
Experiment 3: Glossolalia
Glossolalia or xenoglossy refers to the phenomenon where a person suddenly speaks in a language they haven’t learned. In this experiment, trance channelers would be asked to channel a language they didn’t know. Their language skills would be tested, and a linguist would evaluate the channeled results.
Experiment 4: Channeling specialized expertise
This experiment is similar to the above one – but the person would channel a skill instead of a language.
Experiment 5: Mediumship
The setup of this experiment would be to tell ten people in terminal care in hospice to contact one or more of a pool of five mediums, with the message to have the mediums contact the research team within 30 days of sharing the deceased person’s name. The mediums would not be informed about the project.
Experiment 6: Reincarnation
In this experiment, a person about to transition would be told to put some objects in a sealed box. The objects would only be known to the person passing. A child claiming to be the reincarnation of the deceased person would then be located and asked to describe the objects in the box.
Experiment 7: After-death communication
People who reported after-death communication and synchronicities would be recruited. They would be equipped with a camera filming said synchronicities. Independent judges would then evaluate the likelihood that the synchronicities were not due to chance.
Experiment 8: Physical mediumship in daylight
Seances for physical mediumship would be held in daylight, in a highly controlled environment with multiple cameras. Positive results would imply the deceased person materializing or leaving a message.
Experiment 9: OBEs (Out-of-Body experiences) during NDEs
The participants for this experiment would be recruited among people scheduled for medical intervention, including cardiac arrest. In the operating room, random images would be projected near the ceiling, pointing upwards so that no one on the floor could see them. A successful result would indicate patients accurately described the images.
Experiment 10: Survival through Artificial Intelligence (AI)
This experiment, inspired by science fiction movies, would imply an AI absorbing an individual’s personality and memories. After the person had passed away, they would live on in the android body of the AI. People close to the deceased person would then be asked to evaluate whether the AI behaved identically to the deceased one.
The results showed that the positive results of the following three experiments were judged to be most persuasive (in descending order):
- OBEs during NDEs (experiment #9)
- Mediumship (#5)
- Reincarnation (#6)
Out-of-body experiences during a near-death experience, with the person correctly describing an image invisible at the floor level, were rated as the most credible experiment. That held even when looking at the results by profession. The only exception was scientists, who considered the mediumship experiment the most plausible.
Interestingly, the results reported above coincide with the grading of the nine categories we looked at in the beginning. The top four evidence categories were mental mediumship, physical mediumship, reincarnation, and OBEs during NDEs.
Why people are skeptical
There are various reasons why people are skeptical about the survival of consciousness. The most common reasons are personal beliefs, atheism, and strict beliefs in a materialistic world.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, survival doesn’t make sense in a materialistic worldview. If consciousness is generated by the brain, there would logically be nothing left as the brain ceases to function.
Successful results in the top three experiments described above would be a step toward inviting non-believers to open up to the idea of survival of consciousness. This is since science has arguably the most authority in interpreting reality today.
Challenges in studying the survival of consciousness
Studying survival of consciousness after bodily death has its challenges. We already touched upon confidence in experiments. How sure can we be that the results obtained are reliable? Many of the ways that could indicate the survival of consciousness rely solely upon anecdotal evidence. Although it’s not a reason to avoid further exploring this topic – perhaps more reliable and scientifically significant methods are just a mindset shift away!
What the future holds
Even though what exactly happens after physical death remains a mystery, belief in survival is enough to increase happiness and well-being. Helping more people understand what we know about psi is paramount – and this can be achieved through rigorous scientific experiments.
Based on the results in this essay, the main paths to explore for reliable evidence of survival are mediumship (mental and physical), reincarnation, and OBEs during NDEs. New kinds of experiments, as those suggested, could help reduce the taboo around this topic and make the survival of consciousness accepted by the mainstream. That would help us enjoy our time here on this planet instead of worrying about its finite nature.