UCR Magazine The Magazine of UC Riverside

Winter 2016

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Flitting
Through
Eternity

Woman with butterflies

By Bettye Miller

After three years, The Immortality Project has some tantalizing new findings about our age-old obsession

The quest for immortality is as old as human history, from Gilgamesh’s determination to defeat death to Silicon Valley czars investing billions to prevent aging.

The goal remains elusive, but research supported by The Immortality Project has opened the door a bit wider to understanding phenomena such as near-death experiences and why a tiny freshwater animal can apparently live forever.

Project leader John Martin Fischer, a distinguished professor of philosophy, said neither he nor officers of the John Templeton Foundation, which funded The Immortality Project, expected researchers to resolve the fundamental questions.

But some discoveries have been illuminating, especially regarding near-death experiences, which the research suggests are better understood “as awesome, naturalistic phenomena rather than contact with a supernatural or heavenly realm,” Fischer said.

The research influenced Fischer and postdoctoral fellow Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin to write a book called “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife,” which the Oxford University Press will publish in May.

John Martin Fischer

John Martin Fischer
Distinguished Professor
of Philosophy

Near-death experiences (NDEs) appear throughout human history and in popular culture. They are conscious experiences of people in life-threatening situations. These may include memories of individuals leaving their bodies and observing doctors perform surgery or resuscitative measures, meeting deceased friends or relatives, a bright light, a feeling of peace, and watching their lives flashing before them (what researchers call the life-review experience).

Most people who report an NDE find it to be life-changing. Some argue that these personality changes– more optimism, less death anxiety, more spirituality – can only be explained by supposing that NDEs involve contact with a supernatural or heavenly realm, Fischer explained. Others contend that NDEs validate the existence of an afterlife and a higher being, and that the life-review experience indicates that our minds are not just our brains.

Yellow and Blue Butterflies
Two projects funded by The Immortality Project challenge those suppositions, Fischer said. Israeli neuroscientist Shahar Arzy has discovered structures in the brain where life-reviews can be stored. And researchers in Spain recreated near-death experiences in virtual reality and achieved personality transformations like those reported after many NDEs.

Blue and Brown Butterflies
“The work of Arzy’s team demonstrates considerable progress toward understanding this part of NDEs in purely physical terms,” Fischer said. “In short, this research calls into question the conclusions of such contemporary writers as Eben Alexander and Todd Burpo, who wrote about his son’s NDE as proving that heaven is for real.”

“The research and our book take NDEs very seriously, assuming that they really do occur. But it does not support the conclusion that these experiences point to a nonphysical mind or an afterlife,” Fischer said.

“This raises a number of new and important questions: How can the various aspects of NDEs be explained physically? How can the significance and beauty of NDEs in people’s lives – their awesome and transformative character – be reconciled with naturalism, the view that everything is part of the natural world? The latter question is one of the main issues that Ben and I address in our book.”

While most of the research funded by The Immortality Project has not yet been published, dozens of papers are undergoing peer review and may appear in journals in the next few months.

One study of NDEs the project supported, AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), made headlines around the world in fall 2014 when researchers reported one patient whose memories of visual awareness after cardiac arrest were compatible with those described in out-of-body experiences and may have corresponded with actual events that occurred perhaps as long as three minutes after his heart stopped. The brain typically shuts down 20 seconds after the heart stops beating.

Dr. Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, has directed the AWARE project since 2008. In one phase of the study, researchers at 15 hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia placed shelves with various images in rooms where cardiac patients would be treated. Out of more than 2,000 cardiac arrests studied over a four-year period, less than a quarter occurred in rooms containing the shelves. Of the total number of cardiac arrest patients, only 330 survived. Of the survivors who were able to be interviewed, nine recalled a near-death experience; two of those described an out-of-body experience. One of the two became too ill to continue interviewing. The other is the patient whose recollections raise questions about how long consciousness may continue after death.

One explanation Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin offer in their book is the possibility that current technology is not able to measure all brain activity.

“It is possible, and seems quite likely, that our current methods for measuring brain activity are shallow, capturing activity only above a certain threshold,” Fischer said. “We may find in some patients we thought had lost all brain function that in fact their brains were functioning at a level undetectable by our current methods. It is possible that this is true of patients who had near-death experiences.”

THE IMMORTALITY PROJECT was established in 2012 with grants totaling $5.1 million from the John Templeton Foundation.

Thirty-four teams of researchers from universities around the world explored a diverse set of topics, including the genetic make-up of immortal hydra, the causes of near-death experiences, the possibility of an infinite human life span, the ethics of expensive longevity treatments and how to conceive of eternal bliss in heaven.

The foundation had high praise for UC Riverside’s commitment to the project, which may serve as a model for future Templeton Foundation initiatives, said John Churchill, the foundation’s director of philosophy and theology.

“The Immortality Project is a superb example of what our founder, Sir John Templeton, encouraged us to support,” Churchill said. “The project fostered rigorous and open-minded research on enduring questions, including research in some subject areas where careful investigation is rare. In addition, the project was successful in its public dissemination – an important result since the foundation aims to have its work reach broad audiences that stand to benefit from new findings.”

Most of the grant researchers are still finalizing their results, but here’s a sneak peek at findings from three of those research projects.

TINY HYDRAS HAVE ONE BIG SUPER POWER: ETERNAL YOUTH

Nearly 20 years ago, Pomona College biologist Daniel E. Martínez discovered that a tiny freshwater animal called a hydra may live forever.

Unlike the mythological hydra that grows two heads for every one it loses, Martínez’s subjects are centimeter-long tubular creatures with tentacles. But they do have one super power: These hydra don’t age. They continually regenerate themselves and reproduce asexually, creating new animals genetically identical to the parent. Neither the parent nor the offspring seem to age.

More recently, Martínez begun to study Hydra oligactis, a particular species of hydra that, at lowered temperatures, can be induced to reproduce sexually and age. He noticed, however, that some of the induced animals still escaped aging by reverting to asexual reproduction. With funding from The Immortality Project, Martínez and his team studied the differences in gene expression between hydra that revert to asexual reproduction and those that will age.

“The hydra has the same genes you and I have,” he explained. “We looked at the transcriptome (a collection of gene readouts within a cell) of hydra to see whether there are genes that are differentially expressed, and more abundant in hydra that are aging, and we found that there are.”

Whether or not the hydra’s regenerative capability holds the key to human aging remains to be seen. At the very least, Martínez said, understanding the aging process of Hydra oligactis might inspire researchers in other disciplines to consider their data from another perspective.

“This is how science progresses,” he said. “With basic science you never know what the connection is going to be. My hope is that my results will help a scientist, perhaps someone working in cancer cells, have a eureka moment and think about doing something in a different way.”

Pink Butterfly

DEATH SEEMS LESS FEARSOME FOR “CORE-SELF” BELIEVERS

Buddhists who don’t believe in a continuous self are more afraid of dying Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Does denying the existence of a “core self,” a tenet of Buddhism, reduce the fear of death? Philosophers Shaun Nichols of the University of Arizona, Tucson and Jay Garfield of Smith College in Massachusetts thought it might.

Funded by The Immortality Project, they traveled to India to measure how afraid of death Buddhists, Hindus, and adherents of the Abrahamic religions were. What they discovered surprised them: Buddhist monks and nuns were significantly more afraid of death than were lay Buddhists, Hindus or Christians. Buddhists do not believe in a continuous self that persists over time or after physical death, the so-called “no-self doctrine.” Many scholars of Buddhism contend that this belief both eliminates the fear of dying and fosters a life of selflessness.

Nichols and Garfield found that the Tibetan Buddhists they studied strongly embraced the no-self doctrine. But unlike Hindus and Christians – who do believe in a core self – monastic Buddhists were significantly more afraid of death. “The no-self doctrine, rather than equipping the Tibetan lamas with serenity regarding end of life, seems to provoke a deep-rooted anxiety of self-annihilation and does nothing to reduce overall fear of death,” the philosophers wrote in an article co-authored by Yale postdoctoral scholar Nina Strohminger for Slate magazine.

“Much of Buddhist philosophy and religious practice is aimed at cultivating selflessness, rechanneling concerns to the larger moral universe around us,” the researchers wrote. “… Ironically, it seems that these teachings, instead of mitigating fear of death and nurturing generosity, engender some of the behaviors and thought patterns they seek to destroy.”

Gray and white butterflies

NEAR-DEATH MAY NOT BE NECESSARY TO SEE OUR LIVES FLASH BEFORE OUR EYES

Research suggests even healthy people can access their “life-review experience” The lore is so familiar that the phrase “My life flashed before my eyes” has come to imply a near-death experience. Now, researchers in Israel believe they’ve found the place in the brain where those images are stored. The so-called “life-review experience” has been reported by some near-death survivors, but until recently, little was known about its basis in the brain, says Shahar Arzy, a neurologist and neuroscientist at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Arzy and his team in the Computational Neuropsychiatry Lab have identified interconnected structures in the brain – known as gradients – in which these life events are processed, a significant step in understanding the life-review experience. Building on earlier research and with support from The Immortality Project, Arzy and his team studied individuals who had reported life-review experiences and healthy people who had not. They found that re-experiencing one’s own life events is a phenomenon with well-defined characteristics, such as seeing life events in sequences, or changing certain behaviors in response to this experience. Moreover, some of those components may also be evident in people who are not dying.

“This suggests that a representation of life events as a continuum exists in the cognitive system,” Arzy said. “Its discovery may shed new light on a most essential component of our mental life – the way we experience, process and tell our life story.” The researchers also made a surprising discovery. As they studied how the brain processes sensation, the team found that analyzing gradients can help predict which patients will benefit from a certain kind of back and neck surgery for pain. These results were published recently in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.