On 11 Setember, 2008, Dr Sam Parnia addressed an audience at the United Nations in New York. The title of the talk was Unravelling the Mystery of the Self.
Dr Parnia, a critical care physician, has had considerable experience in the revival of cardiac arrest patients and therefore exposure to the accounts of those who have had Near Death Experience. His interest and study of this brought him to the attention of the Nour Foundation, who work to find the distinction – if there is one – between the mind and the brain.
Among the comments under one of Parnia’s talks, posted on YouTube, someone has asked “Can a light-bulb analyse electricity?”. It’s a valid question, highlighting the circularity of the attempted process. Because of that circularity we may never know all the answers, but that is no reason to stop seeking.
I have made no secret in this blog of my interest in matters metaphysical. Therefore, with pen poised over my pad, I wait and see how long I can keep my dispassionate rhetor hat on.
The start disappoints me, not because of all the thankings which are mere courtesy, not because Parnia is showing me subtle but clear symptoms of nervousness – who wouldn’t? – but because at 1:13 the camera cuts away to show us his visual slides. For two minutes and twenty seconds we see nothing but over-worded Power-point slides that add nothing to what he is saying and would be an irritating distraction if we could see him and are maddening when we can’t.
Also I want to strangle the sound-engineer who is allowing enough audio feedback through the system to make Parnia sound slightly tinny. Is it asking too much for the United Nations to operate their sound system at least as well as a reasonably competent English village hall?
I am slightly anxious that he is patronising his audience by speaking down to them, and hoping that he is just setting the stage for meatier stuff to follow, when he hits us with a lovely anaphora at 3:40 (“If you …”). I had thought he was reading the speech (yet was pleased that it appeared to be written in spoken English) but now I change my mind. That is a laptop on the lectern, and I believe it is a slave screen for him to see the slides without having to look round. If I am right, he is shooting from the hip and that anaphora was spontaneously uttered, which promises well. We are still very early in the speech, and once he settles down I am expecting him to be good.
And that is where my notes peter out almost entirely. The talk becomes fascinating, and I am riveted to it. Combine what he is saying with the revelations uttered by Dr Eben Alexander in one of my fairly recent postings, and the possibilities are wonderfully provocative.
Where is the ‘self’ (what I unfashionably still want to call the ‘soul’) when there is evidence that it may be distinct from the brain? He doesn’t pretend to know: he and his colleagues are working on experiments to verify or falsify evidence that there is any distinction. Once warmed up he recounts it very well, though a few little notes on my pad indicate that it could have been better.
I love a section at 19:40 where he performs a little act for a few seconds. That was brave, and good enough to be worth it; but the effort appears to throw him for a few seconds.
He repeatedly uses the word ‘phenomena’ as a singular, which sets my pedantic teeth on edge. He also repeatedly uses the phrase “if you think about it…”. I advise trainees to avoid this phrase as it implies to the audience that they don’t think enough. That may be true, but it’s not polite … if you think about it.
These are quibbles, because he delivered most of his talk well enough to sweep up a grumpy old rhetor with a story that absorbed and thoroughly excited him.
There is for me an interesting aside to this posting. I know of Dr Sam Parnia’s very existence only because he treated a close relative of mine a few months ago.