High on Death

High on Death
A Texas professor searches for the human soul

"I think death is an illusion. I think death is a really nasty bad lie. I don't see any truth in the word death at all."

This is the conclusion of Pam Reynolds, a singer-songwriter. She spits out her defiance softly while recalling her vivid brush with death during an interview for the BBC documentary The Day I Died. Her near-death experience is near-boilerplate: the feelings of euphoria, the separation from the body, the rush through a dark tunnel toward a bright white light, the life review, the encounters with dead loved ones.

Yet Reynolds' experience is different. In 1991, doctors found a gargantuan aneurysm lodged at the base of her brain. In a last-ditch effort, she submitted to doctors at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and a radical surgical procedure where her heart was stopped and her brain was shut down.

Shortly after her recovery, her doctors were baffled when she accurately described her surgery: the saw used to carve up her head, the box of saw bits held in reserve, the urgent conversations between doctors and nurses. Yet such recollections were impossible not only because her eyes were taped shut, her face shrouded and her ears plugged, but because her brain had ceased functioning.

Such bizarre phenomena have long aroused the curiosity of Jan Holden, a professor of counseling at the University of North Texas and president of the International Association of Near Death Studies. Holden says her interest in near-death research was aroused after reading The Great Soul Trial, an account of the estate of an Arizona prospector who disappeared in 1949. State officials opened his safe deposit box and found roughly $200,000 along with a crudely written will that instructed the money be channeled into research to find "some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death."

"It definitely fits my sense of purpose in life," Holden says. "This [near-death] phenomena and the people who experience them need to be known." But Holden says funding for such research is hard to come by. In the nearly two decades since she has been exploring near-death phenomena, she has participated in but a handful of research studies. The first was in 1986 at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, to explore veridical perception, or accurately reporting concurrent facts and activities that would be impossible to perceive while in a near-death state. The study was abandoned after three months.

In another study, published in a 1993 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Holden explored the process of recalling near-death experiences via hypnosis. Holden says she was approached by a Dallas-Fort Worth resident with $15,000 to use near-death experiences to unearth the cause of a rare disease. "There's a phase in the near-death experience that a minority of [near-death subjects] report...having access to all knowledge," she says.

Though Holden refuses to disclose the donor or the disease, she claims she was able to discover specific genetic information by guiding her research subjects via hypnotic regression to this omniscient phase. "My great dream would be to find a donor who wants to fund this research," she says. Holden says the number of people reporting near-death experiences is increasing substantially as medical advances permit doctors to resuscitate patients ever closer to the point of death.

"The broader scientific-medical community views this kind of research much the way the general public does, based on their individual beliefs about who we are and what is important to us," says Dr. Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Health System. "Some scientists are very excited about the work that we are doing, and others think it is a waste of time."

But Greyson and Holden are determined to apply rigorous scientific principles to near-death research. With a $60,000-plus grant from the Bial Foundation, a Portuguese organization dedicated to research into human psychology and spirituality, Holden and Greyson launched a two-year study earlier this year. The study will involve some 60 patients who will have devices surgically implanted into their chests that shock the heart at the onset of cardiac arrest. Such patients make ideal research subjects because surgeons must deliberately stop their heart to test the devices.

Greyson and Holden have installed an upward-facing laptop computer in the operating room ceiling that runs a randomly selected computer animation that can only be seen from a vantage point well above the patient's body. Patients are interviewed following the procedure to see if they have any recollection.

But some scoff at such research. "We don't think people are just making this stuff up," says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things. "They are having real experiences. The question under dispute really is what's the proper scientific explanation for that phenomenon?"  

Shermer believes strange near-death phenomena can be explained solely by physiology, such as brain oxygen deprivation and the rush of endorphins (brain chemicals that behave like opiates) that accompanies severe brain stress. "Before you say something is supernatural, make sure we know that it's not natural," Shermer insists.

But Holden disputes such pat physiological explanations. "Every hypothesis that has been put forth to try to explain near-death experiences in terms of physical purposes, exceptions have been found," she says.

Holden concedes this research has special problems when it comes to the rigors of the scientific method. In the field of parapsychology, she says, there is the phenomenon of the sheep-goat effect: Researchers who believe the experiences involve the supernatural (sheep) tend to produce positive results, while skeptics (goats) tend to generate negative results. "Nevertheless, I don't think that it's possible for something that does not exist to be found in a research study, especially if it's done in several locations with consistent findings. My personal belief is that it's real." She pauses. "And I'm also open to the possibility that it's not." --Mark Stuertz

...Here to Help You

The city government, it appears, can't do right by the homeless community even when it tries. After zoning issues stalled the city council's plan to turn the Day Resource Center into a 'round-the-clock shelter, acting City Manager Mary Suhm decided to do the next best thing. That's why she ended up before homeless czar Tom Dunning's task force on December 7, apologizing.

Suhm's plan was simple enough: Move the 120 or so homeless people who had been sleeping on the sidewalk in front of the Day Resource Center into a gated parking lot next to the building. There were only two wrinkles in the plan: Because of space constraints, the homeless people would have to consolidate their possessions before making the move. And once inside the gates, they would need some kind of storage containers to hold their remaining belongings. But both problems seemed easy enough to manage.

Unfortunately for Suhm, they weren't. To begin with, about 30 of the homeless people weren't properly informed of the move to the parking lot and, as a result, saw all of their belongings wind up in the back of one of the city's sanitation trucks.

"We did not handle the December 1 consolidation of materials well at all," Suhm admitted to the task force. "I'm sorry for that."

She did not handle the storing of the materials well either. Suhm purchased what she considered to be the perfect solution to the storage problem, something that was weatherproof and secure. When the homeless people moved into the parking lot, they were given the key to their very own lockable garbage can.

"I went to some meetings over the weekend, and the lack of sensitivity about garbage cans was pointed out to me," Suhm explained.

Suhm says she will replace the metal trash cans with plastic storage bins in the next week. She's also received a list of the items thrown out during the sidewalk sweep and is attempting to replace them. --Zac Crain

Brad's Available

Last Saturday night Brad Carney leaned over the bar and yelled to be heard above the crush of SMU hardbodies, as he'd done most weekend nights for the past 13 years.

"It's crazy, man," he says, shaking his head, ignoring the football player to our right yelling for a Bud Light. "Last night we had five bartenders behind here and four stations outside on the patio and under the tent. Still wasn't enough. Everybody wants one last drink at The Elephant."

Or several last drinks. After losing its lease, The Green Elephant bar and grill closed its Yale Boulevard location, where it had been a college mainstay since opening in 1990. The owners of The Green Elephant, which was named after a logo on the side of a trailer, will house their wares at the Home Bar on nearby Dyer Street until (and if) a permanent location for reopening is found.

Like most college bars, The Elephant, as it was known, made its reputation on cheap-drink happy hours--$1 screwdrivers on Thursdays were particularly fun--and late-night drunk fests. But the pub had other characteristics that endeared it to patrons long after they graduated. The food was always great--one of its former chefs, a biker, opened a fine-dining restaurant on Knox Street. The vibe was trippy; the décor was hippy. It had a '60s theme, including a "Pita, Paul & Mary" on the menu. (Its motto: "Love Life. Dig Yourself. Experience.") It shared the building with two oddball tenants: first, the entertainment weekly known as The Met, then the local headquarters of the Republican Party. The staff of the former tipped better.  

Through a decade and a half, a core group of owners, bartenders, waitstaff and patrons helped give a building its identity. Because of them--Brad, Peter, Shannon, JoAnn, Adam, Bones, Cason, Fish, Misty, Stephanie, K1 and K2, the Hot Fat Girl--it will be missed.

"This is all I've done for 13 years," Carney says. "Not anymore. Title your article 'Brad's Available.'" --Eric Celeste

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