Category Archives: Weird Things

Near Death Experiences

A CBS News Survey in 2014  found that 3 in 4 Americans believe in an afterlife. A similar survey in the UK in 2009 found 1 in 2 believe in life after death and 70% believe in the existence of a human soul.

So pervasive is this belief that, amazingly, more Britons believe in life after death than believe in God! This belief in life-after-death is so fundamental to how humans see the world that a 2013 Pew Poll of Americans  found that 13% of athiests also believed in an afterlife!

Luigi Schiavonetti’s 1808 engraving of a soul leaving a body. (Credit: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne)

Of course, many will argue that once you are gone you are gone, but in that twilight moment in the minutes and seconds before death, people have been revived through heroic medical interventions and some but not all declare they have experienced ‘something’ absolutely remarkable.

Called Near Death Experiences, entire shelves of books have been written on this subject over the decades since the ground-breaking work of Ceila Green in 1968 and then popularized in 1975 by psychiatrist Raymond Moody. Extensive eye-witness accounts were recorded, classified and sorted into a small number of apparently archetypical scenarios such as tunnels of pure light; out of body experiences; meeting loved ones; indescribable love. According to a Gallup Poll about 3% of Americans claim to have had them.  There were early attempts by Duncan MacDougall in 1901 at detecting the exit of the soul from the body by carefully weighing the patient, but all failed, and were immediately explained by denying that the soul had any weight at all.

Scientists have largely refused to wade into this area of inquiry because, like many other human beliefs, there is enormous public resistance to scientists meddling in such cherished and highly personal ideas shared by virtually all humans, even some athiests! In a classic case of what psychologists call confirmation bias, there is nothing that science can say about this matter that would be trusted unless it lines up exactly to confirm what we have all made up our minds about, literally for millennia. That said, I myself, must tread very carefully as I write this blog because, frankly, those of you reading it have also made up your mind about the subject and I do not want to slap you in the face by disrespecting your fundamental core beliefs, which will always trump anything a scientist can tell you. Even my simple uttering of this disclaimer will be interpreted as me being a condescending scientist…or worse!

But I cannot help myself! I have been curious about this subject all my life, and any new insights I come across in my readings are like candy to my brain. So here goes!

NDEs are not a feature of any other organ than the brain because they involve visual perceptions, bodily sensations, and the knitting together of a story that is later told by the ‘traveler’. All of these are brain functions, so it is no wonder that those who study the clinical aspects of NDEs begin with what the brain is doing. Amazingly, you do not even have to be clinically ‘near death’ to experience them. All that is required is a deep conviction that you ARE dying to trigger them.

What could be a more compelling and simple idea than putting a dying person in a functional magnetic resonance imager (fMRI) or strapping an EEG net to their heads, and literally watching what the brain is doing during one of these events? Well, it would be a heinous experiment and an unwelcomed intrusion on a patient’s privacy, but nevertheless these things do happen accidentally. Cardiac patients who are more likely to die suddenly and be recovered are often monitored for other reasons prior to their NDE, and there are many other indirect ways to snoop on the brain to see what happens too.

We have already learned from fMRI studies that there is a specific brain region that allows you to have a sense of where your body is located in space. In an earlier blog I discussed how removing the stimulation of this normally very active region causes meditators to have the sensation of being ‘at-one’ with the universe. This state can also be reproduced at will through chemical manipulation. The region, when stimulated with an electrode, or during temporal lobe epilepsy, also produces the aura sensation that your Self is no longer anchored to your body in space during so-called Out-of-Body (OBE) events. So, an essential element of your body sense during an NDE can be traced to one specific brain region and whether it’s activity is stimulated or depressed. This region wins both ways because when its electrical activity is gone, you have one ‘cosmic’ sensation of leaving your body, and when it is over-stimulated you have the OBE sensation. As we know, death is the ultimate event that lowers brain activity, or temporarily elevates it in other places as blood flow catastrophically changes. We all have the same brains, so the real question is, why is it that EVERYONE doesn’t have a NDE?

It all seems to depend on how close you get to the precipice of never returning from the journey, and it is the closeness of your brain to this physiological edge that seems to trigger the events leading to this NDE experience. But we do not know for certain.

A 2011 Scientific American article summarized some of these elements announced by brain researchers Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt.

OBE experiences can be artificially triggered by stimulating the right temporoparietal junction in the brain. Patients with Cotard or “walking corpse” syndrome believe they are dead. This is a condition caused by trauma to the parietal cortex and the prefrontal cortex. Parkinson’s disease patients have reported visions of ghosts. This condition involves abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can sometimes but not all the time evoke hallucinations. The common experience of reliving moments from one’s life can be tied to a neural circuit involving the locus coeruleus, which releases noradrenaline during stress and trauma. The locus coeruleus (shown below) is connected to brain regions that are involved with emotion and memory, such as the amygdala and hypothalamus. Finally, a number of medicinal and recreational drugs can mirror the euphoria often felt during NDEs, such as the anesthetic ketamine, which can trigger out-of-body experiences and hallucinations. These discussions of the neural basis for many of the separate elements to NBEs are now part of the official medical explanation in places such as the one found in Tim Newman’s 2016 article in Medical News Today.

Norepinephrine system (Credit: Patricia Brown, University of Cincinnati)

Beware, however, of other articles like the one in The Atlantic called ‘The Science of Near Death Experiences’. This 2015 popularization, written in the typical breezy style of newspaper reporters, also purported to summarize what we know about this condition. Sadly, the reporter spent most of the article interviewing those who experienced it and hardly any column space on actual scientific research. It was a typical ‘puff piece’ that offered nothing more than speculation and very self-serving and bias-affirming pseudoscience, along-side free plugs for many recent, lurid, books and movies about first-person accounts.

The bottom line is that NDEs are by no means common to people who think they are dying, and their incidence crosses many religious boundaries. They remain enormously powerful events that actually change the lives and even personalities of the survivors, and so they are not merely will-o-the-whisp hallucinations. We do know that their detailed descriptions follow specific cultural expectations for what the afterlife is like: a New Guinee tribesman will not describe the event the same way as a southern Evangelical.

We are only beginning to understand how our brains synthesize what we experience into the on-going story that is our personal reality, but we know from the evidence of numerous brain pathologies that this is a highly plastic process in which imagination and emotion blend with hard facts in a sometimes inseparable tapestry. Our senses are objectively known to be fallible in countless ways if left unattended, and how we interpret what we experiences is as much a logical process as a process of out-right confabulation. Like many other events in our lives, NDEs are seen as one experience that our brains work very hard to incorporate into a plausible story of our world. It is this story that through millions of years of evolution allows us to function as an integrated Self,  avoid being injured or eaten, and  propagate our genes to the next generation.

Isn’t it amazing that, against this backdrop of cognitive dissonance, sensory bias, emotional chaos, and evolutionary hard-wiring  we can create a workable story of who we are in the first place?

Check back here on Monday February 28 for my next blog!

Death By Vacuum

As an astrophysicist, this has GOT to be one of my favorite ‘fringe’ topics in physics. There’s a long preamble story behind it, though!

The discovery of the Higgs Boson with a mass of 126 GeV, about 130 times more massive than a proton, was an exciting event back in 2012. By that time we had a reasonably complete Standard Model of how particles and fields operated in Nature to create everything from a uranium atom and a rainbow, to lighting the interior of our sun. A key ingredient was a brand new fundamental field in nature, and its associated particle called the Higgs boson. The Standard Model says that all fundamental particles in Nature have absolutely no mass, but they all interact with the Higgs field. Depending on how strong this interaction, like swimming through a container of molasses, they gain different amounts of mass. But the existence of this Higgs field has led to some deep concerns about our world that go well beyond how this particle creates the physical property we call mass.

In a nutshell, according to the Standard Model, all particles interact with the ever-present Higgs field, which permeates all space. For example, the W-particles interact very strongly with the Higgs field and gain the most mass, while photons interact not at all, remain massless.

The Higgs particles come from the Higgs field, which as I said is present in every cubic centimeter of space in our universe. That’s why electrons in the farthest galaxy have the same mass as those here on Earth. But Higgs particles can also interact with each other. This produces a very interesting effect, like the tension in a stretched spring. A cubic centimeter of space anywhere in the universe is not at all perfectly empty, and actually has a potential energy ‘stress’ associated with it. This potential energy is  related to just how massive the Higgs boson is. You can draw a curve like the one below that shows the vacuum energy  and how it changes with the Higgs particle mass:

Now the Higgs mass actually changes as the universe expands and cools. When the universe was very hot, the curve looked like the one on the right, and the mass of the Higgs was zero at the bottom of the curve. As the universe expanded and cooled, this Higgs interaction curve turned into the one on the left, which shows that the mass of the Higgs is now X0 or 126 GeV. Note, the Higgs mass represented by the red ball used to be zero, but ‘rolled down’ into the lower-energy pit as the universe cooled.

The Higgs energy curve shows a very stable situation for ‘empty’ space at its lowest energy (green balls) because there is a big energy wall between where the field is today, and where it used to be (red ball). That means that if you pumped a bit of energy into empty space by colliding two particles there, it would not suddenly turn space into the roaring hot house of the Higgs field at the top of this curve.

We don’t actually know exactly what the Higgs curve looks like, but physicists have been able to make models of many alternative versions of the above curve to test out how stable the vacuum is. What they  found is something very interesting.

The many different kinds of Higgs vacuua can be defined  by using two masses: the Higgs mass and the mass of the top quark. Mathematically, you can then vary the values for the Higgs boson and the Top quark and see what happens to the stability of the vacuum. The results are summarized in the plot below.

The big surprise is that, from the observed mass of the Higgs boson and our top quark shown in the small box, their values are consistent with our space being inside a very narrow zone of what is called meta-stability. We do not seem to be living in a universe where we can expect space to be perfectly stable. What does THAT mean? It does sound rather ominous that empty space can be unstable!

What it means is that, at least in principle, if you collided particles with enough energy that they literally blow-torched a small region of space, this could change the Higgs mass enough that the results could be catastrophic. Even though the collision region is smaller than an atom, once created, it could expand at the speed of light like an inflating bubble. The interior would be a region of space with new physics, and new masses for all of the fundamental particles and forces. The surface of this bubble would be a maelstrom of high-energy collisions leaking out of empty space! You wouldn’t see the wall of this bubble coming. The walls can contain a huge amount of energy, so you would be incinerated as the bubble wall ploughed through you.

Of course the world is not that simple. These are all calculations based on the Standard Model, which may be incomplete. Also, we know that cosmic rays collide with Earth’s atmosphere at energies far beyond anything we will ever achieve…and we are still here.

So sit back and relax and try not to worry too much about Death By Vacuum.

Then again…


Return here on Wednesday, February 22 for my next blog!

The first named human

Not surprisingly, the record of the first humans identified by a personal name goes back to before the dawn of history itself. Through his artistic ‘Love Symbol’, the The Artist Formerly Known as Prince gave us a clue how pre-writing names were probably rendered!

Example of Jiahu Symbols (Wikipedia)


Pottery shards and other artifacts uncovered in China often bare curious symbols dating from the dawn of Chinese writing between 6600 and 6200 BC. Called Jiahu Symbols, they are not part of a written language but merely personally-invented symbols scratched on pottery to mark ownership by a specific individual: In other words a name!


The first recorded name given in an actual writing system can be found on clay tablets dating from the Jemdet Nasr period in Sumeria between 3200 and 3101 BC.

Example of Jemdet Nasr cuneiform (Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The tablets are not profound treatises on human thinking, but accounting ledgers for tallying up goods and possessions! Some of the first names are those of the slave owner Gal-Sal and his two slaves Enpap-x and Sukkalgir (3200-3100 BC). Another name is that of Turgunu Sanga (3100 BC) who seems to have been an accountant for the Turgunu family. There are many more names from this period but none that appear much before 3200 BC.



Example of Iry-Hor’s name on a pottery shard (Credit:Wikipedia)

Looking to Egypt, Iry-Hor (The Mouth of Horus) would be the earliest name we know dating from about 3200 BC. Little is known about Iry-Hor other than his name found on pottery shards in one of the oldest tombs in Abydos, though based on his burial he was a pre-dynastic pharaoh of Upper Egypt. [Wikipedia]. King Ka, from around this same time, was the first to inscribe his name inside a box-shaped serekh as an indicator of kingship. Following king Ka and king Iry-Hor we also have kings with hieroglyphic symbols of Crocodile King and Scorpion Kingfollowed by the name of the first pharaoh, Narmer (Catfish King), who united both Upper and Lower Egypt and together with his wife Neithhotep, lived between 3150 and 3125 BC. She, by the way, is the oldest women to be mentioned by name. The name Neithhotep means “[The Goddess] Neith is satisfied”.

Other civilizations arrive at writing names much later than the Chinese, Sumerians and Egyptians, but we can still ask the same question.


Anitta (no known meaning to the name) was the king of the Hittite city of Kussara. He lived around 1700 BC and is the earliest known ruler to compose a text in the Hittite language, which is the oldest known Indo-European text.

Linear B is a syllabic script that predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries. The oldest writing dates to about 1450 BC. Some Knossos Linear B tablets mention people by name. A number of Mycenian names have exact equivalents in Homer such as Hektor , which means “holding fast”.

Following many other ancient naming traditions, even ancient Greek names have an intrinsic meaning. For example Archimedes means “master of thought”, from the Greek element (archos) “master” combined with (medomai) “to think, to be mindful of”. And of course nearly all ancient Egyptian names have a separate meaning such as Amun Tut Ankh whose heiroglyphic name can be directly transcribed with the words ‘Amun’s Image Living’. We know him more popularly as Tutankamun.


The Mayans rose to prominence around A.D. 250. The oldest clearly named king is given by a glyph that translates into Yax Ehb’ Xook which literally means “First Step Shark”. He was the first king of Tikal who ruled sometime between 63 and 90 AD. Much later in 420 AD we have the purported founder of Copan, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo whose name means “Sun-Eyed Resplendent Quetzal Macaw”.
The peoples of Africa, Australia and North America all had spoken languages but not written symbolism, so until writing was imported to these areas we have no documentable record of names. For example among Native Americans, the oldest known name dates from the arrival of the Pilgims and their historical record-keeping. We read about Tisquantum (meaning The Wrath of God) ca 1620 AD who was a member of the Patuxet tribe. In Africa, there are many names that have come forward in time literally by word of mouth, but no way to establish their actual dates of usage through writing. For example, the legendary Queen of Sheba (1005-955 BC) was traditionally believed to be a part of the Ethiopian dynasty established in 1370 BC by Za Besi Angabo. Among Australian Aboriginals, writing only appeared after the arrival of Europeans in ca 1780s who transcribed language sounds into Latin text. Some of their names include Tharah, which means ‘thunder’ or Mokee which means ‘cloudy’.

What is interesting about almost all ancient human names is that in their own languages they actually mean something. They are not sterile monikers. At a cocktail party a conversation between two ancient Egyptians would be ‘Hi, my name is Living Image of Amun’…Pleased to meet you! My name is The Beautiful One Has Come!” It would not be heard as ‘Hi, my name is Tutankhamun…Pleased to meet you! My name is Nefertiti!”

This widespread human habit of naming people by phrases is far different than what we experience in modern times. We rarely think too much about names like ‘John Cartwright’, or Mike Brown. My own Swedish name, Sten Odenwald, translates into ‘Stone of Oden’s Forest’, and occasionally I really do think of it as more than a set of sounds or letters that designate me.

So the next time you visit Starbucks, imagine having this conversation:
You: I’d like a vente hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Barrista: Your Name?
You: The Living Image of the Irridescent Higgs Field
Barrista: ??
You: Just call me Bob.

Check here on Tuesday, January 17 for the next blog!

What the…!!!!

You would think that a scientist lives in a purely rational world, but sometimes even we fall victim to events that are hard to explain at the moment. Here are my two favorite, and involuntary, journeys into the world of altered states!

I have had three experiences that some sufferers of migraine headaches may know all too well. Suddenly from out of nowhere, you may see flashing or shimmering lights, zigzagging lines, or stars. Some people even describe psychedelic images. For me, each one came on suddenly and caused me a bit of consternation before I figured out what was going on!


Each time, I saw a jagged crescent-shaped light that drifted across my visual field. I did not have a migraine headache either before or after, since I do not suffer from these painful conditions. But the shape and behavior of the image was identical to such migraine auras.

Called scintillating scotomas by opthamologists, in my case the effect occurred in the same part of my visual field no matter where I moved my eyes, so I knew that something was going on way up in my brain to cause it, and not in my retinas, like the experience of having those pesky ‘floaters’. Instead, it is caused by what is termed a ‘cortical spreading depression’. This is literally a physical wave of hyperstimulation followed by neural inhibition, that spreads out from the visual cortex and into the surrounding association areas at a speed of about 5 millimeters per minute. The whole thing lasts less 60 minutes and is quite amazing and slightly painful to watch. If you are driving a car at the time, it is extremely distracting and even dangerous. My events began as a flickering spot that expanded into a nearly ring-like, zig-zag shape about half the size of my visual field before fading away.

You can find simulations of this phenomenon at the Wikipedia page.

The second perceptual event that I have never forgotten was much more complex.

I woke up in the semi-darkness of my bedroom and could see the dim shapes of the furniture around me, but I absolutely could not move so much as an eyelash. My eyes were open, but felt like they were very dry and begging for me to blink to get some tears going to reduce the irritation. But that was not the thing that captured my attention. There, floating at arms-length was a bright visual scene about as big as a dinner plate that had a horse running around in a corral. As I watched, the initially very clear image became less and less distinct until it faded out completely. Within a few minutes, sounds began to flood back and I could again move around in a fully awake state.

I had this experience in my early-50s and it was never to reoccur. Now, I have had quite a few waking dreams in my life, where I woke up in a dream realizing where I was, then waking up a second time to the real world, but this was a completely different experience.I have searched the literature to look for an explanation, and come across discussions of waking dreams and lucid dreaming, but this event seems to be different. Unlike a lucid dream, I was not aware that I was dreaming as I was watching the visual scenery of the horse in the corral. Instead it did not seem like an unusual experience at all. My tendency towards scientifically analyzing my experiences did not kick-in. All I could do was watch and marvel at the event with a feeling of awe, and definitely not fear.The nearest I could find to my experience is the ‘Type 2 false awakening’ where ‘The subject appears to wake up in a realistic manner, but to an atmosphere of suspense.[…] The dreamers surroundings may at first appear normal, and they may gradually become aware of something uncanny in the atmosphere, and perhaps of unwanted [unusual] sounds and movements.’

There is also the phenomenon of sleep paralysis ‘in which an individual briefly experiences an inability to move, speak, or react. It is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations to which one is unable to react due to paralysis, and physical experiences. These hallucinations often involve a person or supernatural creature suffocating or terrifying the individual, accompanied by a feeling of pressure on one’s chest and difficulty breathing.’

Well, there was nothing terrifying about my experience. In fact, it was extremely pleasurable and awe-inspiring!

In reflecting back on these events, I find myself delighted that I experienced them because sometimes you want to have experiences in life that are extremely unusual and hard to explain just to have something to think about other than the predictable day-to-day world. I’m sure there are detailed medical reasons for each of my apparitions, because they all are related to how my brain works. Our brains are amazing organs that work overtime to make sense of the world, but they are still fallible.The difference between passing a kidney stone and a minor hiccup in the brain, is that our kidneys are not conscious. But, any little innocent tweak to our brain physiology is immediately interpreted as a change in behavior or of our conscious experience of the world.

So the next time you experience something ‘odd’, don’t be too worried about it. Just sit back and try to enjoy the altered experience. In the end, it may only be a completely innocent, though inscrutable, brain hiccup!

In my next blog I will describe how a brain filled with complex associations manages to make sense of it all!

Check back here on Wednesday, December 7 for the next installment!

Ocular migraines:

False awakening:

Sleep paralysis:

Stranger than Science?

Most of my childhood was spent in a wonderful twilight of comprehension between my imaginary world and the world I was being introduced to in school, and through my many science-related hobbies. I make no apologies for this as an adult scientist, and consider my tenure in this wonderful place, time well spent in nurturing the person I am today.

What the ....

Even now, as I look back over 64 years of amazing life, there remain a handful of events that standout, and for which I have no good explanation…nor do I chose to seek for one!

The first of these was in 9th grade, when as I was walking home from school, leaping one-by-one up the 52 stairs from Galindo Street to Carrington in Oakland. Suddenly, my breathless and speedy stride was broken by the sight of a paperback book tossed to the side of one of the steps. I picked it up and noted the author was Franck Edwards; the title of the book was ‘Stranger than Science’. For the next few days I stayed up late into the night reading about spontaneous human combustion, strange disappearances, and a whole host of other ‘documented’ occurrences that science could not explain. So, where did the book come from and why did I happen upon it at exactly that moment?

The next event happened while I was visiting my cousins Dan and Annika at their summer home in Sweden. Dan and I decided to take his moped out for a ride down a rocky deserted road, several miles from their house. It was an overcast swampland scene with seagulls screeching overhead. We randomly stopped and I hopped off to turn over some large stones, looking for whatever might be under them. A salamander? A nest of peculiar insects? After a few tries, and under the fourth stone, there laid a 5-krown paper note. What were the odds of finding Swedish paper money out in the middle of nowhere? Who had put it there? Swedish lore is rife with tales of trolls who live under rocks and stash their valuables there. Sounds like a good explanation to me!

In college, while camping in the high country of Yosemite near Merced Lake, I was shocked to hear, out of nowhere, a peculiar and powerful musical sound. Two deep-base notes rang out from the distant deserted, alpine valley where a thunder storm had been in progress, and for 20 seconds I was entertained in the twilight as these two tones switched back and forth, never changing their pitch in-between cycles. Had the sounds from the thunder been somehow been converted to these pure tones by reflection from canyon walls?

Also in college, I was again standing in the twilight, gazing up at the UC Berkeley urban sky, when eight pinpoint lights forming a V-shape, glided silently by over-head at an apparent speed that eliminated airplane landing lights, or a flock of birds. The shape spanned a dozen full-moons, but made absolutely no sound at all. My first and only ‘UFO’ sighting?

Finally in graduate school at Harvard, I was spending a few days with my brother Richard’s family at their home some two months after his wife, my sister-in-law Darlene, had died. I was still in shock over losing my dear sister, and was spending the night that Christmas in her former home. At about 3:00 am I was awaken by some thing just beyond my view, stroking my cheek. To this day I have poetically interpreted it as my sister-in-law reaching out to console me over my grief in losing her.

Given some thought, we all have accumulated over our lifetimes unusual anecdotes like this, that could not be readily explained because in each instance we did not have the complete set of facts at our disposal from which to form a plausible explanation. In most cases, we even refuse to delve too deeply into them because we have discovered it is rather fun and comforting not to actually know what happened!

Not long after I received my PhD in astronomy in 1982, I happened upon another book that captured my adult imagination. William Corliss (1926-2011) had published the quotidian ‘Handbook of Unusual Natural Phenomena’ in which he had culled from a variety of reputable scientific journals, descriptions of unusual events such as strange sounds, inexplicable lights, and other phenomena. I read it from cover to cover, with both the practiced gaze of a freshly-minted scientist, and that 10-year-old that I used to be. I still like to turn its pages from time to time and read 19th century reports of ball lightning, earthquake lights, unusual aurora and other things that probably do have a rational explanation. But what to I make of ‘ghost lights’, ‘rains of frogs’ and other things that stir up human emotions of deep mystery and ‘things going bump in the night’?

A future science will no doubt find explanations for them, but for now I remain happy that they are a part of my world, though not currently explained. In the end, we do have to leave SOMETHING for our children to explore!

In the next blog, I will describe how strokes have helped neuroscientists understand how human brains create consistent explanatory models of the world, and how this process can break down with some rather unbelievable results!

Check back here on Tuesday, November 29 for the next installment!

Aurora picture Credit Tommy Richardsen –