The Afterlife Experiments

On January 29 and February 5, 2017, my radio show Spiritual Soup du Jour focused on the book and research of Gary Schwartz, Ph.D. (with William L. Simon, The Afterlife Experiments, New York, NY, Atria Books, 2002). It is an easy, engaging and fascinating read, not only because of the subject matter, but because of the way the research and its stunning conclusions have been ignored (and even unjustifiably criticized) by the scientific community.

Dr. Schwartz is a Harvard educated professor of psychology, medicine, neurology, psychiatry and surgery at the University of Arizona. He is currently the Director of the Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health (LACH, formerly the Human Energy Systems Laboratory). After receiving his doctorate from Harvard University, he served as a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale University, director of the Yale Psychophysiology Center, and co-director of the Yale Behavioral Medicine Clinic. I mention this not to impress you, but to illustrate that Dr. Schwartz isn't a fly-by-night "quack" out to make a quick buck on a sensational topic. His interest in exploring the survival of consciousness (the "soul") after death was born of an academic exercise surrounding a hypothesis about how systems store information (such as the light that we see from stars that have been "dead" for millennia) and how we might apply this idea of dynamically stored information to "living info-energy systems" - i.e. the life force energy of the human personality. When a colleague once seemingly casually asked him whether, based on his data system hypothesis, her deceased father may still be "alive," a spark was ignited. What began as limited, secret experiments with this colleague (and later partner, Linda Russek) and then some small-scale explorations, developed into a larger-scale investigation of whether self-professed and nationally-known mediums could truly communicate with the spirits of those who have died.

Over the next few years, Drs. Schwartz and Russek embarked upon a series of increasingly rigorous scientific experiments constantly testing the hypothesis that the individual consciousness survives the death of the body. The first experiment (filmed and made into a special by HBO Productions) tested five mediums (people who connect with the spirits of deceased persons connected to a "sitter" who is a relative or friend of the dead person and knows his or her personality and life circumstances), who one at a time engaged with two sitters to attempt to connect with persons known to the sitters who had passed away. The sitters were unknown to the mediums, and they were separated from the mediums by a screen, so they couldn't be seen. The mediums would ask a series of questions, and elicit only "yes" or "no" answers. The results were astounding. The responses related to one sitter was 77 to 95 percent accurate, with an average of completely accurate statements of 83 percent. The accuracy of the other sitter's readings ranged from 64 to 90 percent, with two mediums scoring an incredible 100 percent accuracy on the difficult category of initials (or names) and personal descriptions of those being contacted. The control group (68 students who were asked whether the information given by the mediums had any relevance to them or their deceased relatives or friends) scored an accuracy level of only 36 percent.

As a scientist, Dr. Schwartz wanted to replicate and extend the research, so he enlisted the help of admitted "psychic magicians" (who profess no psychic abilities, and use tricks and manipulations to produce the illusion of connecting with spirits) to help him to improve the experiments to rule out the possibility of inadvertent or intentional false-positive results. The second experiment featured eleven sitters and two mediums, who engaged in a period of relaying information while the sitter remained completely silent, followed by the "yes/no" portion of the reading. The third eliminated the possibility of the mediums acquiring voice inflection cues from the sitters by having the "yes/no" portion of the readings answered by the experimenter (who was silently given answers by the sitters), and the fourth involved remote phone readings by one medium, who engaged in a period of silent meditation to receive messages from loved ones of the remote sitters (who were completely unknown to her - she was not given any identifying information about them, including their name, sex, location, etc.) before engaging in the usual reading process. Although these subsequent experiments had mixed results (some due to interesting extenuating factors explained by Dr. Schwartz in the book, but not accounted for in the statistical data, to preserve the integrity of the scientific process), the upshot of the findings was the same - the evidence was clear that the mediums were, indeed, relaying information to the sitters that had very significant relevance to them, and which was not relevant at all, or very little, to the control groups. Furthermore, some of the mediums relayed information that showed that the conscious "souls" being contacted remained actively connected to the sitters' lives (by recounting conversations and situations that occurred after they had died), and could demonstrate an ability to predict future events. Granted, the experiments were small-scale in scientific research terms, with so few subjects and trials, but the integrity of the process was sound.

So why, then, are Dr. Schwartz's experiments relatively unknown? Why does he have detractors and skeptics, despite the astounding rate of accuracy of the scientific findings (some of the results could have occurred by chance fewer than one in a hundred trillion times), the careful attention to the scientific process and his dedication to sound research principles and his respectable career? Some controversy surrounding the HBO special, another program produced by a "professional skeptic" who used strategic editing to try to paint one of the experimental mediums as a fraud, and public skepticism fueled by popular personalities Geraldo Rivera and James Randi cast shadows on the research. Yet it hasn't to this day (to my knowledge) been specifically refuted, disproven or revealed to be fraudulent. A self-proclaimed skeptic, Dr. Schwartz finally came to the realization that, in the face of all the evidence he gathered, it would be hypocritical of him to continue to doubt his findings, citing Occam's Razor, the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest hypothesis is usually correct. He denounces the "skeptimania" that prevents scientists from accepting results that prove the opposite of their personal belief systems. Some information is just too revolutionary, too threatening to our generally accepted beliefs about how the world works, too frightening to accept. Believing that our souls survive death and retain consciousness beyond the cessation of body functioning requires us to discount all that we've been taught about how the "Universe" works. Thinking about being surrounded by "departed" loved ones, and one day roaming the earth as a conscious, non-corporeal entity is scary idea for some. As for me, I find it exciting and hopeful.

I challenge folks to read the research and come to their own conclusions. I would love to hear comments and opinions from you, either here in this space or via email at What do you think?

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