Neuroscience’s Annual Halloween Talk to Explore Near-Death Experiences
By: Nick Santangelo
The spookiest time of the year is here, but College of Liberal Arts students don’t have to leave campus and go door-to-door dressed as Spider-Man, El from Stranger Things or Pennywise from Stephen King’s It to celebrate Halloween this year. For the seventh year in a row, Psychology Assistant Professor of Instruction David Waxler is holding his annual Halloween talk tonight, Oct. 30, at 6 p.m. in Basement Room 035 of Weiss Hall.
Co-sponsored by The Undergraduate Neuroscience Society and Nu Rho Psi (the Neuroscience honors society), this year’s talk is titled Brain-Dead: The Neuroscience of Near-Death Experiences. As Prof. Waxler says, the afterlife is a polarizing topic, but he won’t be exploring whether or not it exists.
“What I'm interested in are the phenomena that typically are reported when people recount near-death experiences.” explains the professor. “Things like, seeing a long tunnel with a light at the end of it, feeling as if you’re leaving your body or even looking down upon your body. And it turns out that there are also neurological reasons—biological reasons—that can account for those symptoms.”
Prof. Waxler plans to share a collection of anecdotes about people who came close to death and (thankfully) survived to tell others what the experience was like. Of course, he’ll also tie the talk back into his classroom work by exploring potential neuroscience explanations for the near-death experiences.
“And that's one of the fun things to see when I'm giving these lectures,” he says. “I'll bring something up as part of the discussion, and I'll see recognition in a lot of the students because it relates to something they’ve learned in one of the classes they’ve taken in Psychology or the CLA Neuroscience program.”
In past Halloween talks, that’s allowed Prof. Waxler to explore everything from real-world experiences to fictional monster characters to supernatural powers that have ties to things that are possible in real life.
Last year’s topic, for instance, involved Frankenstein. Author Mary Shelley based her popular monster novel on work that was being done at the time using electricity to activate nerves and muscles, seemingly bringing the dead back to life.
I'll see recognition in a lot of the students because it relates to something they’ve learned in one of the classes they’ve taken
Two years before that, the talk centered on psychic powers, such as telekinesis. While moving inanimate objects with your mind is an ability usually found in horror movies, there is somewhat of a real-world equivalent. Researchers have developed technology that can allow quadriplegics, who’ve lost the ability to move their muscles, to use their brains to control robotic arms or wheelchairs.
That’s in keeping with the origins of the talks, which Prof. Waxler says draw a large audience of students from the College of Liberal Arts and Temple University at large. Back in 2013, the president of the Undergraduate Neuroscience Society suggested, a mere two days before Halloween, that a discussion tying together neuroscience and Halloween would be fun for students. Despite having little time to prepare, Prof. Waxler took the idea and ran with it, talking to students about how sleep paralysis can cause those who suffer from it to believe they’re experiencing things like an alien abduction or a demon attack.
“It's fun talking about Halloween and neuroscience at the same time because the brain is one of the most mysterious things that we know of. We've found out a lot about it over the last hundred years or so, but we've just scratched the surface.
“So there's a little bit of a mystery that goes along with thinking about the brain and how it works and how it generates our conscious experience. That meshes well with the mysterious topics that come up in a Halloween talk.”
Join Prof. Waxler tonight, Oct. 30, at 6 p.m. in Weiss Hall Basement Room 035 for Brain-Dead: The Neuroscience of Near-Death Experiences.