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book review

Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife

By Leslie Kean

Crown, 416 pages, $36

Into the Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death

By Adrian Owen

Scribner, 304 pages, $34.99

Books about death are automatically fascinating. Death, after all, is life's only real given, but it's also life's only real mystery. We're all going to get there, but we don't know what's going to happen on the other side. It's unknowable. Even if you believe in heaven, you really don't know what heaven's going to feel like. Maybe you won't like it. Regardless, as much as we can gather information about death – learn about its tendencies and what it feels like when it's approaching – the feeling itself, that moment of consciousness disappearing, is completely inaccessible.

Or is it? Not according to Leslie Kean's compulsively readable new book, Surviving Death. Kean says that, actually, we know plenty about what happens after we die. She tells us all about it, drawing on testimony from cardiac patients who have had near-death experiences, dialogues with psychic mediums and the apparent ability of some children to recall past lives. The upshot, according to Kean: Death may not truly be the end of consciousness.

The whole book builds toward this possibility, what Kean calls the survival hypothesis – that, when we conk out, the soul flees the body and lurks in some other realm, until potentially inhabiting another body. Basically, Kean is trying to prove that reincarnation is a real thing, despite what all those joyless, skeptical scientists would tell you. And she purports to prove it objectively. The stakes are high: Kean writes that a "greater understanding of the nature of consciousness and its possible survival beyond bodily death could have far-reaching, enlightening effects on humanity."

And she does a great job. There's a lot of compelling data in this book. It's hard not to feel a little chill as you read the story of James Leininger, a child who is believed to be the reincarnation of a Second World War bomber pilot. When he was two years old, he started having vivid nightmares about airplane crashes. Upon waking, he had a habit of telling his father weirdly specific details about who he was in the dream: a pilot with the aircraft carrier Natoma who had once flown a Corsair fighter and was in a squad with another pilot named Jack Larsen. James insisted that, in this previous life, he was also named James.

All of these things turned out to be plucked from the life of an actual person, who died in exactly the kind of plane crash that James had nightmares about. It all matched up exactly. Assuming that his parents reported everything correctly, explaining this is difficult without at least a tentative belief in the possibility of the survival hypothesis.

But the spookiest account in the book is probably that of Maria, a migrant worker who died temporarily in 1977. During a moment of cardiac arrest, she reported that she flew from her body. And while she was up there, she saw a scuffed-up tennis shoe sitting on a windowsill of one of the top storeys of the hospital – a shoe that would have been invisible from any of her previous vantage points. Maria excitedly told a nurse about the shoe, who went up to look for it and found it to be exactly as Maria had described. How do you explain that?

By the end of the book, Kean's evidence seems overwhelming. If you take her seriously, you'll believe what she has to say. And she does a great job of seeming objective. She quotes scientists she claims are respectable, writes in laconic prose and addresses potential objections with generosity.

The only problem is that if you know even a little about the field of parapsychology – the study of psychic powers, basically – you'll know that Kean is deeply credulous. The whole book rests on her acceptance of supernatural powers of the mind. She makes the claim that "extraordinary abilities … have been studied under controlled conditions" and that "after over a hundred years of research, and even though mainstream science may not accept it, this repeated documentation has established that these abilities are real."

Well, not really. The field of parapsychology has produced some interesting research, but it has also been riddled with controversy, poor experimental design and fraud. The most promising experiments have come from Daryl Bem, who has done all sorts of wacky things, such as showing subjects two curtains, one of which hides a pornographic image, and asking them to point out the image. Some of his experiments seem to indicate psychic effects. The problem is that they repeatedly fail to replicate and tend to produce measurable effects that barely lie within the realm of statistical significance.

As such, the book loses a bit of its magic. While Kean provides some apparently solid evidence for her propositions, she also provides a lot of applesauce, which makes it hard to believe her. And I'm genuinely sorry about this, because being an adherent of mainstream science is way less fun.

This is effectively demonstrated by Into the Gray Zone, the model of how pop science involving sensational subjects should be done. The book documents neuroscientist Adrian Owen's remarkable research into a weird phenomenon: People in vegetative states occasionally exhibit signs of consciousness.

Owen's research has a shocking result: Some apparently comatose people are fully conscious. Not barely conscious – fully. They remember who entered their hospital room and what words were spoken to them. They play for years in a memory palace, unencumbered by their physical bodies.

Owen is a good scientist, so he doesn't exaggerate his findings or weave them into a grand metaphysical web, as Kean does. As a result, Owen's book occasionally lags, even though it details a scientific triumph. He carefully recounts experimental procedure, making it clear what certain brain-measurement systems can and can't do. He describes in great detail how years of work with vegetative patients finally yielded a solid method of measuring consciousness. Are you asleep yet?

Owen's methods are cool and strange. Apparently, everyone who imagines playing tennis exhibits the same brain activity, so you can ask vegetative patients to say yes to questions by imagining tennis. However, the explanation of how Owen got there is, at times, fairly dull. And, though he strings his findings together with a narrative about his life, written in an amiable, conversational tone, you start to wonder why it's a book instead of a long article.

This is the problem with writing about science: Even if you find astonishing things in the lab, it's the result of months or years of drudgery, failure and false starts. So if you write about science and every page offers slam-bang confirmation of some amazing new reality, then you're probably lying. But if you write an accurate narrative about scientific discovery, it won't be much of a beach read.

Ultimately, Kean's book provides a fascinating glimpse behind the veil of consciousness – and a reassuring message: Our souls persist, there's evidence of the afterlife and there is essentially nothing to fear from death – except perhaps brief final pain. Owen's book, meanwhile, provides an interesting brush against the limits of our lived experience, but doesn't offer anything hugely uplifting. It's a shame that only one of these books is credible.

Sasha Chapin is a writer in Toronto whose first book, Perfect Information Game, will be published in 2019.

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