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Review - Dying to Live - Susan Blackmore

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There are certain topics in science that can be career suicide if you dare to explore them - so all credit to Susan Blackmore for venturing into the dangerous ground of life after death from a scientific viewpoint.

We are used to those with strongly held beliefs being prepared to hold onto those beliefs whatever the evidence - what we sometimes forget is that scientists and those who are strong supporters of science also have strongly held beliefs, and as soon as anyone dares to take a rational, balanced view to certain topics - be it life after death, homeopathy or telepathy - the scientific thought police tend to step in and say "this isn't worth considering".

They totally miss the point. Even if such concerns have no scientific basis, the fact remains that a large percentage of the population support them, and it's important to examine the evidence and act in proper, rational scientific fashion, if science is to get the message across properly. This is exactly what Blackmore does here with great delicacy, as opposed to storming in with hand waving expressions of ridicule (in classic Richard Dawkins style) without any thought for other people's dearly held beliefs.

In Dying to Live, Susan Blackmore explores the evidence for life after death presented by "near death experiences" - the shared experiences of a number of individuals who have temporarily died or come very close to death, but returned to tell the tale. These often have similar components - the consciousness floating out of the body, entering a long dark tunnel with a bright light at the end, a feeling of peace and so on, each of which Blackmore examines in some detail.

Although some will argue with her conclusions, and ask whether or not she considered all the right questions (or for that matter all the evidence), this remains the best book we have seen to take on one aspect that might indicate the existence of life after death - the near death experience - and give it a proper scientific analysis. It probably isn't going to give too much away to say that Blackmore comes down in favour of physiological causes for all the aspects of near death experience, but only after careful consideration of the alternatives.

In the end, though this is a fascinating topic, well handled, we can only award the book three stars, because it could do with a bit more narrative flow - Blackmore has a tendency to slip into classic academic "these researchers found this, while these researchers found that" for page after page. This doesn't stop this being a book that is well worth reading, though.

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Reviewed by Martin O'Brien

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Last update 05 June 2007