How realistic is your favorite paranormal TV drama? Fans didn’t seem to waste much time wondering how realistic the smoke monster of “Lost” was — or quibbling that parallel universes never really collide quite the way they did on “Fringe.”
But “Proof,” a new summer series on TNT, practically invites that kind of analysis. The drama, which debuted last month to decent ratings, stars Jennifer Beals as a brilliant cardiothoracic surgeon recruited by a billionaire to investigate near-death experiences, while still reeling from a personal brush with mortality that brought eerie visions of her late son.
You may or may not believe in such phenomena, but there are serious researchers exploring this realm. The show’s executive producers say they looked for inspiration from the academic work of the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies — one of only two university-affiliated labs in the country still doing parapsychology research.
“Can consciousness exist outside the body?” asks creator Rob Bragin, who executive-produced the series with Tom Jacobson. “Just being able to ask the question is a good thing.”
So how realistic does “Proof” seem to real-life near-death researchers?
Take the scenario presented in the season premiere: A child dies and has an out-of-body experience while clinically dead. Somehow, after being resuscitated, she’s able to describe the exact running shoes Beals’s character wore in the operating room and draw a picture of her father punching a vending machine in the next room — events that she should have no knowledge of.
It sounded familiar to Jim Tucker, director of U.Va.’s perceptual studies lab and an associate professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences.
“Patients who’ve died for a time have accurately reported conversations that took place outside of their hospital rooms, or even down the hall,” he said. “Some have reported seeing deceased relatives that at the time they didn’t know were deceased.”
Sam Parnia, who has done similar work at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, tried to test the phenomenon by placing specific images on the ceilings of operating rooms to see if patients resuscitated after full cardiac arrest could recall them — part of a long-term study at 15 hospitals in the United States, United Kingdom and Austria. Getting sufficient data was challenging, he acknowledged. “Most people who die don’t come back, only about 10 percent,” he said, and those that do generally suffer memory loss. Still, about 1.5 percent of surviving patients in the study, he said, had “explicit recall” of events going on in the room that they shouldn’t have been aware of. One was a patient who was fully gone — but could remember the exact phrase his defibrillator machine uttered (“shock advised”) and the number of times he was shocked (twice).
Another episode of “Proof” showed a more distressing side of a near-death experience: A hardened criminal flat-lines and is tormented by visions of the victims he has killed. Melodramatic? Sure, but it also rang true to Tucker. As many as 20 percent of people reporting near-death experiences describe it as a distressing occurrence, he said. They talk of “hellish landscapes,” feelings of an “eternal void” and a sense of “nonexistence,” rather than the stereotypical white light and visions of loved ones.
But it’s also true that some — like the woman with the green scarf, a recurring character on “Proof” — are so profoundly changed by their brush with death that they never fully return to their worldly reality. “Having a near-death experience opens many people to having repeated exceptional experiences, such as subsequent out-of-body and visionary experiences,” said Bruce Greyson, a professor emeritus and former director of U.Va.’s perceptual studies lab. “Many report continuing to hear helpful, guiding voices in times of crisis.”
But the researchers give a thumbs-down to the show’s treatment of reincarnation studies.
“Seems a little unrealistic,” said Tucker, after watching an episode where a patient undergoes hypnosis and suddenly remembers a past life. Tucker and his colleagues “don’t place much stock in the idea of hypnotic regression of adults in order to remember past lives.”
The Virginia lab has extensively explored the potential of past-life memories, he said — but with an exclusive focus on very young children who, in their early years of talking, have spontaneously reported what seem to be accounts of previous lives, no hypnosis involved. (By age 7 or 8, he said, the children stop sharing such stories.)
Another reincarnation-themed episode gave more cause for quibble. In it, an 8-year-old boy sees a piano for the first time and instantly starts playing Mozart. As the plot unfolds, it turns out he shares striking similarities with a child prodigy who died of a rare heart defect 10 months before the 8-year-old was born, and the coincidences pile up — same blood types, phobias, physical traits.
Said Tucker: “I like that they mentioned that there are cases involving similar phobias and birthmarks, which is often true. The problem is that they left out the most important part, which is that the children we work with report actual memories of past lives. . . . I understand dramatic license. But I’d hope that people wouldn’t think that’s all there is to it with children and past-life memories.”
Overall, the researchers harbor some fondness for their TV counterparts.
“It shows that there’s a range of phenomena that we can’t currently explain,” Greyson said, approvingly.
He also appreciated how the show portrayed the protagonist’s ambivalence about getting involved in the research. Parapsychology remains a lonely field, shunned by most of mainstream science. U-Va.’s center, founded in 1967 with a $1 million grant from a wealthy donor, is reliant on private funding for its operations.
Their only other complaint about “Proof,” then, is its name and driving concept. Neither Tucker nor Greyson are convinced that definitive proof of an afterlife is possible, or even desirable.
“We do have evidence,” Tucker said, “but it’s for people to decide how compelling that evidence is.”
Zook is a freelance writer and professor at Hofstra University.