Let’s raise our hats to the strange phenomena!

 In Companies, ICPT, News, Personality, Pharmaceuticals

Text: Chris Graeme; Photo: ICPT

As the Madonna song goes, “we’re living in a material world” and when the former chairman of arguably Portugal’s most successful and internationally well-known pharmaceutical company, Bial addresses a business lunch you’d expect the topic to be ‘Big Pharma Today’ or ‘The Economic Challenges Facing Portugal in 2024’.

The last thing you’d imagine from the figurehead of a Portuguese company spanning four generations, with two best-selling home-grown international drugs under its belt, is a talk about life after death, terminally ill patients receiving otherworldly visits from long dead friends and family members, and positive and negative energy.

And while there were no Doris Stokes style fireside interventions with the dead from Luís Portela at this lunch organised the International Club of Portugal on Wednesday, his take on the nature of spirituality was refreshing, devoid of the black and white dogmas that so often characterise organised religion, and certainly struck a chord with the entrepreneurs sat a my table.

I must start off by saying that Luís Portela, who has written several books on spirituality, including ‘Ser Spiritual – Da Evidência à Ciência’ (Being Spiritual – From the Evidence to the Science’), in my case was preaching to the converted.

I can cite one example from my own family to which I was a witness. It takes me back to early February 1981. I was just turned 15 and our mother lay dying of cancer being tended to by my two elder sisters.

They had arranged together with my father on that first Sunday of the month to go to a local Catholic convent where the nuns after mass would pray for the sick and dying. The service made a big impression on them; the scent of incense mixed with the waxy smell of candles ablaze mingled with an uplifting chorus of heavenly voices in full song.

Returning to the house, our mother had awoken from sleep and told them: “I had such a lovely dream and it seemed so real. There were nuns standing at the end of the bed holding candles. They were singing and what beautiful singing it was!”

My sisters looked at each other in unnerved silence. My mother had no idea they had gone to the convent. She had never even been told that she had a terminal cancer diagnosis, and indeed didn’t want to know.

Of course, the family doctor when recounted this story put it down to hallucinations caused by a ‘Brompton cocktail’ of morphine, cocaine and gin she was taking to “ease her on her way”. But to this day I have wondered, even more so when in the small hours before her passing she had sat bolt upright in bed and said: “Hello mummy, what are you doing here?” Her mother had died in 1975.

Returning to the presentation from Luís Portela, he believes that science and spirituality can co-exist. Some of the ideas expounded in his most successful book, now in its 31st edition, were conveyed during the lunch held at the Lisbon Marriott Hotel.

Yet for all this, Luís Portela is a man of science, a former researcher who initially trained to be a physician, but had not practised medicine for 42 years, called on instead to run the family company as president in 1984 after the untimely death of his father António Portela who had been at helm since 1978.

At 14 he said that he had thought about being a Buddhist monk and certainly does not rule out life after death.

But how can a man so linked with biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences at the same time believe in a spiritual view so at odds with the conventional Catholic heaven-hell doctrines that are deeply rooted in Portuguese and so many other societies?

Luís Portela started off by confirming his immense respect for all religions and faiths, but from the early age of 12 had started reading books about spirituality and pondering existential questions such as: Why are we here? Do we have a purpose? Does a universal god exist? Do we have just one life, or multiple lives?

While attracted to the Eastern spiritual philosophies of Asia and the process of the spiritual cleansing of karma, he thought that since he was in this school which is earth, it would make more sense to polish and purify his soul and earthly being in the more mundane human setting of the material world rather than living a monk’s existence in isolation.

Having retired as president from Bial in 2021 to be replaced by former banker António Horta Osório, Luís Portela has since dedicated himself to the Bial Foundation created in 1994 together with the Council of Rectors of Portuguese Universities. Its mission is to foster the scientific study of the human being from both physical and spiritual perspectives. (Neuroscience and Parapsychology.)

“In my opinion the 20th century was fantastic in terms of scientific and technological innovation and development. We know a lot more today about our physical bodies and the world around us than we did 100 year ago,” he said.

“However, this scientific and technological knowledge has got people drunk on materialism. People live lives very focused on ‘having and appearances’ and this has caused obvious environmental, social, economic and financial imbalances,” he added.

Luís Portela believes that people are overly concerned with things of an entirely secondary importance rather than focusing on our being and values.

Studied at universities

However, — and this is surprising — some European and US universities and investors in recent decades have been studying phenomena that are beyond the “material world”, and have chosen to investigate ideas that stem from antiquity; phenomena and ideas that the material and science-based world has largely turned its back on.

It was precisely why Luís set up the Bial Foundation to investigate these areas, and what has been discovered is relatively unknown and his best-selling books are largely focused on this research.

Luís Portela gave three examples of situations that until a few years ago were considered out of the box and inconceivable; ideas that the scientific world would not cover, but today are being studied in universities.


The first is telepathy, which 30 years ago was seen as weird and strange by the scientific world, yet today it is accepted on the basis of research done at different universities.

We have all had a call from someone we were thinking about just moments before. And while many people would put it down to mere coincidence, a researcher at Cambridge claimed to have found scientific evidence for the phenomenon of telephone telepathy.

Rupert Sheldrake, of Trinity College, Cambridge asked volunteers, who claimed they had had experience of telephone telepathy, to give researchers the names and phone numbers of four friends or relatives. These people then phoned the volunteer at random. The volunteer was asked to guess the identity of the caller before picking up the phone.

“The hit rate was 45%, well above the 25% you would have expected,” said Dr Sheldrake in 2006. “The odds against this being a chance effect are 1,000 billion to one.”

However, when presenting the findings, Peter Atkins, a chemist at the University of Oxford, said that work in telepathy was a waste of time.

“In this case there is absolutely no reason to suppose that telepathy is anything more than a fantasy,” he said. “Whenever positive results have been reported in the past — and such reports are also feeble, down in the noise of chance — close scrutiny has revealed conventional explanations.” It is Interesting nevertheless.

Near-Death Experiences 

The second was near-death experiences, where for some minutes and in some cases hours, people showed no vital signs but “came back to life”.

And there were terrible cases where people were presumed dead, were buried and for some reason disinterred only for shocked observers to find scratch marks on the lid of their coffins. They had been buried alive.

It was of such concern in the 19h century – a period obsessed by death made fashionable by Gothic novels and Queen Victoria’s inconsolable 11-year absence in mourning from British society after the death of her beloved Prince Albert – that some people insisted on being buried with a bell in case they came back to life underground!

“These cases exist and were not studied. Now they are being studied”, explained the president of the Bial Foundation.

Other people who had accidents or serious illnesses, and were in situations of near death for some time, came back to report remarkably similar experiences of floating outside of their bodies, seeing procedures and items in a hospital operating theatre that they could not have possibly seen from that angle, even hearing actual conversations before going towards a light or passing through a tunnel and meeting long deceased relatives and friends.

These experiences were studied by Dr.Raymond.Moody, American philosopher, psychiatrist, physician and author of best-selling book ‘Life after Life’ and who explored personal accounts of subjective phenomena encountered in near-death experiences, particularly those of people who have apparently died but been resuscitated. He widely published his views on what he termed near-death-experience psychology.

However, his research too was widely slammed by the established academic and scientific community. The philosopher Paul Kurtz has written that Moody’s evidence for the Near Death Experience (NDE) is based on personal interviews and anecdotal accounts, and there has been no statistical analysis of his data.

There also is the question of interpreting such data as has been published assuming that the factual matter is objectively correct; according to Kurtz, “there is no reliable evidence that people who report such experiences have died and returned, or that consciousness exists separate from the brain or body.” The scientific jury may be out, but interesting nevertheless.

The French singer Charles Aznavour was one who did believe in life after death after having a NDE himself in a vehicle accident. France’s answer to Frank Sinatra eventually definitely died at the ripe old age of 94 in 2018 not that long after he performed in Lisbon for the last time.

And many more survivors of NDEs describe being shown their lives in flashback as a sort of end-of-term school report of how they had lived their lives, and which of the lessons they had chosen to learn before they came back to this earth in their last incarnation were learnt and those that weren’t, before being sent back to “do something useful for humanity”.

The third example was of reports of previous lives whereby children between the age of 3 and 7 (but sometimes adults too) describe their supposed past lives, in past times, in other cities and other countries.

This idea was highlighted by the successful 2021 Netflix documentary ‘Surviving Death’ which looked at near-death experiences and beliefs in life after death, and psychic mediumship and was based on the 2017 book ‘Surviving Death’ by journalist and paranormal enthusiast Leslie Kean.

Again the book and the series were highly criticised for taking a non-critical view of the scientific value of anecdotal subjective personal reports. The show has also been slammed for presenting pseudoscientific parapsychology as science and has been accused of exploiting the plight of fearful and grieving vulnerable people. But the fact that we might not have the science to prove it yet does not necessarily make it untrue and delusional.

But whether your believe, fiercely disbelieve, or choose to have an open mind, yet still, in the lyrics of the Kate Bush song “raise our hats to the strange phenomena”, the essence of Luís Bial’s message was not really this.

In Luís Bial’s view quantum physics has opened a door of communication between science and consciousness that show knowledge can differ from the classic standard of pre-established and accepted scientific study, and that there are energies in the universe, both positive and negative, that are interlinked and that our thoughts can be a form of radiation. “Positive thinking attracts positive people and pessimistic, negative thinking attracts negative outcomes and people.

And that at the end of the day it is unconditional love and the universal values of honesty, loyalty, truth, humility, moderation, tolerance, respect and simplicity that we need to focus on; not just making money and amassing things for things’ sake. And it is only through introspection and self-improvement and learning to love, both ourselves and others, can we really find meaning and purpose to our lives.