From Abracadabra to Zombies
reader comments: near-death experiences
April 20 2015
This always interests me, as I nearly died in hospital in 2008. I finally woke up (in excruciating pain) following a very colourful dream in which I could well have been in purgatory. I wasn't, but given how ill you are when on the point of death, illusions can be quite overpowering.
This though is the point. Your intellect is almost dead, your brain is starving for oxygen, you are not competent to differentiate between reality and illusion. Eventually though, everything you see is in your head - nobody else's. And the only reason that you remember that you remember the NDE is that it is very recent in your mind. Exactly like a dream on waking up on a normal night, except for the fact that you are less competent to understand it as such. Nothing else.
Visions of Heaven or Hell are very rare for people who have not woken up immediately. The dreams when half-asleep do not enter your memory. So when I hear of the term NDE I immediately put all this logic together. It was a strong powerful, overriding dream in the head of a very ill person. Nothing more.
reply: Are you telling us that the little boy's story about dying, going to heaven, and then returning was just a dream? Maybe. Or maybe the story was a lie. The story was told by Kevin Malarkey--that's his real and appropriate last name--with his six-year-old son Alex. In 2010, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven was published by Tyndale House, a major Christian publisher. Alex had been in a coma for two months after being in a car accident. Earlier this year, he recanted, stating “I did not die. I did not go to heaven....I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” The book reportedly sold over 1 million copies. Tyndale has since announced that it will stop selling the book.*
Another likely confabulator is Dr. Eben Alexander. His story of dying and going to heaven seems to have been dreamt up rather than dreamed. The book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is said to have sold 2 million copies. Accounts of this miscreant can be found in posts by Luke Dittrich and Donald Prothero.
15 Nov 2012
Dear Mr. Carroll,
So you say that you used to believe in the after life, well I have a former skeptic that you might think is credible. His name is Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard Neurosurgeon. He's a man of science so being skeptic is a given. Dr. Alexander got bacterial meningitis and slipped into a coma. He had always dismissed out of body experiences but he had one. He knows it was not a hallucination because on his journey, he saw a beautiful woman who gave him 3 messages. He had a 10% chance of recovery and got better. He thought that if he had gone to heaven that he'd see his father but he didn't. He is adopted and later found out that his birth parents got married and had 3 more children. One of the children, who is deceased, was a woman whom he had never met. He was shown a picture of her and he realized that it was the woman from his near death experience. So it was not a hallucination if he had never met her. How do you dismiss a man of science, a neurosurgeon who is obviously not psychic or a medium?
reply: I don't dismiss Dr. Alexander. His story is an interesting one and he has published a book about his experience and how he interprets what he experienced. I have no way of knowing whether he made his story up, knowing that there would be a large audience hungry for validation of their belief in an afterlife, or whether he is sincere and really believes he went to heaven, saw his sister, and has proof that consciousness can exist without a body and brain. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Dr. Alexander is on the up and up, that he really believes what he writes about his near-death experience. What then?
Does his belief prove his conclusions are right? I don't think so. His evidence for "knowing" he wasn't dreaming or hallucinating is that he saw a beautiful woman who gave him three messages and when he saw a picture of his sister he recognized her as the woman who gave him the messages. I can understand his emotional response to what he believed, but I'm sure Dr. Alexander knows how memory works. Memories are constructed, they are not playbacks of recordings. It is quite likely that the picture shown to Dr. Alexander created his memory, a false memory that he had met this woman while in his coma. One of the first things an investigator is taught is not to present a victim with a picture of a suspect because, knowing how memory works, when the victim identifies the one in the picture as her assailant the investigator can't be sure that he has not primed her to construct her memory from the picture.
Finally, having an out-of-body experience itself is not proof of separation of brain and consciousness. Many people have such experiences without concluding that they have a double who left their body for a while and had experiences while their body lay on a hospital bed. On the other hand, not as many people have had near-death experiences, but many of those who have been transformed by them. So, Dr. Alexander's transformation is consistent with many others who have had such experiences. The experience is extremely emotional, but it doesn't prove what he thinks it proves. It just strengthens his belief in the afterlife. Others who want to believe in an afterlife will find comfort in such stories. Those of us who think heaven and hell are fictions with about near-zero probability of being real are not moved by the NDE stories.
My cousin, before she died, told me that she saw angels.
reply: Many people see angels. Does that mean angels exist? I don't think so. Angels are a part of our mythical culture. They satisfy an emotional need for many people. However, I think the probability of angels or demons actually existing is near zero.
What about the story of Colton Burpo, "Heaven is for Real?" He's a little boy who had a near death experience and met deceased relatives?
reply: Colton was three years old when he nearly died. His preacher father wrote the book, which includes such claims as that Jesus assigned Colton homework while in heaven and that everybody there has wings. The whole story reeks of fraud. Nice way to make a buck, though, since there are obviously many people out there drooling over such stories (the book was number 1 in non-fiction paperbacks on the NY Times best-seller list for 59 weeks!).
I believe we all have the ability to communicate with the deceased but we also have the ability to turn off this gift either out of fear or logic. Fear of the unknown is very powerful. My goal is to live the best life I can and pray that I do well for the next life.
reply: Good luck with that. I, too, want to live the best life I can, especially since I believe this is the only life we'll get.
27 Jan 2007
I am a big fan of your work. With so much b.s. in the world, it is nice to have a resource that brings some rational perspective when the confusion of life so easily derails our perspective and our reason.
I am a "skeptic" but I have taken the position that we really don't know squat at all about the ultimate nature of the universe, either from the spiritual or material ends of the philosophic spectrum. What was it that Socrates said, "the wise man knows that he doesn't really know anything". So I tend to be as equally skeptical of materialist claims as I am of hocus-pocus spiritualist ones.
reply: I'm so skeptical I don't think the expression 'ultimate nature of the universe' is even intelligible. What could that possibly mean? What would we be looking for if we were looking for the 'ultimate nature of the universe'? How would we know if we ever found it?
On the other hand, I have found many more reasons to be skeptical of spiritualist claims than of materialist claims. I think we've made progress on both counts: we don't have much reason at all to believe in non-material reality (which was the main way we understood spiritual reality) and we've progressed quite far from the notion of little halos orbiting little billiard balls according to fixed cause-effect laws. I think it is progress that we no longer identify consciousness with spirit and we are gradually coming to understand what physical processes give rise to consciousness.
This leads me to a disagreement with your essay on Near Death Experiences. In particular, your explanation of NDE as reduced to essentially neurophysiological factors. But this is contradicted by the fact that it is not a universal experience, which you touched on but kind of danced around, and the fact that when the patient is having this experience they are brain dead and flat lined, which I don't think you mentioned at all in your essay.
reply: I don't understand your point about the NDE not being a universal experience contradicting the claim that there is probably nothing external to the brain state causing the NDE. People have different experiences and memories, which one would expect to affect the content of an NDE.
Your second point makes two false assumptions regarding NDEs. Not all are patients and those that are can't possibly know when they experience the NDE. As Susan Blackmore points out:
we do not yet know whether NDEs take place just before the crisis, during it, just after it or even during the process of trying to describe it to someone else. If clear consciousness were really possible with a completely flat EEG, this would indeed change our view of the mind/brain relationship, but so far this has not been conclusively demonstrated.
Blackmore wrote that in 2004 but in 2006 scientists did an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) on a woman in a vegetative state and found that parts of her brain showed activity when she was spoken to and asked to think about things like playing tennis.
The scientists were startled to find that her brain patterns, when she was asked to imagine herself playing tennis or moving around her home, displayed the same activated cortical areas in a manner indistinguishable from that of the healthy volunteers.*
So if there is no physical indication of brain activity, how can the experience be attributed to brain activity? To do so is illogical and rather poor science and more along the lines of a dogmatic materialist position that willfully ignores the objective facts. The reason I raise this is that perhaps NDE may point to a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of consciousness. What if this is evidence that the phenomenon of consciousness is independent of a material cause? A phenomenon in nature that is non-material yet paradoxically observable and real. It would be the scientific breakthrough of all time. After all, in terms of a real world-common sense perspective, isn't consciousness, our subjective experience of it, essentially a non-material experience and outside of space and time (for example, how much does a thought weigh? what shape is love? what color is free will? a dream where I travel from NY to Paris in a second or that seems like it lasted for days when I have only been asleep for an hour etc.).
reply: It's true that some philosophers argue that because it is hard to talk about consciousness or things like thoughts and ideas in the language of spatial objects, that we should admit that such things aren't things at all but transcend the limits of spatial existence. I don't think that follows at all. The fact that our language favors a particular metaphysical viewpoint is irrelevant to the truth of that viewpoint. It is only relevant to our natural prejudices in favor of that viewpoint. There is no reason to believe that our instincts, especially our linguistic instincts, are necessarily honed in on the truth of anything.
The fMRI experiment shows that some machines we use to determine whether a person is brain-dead or not may indicate that the brain is "dead" when in fact it isn't. If we assumed a spiritual, i.e., non-physical substance, continuing to perceive while our machines indicated that a person was brain dead, we would not be able to continue our research. But by using other machines that measure physical processes in the brain, we are able to continue the research. In this case, we discovered something fascinating that has many implications, but none of them are important to a belief in spirits or non-physical beings.
No experiment is able to prove there are no spirits. But no experiment or explanation regarding consciousness needs to assume the existence of spirits. There may be a spiritual universe that parallels and mirrors the material universe, but such a parallel universe is superfluous to both our understanding and our experience of the universe we live in.
Finally, the NDE is apparently such a profound experience that many people have difficulty in accepting that it can be explained as just another bodily state. I imagine some who suffer temporal lobe epilepsy and experience a feeling of transcendence find it hard to accept that something so profound could be nothing more than another bodily state. But we know that profound experiences can be achieved pharmacologically and even though such experiences sometimes lead people to believe they have entered a spiritual, non-physical dimension, the odds are great that such people have deceived themselves.
4 Oct 2001
Hi, I'm a television series producer in Australia who had an NDE 3
years ago. Just wanted to say thank you for your intelligent explanations -
I'm really trying to understand my experience and why it's had such a
profound effect on my entire life - I'll continue my enquiries for many
years , no doubt, but your info has been a refreshing, factual insight.
Thanks and best wishes,
3 Feb 2001
Just read an account of a woman who had been electrocuted and had a NDE. She left her body and observed her physical body on the floor after the incident. While out of the body she felt no pain, emotional or physical, but viewed the incident dispassionately. The part that left her body had two parts that she explains as follows:
1. Spirit consciousness, which she felt was herself.
2. A transparent body which she felt was the casing for the spirit consciousness. When out of the physical body the casing for the consciousness was a transparent body much like the physical body in appearance, except it had no defects; did not breathe, and communicated by telepathy with other Light Beings.
While out of the physical body she observed that all things vibrate with consciousness, even rocks, cloth... all things.
She also left her transparent body at that time. She explains that she felt her pure consciousness merge with the Cosmic Consciousness. She became One with that larger consciousness. During that time she explains that she retained her sense of consciousness, was still herself, but was also One with all things. She experienced unconditional love, peace, bliss, joy .... during that merging.
This is from the book; You Can See the Light by Dianne Morrissey Ph.D.
I had a similar experience but it was an OBE after years of practicing Yoga. I did not die or have an NDE but had the same experience as an NDE. It was the most important and truthful experience of my entire life. It changed my entire life perspective. Had I not had this experience, I too would remain a skeptic.
reply: If a picture is worth a thousand words, a transcendental experience is worth a library. Unfortunately, both pictures and experiences can be deceptive. While there are some unscrupulous people who are faking communication with the dead, many have had experiences such as yours. Such experiences can be life-transforming, as in your case, and they can easily become the foundation of an unshakeable faith in all kinds of supernatural and occult phenomena.
Yet, some people will be able to recognize that what they experience may be no more than a subjective experience caused by oxygen deprivation, chemical imbalance, neurological disorder, or some other kind of brain process. That doesn't make the experience less real, but it does explain how one can have experiences that have content based on past experiences and desires, but which have no immediate basis outside of the brain.
Ultimately, a person of faith such as yourself might well choose not to apply Occam's razor, yet be willing to admit that it is a brain process that is causing their immediate perceptions. However, rather than leave it at that, the person of faith assumes that there is a real (external to the brain) cause of the brain processes that are causing the perceptions. Such an external cause is metaphysically possible, of course, but unnecessary and, I believe, unlikely. People of faith find books like You Can See the Light and Hello from Heaven! to be supportive of their view. I find books by Oliver Sacks, Michael Persinger, Stanislav Grof and Susan Blackmore more interesting and more convincing. Neurological research seems to keep finding evidence to support the brain-based hypothesis for both the origin of God and the self, e.g., Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief, Altered Egos: How the Brain Creates the Self and the recent work of Dr. Donald Stuss on the frontal lobes and our sense of self. It is, of course, possible that there is another realm of reality beyond the brain which is somehow causing these perceptions of self, spirits and God. However, the likelihood of such a realm actually existing seems to me about as probable as James van Praagh or John Edward really being contacted by dead dogs and dead strangers.
28 May 2000
I've never been one to draw within the lines, so I'm going to forego the neatly arranged form letter arrangement you've included and instead write freely.
I would, however, like to commend you for an interesting and well-organized site; so hard it is these days to find intelligent discussions of contemporary philosophy and scientific ideas.
I have read through your section on NDE's and some of the reader comments. The most glaring problem inherent in understanding the true nature of these phenomena is the fact that, as we progress down to a certain level of understanding, we get to an area where there really is no way to empirically prove what we are claiming. Scientists rely (necessarily) on facts and data, and will accept nothing else in their search for truth. Interestingly enough, the very roots of science stem from phenomena so minute and mysterious that they themselves cannot be understood or proven empirically. For this reason, we must always entertain alternative ideas, no matter how bizarre, until we can completely explain them.
A very simple dualist approach can explain NDE's and even incorporate the scientific research of ketamine and oxygen depravation and the whole nine yards.
If we grant that consciousness may have a role in actually creating our reality (as the field of quantum physics is currently finding) then it is easy to see that the consciousness lies somewhere outside of the physical body. It would, however, have to maintain a very intimate relationship with the body, and do so using "material" principles, such as those of biology, chemistry and physics.
It is possible that, on the border of material reality and immaterial reality, there lie chemical reactions, biological responses and the changing of energy into particles. Obviously we do not understand what happens in the small scale of particle generation, but we do understand how chemistry works. When we experience something as the result of ketamine overdose, haven't we just added a chemical to an environment which responds to and works with - chemicals?
It seems obvious that any kind of spiritual experience a human has will be associated to some degree with his or her body and that will entail some kind of chemical reaction. The fact that certain aspects of a spiritual experience can be reproduced chemically proves absolutely nothing about the nature of these phenomena.
-Sean P Hulsman (I wish I had some credentials to put here. It would make me look so much smarter.)
reply: Even though we can't prove--at least not in the way mathematicians can prove--any metaphysical claims, and even though it is true that reproducing spiritual experiences chemically does not prove that spiritual experiences are nothing but chemical reactions, we should not shrink from making judgments based on reasonable probabilities.
14 Mar 2000
Dear Mr. Carroll,
Thank God for your site!
(That's a joke.)
I've been using excerpts from your site (and accompanying links) on an NDE Mail List to clear the air of everything from the Shroud, to Atlantis, to Edgar Cayce and Astrology! (Unfortunately, air pollution is a stubborn affliction.) What the heck am I doing on an NDE mail list?
I had a Near Death-like Experience when I was eleven years old. I won't bore you with the details, but the most intriguing aspect was that I willed myself to "die" during a dream. A full blown NDE followed, in which I would assert that I was no longer dreaming, but fully conscious and OBE. I think this is intriguing from a scientific and psychological standpoint, because, as you know, some avenues of exploration have tried to pinpoint the NDE on a dying brain (to put it simply). My own case argues that possibly just the "perception" of dying can produce an NDE! So, if we are to find a neurological cause for the NDE (to which I am open) then I would argue that "brain-death" is not a reliable trigger.
I am often asked what makes me think I wasn't still dreaming. Of course, I have no proof that I wasn't. I usually offer up an analogy. Imagine you wake in the middle of the night. You do nothing that would indicate to anyone else that you were awake. Perhaps you look out the window, perhaps you stare at the ceiling or maybe check the time. Then you go back to sleep. The next day you tell someone that you woke during the night. If someone were then to ask: But how do you *know* you weren't still dreaming, how would you prove that you were awake? This analogy gets to the heart of defining consciousness. How did we know we were awake and not dreaming? At any rate, I can't prove that I wasn't dreaming, but I *can* assert that I *felt* fully conscious (and out of my body). Having had lucid dreams, I would also assert that the NDE *felt* qualitatively different. But this is all subjective.
One fascinating aspect of the NDE, was my ability (perceived?) to see 380 [?] degrees at once.
So, when Jansen writes: One of the many contradictions which 'after-lifers' can not resolve is that "the spirit rises out of the body leaving the brain behind, but somehow still incorporating neuronal functions such as sight, hearing, and proprioception"
I can only agree. Whatever means I was using to see was *not* eyesight. This can firstly be seen as proof (by present scientific criterion) that I was dreaming (the reasonable assumption being that the only way to "see" is with eyes, therefore, if I was seeing it was because I was dreaming) or secondly, as confirmation that our consciousness is not dependent on neuronal activity (I was seeing without my eyes and since eyes cannot possibly see in all directions at once, the only explanation (if we preclude the first) is that I was using a perceptual ability that was *not* neuronal--therefore it follows that consciousness may not be neuronal). This all begins to sound sophistic, but I think we can't, as yet, eliminate either possibility.
Jansen also writes: There is overwhelming evidence that 'mind' results from neuronal activity. The dramatic effects on the mind of adding hallucinogenic drugs to the brain, and the religious experiences which sometimes result, provide further evidence for this (Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1981).
If we exclude the possibility of a "soul", then this is the obvious conclusion. After all, if we remove the brain, we remove consciousness. Period. We conclude therefore that consciousness *is* the brain. However, my favorite hobby is flying radio controlled planes. This leads to an analogy I'm sure you're familiar with. If one thinks of the brain as being a servo (the mechanism that controls the plane) then we end up with exactly the same indicators. The plane appears conscious and aware of its environment. It avoids trees (most of the time), the ground and generally behaves like a thinking object interested in preserving itself. It seems to see and be aware of its environment. Military radio controlled planes even extend this analogy, because they have on-board cameras that guide the controller. These could be thought of as eyes. If the servo were susceptible to mental illness, then, depending on the illness, ones ability to control the plane would suffer accordingly. If the battery dies (which has happened) then the servo dies and the plane plummets, having the appearance of "death". Not to sound too metaphysical, but we can safely say that the plane's appearance of consciousness and apparent "death" are illusions. The plane's consciousness, if you will, exists externally to it. If one postulates the existence of the soul, then this analogy extends to the body. Of course, such a hypothesis (if it can be called that) can in *no way* be validated. I only mention it to show that what can appear purely neuronal, need not necessarily lead us to conclude that consciousness is neuronal.
The objection is fairly raised that science cannot disprove a negative. However, science *can* disprove that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth... so on and so forth. So... I'm not sure we can use this reasoning as a refuge. If it's possible to prove that consciousness does *not* and can *not* exist beyond the confines of the body, then I think it will, at some point, be proven. Until then, I remain open.
I experienced my NDE at age eleven and I told no one of the experience until eighteen (so profound was the effect it had on me). If we grant the NDE a neurological explanation (which is the only explanation we can allow given the current scientific paradigm) then the reasons for its *often* (though not always) beneficial after effects becomes doubly intriguing. After all, the NDE may be drug induced. However, I don't get the sense from my readings that a drug induced NDE produces the same beneficial after effects. (Maybe I haven't read enough?) Carl Jansen's web site (Ketamine induced NDEs) lists some of these beneficial after effects and gives examples; although, unfortunately, he doesn't state whether his own experiments produce the same after effects as the non-induced variety. This has nothing to do with the nature of consciousness. I only point out that there may be qualitative differences between an induced NDE and a non-induced NDE which need to be explored.
Anyway, after my NDE I naturally wanted to understand its "meaning". Of course, there were plenty pseudo-scientists more than ready and willing to explain the phenomena: astrologers, channelers, psychics, gurus, you name it. When I finally read James Randi's flim flam, it was a breath of fresh air. (Fortunately, Carl Sagan was one of my childhood heroes, so I was open to reading Randi.) This was several years ago. Now that I'm earning some money, you'll be happy to know that I'll be joining the James Randi Educational Foundation. I can't say enough about the process and methodology of science. I am a subscriber to the Skeptic and I finally managed to buy a used copy of "Asimov's Guide to Science" (now out of print) like the one I loved as a child.
Where does all this leave me? The NDE (because of my own experience I suppose) is the *only* phenomena which continues to intrigue me as possibly indicative of the "paranormal". The nub of the matter is this: Can consciousness survive outside the confines of the physical body? Is consciousness physiological? While there is * no* reproducible evidence to suggest it can, there is nevertheless strong circumstantial evidence and what Kenneth Ring would describe as veridical evidence. It is admittedly anecdotal and testimonial; but then, as per my example of waking in the middle of the night, so is consciousness! If the soul exists, then it is pure consciousness. It is a creature of perceptions and nothing more. How on earth, using non-perceptual tools, do we come to grips with that? *If* there is a soul, I think this is a fascinating question! For now, however, it remains for the legions of pseudo scientists who are more than ready to tell us. The work of Dr. Ian Stevenson also provides strong circumstantial (though untestable) evidence. Of course, until science arrives at some means of testing such a hypothesis (that the consciousness can exist separately from the body) science cannot and should not act on the basis that it does.
Nevertheless, I'm not sure that this alone is a reason to out and out eliminate the possibility. After all, microscopic life was postulated before the invention of the microscope. Mind you, I'm not trying to convince you that the soul exists but I *do* think, to be fair, that we can't yet say that it *doesn't* exist, only that we currently have no means to either prove or disprove the assertion. As I said before, there does seem to be compelling circumstantial evidence that it does, and on this reason *alone* I remain open minded on the subject. What's the difference between this assertion and a belief in Santa Claus? Mainly, I suppose, that thousands, if not millions, of individuals haven't derived life changing benefits from "meeting" Santa Claus at the end of a "tunnel"! Consider Robert Baker's article. Consider Louis Farrakahn's recent conversion after his NDE!! I, for one, remain open to the possibility that consciousness can persist outside of the physical body. This seems to be the overriding "message" (if you will) of the NDE. Wish fulfillment is an obvious explanation for the common content (who wants to die, after all) but why don't we have hallucinations (if we're to call them that) of fabulous wealth or prestige? Maybe we do. If so, it would be interesting to discover whether such experiences also produce the beneficial after-effects of the NDE.
Of course, allowing for the possibility that consciousness survives the phsyical body opens a *real* can of worms! What then about reincarnation, heaven or hell? I don't know. I personally don't believe *anybody* who claims any knowledge as to what comes after death (if there *is* such a thing as "after death").
By the way, I think you ought to update your NDE page to take into account Kenneth Ring's latest book: "Mindsight: Near Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind". This is a new study apparently having nothing to do with Blackmore's(?), which was (as Ring himself states) a model of poor research and fabrication. I've ordered the book via Amazon.com and haven't read it yet. If you're interested, I can send you my impressions. I would like to read some reviews--pro and con. I would appreciate your criticism of the book. The most important criticism, however, must come from those who have the means to thoroughly examine Ring's methods. Naturally, I don't expect the book to prove the existence of a "soul", but it may offer some *very* compelling "indications" in support of such an assertion. Given the subjective and anecdotal nature of the NDE, I think Ring does the best he can trying to work within a scientific paradigm. I feel the same for Stevenson. I honestly don't believe he should be ranked as just another pseudo-scientists. Even if we ultimately find plausible explanations for his findings (not paranormal), we shouldn't fault him for the sincerity of his effort.
I have also read "Dying to Live". Frankly (and as of yet) I find neurological explanations for the NDE phenomena to be insufficient (riddled with exceptions-my own experience being an example). Nevertheless, I remain open to physiological explanations. Jansen's work with Ketamine seems promising, and yet even this doesn't nearly account for the wide variety and causes of NDE, as he himself states, or NDE-like experiences.
Anyway, I appreciate your having written the following as to Ketamine:
That does not prove that there is no life after death, but it does prove that an NDE is not proof of an afterlife.
I heartily agree and I also *mostly* agree when you write:
In any case, the so-called "typical" NDE is not typical of anything, except the tendency of parapsychologists to selectively isolate features of a wide array of experiences and fit them to a paranormal or supernatural hypothesis.
I disagree in that I think it *is* typical of *something*. We just don't yet know *what*.
Ultimately, I agree with Robert Baker:
All of the beings of light are in firm agreement, and they tell the dying: Stay on Earth and resist the transcendental temptation; focus on life not death; use your human powers of love and compassion in work to make this material world-the world of the here and now and the world we all inhabit-a better world, the best world it can possibly be. This is the one thing on which all of us-the believer and the skeptic-can unanimously agree. This is the true light we all should see.
I hope you've found my thoughts somewhat enjoyable.
My best to you & admiration,
3 Apr 2000
Thank you for the down-to-earth skeptic site. It is a joy to read.
I saw a couple of years ago an American TV program which might have explained the near death experience.
The discovery was made while training fighter pilots to cope with black-out and red-out in a centrifuge. When the blood escaped from the brain due to the centrifugal force the pilots slowly lost consciousness. Before passing out they saw a light which got closer and closer (or a light at the end of a black tunnel).
It seems that the phenomenon is caused by the brain not getting enough oxygen.
The people noticed the similarity to NDE.
I once passed out because of physical exhaustion. After a hard work
out I stood up. First I lost my hearing, then a blackness came from my
peripheral vision and slowly covered the whole view, just like an old TV
which is turned off, ending in a blip in the centre. The last thing I
remember was touching a solid object with my fingers as a reference to
keep the balance. I came back after several seconds, surprisingly still
standing (I know the time because of what had happened in the gym while I
was unconscious). An amazing experience. Should I call it a near faint
Melbourne, Australia (just working in Australia, I am Finnish)
16 Feb 2000
My compliments on an intriguing, well-designed site. I would like to
challenge you on your NDE position, however. Several accounts of NDEs
report that the person travels to another place, whether that be the next
room, or another building. The person, upon being revived from a
clinically dead state, can accurately describe what was transpiring at
that location they traveled to, during the time they were clinically dead.
If this can be verified, then it seems plausible that at least an Out of
Body experience occurred, if not an NDE. I will guess that your first
refutation will deal with the issue of anecdotes, and how anyone can
report anything to have happened can be lying or stretching the truth. But
what if we have credible witnesses to this? Comments?
Patrick H. Ashley
reply: You're right about testimonial anecdotes. They are worthless as scientific evidence, but they can point us in the right direction. Experiments have been set up by parapsychologists such as Charles Tart to test whether such remote viewing can be duplicated. So far as I know they have all been unsuccessful.
Your articles are very informative. Yet I have to disagree with you on one important note. Near Death Experience. I had a heart attack in January 1990, near San Francisco. Over the years, I have not only found that millions worldwide have had an NDE, but that there were blind NDEers who were able to describe layouts of the room they were in, the people, and the equipment, as well as colors, and verified by their doctors.
Reply: Are you saying that you believe stories which assert that persons who have been blind from birth had "visions" while near death? I could believe that a person who once had sight and was blind at the time of a near death experience was conscious of "seeing," as in a daydream or dream, things like rooms, doctors, equipment, etc., and I would have no problem believing that a person who appears unconscious or dead to others can have auditory sensations and hear what is going on around him. Nothing seems extraordinary about that.
Maybe you are thinking of Dr. Emil Mueller's advertisement in Revitalized Signs (Autumn 1989). He asked for accounts of NDEs from the deaf and blind. Anyway, he says he didn't receive a single report from a blind person. [Blackmore, p. 130] Or you may be thinking of Larry Dossey's Recovering the Soul where he reports on a patient named Sarah who had a vivid visual NDE even though she was blind from birth. Dossey has admitted that Sarah was not a real person. She was a "composite," made up to "dramatically illustrate the key features of non-local ways of knowing." Dossey admitted to Susan Blackmore that he made Sarah's story up so he could illustrate his belief "that non-local ways of gaining information bypass the senses and are ultimately independent of the brain." [Blackmore, p. 132] Other than this made-up case to support a hypothesis, you won't find any documentation of blind NDErs reporting vivid visual experiences.
I know Susan Blackmore and her views on the subject, but she can't explain to my satisfaction, how those who were blind, described what I have just mentioned. I remembered skeptics who said, "There was no such thing as ESP." Now many know from a declassified document showing that the CIA was using ESP with a 66% success rate for over 20 years. Far above the rate for 'chance.'
Reply: Maybe you should re-read Dying to Live. She describes fully her correspondence with Mueller and Dossey. If their own admission that they don't have a single real case of a blind person NDEr doesn't satisfy you, I don't know what would. And where did you get your information on the CIA? The CIA is about as reliable a source on this stuff as the man in the moon. In any case, there have been other widely reported stories about the CIA and how it has abandoned its program of hiring psychics, not because it had a great success rate, but because it was recognized to have been a waste of money. Sure, there were a few psychics and some CIA officers who believe in esp and who think the money was well spent. I, for one, am glad they are not wasting our tax dollars on this non-sense anymore.
I don't believe in people who can claim to leave their body at will or those who claim
to be psychics. But I can believe in my own experience and that of the blind.
Reply: You mean you believe in your interpretation of your experience. You seem to be blind to alternative interpretations and seem to have a blind spot when it comes to reading Blackmore on blind NDErs.
8 Aug 1996
I wanted to relate an experience that happened to me October 30, 1994. A friend and I went for a bicycle ride. I had stopped by his house to see him off and refill my water bottle before heading home. On my way back home I was hit by a car. The woman didn't see me and turned right into me. I hit the brakes, but there was nothing I could do. I told myself to drop and roll. The next thing I know I am standing on the sidewalk with two presence's next to me, telling me to relax, that things will be okay. I looked at the car and saw a black form rolling over the car. Then I am back in my body sitting on the ground.
I missed hitting a stop sign by twelve inches and a telephone pole by twenty-four inches. The only thing that happened to me was a cut on my leg (requiring stitches) and a few bruises. I thought I must have imagined it....but the pictures are too clear. Do OBE usually feel so real? Or would this be classified as a different experience?
reply: Glad to hear you were not seriously injured. Our student assistant was hit by a car last year and nearly died from it.
Anyway, I can't comment on the nature of OBE's from experience, since I have never had one. I can only comment on your specific experience in a general way and speculate as to what caused your perceptions..
As you know, chemicals in our brain affect perception. How they do this is still a large mystery, but we know that electrical stimulation of certain parts of the brain, which can be brought about directly or by chemicals, can cause hallucinations, i.e., vivid perceptions not caused by an external object.
A trauma, or fear of trauma, to the body stimulates the production of chemicals in the body. Among the most well known examples of this is the production of adrenaline when frightened.
I cannot say for sure what you experienced but perhaps your perceptions were based on real people trying to comfort you who were gone by the time you recovered to full consciousness. Likewise for the black form: there may have been an ocular occlusion which affected your perception of an external object. On the other hand, it is possible that what you perceived were hallucinations, brought about by the trauma of your experience.
You clearly went from a state of conscious awareness to semi- or un-consciousness and then back to a state of conscious awareness. What you perceived was probably due to your body's reaction to being hit by a car, not due to any beings from another realm who appeared just at the moment of your unfortunate crash.
09 Oct 1996
I noticed not many comments were added to a topic I thought lots of people would be talking about (astral flight etc). Here is a scientific account from a logical and non-religious thinker. I hope it puts new light on the topic or at least makes someone laugh.
After borrowing a bottle of ether from a fruit fly experiment in Biology, a friend and I decided a human should take the place of a poor defenseless fly. I inhaled a fair amount until my lower limbs became anaesthetised and perception started to lag. What happened next seemed like an out of body experience but is what I later decided was serious lag effect in the visual perception. I stood up, changed the CD then sat down again, then as I sat down I experienced all the sensations of carrying out these tasks, giving me the feeling that my body was doing them though leaving my body behind. I attribute this feeling to the the anaesthetic characteristic of the drug.
Maybe while sleeping people experience out of body hallicinations due to lag in the cortex and other parts of the brain.
reply: I wouldn't generalize too greatly from your experiment, but there are scientists now researching the possibility that obe's (and other "transcendental" states) are manifestations of particular brain states.
31 Jul 1998
While I respect your right to have your own beliefs I must say I find your responses rather arrogant, especially for someone who has never had an nde. I question your qualifications to try to convince people that these experiences do not come from God. Have you ever died? Do You know what follows death...actually you cannot say what happened to these people because YOU DO NOT KNOW.
reply: I've never been manic either, yet I do not think it arrogant to offer my observations on manic behavior. The manic person perceives reality in the only way she knows how, but that does not make her evaluations of her experiences valid or correct.