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near-death experience (NDE)

One study found that 8 to 12 percent of 344 patients resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest had NDEs and about 18% remembered some part of what happened when they were clinically dead (Lancet, December 15, 2001).*

The term 'near-death experience', or NDE, refers to a wide array of experiences reported by some people who have nearly died or who have thought they were going to die. There is no single shared experience reported by those who have had NDEs. Even the experiences of most interest to parapsychologists--such as the “mystical experience,” the “light at the end of the tunnel” experience, the “life review” experience, and the out-of-body experience (OBE)--rarely occur together in near-death experiences. However, the term NDE is most often used to refer to an OBE occurring while near death. Both types of experience have been cited to support belief in disembodied spirits and continued existence after death.

One of the early popularizers of the idea that the OBE is proof of life after death was Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (1926-2004). She is well known for her work on death and dying, although she eventually claimed that death does not exist. Death, she thought, is one of several possible transitions through permeable boundaries, whatever that means. At one point in her career, it meant dabbling in spiritualism and inviting a medium to channel the dead to have sex with grieving widows.* Kübler-Ross wrote of her own OBEs (hallucinations?) with "afterlife entities":

I saw myself lifted out of my physical body. ... [I]t was as if a whole lot of loving beings were taking all the tired parts out of me, similar to car mechanics in a car repair shop. ... I had an incredible sense that once all the parts were replaced I would be ... young and fresh and energetic....

People after death become complete again. The blind can see, the deaf can hear, cripples are no longer crippled after all their vital signs have ceased to exist.*

Despite her reputation as a scientist and a medical doctor, bringing in a guy to have sex with your clients is considered unprofessional in some circles, even if the guy wears a turban. When some of the widows developed vaginal infections after these sessions, it looked as if Kübler-Ross's reputation as an expert on scientific evidence for the afterlife was damaged for good. Fortunately for the movement, it had other advocates who, by comparison, are paragons of virtue, integrity, and sanity.

Raymond Moody (1944-), an M.D. and psychology Ph.D., is considered by many to be the father of the modern NDE movement. He coined the expression 'near-death experience' and has written several books on the subject of life after life. He is well known for his compilation of a list of features that he considers to be typical of the near-death experience. According to Moody, the typical NDE includes a buzzing or ringing noise, a sense of blissful peace, a feeling of floating out of one’s body and observing it from above, moving through a tunnel into a bright light, meeting dead people (saints, Jesus, angels, Muhammad); seeing one’s life pass before one’s eyes; and finding it all so wonderful that one doesn’t want to return to one’s body. (The typical experience he describes does not, however, include trips to the body repair shop or sexual encounters with spirits.) This composite experience is based on interpretations of testimonials and anecdotes from doctors, nurses, and patients. Characteristic of Moody’s work is the glaring omission of cases that don’t fit his hypothesis. If Moody is to be believed, no one near death has had a horrifying experience. Yet, "according to some estimates as many as 15 percent of NDEs are hellish" (Blackmore 2004: 362). Reports of Christians meeting Muhammad or Muslims meeting Jesus or Jews meeting Guru Nanak, if they exist, have not been publicized.

There are numerous reports of bad NDE trips involving tortures by elves, giants, demons, etc. Some parapsychologists take these good and bad NDE trips as evidence of the mythical afterlife places of various religions. They believe that some souls leave their bodies and go to the other world for a time before returning to their bodies. If so, then what is one to conclude from the fact that most people near death do not experience either the heavenly or the diabolical? Is that fact good evidence that there is no afterlife or that most people end up as non-existing or in some sort of limbo? Such reasoning is on par with supposing that dreams in which one appears to oneself to be outside of one’s bed are to be taken as evidence of the soul or mind actually leaving the body during sleep, as some New Age Gnostics believe.

What little research there has been in this field indicates that the experiences Moody lists as typical of the NDE may be due to brain states triggered by cardiac arrest and anesthesia (Blackmore 1993). Furthermore, many people who have not been near death have had experiences that seem identical to NDEs, e.g., fighter pilots experiencing rapid acceleration. Other mimicking experiences may be the result of psychosis (due to severe neurochemical imbalance) or drug usage, such as hashish, LSD, or DMT.

A 13-year Dutch study led by Pim van Lommel and published in Lancet found that 12 percent (or 18 percent, depending on how NDE is defined) of 344 resuscitated patients who had experienced cessation of their heart and/or breathing function reported an NDE. If the cause of the NDE were purely physiological, the researchers reasoned that all of the patients should have had one because of their similar plight. Psychological factors were ruled out by the researchers, as were the medications taken by the patients. However, the researchers believe that

neurophysiological processes must play some part in NDE. Similar experiences can be induced through electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe (and hence of the hippocampus) during neurosurgery for epilepsy, with high carbon dioxide levels (hypercarbia), and in decreased cerebral perfusion resulting in local cerebral hypoxia as in rapid acceleration during training of fighter pilots, or as in hyperventilation followed by Valsalva manoeuvre. Ketamine-induced experiences resulting from blockage of the NMDA receptor, and the role of endorphin, serotonin, and enkephalin have also been mentioned, as have near-death-like experiences after the use of LSD, psilocarpine, and mescaline. These induced experiences can consist of unconsciousness, out-of-body experiences, and perception of light or flashes of recollection from the past. These recollections, however, consist of fragmented and random memories unlike the panoramic life-review that can occur in NDE. Further, transformational processes with changing life-insight and disappearance of fear of death are rarely reported after induced experiences.

Thus, induced experiences are not identical to NDE...*

The Dutch researchers seem to be assuming that no significant life-insight changes occur in people who have had induced NDE-like experiences. They cite no evidence that this is so. In any case, the proper conclusion should be that the effect of induced experiences is not identical to the effect of "natural" NDEs.

We can't assume that those who report NDEs had an NDE. Nor can we be sure that only those who report having had an NDE actually had one. Two of the participants in the Dutch study first reported having an NDE two years after their close calls with death. It is possible they constructed false memories. Stories of the alleged typical NDE have been reported widely in the media. Experiences after the NDE might be used to construct an NDE after-the-fact. It is possible that others had NDEs but don't remember them due either to brain damage, to different abilities in short term memory, or to the timing of their experience vis-à-vis when they regained consciousness. The only significant factor between the NDEers and non-NDEers in the Dutch study, according to van Lommel and his colleagues, was age: those who had NDEs tended to be younger. This is partly due to the fact that older cardiac arrest patients are more likely to die than younger ones, but it may also be partly due the fact that younger brains are more likely to have better short term memory functions than older brains.

The Dutch researchers found other significant differences between those who reported the NDE and those who didn't, but they occurred after the experience. "NDErs had become much more empathic and accepting of others since their NDE than had the non-NDErs. And NDErs had become both more appreciative of the ordinary things of life and much less afraid of death than had the non-NDErs."* This difference certainly supports the claim that the NDE is a profound and potentially life-altering experience. It does not, however, support the Dutch researchers' contention that it provides important evidence for consciousness existing outside of the brain.

Moody, on the other hand, is sure that NDEs are evidence of consciousness existing separately from the brain. He thinks that NDEs prove the existence of life after death. Skeptics, on the other hand, believe that NDEs can be explained by neurochemistry and are the result of brain states that occur due to a dying, demented, extremely stressed, or drugged brain. For example, neural noise and retino-cortical mapping explain the common experience of passage down a tunnel from darkness into a bright light. According to Susan Blackmore, vision researcher Dr. Tomasz S. Troscianko of the University of Bristol speculated:

If you started with very little neural noise and it gradually increased, the effect would be of a light at the centre getting larger and larger and hence closer and closer....the tunnel would appear to move as the noise levels increased and the central light got larger and larger....If the whole cortex became so noisy that all the cells were firing fast, the whole area would appear light. (Blackmore 1993: 85)

Blackmore attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness of the NDE to the release of endorphins in response to the extreme stress of the situation. The buzzing or ringing sound is attributed to cerebral anoxia and consequent effects upon the connections between brain cells (op. cit., 64).

Dr. Karl Jansen has reproduced NDEs with ketamine, a short-acting hallucinogenic, dissociative anaesthetic.

The anaesthesia is the result of the patient being so 'dissociated' and 'removed from their body' that it is possible to carry out surgical procedures. This is wholly different from the 'unconsciousness' produced by conventional anesthetics, although ketamine is also an excellent analgesic (pain killer) by a different route (i.e. not due to dissociation). Ketamine is related to phencyclidine (PCP). Both drugs are arylcyclohexylamines - they are not opioids and are not related to LSD. In contrast to PCP, ketamine is relatively safe, is much shorter acting, is an uncontrolled drug in most countries, and remains in use as an anaesthetic for children in industrialised countries and all ages in the third world as it is cheap and easy to use. Anaesthetists prevent patients from having NDE's ('emergence phenomena') by the co-administration of sedatives which produce 'true' unconsciousness rather than dissociation.*  

According to Dr. Jansen, ketamine can reproduce all the main features of the NDE, including travel through a dark tunnel into the light, the feeling that one is dead, communing with some god, hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, strange noises, etc. This does not prove that the NDE is nothing but a set of physical responses, nor does it prove that there is no life after death. It does, however, prove that an NDE is not compelling evidence for belief in either the existence of a separate consciousness or of an afterlife.

While neural activity might explain bright lights, buzzing noises, and hallucinations, there are some aspects of some NDEs that remain puzzling. Some people who are thought to be dead, but are actually just unconscious, recover and remember things like looking down and seeing their own bodies being worked on by doctors and nurses. They recall conversations being held while they were "dead." Of course, they weren't dead at all, but they feel as if their mind or soul had left their body and was observing it from above. Those who have had such experiences--and they are many--often find them life-altering and defining moments. They are convinced such experiences are proof of life after death by a disembodied consciousness. But are they? It is possible that a person may appear dead to our senses or our scientific equipment but still be perceiving. The visual and auditory perceptions occurring while unconscious-but-perceiving may be produced by a variety of neuronal mechanisms. In fact, we now have evidence that patients who appear brain dead may in fact be capable of conscious thought. In 2006, scientists in the UK and Belgium 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.*

It is possible that the soul leaves the body, but it is not necessary to posit a soul to explain these experiences. In any case,

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 2004: 364)

Blackmore wrote that in 2004 but, as noted above, in 2006 scientists demonstrated brain activity in someone in a vegetative state, which is not identical to a flat EEG but which indicates that some machines might detect  brain activity while others do not.* Thus, those researchers who claim that their patients have memories of experiences they had when they were dead (as Dr. Michael Saborn does of musician Pam Reynolds) may be mistaken. Just because their machines don't register anything cannot be taken as proof positive that a person is dead, nor can it be taken as proof positive that the patient isn't aware, on some level, of what is going on around her. Unconscious patients may hear what surgeons and nurses are saying, even if the hospital machines aren't registering any brain activity.*

Furthermore, NDE stories are now known to a large audience. Thus, when new stories are told about going into the light, etc., one has to be concerned that these stories may have been contaminated. They may reflect what one has heard and what one expects. Such experiences are still subjectively real and may have profound effects on a person, but they should not be taken as strong evidence of separation of body and spirit, much less of life after death. (In any case, making extraordinary claims that can't be disproved won't hurt Dr. Saborn's book or Reynolds's record sales, a fact that has not escaped the attention of the webmaster of the near-death.com page promoting the sale of Saborn's book and Reynolds's CDs. Granted, the page is not on par with the unseemliness of Kübler-Ross's turbaned man standing in for the spirits of dead husbands, but the page doesn't do anything to encourage belief in the professionalism or reliability of Saborn's reports.)

One way to avoid contamination of stories has been developed by University of North Texas professor Dr. Jan Holden.* She designed an experiment in which a laptop computer that opens flat hangs from the ceiling with the screen facing away from the floor. Her husband developed a software program that produces a series of animations. If a patient claims to have been floating above her body on the operating table, then she ought to have seen the computer screen and be able to report on what she saw. Dr. Bruce Greyson has apparently been using this protocol for a few years but so far has not reported anything of interest.

Finally, Raymond Quigg Lawrence (Blinded by the Light) thinks that NDEs are the work of Satan. Perhaps, or they may be telepathic communications from doctors, nurses, or others in attendance when the subject is near death, or they may be mixed memories composed after waking up and hearing others talk about what was happening while one was near death, or they may be recollections of subconsciously recorded data overheard while in a groggy state. At this point in our knowledge, to claim that NDEs provide strong evidence that the soul exists independently of the body, and that there is an afterlife awaiting that soul that just happens to coincide with the beliefs and wishes of the near-death experient, seems premature.

See also astral projection, out-of-body experience, and remote viewing.


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reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Bailey, Lee Worth  and Jenny L. Yates, Editors (1996). The Near-Death Experience: A Reader. Routledge

Blackmore, Susan J., Consciousness: an Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Blackmore, Susan J. Dying to Live: Near-death Experiences, (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1993).

Jansen, Karl. Ketamine: Dreams and Realities (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, 2001).

Kandel, Eric R. & James H. Schwartz, eds. Principles of Neural Science 4th ed. (McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing, 2000).

Neher, Andrew The Psychology of Transcendence (1980). This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Reed, Graham. The Psychology of Anomalous Experience : A Cognitive Approach (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988).

Roach, Mary. (2005). Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife. W. W. Norton.

Strassman, Rick. DMT: The Spirit Molecule: A Doctor's Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences (Inner Traditions Intl Ltd, 2001).

Woerlee, G. M. (2005).  Mortal Minds - The Biology of Near-Death Experiences. Prometheus.

websites

The Human Consciousness Project

Electrodes trigger out-of-body experience. Nature Sept. 19, 2002.

Neurology of the Weird - Brain mechanisms and anomalous experiences

Maria's Near-death Experience

Darkness, Tunnels, and Light by G. M. Woerlee, Skeptical Inquirer May 2004

Near-Death Experiences: In or out of the body? by Susan Blackmore, Skeptical Inquirer 1991, 16, 34-45.

"Using Ketamine to Induce the Near-Death Experience: Mechanism of Action and Therapeutic Potential"  and The Ketamine Model of the Near Death Experience:
A Central Role for the NMDA Receptor
by Dr. Karl Jansen

Does Ketamine Produce NDEs?

Have You Seen "The Light?" by Robert Baker

"Patients could suffer from careless whispers"

Near-Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest and the Mystery of Consciousness by Dr. Sam Parnia, Southampton, England

Visions of a Dying Brain

Hallucinatory Near-Death Experiences (2003) by Keith Augustine

Kenneth Ring (Ring defines the "core experience" of an NDE as having 5 elements: feelings of peace, the OBE, entering darkness, seeing the light, and entering the light.)

Bruce Greyson  (Greyson developed the "near-death experience scale," consisting of 16 questions. A score of 7+ is an NDE on this scale.)

Near-Death Experiences Links

Brushes With Death - Scientists Validate Near-Death Experiences (Jan 8, 2002)

Does the arousal system contribute to near-death experience? Kevin R. Nelson, MD, Michelle Mattingly, PhD, Sherman A. Lee, PhD and Frederick A. Schmitt, PhD NEUROLOGY 2006;66:1003-1009

news stories

Surge of brain activity may explain near-death experience, study says "When the heart stops, neurons in the brain appeared to communicate at an even higher level than normal, perhaps setting off the last picture show, packed with special effects."

The not very near death experience "The researchers ... looked through the medical records of each person [in the study who claimed to have had an NDE] to see whether they had really been ‘near death’. Of the 58 in the study, 30 patients were never in danger of dying, despite their belief at the time." Guess what? "The experiences were largely the same across both groups...."

Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations Seeing your life pass before you and the light at the end of the tunnel can be explained by new research on abnormal functioning of dopamine and oxygen flow. Take your pick: abnormalities in the parietal cortex, the prefrontal cortex, the right temporoparietal junction, the locus coeruleus, or abnormal functioning of dopamine.

In other words, the NDE is very real but not proof of the existence of disembodied spirits.

4-year-old’s Out-of-Body Experience: Religion or Science? "Sam Parnias is testing the possibility that the mind really does momentarily separate from the brain during death. He has initiated the placement of boards with symbols on them in intensive care units in 21 hospitals worldwide. The symbols are unobservable to people in hospital beds, but they are visible to observers looking down from above. Over the next three years, Parnias and his colleagues will collect data on whether or not patients who have out-of-body experiences report seeing the symbols. The researchers hope to provide a definitive answer to the question of whether out-of-body phenomena are real, or merely hallucinations arising in oxygen-deprived brains."

Something similar was done by Brian Weiss a few years ago. So far, no good. I hope the study is blinded at least to the degree that when a recovered patient reports seeing the board, someone not involved in promoting the project is the one who determines whether the description given closely matches the symbols.

Note: it wasn't long after posting the above link to the news story about Parnias's experimental design that the following e-mail came in:

Signs were placed high up in an OR where only a floating spirit could read them? Give me a break! I've worked in hospitals, and operating rooms are regularly cleaned floor to ceiling and there are lots of bored people sitting around through the night waiting for an emergency. "So what's that thing got on it?" "I don't know. Let's grab a ladder out of the cleaning closet and find out!" I guarantee every worker stationed in the OR knows what those signs have on them soon after they were put there. A ladder and mirror is all it takes. So if one patient pops up and claims to have seen them? The typical ill-designed paranormal "test" that proves nothing except that the patient can talk to the hospital workers.

Near-death experiences linked to sleep oddities REM intrusions much more prominent in people reporting NDEs, study finds

What's the Deal With the Bright Light You See Before Dying? By Brendan I. Koerner (Slate)

'Near-death experiences' probed

blog

Near-death, rehashed by PZ Myers "Mario Beauregard published a very silly article in Salon, claiming that Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) were proof of life after death, a claim that he attempted to support with a couple of feeble anecdotes. I replied, pointing out that NDEs are delusions, and his anecdotal evidence was not evidence at all. Now Salon has given Beauregard another shot at it, and he has replied with a “rebuttal” to my refutation. You will not be surprised to learn that he has no evidence to add, and his response is simply a predictable rehashing of the same flawed reasoning he has exercised throughout. In his previous sally, he cited the story of Maria’s Shoe, a tall tale that has been circulating in the New Age community for decades, always growing in the telling.

....Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane Biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable."

Last updated 10-Jan-2014

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