What about near death experiences?


Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are common.  A 1981 Gallup and Proctor poll of a cross section of adult Americans showed that 15% admitted to having experienced a NDE.  Numerous surveys of populations around the world have demonstrated a similar rate of NDE among survivors of life threatening events.  A similar study from Germany by Knoblauch found that 4% of those questioned admitted to having experienced one. 

While occasional NDE’s are unpleasant (about 1%), by far the majority are positive experiences for the people who have them.  These experiences also tend to be fairly similar in content.  Elements of NDE’s can include:

    •    The sudden awareness that one has had a 'fatal" accident and not survived.

    •    An out-of-body experience. A sensation of floating above one's body.

    •    Pleasant feelings, calmness.

    •    A sensation of moving upwards through a tunnel or narrow passageway.

    •    Meeting deceased relatives or spiritual figures.

    •    Encountering a being of light, or a light.

    •    Being given a life review.

    •    A feeling of being returned (often reluctantly) to the body.

Things like heart attacks, near-drowning and severe loss of blood, and severe trauma can all trigger near death experiences.  Interestingly, they can also occur in some non-life-threatening situations such as meditation, mortal fear events, and episodes like the death of a loved one.  Numerous books, websites, and organizations have been produced to document and try to lend meaning to these experiences.

A recent book by Dr. Jeffrey Long entitled Evidence of the Afterlife:  The Science of Near-Death Experiences is the layman’s presentation of data collected by Dr. Long and the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF).  This foundation has used a website portal to collect voluntary accounts of NDE’s by the individuals who experienced them.  It is the largest collection of stories to date, over 5000 accounts.  Dr. Long also collected data from 1300 individuals (selected based on strict inclusion criteria) in the form of a detailed questionnaire for analysis of the elements of NDE’s.  His conclusion is that these are actual metaphysical experiences in which people leave their bodies and travel to another dimension.  He suggests nine lines of reasoning that represent “irrefutable evidence” of the afterlife.  They are 1.  These experiences are not confusional at all, in fact they are very lucid and senses are heightened.  This is in direct contradistinction with syncopal (fainting) or seizure episodes that create a state of confusion and disorientation in the sufferer.  2.  Consciousness travels outside the body and can perceive events and objects that are remote from the body.  3.  People who have been blind from birth have complete visual experiences.  These experiences include detailed visual perception of events surrounding their near-death event and resuscitation.  4.  Consciousness exists when the brain is clinically dead or EEG is flat. This idea also applies to experiences under anesthesia.  5.  The life review is accurate, ie, there are no fantastical or supernatural elements to the life review.  6.  NDErs encounter family members that are indeed dead, even if they did not know the dead individual, or that the known individual is dead at the time of their experience.  7.  Very young children, from 3-5 years of age, have experiences that are very consistent with those of older children or adults.  This suggests that those with no knowledge of NDEs have similar experiences.  8.  NDEs are very consistent around the world.  9.  Lives are changed after NDEs.  This speaks to the profound, life changing effect of these experiences.

This collection of data and some of the conclusions are compelling.  The bias of the author, however, is obvious.  In my view, this data provides interesting evidence that NDE’s are consistent, lucid, powerful experiences and worthy of further study.  One interesting question is why so few people who experience life threatening events experience NDE’s.  One would expect that they might be a little more common.  Another observation is that this data is anecdotal, which is the weakest form of scientific evidence.  There is no experimentation here, only stories and correlations of those stories.  Furthermore, there is no significant discussion on how NDE’s occur nor is there any presentation of a theory that accounts for them.  Nevertheless, I applaud Dr. Long for his effort to shed scientific light on this important question.

Another book entitled Consciousness Beyond Life:  The Science of The Near-Death Experience, by Pim van Lommel, M.D. is a similar discussion of a dutch study published in the scientific journal The Lancet in 2001.  Dr. van Lommel presents the findings of the study and reviews similar studies available to date (published in 2010).  He suggests that the most compelling aspect of the NDE is the fact that these very lucid and clear experiences happen while people are otherwise unconscious or have a documented lack of brain activity by EEG.  As an example of this he presents the NDE of a patient named Pamela Reynolds.  In this account, the patient had a powerful event and was able to describe the operating room, the number of medical staff present, the tools being used, and conversations of her surgeons while she was under general anesthesia.  One could argue that this is a case of inadequate anesthetic medication and partial wakefulness.  But in this particular case the patient was being treated for a cerebral aneurism that required that her body be cooled to 70 degreed F to stop all brain activity, she was placed on a heart-lung bypass machine, her heart stopped, and brain drained of blood.  Furthermore, her brain activity was monitored by an external EEG and by evoked potentials, both methods documenting that she had NO brain activity whatsoever.  The evoked potential test is administered by taping the eyes closed so that no visual light stimulation can confound the test (obviously, this prevents an awake patient from seeing anything as well).  Earpiece speakers are then placed in the ears and loud clicking sounds (100db) are administered every few seconds and brain reflexes are recorded by EEG.  The clicking sounds are administered throughout the test.  Patients under anesthesia will have a positive test (reflex activity measurable by EEG) until all brain activity stops.  The completely quiet brain will have a flatline EEG and no recordable evoked potentials.  This was the state of this patient’s brain at the time of her NDE.  Conscious perception is considered impossible in this state (not to mention the earpieces and clicking sounds make it impossible for any patient to hear any conversation in the room).  Dr. van Lommel contends that such lucid experiences are inconsistent with any theory about NDE that is rooted in the materialist view of consciousness which suggests that consciousness is the result of brain function and nothing more.  His conclusion, therefore, is that consciousness is independent of brain function and that the brain serves more as an interface through which consciousness can interact with the body.

Dr. van Lommel takes his analysis one step further.  He presents his theory on how and why these experiences occur.  At this point, he takes a definite left turn out of empirical science and into the realm of pop metaphysics.  His discussion links quantum physics, religion, and new age spiritualism.  I will say that his discussion is interesting, well presented (if a little redundant), and fairly logical.  What it lacks, however, is data.  Nevertheless, I am impressed with his effort to explain this somewhat taboo topic with scientific means and methods.

There is, however, some experimental data on NDEs.  It turns out that most elements of NDEs can be triggered by some “non-near-death” causes.  In the 1990s, Dr. Rick Strassman of the University of New Mexico conducted research on the psychedelic drug Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).  His test subjects experienced many of the same elements of the NDE. 

Ketamine is a dissociative hypnotic drug related to PCP that can produce NDE like experiences in normal people.  All features of a classic NDE can be reproduced by the intravenous administration of ketamine.  This has been demonstrated by numerous authors (Domino et al., 1965; Rumpf ,1969; Collier, 1972; Siegel,1978, 1980,1981; Stafford, 1977; Lilly, 1978; Grinspoon and Bakalar, 1981; White, 1982; Ghoniem et al., 1985; Sputz, 1989; Jansen, 1989a,b, 1990b, 1993). Ketamine binds to the same receptor in the brain as PCP known as the NMDA receptor.  The NMDA receptor is important in the temporal and frontal lobes of the brain, the centers of cognitive processing, memory, and perception.  An excellent discussion can be found online in this article called The Ketamine Model of the Near Death Experience: A Central Role for the NMDA Receptor by Dr. Karl L. R. Jansen, MD, PhD.  Click here for an interesting description of an experience with Ketamine.

There is also evidence that NDE elements can can be produced by temporal lobe epilepsy (Persinger and Makarec 1987, Saavedra-Aguilar and Gomez-Jeria 1989), hypoxia (Blacher 1980), hypercarbia (Meduna 1950), and a condition called REM intrusion (Nelson 2006).

NDEs also differ across cultures.  A detailed analysis demonstrates that there are similarities within cultures but some differences between cultures. (Belanti 2008).  Certain elements of the NDE (life review and tunnel experience) appear predominantly in western societies suggesting cultural influences (Kellehear 1996).  One would expect that if NDEs were and actual metaphysical event, they would be very consistent around the world.  These studies, however, suggest that culture may influence the experience.

Conclusion:  I’m not sure what causes near death experiences, but there is good evidence that altered brain function can cause them.  It is quite possible that these experiences are “real”, but one thing to keep in mind is that people who have NDEs have not, by definition, died.  They have survived an uncommon situation in which the brain is starved of blood flow and oxygen or is otherwise critically ill. 

I would like to believe that our personalities live beyond death.  But I have yet to find truly compelling evidence to support that idea.  Instead, we see that brain injuries change personality and behavior.  Drugs also change behavior and perception.  As far as we can tell, personality stops when the brain stops.  It’s easy to see the brain as like a computer.  The software (personality) runs well most of the time.  But hardware problems and software glitches can make the software run poorly or not at all.  When we pull the plug, the computer stops.  The software does not vaporize and continue to run in heaven.  It stops.

Is the fact that people have NDEs direct proof that God exists? Not at all.  The current data only proves that these experiences do occur.  What they really are is still being sorted out.  For now, I am willing to believe that NDEs may be actual metaphysical experiences and that they may indicate that personality persists after death.  They certainly ad some strength to the argument that there may be a god.  More study is needed.

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