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Nov 25 2013

Near death experiences

Believers in an afterlife will often point to near-death experiences (NDE) or out-of-body experiences (OBE) as proof. These are situations where people who for whatever reason come close to dying say they had an out-of-body experience where their spirits/souls moved around freely and they saw things they could not have known about prior to that experience. Close examination of their claims usually find flaws in their story and there have been no conclusive evidence that such a phenomenon actually occurs, but this does seem to deter true believers who eagerly lap up such stories.

I wrote recently about the case of the little boy Colton Burpo but an even more celebrated case is that of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander who said that in 2008 while in a coma he had such an experience. This claim earned him great fame and fortune and a cover story in the late and unlamented Newsweek. He said that before this he had been just a nominal Christian but now he was such a true believer that he gave up his practice to become a evangelist for the cause.

There have been many articles debunking his claims such as this one by Esther Zuckerman who bases her article on a detailed article by Luke Dittrich in Esquire that is behind a paywall. Zuckerman says that there are huge discrepancies between what Alexander says happened to him and what the doctors who treated him say. He says that he was effectively brain dead but his doctors say that during the entire time he was conscious but delirious.

In Salon, Mark Martin interviews Alexander. Although Alexander now concedes that he was not brain dead which makes his experiences quite ordinary, he heavily touts his credentials as a scientist and neurosurgeon to give added weight to his story.

He describes nothing in “Proof of Heaven” that makes his vision of the afterlife qualitatively superior to a vivid dream or hallucination — no special complexity to the story he tells. He travels through three distinct planes of the afterlife: First, the “worm’s-eye view,” a realm of “pulsing, pounding darkness,” where “grotesque animal faces bubbled out of the muck.” From there, he moves to a more congenial world of lush countryside nestled beneath “puffy, pink-white” clouds and here rides the aforementioned giant butterfly. Last, comes the Core, a place of velvety blackness where he meets God and is granted the ultimate truth: “Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything.” “Not much of a scientific insight?” he writes, genuflecting at the altar of modesty. “Well, I beg to differ.”

In a paper published in May 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists studying the brains of rats find that there is a surge of activity during cardiac arrest. They say that “These data demonstrate that the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death and this may be responsible for the vivid images that people see.”

According to a news report on the study:

Dr Borjigin said it was feasible that the same thing would happen in the human brain, and that an elevated level of brain activity and consciousness could give rise to near-death visions.

“This can give us a framework to begin to explain these. The fact they see light perhaps indicates the visual cortex in the brain is highly activated – and we have evidence to suggest this might be the case, because we have seen increased gamma in area of the brain that is right on top of the visual cortex,” she said.

Commenting on the research, Dr Jason Braithwaite, of the University of Birmingham, said the phenomenon appeared to be the brain’s “last hurrah”.

“This is a very neat demonstration of an idea that’s been around for a long time: that under certain unfamiliar and confusing circumstances – like near-death – the brain becomes overstimulated and hyperexcited,” he said.

“Like ‘fire raging through the brain’, activity can surge through brain areas involved in conscious experience, furnishing all resultant perceptions with realer-than-real feelings and emotions.”

It is not necessary to assume that people who report NDEs and OBEs are lying. They may well have experienced something. But what? Professor of neurology Oliver Sacks explains in great detail what is going on when people experience what they think of as an OBE or an NDE and why it seems so real to them.

Both OBEs and NDEs, which occur in waking but often profoundly altered states of consciousness, cause hallucinations so vivid and compelling that those who experience them may deny the term hallucination, and insist on their reality. And the fact that there are marked similarities in individual descriptions is taken by some to indicate their objective “reality.”

But the fundamental reason that hallucinations — whatever their cause or modality — seem so real is that they deploy the very same systems in the brain that actual perceptions do. When one hallucinates voices, the auditory pathways are activated; when one hallucinates a face, the fusiform face area, normally used to perceive and identify faces in the environment, is stimulated.

The near-death experience usually goes through a sequence of characteristic stages. One seems to be moving effortlessly and blissfully along a dark corridor or tunnel towards a wonderful “living” light — often interpreted as Heaven or the boundary between life and death. There may be a vision of friends and relatives welcoming one to the other side, and there may be a rapid yet extremely detailed series of memories of one’s life — a lightning autobiography. The return to one’s body may be abrupt, as when, for example, the beat is restored to an arrested heart. Or it may be more gradual, as when one emerges from a coma.

Sacks says that Alexander seems to be willfully overlooking an obvious explanation for his experience.

Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

Sacks sums it up.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

But people want to believe in the supernatural so we will continue to be regaled by new people recounting such NDE stories as the old ones fade from the media and our memories. It does not help that reporting such experiences can be very lucrative for the teller of such tales and the media that report them.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    socalcommie

    A few years ago, during a ‘nervous breakdown’, I experienced an incredible hallucination… I witnessed the destruction of the universe (the big crunch). I was sitting at the right hand of god (the RC version). I guess I must be the second coming or something ;)

  2. 2
    nkrishna

    On occasion I’ve had what I would characterize as an out of body experience–mostly a half-awake state where I was aware of my limbs but incapable of moving them. I’d be very interested to see what was going on in my brain scan during that time. The way they can point out correlations between the brain scan and the experience, like increased gamma near the visual cortex and visions of light, is fascinating.

    I’d also like to see what goes on during episodes of deja vu. I’ve had experiences where I’ve been doing something that I swear I’ve dreamed about before, down to the details on individual words (they usually involve writing something or having a conversation). Since I severely doubt this was some sort of premonition, I’d really like to see what’s connecting in my brain.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    Anyone who’s ever tripped on nitrous oxide has experienced “NDE”s. So, all you grateful dead fans who had a couple balloons – how’s ‘Heaven’?

    One time I did some N2O and actually went down the tunnel of light and everything and there was a Rammstein concert and Amy Lee was on stage with Til. I distinctly recall wishing I could stay, and feeling like I had dropped back into a disappointing reality afterward.

    So there ya go – ‘proof’ of heaven.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    Oh, and as further proof that heaven is real, when I came back down, god had changed my iPod to be playing the very same Rammstein song as they were playing in heaven. It was a sign!!

  5. 5
    Stella

    I’ve spent the past thirty years slowly losing my vision. There is some unremembered point at which I began to see things that I was pretty sure weren’t there. These hallucinations were often very detailed. I frequently see people or just disembodied faces.

    I’ve read many reports about near-death experiences, and I just don’t believe them. They sound a lot like what I see, but what I see is a result of a defect in neurological processing. My eyes are no longer sending images that my brain expects to receive, so my brain is essentially making things up.

    The difference to me seems to be in interpretation. I don’t interpret the hallucinations as something that actually happened or is actually there. When I report what I see to friends I simply describe what I’m seeing; I don’t embellish; I don’t put a story to it.

    Perhaps I’m missing out on one heck of a money-making opportunity.

    Stella

  6. 6
    embertine

    nkrishna, that phenomenon is called “sleep paralysis” and I agree that it is fascinating. The mechanism by which your body keeps you still while you dream has become out of step with your consciousness, keeping you paralysed and in a partial dream state while you are actually awake. It is often accompanied by a sense that someone is in the room, an hallucination of patterns of dancing light, and a sensation of the body moving sideways while staying in the same place.

    I have no idea what causes it, although it seems to be particularly common in the USA. it has also been linked to alien abduction stories! Anyone know any more about this? I’ve read up on a bit of literature and it seems that disturbed sleep or certain food additives may trigger it but I Am Not A Scientist.

  7. 7
    embertine

    Stella, I am sorry to hear about the degradation of your sight. What you are experiencing sounds a lot like sensory deprivation, in the sense that, without the expected stimulus, your brain is filling in the gaps with a mixed-up version of what it thinks should be there. I’ve never “done” sensory deprivation, but isn’t that essentially how dreaming works? I have a beautiful book called “The Eye” (whose author I cannot tell you because I’ve lent it to someone!) which explains the development of sight and a plausible explanation for dreaming. It’s an amazing subject.

  8. 8
    Rob Grigjanis

    The weirdest mind-related experience I’ve had is related to cryptic crosswords. Occasionally I’ll come across a very difficult one (happened more often in the days I did the Beelzebub puzzle in the Independent on Sunday), and only manage to get a few clues. Put it aside, forget about it, come back to it the next day, and boom! I get five or six clues right off the bat.

    Unconscious processing of course, but it feels very mysterious.

  9. 9
    embertine

    Ha, Rob, I know exactly what you mean. I long ago learnt that my brain does its best work when I just leave it to get on with it. I am queen of the “go to bed with problem, wake up in morning with solution” technique.

  10. 10
    Mano Singham

    Deja vu is only partially understood but quite fascinating.

  11. 11
    machintelligence

    The opposite failing can have some interesting results as well. If the body does not experience sleep paralysis you can get sleep walking, or in my case, while dreaming that I was crawling under a house, I crawled out of bed and fell on the floor. It was a rude awakening.

  12. 12
    Mano Singham

    Have you told the Rapture people about this? They are waiting for you.

  13. 13
    machintelligence

    I believe it is referred to as Charles Bonnet syndrome. The hallucinations are totally visual, without any auditory component. Oliver Sacks has an interesting TED talk on the subject.

  14. 14
    oualawouzou

    On a much less intellectual note, I notice this happening with video games too. Spend four or five hours breaking your teeth on a particularly difficult level? Put the controller down. You’ll get it on the first try tomorrow. (Of course, that’s purely anecdotal and subjective.)

  15. 15
    mnb0

    “It is not necessary to assume that people who report NDEs and OBEs are lying.”
    Never underestimate the power of self-delusion. I have had a few OBE’s myself – in quite the circumstances it was predicted that they could happen (and with a solid scientific explanation attached).

  16. 16
    thewhollynone

    Seems to me that the operational word in your post was “lucrative.”

  17. 17
    DsylexicHippo

    @nkrishna, #2: About the first part: Restless leg syndrome? There’s a snake oil for that.

  18. 18
    trucreep

    I had a friend in college who was absolutely certain he went to hell and then later saw Jesus after a bad mushroom trip. I offered the idea that because he was familiar with the Christian mythology, his brain had told him that’s what he was seeing. He could have experienced something else had he been raised Jewish or Muslim, etc.

  19. 19
    Guess Who?

    20 years ago I wound up in a coma and nearly died several times. I have no recollection of “seeing the light” or heaven or hell, but I had some really weird, off-the-wall, not-quite-dreams where I was taking in stimuli from what was around me and trying to make sense of it with a toxic brain. For example, in the CCU hearing the constant thrum of the machines around me keeping me alive, I was convinced I was on an airplane that was forced to circle the runway because of heavy airplane traffic. In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I was surrounded by a uniformed ambulance crew and convinced I was a package being sent from one place to another. At another point (probably in the CCU), I was surrounded by people praying and figured I was in an old apartment I had once lived in, walking in on my roommate’s religious group and quite peeved because I didn’t want to deal with any of that nonsense.

    I imagine OBE and NDE are just the borked-up brain’s way of trying to process what’s going on, and failing because, hey, it’s a borked-up brain.

  20. 20
    Lofty

    In terms of the age of the universe, life is a near death experience.

  21. 21
    steffp

    I understand that the intellectual component of our life is based on pattern-seeking, pattern recognizing, and modeling possible actions based on those perceived patterns. This is a wonderful thing, because it enables us to recognize faces in a drawing, but it is not a very reliable process per se, as we may easily find familiar faces in, say, the random lines of a marble cafe table as well. Finding a pattern does not mean the original data are NOT random. Often in ordinary life situations our basic perception/interpretations leads to irrational assumptions. Most of us can be absolutely sure there is no tiger under our bed, but still some of us will have a look, just in case… Such false positives, the flippant assumption of patterns, will occur more often under stress, be it caused by over- or under-stimulation, sleep deprivation, or chemical stimulants. Everyone with experience in witness accounts knows that even small doses of stimulants or narcotics lead to a devaluation of the witness’ account. Much more so if a purely intellectual activity is reported.
    Now, NDEs do occur under extreme stress. They also are reported in a blankly naive, unreflected way. People claim to leave their body, reduced to a “spiritual”entity, but then they report to see relatives, who mysteriously have a body, and are bodily interacted with. That’s exactly the child-like illogical world of dream, powered by the unconscious…
    It’s really dreadful to see a full-blown medical practitioner ruin his intellectual reputation this way.

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