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.