Yesterday, I was rudely confronted on Twitter by a fellow going by the moniker @DConRadiolo who was insistent that he had proof of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I have no problem believing that people near death have experiences, but I do find it improbable that they represent minds existing outside the body. But this guy was adamant that Life Reviews are “the holy grail of NDEs” and prove that there is something miraculous going on.
What is a Life Review? You’ve heard the phrase, “their life flashed before their eyes” — what the True Believers claims is that in some NDEs, the subject actually replays every last minute of their life, over the span of a few seconds, showing the effect of their every action on their life. Despite being nearly instantaneous, these people report that they saw the totality of their life flash by in minute detail.
This is complete nonsense, of course, doesn’t even make sense, and can’t be supported by any concrete evidence. What they really remember is not the details of their lives, but the perception of having reviewed every detail of their life.
He told me I had to watch this video of Kenneth Ring explaining how Life Reviews worked, as if that would convince me. I did. It didn’t.
As is typical, they confuse constructing memories with recalling memories. We don’t have a video recording in our heads of every moment of our lives — there is no magical Akashic Library where every experience of every person is stored. Memories are built on the fly, and aren’t really, in the truest sense, “memories”: we take the small fragments we do recall and assemble details around them that seem true.
For instance, I just picked a random date, 3 August 1982. Can I remember what I did that day? Do I have a recollection of what I had for breakfast, or what I did at work (was it even a workday?), or where I was? Nope. I can remember what I did hour by hour yesterday, but that day 33 years ago is completely gone.
But here’s what happened as I thought about that date. I know I existed then, so something must have happened…oh, yeah. We were living in Westmoreland student housing in Eugene then. I would have awakened next to a beautiful naked 24 year old woman…that’s certainly memorable!
Breakfast would have been…poached eggs on toast? Details of that flimsy tin egg poacher we used to own swim into my memory.
I would have gone out to the porch to my bike. Our neighbors on the second floor were Jimmy and Claire Demetriou, who were Cypriots with all kinds of interesting stories to tell; Jimmy and I shared an interest in computers. Downstairs was Anita…Smith, I think, with her kids. Our best friends, Lila and Jim Harper, lived just down the street.
I would have biked up Garfield, and turned right on 13th Avenue — it’s a straight shot to the university, past the fairgrounds, unlike the bike path which tended to meander along the Amazon creek.
I’d lock my bike to the rack down by the meteorite below Science I, and take the stairs up to the second floor. There’s the Kimmel lab, and now I can see the other labs popping into existence in my mind — the Grant and Postlethwaite labs next door, Weston down the hall, around the corner in the connected building next door is Streisinger’s…wait, no. <record scratching noise> 1982 — we would have already made the move to the Institute of Neuroscience, in Heustis Hall. Error! Brain scrambles to reconcile locations!
Right. That was after prelims. I would have been doing a lot of EM work, chasing the Mauthner to motoneuron synapse, and so I was in Science I because that’s where Eric Schabtach’s EM facility was located. And those other labs were still there in ’82, and Weston and Postlethwaite wouldn’t move over to IoN until some years later.
That makes the rest of the day easy to construct. Histochemistry: paraformaldehyde and glutaraldehyde and acrolein and osmium tetroxide, epon-araldyte and long days in front of the ultramicrotome, shearing off shimmering silver and gold squares and laying them out on copper grids. Why was the damned copper lattice always obscuring the ventral floor of the spinal cord?
Then, bicycle home. Dinner would have been…macaroni and cheese? Maybe toasted cheese sandwiches, made with that horrible petroleum flavored free government cheese. We were living on graduate student salaries, and we had to eat a heck of a lot of cheap food (also, this was the age before ramen was a thing, so that other cheap staple wasn’t available yet).
Notice what I’ve done? Really, I have absolutely no specific memories of that particular day, or of a great many other days. But I do have memories of places, and friends, and colleagues, and my daily routine, and because brains are really good at modeling the world, I can spontaneously assemble those fragments into a vivid (to me, at least) picture of my life in Eugene, Oregon in the summer of 1982.
And it was vivid! As I started to try to recall that time, those people and places popped into my head, and they were strong: suddenly, I was remembering the flowers outside the county fairgrounds, Jimmy’s lovely accent, those rubbery molds for the epoxy EM blocks, the view of the creek from our kitchen window. We store these pieces in our memories, and they have potency to us, and as my brain built the narrative from those scraps, that imagined day became clearer and stronger to me. I almost convinced myself that those events actually happened.
But that little jarring screech in the middle was real: I was busily reconstructing the old Kimmel lab in my head, when I realized that couldn’t have been the case in 1982, and there was this strangely uncomfortable moment when my brain struggled to reconcile an anachronism. It was a good save, I think, but still, why did I care that my illusion was broken? Because when we build these memories in our heads they become real to us.
Now imagine, though, that some darned skeptic comes along and really breaks the narrative. They slam down credit card receipts that prove I bought gas in Florence, Oregon on 3 August 1982! It’s all a lie! What would my brain do?
Adjust and reconcile. My date was off, but those events still happened. Oh, right, Florence…and it would charge off and start scooping up old memories of the coast, of Strawberry Hill, of the Devil’s Churn, Sea Lion Caves, the marine station, and it would obligingly build a ‘memory’ of a summertime trip to the shore. And I’d be lost in a new reverie.
It wouldn’t be an actual recording of events. It would be an assortment of details (even confirmable details) confabulated into a narrative and a context. That’s how memory works!
My interrogator couldn’t possibly hope that I would explain all that over Twitter, but he seemed to think that asserting that we relive our entire lives in the moment of our death would somehow convince me to throw out everything we know about how memory works.
Somehow, there are large numbers of people who are absolutely certain that the appropriate analogy for memory is a VCR: that our eyes are like cameras and our brains are vast storehouses of data that has poured into them over the years. Surprise: our eyes do a fair bit of processing, and what gets passed back to the brain is a rendered version of a tiny field of vision, and what the brain does is throw away most of the information, extracting just the necessary skeleton of the view, and it then fits it into a mental model of the scene. And then almost every scrap of sensory information is not stored, but also discarded; we remember key details, nothing more, to flesh out that model.
When they try to tell me that their blithely counterfactual claims should be sufficient “proof” of their weird ideas, all I can do is laugh and shoo them away…and then, like @DConRadiolo, they start ranting angrily. I just wish these loons who are so obsessed with life after death would try to learn something about how their brains work.