Mystical Experiences @ Death!

That was the title of the lecture I attended last night, by our distinguished visiting professor, Allen Kellehear of the University of Bradford. It was … frustrating. Kellehear does have an excellent background in caring for the dying, and I would have enjoyed (if that’s the word) a discussion of the material and emotional needs of the dying, or hospice policy, or something along those lines, but instead it was an hour of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I also agreed with his conclusion, that these phenomena are a complex outcome of cultural expectations, and that we actually don’t know much about the biology. It’s just that the journey there was a catalog of unlikely interpretations of mundane events.

He began with the facts and figures, and told us that, for example, 20% of resuscitated individuals report having an NDE, and 30% of people report having a visitation from the dead. My question is: how are these numbers at all meaningful? There is a huge amount of selection bias here (which he admitted to), because my story of losing consciousness and later waking up is not going to draw any attention at all, while Eben Alexander’s fabulous story of going to heaven and meeting an all-powerful, awesome lord of creation gets on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s nice to have statistics, but I want to know how they were collected and interpreted, and without that, they’re meaningless.

I was also confused because later he mentions that these NDE-like experiences were also expressed by people in many stressful situations, like trapped miners. So once again, 20% of what? Shouldn’t the fact that I lost consciousness when I went to bed last night, as I’ve done every night for 6 decades, and did not have an other-worldly, out-of-body experience be counted among the negatives?

He also gave us a list of the canonical events during an NDE: the dark tunnel, the Being of Light, the visiting of dead relatives, etc. I felt like pointing out that he, an authority on this subject, has just now primed a large audience on exactly what they’re supposed to experience if they had an NDE. Not that that’s his fault: there are movies and books and stories told on daytime television that reinforce these perceptions, and there’s a widespread cultural idea about them that we’re already soaking in.

I also wondered…if I were in a coma, and woke up and reported that my consciousness spent that time wandering in a cosmic darkness, or that I remembered visiting the shores of an alien sea and meeting Space Squid, would that even count as an NDE? He’s got a checklist, you know, and if I were asked if I saw the Being of Light, and I said “No,” would that mean I didn’t have an NDE?

Most annoying of all, though, was all the neuroscience bashing. He really is not impressed with the neuroscientific explanations of the phenomenon, and neither am I, because he gave us a long list of scientific explanations that did not include the dominant hypothesis. He talked about scientists sticking electrodes on the heads of unconscious patients to record EEGs during their NDE, or drawing blood to measure blood gases, and hypotheses about anoxia, or endorphins, or ocular pressure increases, or similar attempts to explain NDEs as events that occurred during the trauma or the coma, and the one time he named one of these neuroscientists, it was Michael Persinger. We’re talking fringe of the fringe. The neuroscientists I know would just roll their eyes at these accounts, in the same way we’d dismiss those weird experiments with putting dying people on precision balances to measure the weight of the soul at the moment it left the body. It’s missing the whole point.

But he didn’t even mention how most neuroscientists would explain NDEs. They don’t occur during the event, because the brain is not functioning at all well during that time. They are confabulations assembled by the brain once its function is restored.

Minds abhor gaps. Our consciousness works hard to maintain the illusion of continuity, and we even invent stories to explain where our consciousness “went” during its absence. We do this all the time without even thinking about it.

A mundane example: have you ever lost your keys, or your glasses? It happens all the time. We’re often not thinking about routine events, and we don’t bother to store them in our memories, so I get up in the morning, stumble about in a fog while doing the things I do almost every day, and I don’t have to pay conscious attention to them. But maybe later I wonder where I put my glasses, and my wife tells me, “They’re here on the kitchen counter,” and my brain instantly generates a plausible explanation. “I must have put them there when I was making the coffee,” I think. If I were asked at that moment, I would even put together a fairly detailed narrative about walking into the kitchen and taking them off as I was filling the pot with water — but the thing is, I didn’t know this. I don’t actually remember it. If I had, I wouldn’t have been wondering where I’d put them.

We do this constantly. Memories aren’t detailed recordings of everything you’ve done or experienced, they’re a scattered set of anchoring specifics with a vast amount of narrative filler generated as necessary by your brain, based upon a plausible model of how the world works. So I don’t remember taking my glasses off, but I do have a model of the world that includes me taking them off while doing kitchen tasks, so voila, a story is easily assembled. If I had a world model that included elves, I might have built a story that said, “Those pesky elves must have put them there!”, and then the fun begins, because the observation that my glasses were where I hadn’t remembered putting them becomes confirmation of my model of the world that includes elves.

We really don’t like the idea that our consciousness isn’t always present in our heads, that it’s an epiphenomenon of constant invention, so we have explanations for where it goes when it isn’t particularly active. I intentionally put my glasses on the counter, I just forgot. Most interestingly, we go through a period of unconsciousness every day, and we don’t freak out about where our minds went. We were “sleeping”, we say, our minds were still there, busily doing nothing, and this word “sleep” consoles us that our consciousness did not stop existing for hours and hours.

Similarly, NDEs are a conscious narrative we build to explain what happened to ourselves during radical, traumatic events. We blanked out, our minds stopped humming along, where did our self go? It had to have gone somewhere, it can’t just stop, so our brains build a story from conventional expectations to prevent an existential crisis. It’s what we do. And if it’s near-death, how convenient that we throw in Dead Uncle Bob, who we know is dead, but we have these niggling questions about where Uncle Bob went, so clearly we must have both gone to the same place. The idea that a consciousness ceased to exist is inconceivable, after all.

If Kellehear had actually discussed what neuroscientists believe, it would have been something along those lines, on the ephemeral and contingent nature of consciousness, and he wouldn’t have brought up silly ol’ crackpot Persinger as representative. It would have also revealed that neuroscientists are actually in alignment with his ideas about the importance of history and culture and religion and emotion in shaping human responses to death, that it’s not really a hard-wired part of our neural circuitry. So that was a little unsatisfying.

There was also a bit near the end where he got into a bit of Dawkins bashing — but for all the wrong reasons. He railed against the arrogance of a scientist claiming to know that there is no god. I felt like saying that that arrogance pales in comparison with the ubiquitous, overbearing hubris of claiming to not only know that there is a god, but that one knows exactly what kinds of sexual behaviors that god enjoys, and that one has this certainty in spite of the fact that there is no independent evidence of any kind that this supreme being even exists. But I was being nice. It was also an event packed full of community members — “townies” — who were there to listen to an academic reinforce their model of the world, and they weren’t going to appreciate someone telling them that elves aren’t real.


  1. aziraphale says

    “They don’t occur during the event, because the brain is not functioning at all well during that time. They are confabulations…”

    Yes! That and what follows may be the best thing I’ve ever read about NDEs. I’m bookmarking it for future arguments. Thank you.

  2. call me mark says

    I lost consciousness when I went to bed last night, […] and did not have an other-worldly, out-of-body experience

    Um… I did. I generally refer to the experience as a “dream”.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    20% of resuscitated individuals report having an NDE

    On the other hand, of patients who are not successfully resuscitated, 0% report an NDE.

  4. eliza422 says

    This reminds me of a similar experience I had. A friend and I attended an event at an old house the local community was trying to save from destruction. A local “ghost hunter” type person was there because supposedly this house was haunted. He went through a list of all the things we were supposed to experience when walking around the house – including the “feeling” of spider webs where there are none. I mention this one because my favorite thing that happened was my friend and I went down to the basement of the house, it was all cramped and had several small rooms. A few people came out of one of the rooms all breathless and excited – they felt the spider webs and not an arachnid to be found!
    We went into this room and the only thing in the room was a huge population of spiders! The basement window was just full of webs chock full of dead bugs. It was such a blatant example of the power of suggestion. We laughed that whole evening at the nonsense that went on that night.
    It was the most ludicrous experience, we had a great time. I ended up being interviewed by the extremely local newspaper – the quote was “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do like old houses”.
    They didn’t end up saving the old house…bummer for all those spiders in the basement.

  5. says

    The dark tunnel and heading towards the light triggered an old memory. When doing my m
    Masters degree I hit a really bad patch of writers block. i dealt with this by seeing a hypnotherapist. The skeptic in me was surprised when it not only worked but the relaxation technique she taught me also proved useful to head off migraines. The technique involved visualising walking down a dark corridor towards a light then entering a pleasant open clearing where I found a book which was my completed thesis. There you have it dong a postgrad degree is a near death experience and the thesis is god.

  6. says

    That reminds me: Kellehear made one other interesting point. The likelihood of experiencing an NDE is correlated with hypnotic suggestibility.

  7. consciousness razor says


    We really don’t like the idea that our consciousness isn’t always present in our heads, that it’s an epiphenomenon of constant invention, so we have explanations for where it goes when it isn’t particularly active.

    I think you mean something else by the word “epiphenomenon.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s used rather differently in the context of biology and so forth, but since we’re talking cognitive science, this can be confusing. Here’s the SEP article on epiphenomenalism:

    Epiphenomenalism is the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events. Behavior is caused by muscles that contract upon receiving neural impulses, and neural impulses are generated by input from other neurons or from sense organs. On the epiphenomenalist view, mental events play no causal role in this process.

    If you’re not assuming dualism, you’re presumably trying to say something else…. Perhaps it’s an “invention” in some sense and plays a different role than some people believe, but your claim isn’t that it has no physical effects.

  8. willj says

    The idea that a consciousness ceased to exist is inconceivable, after all. -PZM

    It would be more conceivable if someone could explain how any physical process could cause consciousness, and not just be correlated with it. Unfortunately, all science can do is show correlations. Consciousness is not an observable property of anything. Just calling it an “epiphenomenon” doesn’t say much.

  9. says

    Consciousness razor,

    How is it plausible that mental events do not have an effect on physical events? Try thinking about raising your left hand then raise your left hand. Most behaviors are triggered by a mental event.

  10. consciousness razor says


    The idea that a consciousness ceased to exist is inconceivable, after all. -PZM

    It would be more conceivable if someone could explain how any physical process could cause consciousness, and not just be correlated with it.

    To quote the great philosopher Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    It’s definitely conceivable. Some people just don’t like the idea.

    Consciousness is not an observable property of anything.

    What is that supposed to mean, and how’d you come up with it?

    I think and feel things. I do various behaviors as a result of those mental states, and other parts of my body respond involuntarily to them as well (e.g., when I’m confused, stressed, tired, etc.). Which part of that is supposed to be unobservable? It sure seems to me like I’m an observer and tons of observable things are happening.

  11. Ed Seedhouse says

    Well I have no memory of being (or not being) anything at all during the four hours or so when they had me turned off to put in the new aortic valve and a bunch of bypasses. No “near death” experiences or any other kind of experience for that matter. I can only believe that any time passed at all by other external evidence such as the clocks changing. For all I actually know directly the whole universe turned off and re-started when I “awoke”. But my friends all deny this possibility.

    My dad said he had one after he dropped dead in a mall and was revived to live another few months, but he was a Christian and so, I suppose without evidence, was perhaps predisposed to that.

  12. consciousness razor says


    How is it plausible that mental events do not have an effect on physical events?

    I don’t claim that it is plausible. But that is a view held by some dualists (not by me).

  13. says

    I like to ask people who want to talk about NDEs “can you tell me how it is any different from the perfectly ordinary hallicinations and confabulationd people experience on anaesthesia?”

    Over at stderr we had a discussion, following my being blitzed on opiates for a week (spoiler: I survived) about hallucinations and confabulations, as well as memory loss, experienced under various anaesthetics. I have seen things fairly vividly on Oxycodone; my memories of opiate dreams are extremely vivid.

    Next up: people who experience NDEs are often full of anaesthetics, before or after. I don’t doubt for a second that someone who is given Ketamine and Morphine for a boo-boo that requires stitches and bone positioning might remember things that did not happen. Someone who was given Fentanyl might have a great big blank in their memory.

    I talked to a guy who is doing trans-dermal magnetic brain stimulation and apparently you experience stuff like NDEs pretty frequently.

    Here is another fun one for the NDE crowd: “given that our brains are obviously able to create a sense of having a real experience, why do you want to assume they wouldn’t create a sense of having a superreal experience when you’ve lost control due to an injury or anaesthesia? Creating the sense of experience is what brains do, they probably don’t stop doing that until brain-death occurs, and brain-death happens on a different schedule from other organs failing, depending on what happened.”

    I had an NDE on nitrous oxide once and went down the tunnel and everything and Rammstein was having a concert and Amy Lee was on stage with Till and they were singing a duet of “Rosenrot.” Was this the afterlife, or just random confabulation based on shuffle play on my MP3 player?

    [stderr] [stderr

  14. says

    RE: the 404 links in #14
    Just remove the quotation marks at the end of the link once you have received the error and reload the page = Viola!

  15. willj says

    Consciousness is not an observable property of anything.

    What is that supposed to mean, and how’d you come up with it? -CR

    Basic philosophy. Consciousness is not an “scientifically observable property” of physical system. There is no experiment I can devise to objectively test for it, even in principle. Unlike say, dark energy or some new theory of gravity. Since you are conscious, it is reasonable to assume that other people are conscious, but you can’t prove it.

  16. cjcolucci says

    I’d find testimony about NDEs more interesting if the experiences described were more surprising. The ones I know about track what I learned from watching cartoons. It is, of course, conceivable that reported NDEs match up with cultural cliches because they both refer to a real experience, so it would be useful to study the content of cross-cultural NDEs. Do people with very different cultures and background beliefs about what happens when you die have different NDEs?

  17. wcorvi says

    Interestingly, virtually ALL NDEs result in going to heaven and meeting god. NONE go to hell and meet Beelzebub. Yet most every christian sect, especially the catholic one, claim the vast majority of you (but not me) are doomed to hell, or at least purgatory.

  18. petesh says

    Shortly before my mother died, she made several apparently nonsensical or surprising statements, such as “I must be going” (apparently inspired by the sound of a passing car). The most dramatic, given her status as a life-long Christmas-and-Easter member of the Church of England, was this:
    “There’s a man in the garden.”
    I looked. (We were sitting side by side at the window.) There was not.
    “There’s a man on a cross in the garden, and he’s calling me.”
    Not quite a classic NDE, but definitely a close relation.

  19. zetopan says

    It’s quite apparent that Allen Kellehear is a religionist who wants to defend NDE’s and the supernatural as being “real”. Hence the vagueness about contemporary neuroscience, neuroscience and atheist bashing. People who start with the conclusion typically end up just reinforcing their beliefs with non-evidence.

  20. Kreator says

    wcorvi @#19:

    Interestingly, virtually ALL NDEs result in going to heaven and meeting god. NONE go to hell and meet Beelzebub.

    Once I actually read an account of a person whose NDE consisted in falling down a fiery pit as ugly imps peeled away their skin. The person reportedly mended their ways afterwards, whatever they were. But yes, stories like that are quite rare indeed.

  21. Rich Woods says

    I full expect that if I should ever experience an NDE, it will involve being chased by a pride of lions around the rooms of an abandoned stately home. Some brains may confabulate a trip to heaven, some may lazily fall back on the simpler effort of replaying a lifelong recurrent nightmare. My brain is lazy.

  22. Owlmirror says

    20% of resuscitated individuals report having an NDE, and 30% of people report having a visitation from the dead.

    I’m a little confused as to whether “people” in that statement refers to “people in general”, or “people who have been resuscitated”.

    If it’s the former, I also wonder what “visitation” means. An actual visual experience, or a vivid dream?

  23. Ragutis says

    IIRC, in her book Spook Mary Roach described an ingenious (if ridiculously simple) experiment a doctor was running about out of body experiences. They just placed screens displaying random images on top of medical equipment, cabinets, etc. and if someone reported one of those typical “I was floating above my body” experiences they quizzed them on the displayed images. Pretty sure most here can guess how accurate the results were. If you can’t (or, hell if you can) buy the book. Thoroughly enjoyable, as I’ve found all of her books so far.

  24. aziraphale says

    cjcolucci @18:

    I have read that a common NDE in India involves meeting one or more bureaucratic types who look surprised to see you, say “You should not be here. There has been an error” (sometimes after consulting an actual book) and send you back. The Western equivalent is less bureaucratic and often involves an angel but no book.

  25. nomdeplume says

    There has been no evidence for “life after death” since the discrediting of seances and ghosts. The NDE nonsense is just an attempt to replace ghosts and seances with another “proof”. A moment’s thought would tell you that experiences in hospital with a range of medications swimming in your blood, and anaesthetics, and illness, and stress, and bright lights in the operating theatre, might, just might, result in some vivid dreams that were based on your religious beliefs.

  26. DanDare says

    Regards the Dawkins bashing I also don’t recall him ever declaring there is no god. He declares there is insufficient warrant to believe in one. Admittedly he also shows no inclination at this time to search for such a warrant but that is moot since so many theists keep trying to provide him with one.

  27. wzrd1 says

    Let’s review what is happening in quite a few sudden death events, someone has an injury to the chest, electrical shock that causes ventricular fibrillation or a sudden myocardial infarction, resulting in ventricular fibrillation.
    The supply of fuel and oxygen to the brain ceases instantly, fortunately, there’s a bit of reserve, but it’s still an event that tends to cause some rather intense disruption within the brain. Fairly frequently, the victim that suddenly collapsed will have a second or so of a tonic-clonic episode, then lies motionless.
    That tonic-clonic episode should give a hint about how irate the neurons in the brain are about losing sugar, tolerable amounts of oxygen and the loss of the removal of waste CO2 and metabolites. Vision will rapidly tunnel (wait, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?), consciousness had ended, but there remains modest, pseudorandom firings in the brain, which gradually will cease as time advances. Electrical activity can be observed in brains that are a day old, that doesn’t mean that they’re functioning or processing anything, a few cells just managed to not die yet, but they’re well on their way.
    But, good fortune was with the victim, as someone was about who knew CPR and there was an AED on the wall to defibrillerate the heart. Once fibrillation is halted, the heart is actually fairly good at restarting itself with even no stimulus.
    Now, the brain has to try to figure out whatinhell all those random firings meant, so it comes up with some kind of narrative that makes sense of the nonsense resulting from what was random firings of excited, starving neurons.

    I was present for the sudden collapse by a man suffering a myocardial infarction. I quickly told one bystander to call 911, pointed to another and told them to get the AED from the wall and immediately checked for a pulse and as there was none, I began chest compressions. The AED arrived and within was a standard kit, including scissors to cut the patient’s shirt open, which I had the one retrieving the AED do while I was performing the compressions and while I was also glancing at the instructions (some models have different “listening” times).
    Halting the compressions, I initiated the unit and applied the pads and followed the machine’s directions. Compressions, stop, push to shock (get clear, I’m clear, you’re clear, shocking). Two cycles and the machine was satisfied that the victim’s heart was restarted. EMS arrived shortly after the patient awakened, but he did mention remember hearing my voice and described a bright light – the one directly over him that he was staring into. And a fair bit of pain in his chest from the cracked ribs and minor electrode burns.
    After all, the first shock is typically at 150 joules, which is roughly pushing 1500 volts for around 10 – 15 milliseconds, the second frequently is at 200 joules.
    Awareness is possible, but it’s muddled in all of the noise going on in that very irritable neural network. He had no idea what I was saying, that part of his brain was disrupted and likely, he may have processed my initial instructions to others and then heard me advising bystanders that he has a pulse again shortly before being able to properly process information.

  28. wzrd1 says

    @28, as CPR is ongoing on those patients, the time until the brain would become isoelectric would be extended by a bit. Not enough circulation is being present to restore full function, but very modest, confused sensory information might be retained and confabulation that normally occurs (such as PZ’s examples) would simply incorporate that into the entire narrative invented by the brain as part of its business as usual.
    After all, the whole idea of CPR is to keep enough blood flowing through the brain to prevent its death for long enough that defibrillation could be initiated or the heart manages to come to its senses and begins pumping efficiently again.
    Once the abnormal rhythm is interrupted, the pacing system is quite good at restarting a heartbeat. If the SA node was destroyed (SA node fully blocked) or conduction from it interrupted, ectopic pacing from undamaged atrial pacers would result in a pulse in the 40 – 80 beats per minute range. If the bundle of Hiss were blocked, a resting pulse of 20 would result. The latter being inconsistent with consciousness, but CNS damage would be unlikely.
    Prompt hospitalization, TPA and dilation/stenting/bypass surgery as is appropriate and cardiac function can frequently return to normal.

  29. mamba says

    I won’t pretend to know for sure if NDE’s are real or not (leaning towards not naturally but giving the benefit of doubt) but I SO know one thing…we never tend to hear about OTHER cultures NDE’s.

    If you go looking for them, you’ll hear lots from India…where they see the multiarmed gods sending them back. Or a Buddhist NDE…where they see the life waiting for them but are told they are not ready. Etc…etc…etc…

    The point is NDE’s tend to be very REGIONAL. North Americans…even atheists will report a NDE that matches the CHRISTIAN expectations. BUT india would meet hindi expectations, natives would see great spirit, and so on. If death was the same for all, we’d expect the stories to be the same everywhere, but they are clearly not.

    The conclusion is obvious…the people grew up with a particular story of afterdeath, and whether they believe it or not the story is there, so when they NDE, the dream becomes THAT story. But it also means that the person experiencing one will be 100% convinced that theirs is correct, and if they live in one area, they’ll see all the books re-enforcing their experience as REAL.

    Ironically the people in India for example would have the same experience with the OTHER deity. Neither will seek out the other, and thus both will be convinced that their god talked to them and sent them back.

    If the bookstores would simply put ALL the NDE’s from around the world on the same bookshelf side-by-side I think this circle of reinforcement can be broken. After all, putting 4 in a room together from around the world is all the proof you’d need…once the dust settled anyway.