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.