The enduring allure of near-death experiences

One of the most common arguments that are presented for the existence of the afterlife are the reported near-death experiences, where people say that they died, entered the afterlife, and then for some reason returned to life again and were able to report what they saw. I can’t count the number of times religious people have told me that such experiences are real and prove that their god and heaven exist.

There seems to be an inexhaustible desire for such stories and are eagerly lapped up by religious believers, even though no real evidence has been produced to substantiate them. This article by Arthur E. Farnsley II describes the case of one person who said he actually died (not merely that he was near death) and returned from the dead, not once but twice. Of course he wrote a book about his experience. The article explores how rationalists might respond to such claims.

Peter’s experience resonates with many people. He appeared on Fox & Friends’ national broadcast to talk about his book. He’s had his own local television and radio programs in Maine and now he has a YouTube channel.

Like me, you might be skeptical. Maybe Peter is a huckster. Maybe he imagined or misunderstood his experience because it was so traumatic. Maybe something did happen in his brain — something scientifically explicable — and he now interprets that as coming back from the dead.

Farnsley says that he tries to take a rational approach when hearing stories like this but says that doing so has some costs.

I also try to remember that my rationalist strategy leaves me in a pretty small minority. I don’t experience the comfort of a guardian angel or the optimism that everything happens for a reason. I do not sense God’s all-compassing love the way Peter does.

Or the way humans mostly do. In all of the world, in all of history, and even in America today, belief in supernatural experience is normal. Peter is normal. I’m the outlier.

I do not feel the same sense of loss as Farnsley at being an outlier. If you think about it, we are all outliers on some set of beliefs. Why should this one be so significant?

This article in Scientific American discusses a new study that provides new insights into these experiences.

Accounts of NDEs are remarkably consistent in character and content. They include intensely vivid memories involving bodily sensations that give a strong impression of being real, more real even than memories of true events. The content of those experiences famously includes memories of one’s life “flashing before the eyes,” and also the sensation of leaving the body, often seeing one’s own face and body, blissfully traveling through a tunnel toward a light and feeling “at one” with something universal.

The article says that these reported experiences span many different cultures and religions and that these commonalities and is similar to what people experience when they take the psychoactive drug ketamine, suggesting that they represent changes in how the brain functions near death.

Many cultures employ drugs as part of religious practice to induce feelings of transcendence that have similarities to near-death experiences. If NDEs are based in brain biology, perhaps the action of those drugs that causes NDE-like experiences can teach us something about the NDE state.

This new study compared the stories of 625 individuals who reported NDEs with the stories of more than 15,000 individuals who had taken one of 165 different psychoactive drugs. When those stories were linguistically analyzed, similarities were found between recollections of near-death and drug experiences for those who had taken a specific class of drug. One drug in particular, ketamine, led to experiences very similar to NDE. This may mean that the near-death experience may reflect changes in the same chemical system in the brain that is targeted by drugs like ketamine.

When recollections of drug effects were compared with NDEs, stories about hallucinogens and psychedelics had the greatest similarities to NDEs, and the drug that scored the highest similarity to NDEs was the hallucinogen ketamine. The word most strongly represented in descriptions of both NDEs and ketamine experiences was “reality,” highlighting the sense of presence that accompanies NDEs. High among the list of words common to both experiences were those related to perception (saw, color, voice, vision), the body (face, arm, foot), emotion (fear) and transcendence (universe, understand, consciousness).

Linking near-death experiences and the experience of taking ketamine is provocative yet it is far from conclusive that both are because of the same chemical events in the brain. The types of studies needed to demonstrate this hypothesis, such as measuring neurochemical changes in the critically ill, would be both technically and ethically challenging.

You can read the paper here.


  1. says

    I suspect the brain enters REM sleep when the heart stops, using dream as a form of self-protection when there’s no blood flow. The similarity of stories also sounds a lot like witch hunts of 300 years ago. “Confessions” and tellings of witchcraft became standardized over time, people retelling what they heard from others or what the inquisitors read in a book and demanded the accused confess to.

    The article says that these reported experiences span many different cultures and religions and that these commonalities and is similar to what people experience when they take the psychoactive drug ketamine, suggesting that they represent changes in how the brain functions near death.

  2. blf says

    As Intransitive@1 points out, the alleged similarity in the stories is reminiscent of other incidents of “highly similar” stories about mostly- or entirely-fictional incidents. Also — speculating here — wouldn’t it be the case most, indeed almost all, such incidents and the resulting stories are fairly modern (last 100 (perhaps less?) years), with the advent of modern medicine and effective emergency treatments? If so, then there’s not much of a “historical baseline” to compare to, and I further speculate that until very recently, most such incidents (and resulting stories) are from social-religious cultures which aren’t all that different (e.g., comparably wealthy “Western” / xian-infused countries).

    None of that suggests there isn’t a high degree of commonality regardless of time, place, or cultural influences, but if there really is such commonality, than brain functioning in such circumstances seems a plausible and possibly productive line of investigation.

  3. mnb0 says

    “There seems to be an inexhaustible desire for such stories.”
    Maybe someone should collect near death stories from non-believers. Like me. I’ve had two or three. The two I’m sure of were caused by extremely high fever. Nothing spectacular. No light at the end of the tunnle. No fear. No joy. No excitement. Just me fading away. And regaining consciousness thanks to bystanding loved ones.

  4. Matt G says

    Funny how heathens, who are destined for hell, have the same experience as heaven-bound Christians. Maybe the sorting process happens later on.

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    Accounts of NDEs are remarkably consistent in character and content.

    And yet the same passage reveals that “NDEs” fall into multiple categories. Some persons may experience one or more. I like to divide them up into three categories:
    1) Out of Body experiences. These can be explained as illusion.
    2) Veridical accounts. A supposedly dead person claims to have heard or seen something that was happening around them (such as in a hospital room). The explanation is beyond simple: duh, the person was there. Maybe they just weren’t as dead as they thought. If you insist on a supernatural explanation, you have to explain how their ‘soul’ is able to see or hear. These sense perceptions are very natural and very material. Do souls have eyes and ears?
    3) ‘Post-death’ imagery: seeing dead relatives, moving toward a bright light, seeing religious figures. a) These are impossible to verify since they allegedly happen in some other place/dimension. b) It is no surprise that multiple persons suffering from similar medical problems (heart stoppage, lack of blood flow to brain) would experience similar symptoms. c) Curiously, Christian subjects tend to see Christian religious figures, Hindu subjects tend to see Hindu religious figures, etc.

  6. lorn says

    As a kid i used to read science-fiction. I remember a story about a robot on the moon that had a processor that needed to stay cold and how, in the story, the robot experienced the ‘brain’ slowly deteriorating and becoming less reliable. How its perception of reality shifted as it tried and failed to get to safety. I wish I could remember the name of the author.

    I always thought it was a fair explanation and exploration of what happens when a human dies and the machinery of experience, thought, consciousness deteriorates and fails.

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