Near Death Experiences
This is perhaps going to be one of the most controversial of topics I’ve covered so far in as much at the core of the discussion will be the beliefs of the individual and the sense that what is being said will be a direct challenge to their personal experience.
There will be those who will be quick to stop reading, to discount either the rational or the mystical argument as it runs counter to what they want to believe.
From my perspective we are firmly in the grasp of Rational Mysticism when we start talking about the nature of consciousness.
From the rational point of view we have the information which science brings to the fore. The workings of the brain, the functions of the senses and the way neural processes create experience. From this ‘functional’ perspective consciousness is the product of neural activity. The ‘self’ a reflection of cognitive, emotional, social and biological correlates which form the backdrop to personal awareness.
From the mystical point of view we have the reported experiences of others and our subjective understanding of the world. We sense that there are varied modes of awareness and multiple ways of knowing. From this perspective we see the need to ask questions about ‘who’ is having the experience; the possible sense of ‘other selves’ which may or may not fit within some personal religious or spiritual paradigm.
This dichotomy gives rise to opposing world views in which rationalists defend the proposition of non-duality and mystics maintain the view that there is a spirit, a ‘ghost in the machine’.
Standing back from the bitter, often vitriolic exchanges between those holding opposing views, it is easy to see how both may have been caught up in their own rhetoric and, dare I say, the boxes they have created for themselves. Those who have self-professed and self-proclaimed experience of ‘other realities’ have, perhaps, bought into their own neural constructs – their personal realities. Those who take a functional, pragmatic approach to the study of human experience do so within the framework of scientific method wherein assertions or hypotheses which cannot be falsified cannot be tested.
Conscious experience, and by extension spiritual, trans-personal, mystical experience, is subjective and whilst there may well be identifiable neural and behavioural markers for and in that experience, it is the apparent sense that the ‘whole’ is more than the sum of the ‘parts’. It is in this space that dualists make reference to ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’, non-dualists refer to ’emergent properties of neural processes’. Adherents to the differing perspectives defend their positions, fall out and then refuse to consider any point from the other side.
There are perhaps four key players in this debate…
Those versed in New Thought, post modern spiritual movements who either refuse to read the ideas and thinking of others as they have a notion that all they need is ‘that which comes from within or from some spiritual source. Which in and of itself all well and good, but actually negates the possibility of any meaningful debate as their ‘trump card’
Those versed in New Thought, post modern spiritual movements whose reading and research is self-referential and restricted to those sources which support their point of view. They are able to quote a whole host of references, some academic (often from non-peer reviewed sources), which add credence to their argument.
Those versed in Scientific Method and the search for objectivity who find discussions of mystical experience interesting, but which can be ultimately reduced to psychological and neurological processes.They are able to quote from academic (more generally from peer-reviewed sources) which continue to redefine and reshape questions for further exploration
Those versed in Scientific Method and the search for objectivity who find discussions of mystical experience irrelevant to their search for a set of principles, models or patterns which underlie human experience. They are able to quote from peer reviewed academic sources which emphasise the difficulty, if not folly, in pursuing what are considered to be questions of metaphysics.
The nature of death
Clinical death is occurs when the blood stops circulating and we stop breathing. At this point resuscitation is possible at this point.
On the onset of ‘clinical death’ consciousness is lost within several seconds with ‘measurable’ brain activity stopping within 30 to 40 seconds. During clinical death all organs undergo steady and gradual ‘injury’. Called ischemic injury it is due totally the restriction or loss of blood flow.
Most organs can survive this kind of injury for a considerable amount of time, but the brain is very sensitive to blood loss. In about 3 minutes, under normal temperatures, the brain in all but the most rare of cases will not escape permanent and lasting damage.
Although this loss of function is rapid it is not as easy to define the specific duration of clinical death at which the injured areas of the brain dies.
The problem then is ‘death’, which used to be defined as the point at which ‘clinical death’ occurred, is a series of bio-physical events. It is these events that will eventually lead to ‘brain death’ – the cessation of electrical activity in the brain. It is the death of the brain or brain stem is the ‘marker’ for actual ‘death’.
Now herein lies the issue. Many of NDE reports are from those individuals who have ‘just’ entered into the realms of ‘clinical death’ and of course these may not, especially with medical resuscitation technologies, be life-threatening. Of course, on the flip side, this does mean that many more are coming back from the ‘edge of death’ and reporting experiences that have a degree of commonality.
Near Death Experience reports contain some or most of the following:-
- Receiving messages from some ‘extra-personal’ source
- A sense or awareness of ‘being dead’
- A feeling of being ‘removed’, being ‘out of the body’
- A sense of peace, tranquility and euphoria
- A tunnel-like vision – or the sense of moving up or through ‘the light’
- A feeling of ‘unconditional love’
- A sense of being pulled toward and communicating with ‘the light’
- A sense of ‘light beings’ or of meetings with ‘loved’ ones
- A ‘life review’
- Being given an insight into the way the universe works, divine knowledge
- A decision to ‘return’ to the body – frequently with sadness or at least hesitancy
Whilst many NDE researchers suggest that there are cross cultural similarities in these experiences, save for the specific religious iconography which may become incorporated within the visionary stages of this continuum (as defined by Kenneth Ring 1980 and his five-stage continuum for NDE’s), one study specifically identifies experiences that do not match the above (Yoshi Hata).
So if the experiences are largely common isn’t it easier to suggest that the NDE’s are a function of progressive brain death?
The similarity of aspects of the near death experience to other ‘altered states’, lucid dreaming, REM sleep and meditation seems to support the idea that we are really looking at states of mind that are the result of changes in respiration, heartbeat, physical relaxation and so on.
Drug induced experiences, which are the result of chemical reactions in the brain, and certain medical conditions (such as epilepsy) also include the sense of ‘being outside’ of self, hearing an omnipotent voice and a sense of euphoria.
Ockhams Razor surely comes into play here. Is there any need to postulate anything more save for the fact that suggesting NDE’s are ‘spiritual in origin’ lend support to one particular metaphysical view – that there is ‘life beyond death’?
Rick Strassman noted in the 1990’s that the psychedelic drug dimethytriptamine (DMT) produced kinesthetic and auditory hallucinations. He postulated that upon the onset of death, the pineal gland released DMT and this was responsible for NDE’s.
Richard Kinseher in 2006 proposed that as ‘death’ was such a “strange paradox” for a living organism that in the unconscious processing of what was happening a NDE would be ‘triggered’ in order to make sense of what was happening. The mind would, in a sense, scan itself and pull information from the memory and perceptual processes generating a ‘meaningful experience’. Remember that it can be said that the key function of the human brain is to make associations and ‘pattern match’ its current ‘experience’ with what it has previously experienced or understood.
If, however, NDE’s are part and parcel of the onset of ‘clinical death’ why are they not reported by everyone who has ‘been there’, in that ‘moment’ prior to revival?
Also how is it that during an out of the body experience that can be part of the whole NDE there is an awareness of what is happening in the room the subjects body is in? The reports of those who can describe with ‘accuracy’ what was being done, what was being said and who left and entered the room.
Keeping solely with the ‘natural’ origin of NDE’s then perhaps both of these questions can be answered by the brains own ability to confabulate.
Confabulation is, in its simplest sense, results from the brain some creating experiences (which we could call ‘false memories’) and deleting others (confirmation bias as it were).
Now, and this is key.
Perhaps the nature of the experience itself is not the point. If we accept that it cannot be used to ‘prove’ the existence of ‘the afterlife’ we can certainly make the case that many of those who have a near death experience find it to be life changing in some many ways. Surely this is the nature of real mysticism. Having an answer to why an experience is what it is rationally need not detract from the personal meaning we can derive from it. The ‘truth’ maybe is the reality of progressive brain degeneration but the ‘experience’, like any motivational ‘dream’ can inspire self reflection and personal growth?
Many researchers have reported the profound after-effects of NDE’s in terms of an individual’s outlook to life, changes in personality and reported increased activity within the brains ‘temporal lobe’. Of course it makes sense that any experience that is explained by, or seems to prove spiritual beliefs, will have an influence upon attitude and behaviour, but the temporal lobe changes, if wide-spread and consistent across cases, is very interesting.
Research into near death experiences is engaging neurologists and psychologists who see this as being one of the areas in which the mind-brain debate as well as the physical-metaphysical debate can take place.
In September 2008 a research project involving 25 UK and USA hospitals set out to examine the near death experiences of 1,500 heart attach survivors. This a three year project and is being coordinated by Southampton University and Dr Sam Parnia. The study is a follow-up to a previous eighteen month pilot project and hopes to discover if people without heartbeat or brain activity can have an out of the body experience with detailed visual recall.
Whilst I have some questions about what is exactly meant by ‘no brain activity’ (where on the brain death continuum are we in this study, as obviously the subjects ‘survived?), the results and conclusions will be interesting.
In 2010 at a summer lecture in Goldsmiths College, Dr Parnia said:
“evidence is now suggesting that mental and cognitive processes may continue for a period of time after a death has started”
He continued by saying that death was “essentially a global stroke of the brain. Therefore like any stroke process one would not expect the entity of mind / consciousness to be lost immediately”.
Tracks on tonight’s show
Adrenaliser : Two Hearts
Callel : Earthling Hearts
Benny Tetteh-Lartey : You Can
The Truths : Miracle Drug
References for NDE