The Near Death Experience
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” ~ Woody Allen
Do you believe in an afterlife? If you answered that question aloud and emphatically, you might be one of those no-nonsense people with unyielding opinions – be it yes or no.
Some of you don’t have an opinion one way or the other. But, you are a minority because an afterlife is something most people consider from time to time.
In a recent poll 53 percent of Americans said they believe in an afterlife.
Some firmly believe in continued existence after this life, while others flatly reject survival of consciousness. The convictions of the former may be based on religion or other life events such as a Near Death Experience.
Those who deny the existence of an afterlife may do so from a strongly-held belief that the physical brain is the sum total of all that we are. Therefore, when the brain dies, so do we.
Humans are a strange species in many ways.
Sometimes we are thoughtful, inventive and work collectively to preserve resources for ourselves and future generations. At other times, we seem to work against our own best interests – Easter Island and its deforestation come to mind.
We often exhibit a high degree of rationality, making choices and developing beliefs that reflect logical observation and thought. At other times when presented with two “seemingly” improbable ideas, we grasp one and reject the other.
Take, for example, the Multiverse Theory. This theory postulates that there are many universes infinitely popping into existence. One famous theoretical physicist compares this idea to a “cosmic bubble bath.”
Actually, that is an excellent visualization of the concept. Provided, of course, you have taken a bubble bath or are familiar with the procedure.
The really inconceivable part of this theory states that there is a version of each of us in every one of the universes. Not only that, but for every possible choice we make in one universe, there is a different outcome to the same decision in another.
For example, there is an exact version of me in one universe, except I am wealthy and have a full head of hair. In another, I do not write for The Pocahontas Times, but instead, I am a nomadic Mongolian goat herder.
Some theoretical physicists eagerly promote the multiverse theory without even the faintest hope of ever finding evidence of its existence. The far-fetched multiverse theory should engender at least as much skepticism as that of an afterlife.
At least, until evidence shows otherwise.
There are things, such as the concept of an afterlife, that are hard for some people to believe. But such ideas are not necessarily beyond belief. To put something beyond belief says more about you than it does about the true nature of reality.
Quantum physics reminds us of that.
Are we to believe that a single particle can exist in two places at once? Are we also to think that particles pop in and out of existence in the vacuum of empty space?
Some theoretical physicists suggest that these things happen; the mathematical models confirm that they happen.
Strange things happen in the sub-atomic spectrum whether our rational mind accepts them or not. The world within and around us is a lot weirder than our feeble senses inform us.
As my favorite aunt used to say, “The only thing impossible is striking a match on a bar of Ivory soap.” A homey way of stating an apt point – we just do not know the limits of what is possible.
Last week we examined one of the millions of Near Death Experience reports. The phenomenon has been documented as far back as the birth of written language.
There are far more reports of NDEs today because of increased populations and significant advances in life-saving procedures
Pam Reynold’s experience, during a period when she was clinically dead, contained elements that are consistent with most NDEs.
What the NDE suggests is that consciousness survives bodily death. That there is an afterlife of some sort. That we do not cease “being” when our brain dies.
Yet, suggesting evidence of an afterlife elicits skepticism in some. Skepticism is healthy and necessary to arrive at truths. Still, many people are reluctant to even discuss a Near Death Experience.
One woman who had a vivid NDE when clinically dead from massive hemorrhaging was forbidden from bringing it up to her husband or children. Is there any wonder why some people refuse to talk about what might have been the most significant event in their lives?
War veterans often say the same thing about traumatic war experiences. You have to go through it yourself; you just can’t understand it by being an armchair quarterback. And, you sure as hell cannot intellectualize it.
That said, it’s time we investigate some of the alternative explanations science offers to explain the Near Death Experience.
Many researchers have attempted to find physiological factors that would explain NDEs. None have been accepted as the single cause of the experience to date. In some cases, their research has only given more credence to the afterlife hypothesis.
This is not to say that one day the nascent field of neuroscience may discover the Holy Grail of how NDEs work. And, such a discovery may rule out an afterlife.
That said, it is my sincerest hope that none of us wants to be fooled. “We CAN handle the truth,” begging your pardon, Jack Nicholson. *
Serious research on Near Death Experience did not get underway until a couple of decades ago. Previously, most doctors and conservative scientists would not give this mystery the time of day.
Yet, some courageous researchers, including doctors, recognized that we had no reasonable explanation for why so many people facing death have these profound experiences.
So, let’s examine a few theories proposed by materialist scientists.
“Scientific Materialism” for purposes of this discussion means that their approach is based upon the belief that the physical world is the only thing that exists. And this would include a denial that our consciousness can exist without a functioning brain.
Explanations for the Near Death Experience run the gamut from drugs to a lack of oxygen in the blood. The problem with all of these hypotheses is that they did not come close to addressing the orderly and predictable elements of most NDEs.
Most NDEs contain all or some of the following elements; an out of body experience, going through a tunnel towards a light, a life review, seeing dead loved ones, and being told it is not their time to die and they must return.
Remember, most people describe their NDE as the most “real” experience of their life. Very few would call it anything remotely like a hallucination, which is generally chaotic and unpredictable.
If, as some researchers claim, the NDE is merely a hallucination, why do experiencers only report seeing dead people? There are some NDEs where the experiencer sees someone that they did not know was dead, only to find out later that they had died.
The other problem with pointing to drugs and low blood oxygen levels (hypoxia) as a causal factor lies in the fact that people have NDEs where neither condition is present.
In 2007, scientists studying cardiac arrest in rats discovered something about the dying brain that was previously unknown. After the heart and brain activity on an EEG had flat -lined, there was a sudden but short-lived flurry of activity in the rodent brain.
We’re talking a maximum of 30 seconds here, not a long time. It is unclear how that activity was experienced by the rats. Perhaps, they met with their dead rat grandmothers and happily found themselves in an otherworldly cheese shop for eternity.
However, the research did demonstrate that even when the EEG showed no brain activity, there appeared to be some neuronal firing that affected several locations in the brain. Presumably, areas that could support some level of awareness.
The study only included nine laboratory rats. This is an extremely small sample size to make any strong pronouncements about what it may mean, particularly regarding the Near Death Experience.
Another criticism is that when blood flow ceases, there is a dramatic increase in calcium in the brain cells. This could account for the detectable EEG activity.
That short burst of neural activity does not go far in explaining the spectrum of events that humans experience in an NDE.
The bottom line here is that many attempts have been made to pin the causal factor(s) for NDEs on a wide variety of physiological conditions. As of yet, none are an iron-clad fit.
As mentioned earlier in this article, someday, neuroscience may indeed discover that the entire Near Death Experience is strictly manufactured by the three pounds of flesh that resides in our skull.
And, if it is shown that the NDE arises solely from the brain, another question needs to be asked.
What is the evolutionary advantage of having a clear and comforting vision of an afterlife for a dying organism?
Until next week.
*“You can’t handle the truth.” Jack Nicholson’s famous line from the film “A Few Good Men.”