The Essential Nuttiness of Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Supernatural

There's a new argument some Christians are trumpeting about. I heard an old “Infidel Guy Show” featuring Dr. Gary Habermas recently, and he suggests that near death experiences or NDEs are somehow evidence that there is a supernatural world.

This of course is nutty. First of all, Christians believe that all death experiences are near death, since they believe everyone will be resurrected at some point, and that Lazarus could come back to life after 3 days, Jesus could come back to life after slightly more than 36 hours, Jairus' daughter could come back to life ... and so on.

That a Christian would believe that any death is permanent gives the lie to their stated belief system.

None of the NDEs that they use as evidence these days are nearly so clear cut however, we certainly don't have a Lazarus in the bunch. These stories relate anecdotes of people having knowledge of things they couldn't have known unless they were having an out-of-body experience. One common example is of a woman in Seattle named only “Maria” who claims to have seen a tennis shoe on a hospital roof. The interesting thing about this story is that there is only one witness, and that witness is a social worker, Kimberly Clark Sharp who also had an NDE and who feels that Maria's tale was so compelling she started a foundation to study NDEs called IANDS. Obviously she's the paragon of objectivity though.

However, even this is also nutty. It's time for Christians who believe NDEs are evidence for Christianity to come clean.

First they need to explain exactly what the theory of the soul is. They may say that the soul is an entirely non-physical spiritual entity that is separate from the body. If so, they are obliged to explain what happens to it when someone undergoes anesthesia, or is in a coma, or simply falls asleep? Why then does their soul not show them things while it was out and and about? If it doesn't go out during other losses of consciousness why is the soul coming out during near death? What specific triggers allow a soul to come out of the body and how can they be reproduced?

Second, they need to explain where the soul is going. Is it going to heaven? Where is that? What rate should a soul travel at to reach it? Why do souls always go up? The direction to a fixed point that is not on the earth should vary significantly depending on the time of day, location on the globe, and the season – in fact if heaven is a location, by definition something between 40% and 50% of souls going there should go through the earth and we should be getting reports of veins of gold underneath hospitals as well.

If heaven is indeed a location – can we find it?

Third, they need to explain what mode of interface the soul uses to re-inject its spiritual knowledge back into the brain after the NDE and explain how this is impossible for the soul to do during other losses of consciousness -- head trauma, sleep, anesthesia, etc.

Finally, if Christianity, Hinduism, Islam or any other dominant religion is true, than actual, verifiable near death experiences should result in all people having them affirming the truth of the one true religion, why is this not the case?

I eagerly await the responses of Dr. Gary Habermas, or his boosters. However, pseudoscientific drivel usually just brings out more speculative idiocy, so I'm not optimistic.

In the interests of fairness, however, here's my explanation: Near death experiences are the properties of brains. Like deja vu and other consciousness related neural phenomena, they are primary reactions of the areas of the brain that create consciousness to specific stimuli (in this case hypoxia). The areas involved are primarily the superior and inferior colliculi, the peri-aqueductal grey, and certain other areas of the mesodiencephalon.

If my explanation is true, then under rigorous conditions, people undergoing near death experience should not become aware of any facts that they could not otherwise learn and should not be able to immediately recall them on returning to consciousness.

A simple test would be to place rotating images of seventy common animals on screens above emergency room areas where patients are resuscitated. The screens would be turned toward the ceiling. These images would rotate on a one per minute basis, controlled by a central computer. No member of the ER staff should know the purpose of the screens, what images were on the screens, or that the study was being done in regard to NDEs. Patients should be interviewed by disinterested 3rd parties shortly (within 1 hour) after regaining consciousness after a resuscitation. According to some figures about 12% of patients who are resuscitated will have an NDE.

After resuscitation, patients would be asked simply if they recalled the experience. These recollections could be compared to logs for the resuscitation and an independent 4th party could compare them to the logs of images for given beds in that room. Statistical tests could then be done to determine if any accurate responses were due to more than random chance, the study shouldn't take longer than 10 years given the 12% figure above.

My prediction is that patients will properly identify the situation in the room only rarely (there is a screen above the bed), and only by random chance will they correctly identify the animal image(s) that was/were present at the time they were having their arrest.

In addition, my prediction is that more than 99% of patients with NDEs will “travel up” and “see” things that are above their beds in relation to the earth and that less than 1% will “go down” and report seeing the basement or lower floors of the hospital.

22 comments:

goprairie said...

Our senses constantly gather enough information for the brain to use to form a 3-D understanding of the world around us. Our brains fill in the gaps with data from elsewhere in the image actually seen and from past experience. Our brains gather information about the environment and 'hold' it and fit what is going on within our focus into the image built up. We cannot process new input from everywhere in that envionment at once so the brain fills in with samplings and is good at detecting changes so only needs to update the data that makes up the image when a change happens. This 3-d image of the world is made by the brain using data for some of it and filling in with things that 'make sense' for much of it. Our waking brain keeps that data organized with our self at the center of it and the world projected in 3-D around us. But we can imagine looking at ourselves sitting in the chair from anywhere else in the room fairly accurately if we try because we have enough data and because the brain has the ability to constuct that image in ways where we are not at the center of it. In dreams we often float above things and places we have been or see scenes with ourselves in them or from the perspective of another. These non-self-centered images apprear fully formed because we have enough data to make them up. We know from looking at the chair what the back of it would look like. We can get enough data from looking at the front of a person to know what the top and the other side of them would look like. There are shadows and reflections that offer clues in addition to experience. The brain can organize this into an image from many perspectives. We often imagine scenes from doorways and dream then from doorways and from overhead. There is probably some reason that in these loss of consciousness NDEs that the brain prefers to make the image as tho seen from above.

Steven Bently said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steven Bently said...

Another consideration is that most of the American people who have claimed NDE'S have already been primed that Jesus is the light of the world and god was so brilliantly bright that Moses could not look upon him.

If the study of NDE'S could be done with children before ever hearing of any bible stories of god or Jesus, is that even possible in America?

And with souls, if people get trapped in submarines and die underwater, how do the souls cut through the thick metal enclosure and navigate through the water under much pressure and how do they know in which direction to swim as mentioned?

Another thing I was thinking, the earth has 24 time zones so god has to wait through 24 time zones each Sunday to receive his whole total worship, as most worship services start at 11:00 a.m., in the next time zone it's just 10:00 a.m., in the next time zone it's just 9:00 a.m., etc., etc. I remember on a Sunday it snowed and worship services were cancelled, I know this must have been such a disappointment for him, but I would be willing to bet the preacher got paid that day...lol

God didn't get his worship, but the preacher got his collateral.

allenupl said...

I am not a Christian but unfortunately, in attacking Christianity, you have also launched an attack on the serious scientific study of NDEs, an endeavor that has nothing to do with faith or religious beliefs. Your blog is filled with inaccuracies.

First of all, Kimberly Sharp Clark, who is a respected and practicing social worker in the Seattle medical community, did not found IANDS, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (www.iands.org). It was founded 30 years ago by a group of physicians and academics interested in researching this phenomenon, and that has remained its core function (although as membership in the association has grown, many near-death experiencers have joined and the association attempts to provide various forms of support for those people as they cope with the aftermath of their experience, which can be quite intense and cause upheaval in their lives). The association publishes the Journal of Near-Death Studies, a respected academic, peer-reviewed journal (http://www.iands.org/pubs/jnds/).

Secondly, you wrote "Like deja vu and other consciousness related neural phenomena, they [NDEs] are primary reactions of the areas of the brain that create consciousness to specific stimuli (in this case hypoxia)." Before you categorically state this as fact, perhaps you should view a DVD that has a presentation by Dr. Bruce Greyson (from the University of Virginia Medical School) titled “T3-Explanatory Models of NDEs.” It can be obtained from the website above at http://www.iands.org/conferences/2006_conference_presentations
This presentation was from an international conference in 2006 at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center and is an analysis of the many physiological theories that have been advanced to explain NDEs. Hypoxia is only one of the many issues being debated in the medical community related to this phenomenon and I think Dr. Greyson might know a bit more about this subject than you do.

From the same 2006 conference, you also might want to view the DVD of the presentation by Dr. Janice Holden from the University of North Texas titled "Veridical Perception in NDEs", an area of research that you have cavalierly negated. In addition, you might want to listen to an interview on NPR radio with Dr. Sam Parnia from Great Britain who is doing current research in this area:
http://www.onpointradio.org/shows/2007/08/20070824_b_main.asp

Finally, you might find of interest published papers outlining findings from the most current research, particularly the two written by Dr. Peter Fenwick and Dr. Pim Van Lommel (who was the lead researcher in the largest multi-hospital, prospective study of NDEs), at http://www.iands.org/research/important_studies.

In the interests of full disclosure, I am a member of the above association because I am interested in this topic. To join is inexpensive, and they keep you up-to-date with the latest NDE research along with e-mails of experiencer accounts every month (which are always interesting).
Allen

goprairie said...

the iands.org site is interesting and has a FAQ page - where it is revealed that 30% have negative experiences of isolation, fear, and so on, so it is not all the warm fuzzy of the tunnel and lights and dead relatives. and it states that only people from western cultures experience tunnels. so much for the universal nature of the experience. but something like 98% come away from it convinced of a human soul. well, perhaps because that is the only solution OFFERED to them. this website group and apparently researchers in this area seem to have a strong disposition to proviing the soul exists instead of explaining why people might interpret them that way. just as in the general population, researchers are influenced by their culture and religion to find what they seek. but to me, the differences in these experiences tell me more than the similarities. they are a product of the brain.

goprairie said...

i may have it wrong, but the site claims to have interviewed about 800 people who have NDEs yet it also claims that around 700 are reported PER DAY in the US, so this site represents a tiny portion of experiences.

goprairie said...

van lommel claims that there is not a physiological explanation because 100% of patients would experience it but only 18% report an NDE - huh? everyone dreams at night, but only a few remember dreams on waking. reporting rate has nothing to do with anything and that he makes this conclusion makes me question the 'science' he does.

Evan said...

Allen,

If you wanna take the bait and answer my questions -- go for it.

You seem to be saying that because I think the whole NDE discussion is nutty, which none of your data lead me to reconsider, that I am making a grave offense. Instead of sending me to a website run by a bunch of believers in souls (regardless of whether they claim to be Christian or not), why don't you answer my questions?

Also I apologize for stating that Ms. Sharp founded IANDS, it's only because I saw this on their website:

In 1982, Ms. Sharp founded Seattle IANDS, the oldest IANDS local group in the world.

You can see how disingenuous it was of me to say that she went on to found IANDS.

Anyway, you go on to mention all these "many physiological theories" that explain NDEs that don't just involve hypoxia of the brain. So please explain which one you believe.

If you believe the explanation of NDEs is that there is a soul, please explain your answers to my other questions.

If you don't believe in the soul, please let us know if you believe in the eventual resurrection of all human beings.

It's not hard, all the typing you did to not answer my questions shows you have at least the ability to answer them.

At the very least you could comment on my proposed research. For goodness sake, IANDS has been in place since 1982 and nobody's thought to conduct this research? Or is it possible you have done this research and the results don't support you -- so you don't publish them?

Is it that tough to actually comment on the post instead of waving your hands?

lee said...

If I am not mistaken, and I could be, several weeks ago there was a program on one of the learning or science channels, proclaiming that NDE's could be reproduced chemically. Anyone else see this?

goprairie said...

the chemical is ketamine and it is not new information - been known since 80's.

NDE states can be entered by meditation and can be entered at will by some people with practice.

But a 'believer' will just say that the chemical lets the soul be expressed or the meditation gets in touch with the soul.

The researchers make a big deal of the fact that huge percentages of people attribute this to spiritual causes, yet what other basis do they HAVE to interpret it? Most of the people who have them are religious to start with. We just got told last week that us atheists are 1.4% of the population, so no wonder that 'most' people interpret a vision that way. And just as van lommel can use the fact that only 18% of people who are in near death situations have near death visions like this to say it proves a non-physical cause, I can say it proves a non-spirital cause. If it was God or dead relatives coming for you, why wouldn't it happen to everyone? Same reasoning is bad here.

But understanding brain workings might give people another way to interpret this. The brain makes up what we experience from bits and peices. Intermittant samples are used to make up a smooth visual image that is actually backfilled in time to create the smoothness. Every time a nerve fires, it has to get chemically recharged to be able to fire again, but the brain smooths that out so we do not experience intermittant things. The brain builds up a model of the space we are in based on lots of data we are not aware of, like two different sets of vision and hearing that is compared and fused to provide a 3D model. That we are centered in that model is a trick the brain performs for us. People with certain kinds of brain damage see themselves as off to the side or higher or lower than they really are and have to learn to compensate. What we identify as self and not self can be damaged and mess up our model. So it seems to me like it is no big deal for the brain when senses are partially turned off or even exagerrated by stress to keep forming a model and gathering and organizing and editing what sensory information it can.

and maybe looking at it above in 'plan' form has some coping advantage for escape? We attribute it to soul and get all warm and fuzzy about that, but what if someone wondered what evolutionary advantage the view from above has and approached it that way?

The other thing you will see if you really read up on this is that it is a myth that there is such unity in what people experience. Something like 30% have what they call negative experiences that frighten them, something like 20% experience images that are disjointed and make no sense to them, and only, as i said in an earlier comment, people of certain cultures experience moving thru a tunnel, so there seems to be cultural data laid into this.

Looking at science through the filter of religion limits us, but until scientists are willing to step outside what they WANT to beleive, we will continue to get 'studies' that claim there is evidence for a soul.

The dominant paradigm rules, even in science.

Scott said...

Personally, I find this subject fascinating. However, I don't have a good grasp of the evidence mentioned in the podcast and really can't make much of a decision on the validity of the claims presented.

But even if people are able to accurately report information that could have only been "observed" when they are unconscious or even clinically dead, this does not explicitly support theism. There could be several other explications that do not require God or an eternal life after death.

Using methods described in the article, it may be possible to determine the scope of the information known by the patient after a NDE by partitioning information present in clinical settings. Potential divisions could include cultural knowledge, such as the description of heaven by the patient's religion, information only known by the staff and individuals near by, such as descriptions of procedures and people, and randomly generated information not directly visible to anyone in the room, such as monitors facing the celling in the room. This sort of testing could provide significant insight as to how accurate NDE information is obtained.

GordonBlood said...

I myself am agnostic about their validity (NDE'S of course). Certainly they dont prove Christianity true. In fairness however I dont think persons who use these argument intend them to do so, they are simply asking whether naturalism can make sense of such phenomena. What I have always found funny about these issues however is how hatchet happy certain "skeptics" are at going after them. Is not the skeptical position to consider both options and not immediately pre-suppose that things cannot be real? It is sad that the great philosophical tradition of skepticism has become such a pseudo-skeptical joke of simply vehemently denying anything not easily testable and repeatable. Again, im agnostic about these phenomena, but ive always been amused at how aggressively certain mentalities go after them. Especially when they dont really do much at all to support Christianity, at least any more than they do Platonism.

goprairie said...

did you read any of the studies referenced on the website? go ahead and read them and see if you think they are doing objective science.

Evan said...

Gordon you say,

It is sad that the great philosophical tradition of skepticism has become such a pseudo-skeptical joke of simply vehemently denying anything not easily testable and repeatable.

I'm not sure you read my post. It is easily testable and I designed a method in the post to test it. That there is a foundation to study such things that has existed since 1982 and has not yet done such a study or funded one (even a pilot study using less than 10 subjects) suggests one of 2 things.

Either they have no interest in testing, or they are already quite sure what the results will be.

I'm not skeptical about this because I discount their explanation, I'm skeptical because they HAVE no explanation other than unmitigated woo.

If you examine your own life, you will find you use exactly the same skepticism at all times except when dealing with religion.

If you are struck by another vehicle in the parking lot and the person who was in the other vehicle tells you "I have no idea what happened. I was driving totally normally and all the sudden I lost control of my car and it swerved and hit you," I am certain this would not dissuade you from seeking damages.

If your daughter were assaulted by someone who claimed they had been possessed by a demon during the attack, I am sure you would discount the explanation and demand the person be held culpable.

So why are you so gullible when it comes to something like an NDE? There are perfectly reasonable explanations that involve no woo.

That's just using the same skepticism you use in the rest of your life and applying it to this.

sacred slut said...

One of the things that seems damning to me about NDEs is that people who report them never do report any phenomena other than those you could obtain via regular human channels.

Consider the light spectrum - the human eye can only see a small fraction of available colors. The soul, if it exists, should not have the same perceptual limitations as the physical human being. Yet no one ever reports visual stimuli different from those we would expect.

Ditto for aural stimuli - again, the human ear can only hear a fraction of the available range of sounds. No NDE ever reports hearing anything unusual.

Sure you can explain these things away, but the more plausible explanations are not ad hoc and involve things like 1) hallucinations, 2) sensory input despite apparent unconsciousness, and 3) the brain filling in the gaps.

An excellent book on this is "Dying to Live" by Susan Blackmore. Ms. Blackmore began her career as a parapsychologist but eventually quit as she came to realize that naturalistic explanations were sufficient and superior to paranormal ones in every case.

Evan said...

SS,

I agree with you. I think being credulous is a really lousy way to live. As I tried to show to Gordon, nobody who is credulous in the majority of their life would be able to long survive.

Credulity is only rewarded when it comes to things in the afterlife, however it stretches the imagination to think that skepticism is the best default position until someone's metabolic activity is threatened.

GordonBlood said...

To be clear Evan im not saying I believe in NDE's (as supernatural), im simply suggesting that there are individual events that have been accumulated that I find interesting. Im not willing to blanket disregard those experiences out-of-hand. Certainly their life-changing effects are considerable if you look at the data. To be clear, I am not an apologist for these experiences, I simply think they are quite interesting phenomena. Concerning the whole issue about me not being skeptical about my religious beliefs im amazed you know so much about me from afew blog posts.

Evan said...

Gordon,

I know so much about you because you say that not believing in woo is extreme skepticism.

There are two theories about NDE's. One is that they are a natural phenomenon like deja vu.

Nobody uses deja vu to prove the existence of the supernatural.

The other is that they prove consciousness can exit the brain.

You think being highly skeptical about the second position is a caricature.

I think that's crazy. If you think I'm being hyperskeptical because I think that consciousness is a property of brains, perception is a property of brains and that I have explanations for NDEs on the basis of these beliefs then yes, I know a lot about you.

goprairie said...

gb: you are certainly not skeptical enough about NDE STUDIES for it appears you have not read the studies at the linked site skeptically. you will see that they are mostly designed to 'prove' something, mainly, supernatural causes. There is a 'core' group of experiences that 'support' NDEs being some sort of precursor to a route to heaven and if you score a certain number of them, you count as that type of experience. And those types of experiences are the one studied almost exclusively. That is not how you do objective science. And if you were to read these 'studies' or even just the introductions to them or the summaries, you might understand that too instead of labeling those who challenge them as 'mentalities'.

Shygetz said...

Evan, you are being too harsh with your demands here. A model for the mechanism of NDEs is not needed to conclude they exist, just as we don't need a model of what dark matter is to know it exists. NDEs definitely exist; now we need to know what they are.

Of the one experimental thing you mentioned (item 4 in your list) it has been studied. People from different cultures see different religious figures during their NDE. There is a pop-sci article on it in Psychology Today from the early 90's called "Bright Lights Big Mystery" or something like that.

Your test about putting signs out of view and then asking NDE-survivors about them has also been tried--multiple times. The problem is, not everyone with an NDE has an out-of-body experience. Those who do have an out-of-body experience often do not "leave" their body very far. So, in all cases, the results have been null; that is, while NDEs and even out-of-body experiences were reported, no patient reported being in a position that would allow them to see the test objects. Here is a website that summarizes the results, along with references.

There are cases where NDErs with out-of-body experiences claim to have knowledge that they could not otherwise have. Skeptics (including myself) remain unconvinced by the evidence due to the possibility in all reported cases of misrepresentation, both intentional and unintentional, but to say there is no evidence is misleading.

I disagree with your hypoxia hypothesis, as many people who report NDEs are not actually near death, but just think they are. I think it is more likely to be something along the lines of a neurochemical overdose caused by intense panic. The ability of dissociative drugs (most notably ketamine) to cause NDE-like states without hypoxia also supports such a hypothesis. Additionally, studies have shown that ketamine offers neuronal protection in cases of hypoxia in many animal models (e.g. here), suggesting that NDEs may be an inadvertant result of a crash neuronal protection mechanism meant to shield the brain from damage from expected impending hypoxia.

Evan said...

Shygetz perhaps I should rephrase the word hypoxia to "real or threatened hypoxia".

I completely agree that the NDE need not be fully explained.

However, for anyone who takes an NDE as evidence for a previously non-observed aspect of the universe (eg the supernatural), the obligation is upon the person making the claim to give a theory with predictable, testable results.

As you show, the tests have been done and the NDE fails to show any evidence for a non-neurally mediated phenomenon.

Curiously, no apologists seem to want to defend this position, so I think we can dispense with it as an argument.

BJ said...

There apparently is research on NDEs involving a laptop facing the ceiling to see whether people float up and can see what's on the screen. The Internet Infidels cite other similar research.