The Death of Near Death Will Be the Death of Me

Gates to the Afterlife

Last week Scientific American featured an article titled "The Death of Near Death", by Kyle Hill (who you will not be surprised to learn is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation). I don't want to spend too much time deconstructing the article, but below I'll just point out a few things that irked me:

These criticisms of Alexander point out that what he saw was a classic NDE—the white light, the tunnel, the feelings of connectedness, etc. This is effective in dismantling his account of an “immaterial intellect” because, so far, most symptoms of a NDE are in fact scientifically explainable. [I won’t go into depth here, as another article on this site provides a thorough description of the evidence, as does this study.]

One might argue that the scientific description of NDE symptoms is merely the physical account of what happens as you cross over. A brain without oxygen may experience “tunnel vision,” but a brain without oxygen is also near death and approaching the afterlife, for example. This argument rests on the fact that you are indeed dying. But without the theological gymnastics, I think there is an overlooked yet critical aspect to the near death phenomenon, one that can render Platform 9 ¾ wholly solid. Studies have shown that you don’t have to be near death to have a near death experience.

Who has overlooked it? It's been a mainstay of near-death experience research since not long after Raymond Moody published his seminal book on the topic, beginning with probably Noyes and Kletti's 1976 articles on "Depersonalization in the Face of Life-Threatening Danger". It's been regularly discussed by NDE researchers ever since, and if anything, it actually makes explaining the NDE an even more complex task.

In 1990, a study was published in the Lancet that looked at the medical records of people who experienced NDE-like symptoms as a result of some injury or illness. It showed that out of 58 patients who reported “unusual” experiences associated with NDEs (tunnels, light, being outside one’s own body, etc.), 30 of them were not actually in any danger of dying, although they believed they were [1]. The authors of the study concluded that this finding offered support to the physical basis of NDEs, as well as the “transcendental” basis.

Why would the brain react to death (or even imagined death) in such a way? Well, death is a scary thing. Scientific accounts of the NDE characterize it as the body’s psychological and physiological response mechanism to such fear, producing chemicals in the brain that calm the individual while inducing euphoric sensations to reduce trauma.

Imagine an alpine climber whose pick fails to catch the next icy outcropping as he or she plummets towards a craggy mountainside. If one truly believes the next experience he or she will have is an intimate acquainting with a boulder, similar NDE-like sensations may arise (i.e., “My life flashed before my eyes…”). We know this because these men and women have come back to us, emerging from a cushion of snow after their fall rather than becoming a mountain’s Jackson Pollock installation.

You do not have to be, in reality, dying to have a near-death experience. Even if you are dying (but survive), you probably won’t have one. What does this make of Heaven? It follows that if you aren’t even on your way to the afterlife, the scientifically explicable NDE symptoms point to neurology, not paradise.

No it doesn't follow. It suggests it if you're opinion lies in some particular ideology. A supporter of the idea of an afterlife could just as easily say "it follows" that this shows the afterlife is real, because it shows that consciousness detaches from the physical body when it feels under threat. But, just like the above, it just offers support for their own ideology.

How can I dismiss the theological importance of NDEs so easily? As I said, I fully understand how real and valuable they can be. But in this case, as in science, a theory can be shot through with experimentation. As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

The experiment is exploring an NDE under different conditions. Can the same sensations be produced when you are in fact not dying?

Really? Which experiments are we talking about? "Although physiological, psychological and sociocultural factors may indeed interact in complicated ways in conjunction with NDEs, theories proposed thus far consist largely of unsupported speculations about what might be happening during an NDE. None of the proposed neurophysiological mechanisms have been shown to occur in NDEs." - "Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences", Bruce Greyson, Emily Williams Kelly, and Edward F. Kelly.

It has become clear that the 'skeptical' fraternity have a new favourite article when it comes to the near-death experience: "There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them", by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, published last year. Kyle Hill leans on it in this Sci-Am piece, and other skeptics have also done so recently. This, despite one of the authors of the paper making clear that the paper was a short piece, published in the 'Forum' section in Trends in Cognitive Science, that was simply meant to provoke debate. "The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review," Caroline Watt told told Alex Tsakiris. "It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example. It’s a bit like an opinion piece, like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate."

If skeptics want to continue referencing this article, they really need to combine it with the article I cited above by Greyson, Kelly and Kelly. It deals with each of these topics individually and in some depth. The point that becomes clear is this: "When examined in isolation, the features described in this section may seem potentially explainable by some psychological or physiological hypothesis, even though very little evidence exists that supports any of these hypotheses. When several features occur together, however, and when increasing layers of explanation must be added on to account for them, these hypotheses become increasingly strained." The authors point out that the real challenge facing these these explanatory models is in examining how complex consciousness, including thinking, sensory perception (e.g. veridical OBEs), and memory, can occur "under conditions in which current physiological models of mind deem it impossible", such as under general anesthesia or cardiac arrest.

Barring a capricious conception of “God’s plan,” one can experience a beautiful white light at the end of a tunnel while still having a firm grasp of their mortal coil. This is the death of near death.

Hardly.

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gbv23's picture
Member since:
5 June 2006
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6 weeks 4 days

Agreed, does not need to be "near-death" Why not study the OOBE or "astral projection" of Robert Monroe and his various "levels" like "The Library" or "The Park"

SeiZan's picture
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10 May 2008
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24 weeks 2 days

These people are all so literal and superficial.There are real scientists working on this problem with less of an agenda.

Also, there's several thousand years of practice to *simulate the death process* for that transcendent effect, which makes the SciAm author seem rather ignorant of that context. Dismissing religions and customs that have been keenly involved in observing the death process feeds the self-selection bias rather nicely.

emlong's picture
Member since:
18 September 2007
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2 hours 38 min

The skeptic fraternity in the Randi camp look more and more out of it and disconnected from what has been going on lately. They just sound like a bunch of old codgers defending positions staked out by their egos and old codger pride and stubborness. They so willfully take positions based on cherry picked data or just ignorant of the best evidence that it is hard to even get motivated to rebut them anymore. It is hard to take them seriously.

red pill junkie's picture
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12 April 2007
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1 day 3 hours

The writer of the Sci-Am article shows how skeptics fail in utilize their oft-invoked Occam's razor.

They always forget that the immaterial sharp object needs to take all the elements of a given phenomenon into account, before trying to find the simplest hypothesis proposed to explain said phenomenon.

Who would want to hire an architect who is only good at building roofs and floors, but leaves out the walls and the windows? ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

jupiter.enteract's picture
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21 January 2005
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27 min 10 sec

Well played, Greg.

alanborky's picture
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29 January 2009
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8 weeks 7 hours

Caroline Watts "It’s a bit...like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate."

Greg most Editorials in British newspapers aren't to stimulate discussion but to bludgeon readers into adopting or maintaining their allegiance to the editor's/owner's ideological viewpoints.

When an 'argument' designed to 'stimulate or provoke' debate's presented like a scientific paper it's difficult not to suspect the motive behind it's much the same as 'papers' put out by religious fundamentalist who seek to arm their cohorts with '20 Scientific Facts to Put Bolshie Evolutionists on Their Arses During Dinner Parties' and the likes.

I particularly love 'As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong' because it's only ever made to apply to everything except science hence the need to come up with the likes of dark matter then dark energy whenever observations fail to confirm whatever's the current paradigm.

If they ever applied Sagan's "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof" to science itself then a heck of a lot of science departments'd be closed overnight.

The problem with many cognitive science adherents's they're dead convinced the only reason people see or/and believe in ghosts flying saucers Bigfoot etc's because someone planted the idea in their head.

So if they persist in planting and replanting the seeds there's no such things long enough then eventually we'll all be cured of our delusions.

I sometimes suspect though they secretly dread the day when it'll dawn on them exactly the same things applies to all their own 'sane' beliefs.

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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2 hours 38 min

There is now so much impressive motion video of ghosts and such coming out on the paranormal reality shows that it is now quite obvious that something is up. Most of these old coots probably don't bother to watch. It is too much of a shock to their systems. Finding this data is not at all hard now. There is no excuse for not finding it other than the excuse that it too confounds one's preconceptions, and that is no excuse at all.

jupiter.enteract's picture
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21 January 2005
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27 min 10 sec

Any particular ones you'd call attention to? I simply don't have time to follow all the research taking place these days, but am always interested in seeing what's current. (I remember when I was 15 going to hear Hans Holzer give a talk in a nearby church about ghost photographs, and then taking my movie camera through my darkened house to try and capture any lingering phantasms. Alas, no luck..)

Richard's picture
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1 May 2004
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1 year 13 weeks

To the skeptics, those types of skeptics, consciousness results from complex bioelectric interactions.

Fortunately for me, I don't argue with bioelectric interactions.

They are just mechanical reactions and therefore don't pass the test of intellinence.

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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"My Ghost Story - Caught On Camera" has a lot of good video images. I tend to give more credence to he video imagery. The still photos are subject to misinterpretation. Let me see if I can work up some Youtubes on this.

emlong's picture
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Here is one of those episodes of "Ghost Hunters" that has very compelling video footage of "spirits." Some good intelligent EVP's as well. A few replies back I said I would try to find some of these videos. There are many more. this episode just happened to be rerunnning on the SyFy Channel tonight, so I had the title of it fresh in my mind and found it on Youtube. In the second investigation on this epesiode there are some killer EVP's.

See video

emlong's picture
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18 September 2007
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This puts a slightly different slant on the Batman film. The Batman director is either "in on it" somehow, or perhaps the people who fashion and adapt his movie scripts are. I would love to see the director asked about the Sandy Hook reference in the film. From where did it come? Who inserted it in the script?

A short interview with Jay Weidner who is well known for decoding the imagery in Stanley Kubrick's films. Here he riffs on the Batman Dark Knight film which he liked very much for its allegorical and predictive power, and he also mentions that the films's director is a fan of Weidner's work. The interview ends with Weidner's deconstruction of the Holmes shooting which he thinks had two chief purposes - advancing the cause of gun confiscation and warning the Dark Knight film director about publicly meddling in the underworld of the criminal elite.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=pla...

Weidner on faked moon landing symbolism in the movie The Shining.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=pla...