Does This New Research Explain the Near-Death Experience?

Near Death Experience

LOTS of news coverage today (BBC, Discovery, Wired, Livescience, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, io9) for some recent experiments conducted on euthanized rats, which appears to show a coherent "surge of synchronous gamma oscillations" that occurred in the first 30 seconds after cardiac arrest in the animals. According to the paper's authors, this data suggests "the mammalian brain can, albeit paradoxically, generate neural correlates of heightened conscious processing at near-death". In interviews with news outlets, they put this into layman's terms, noting how their data might be linked to the near-death experience: All the data, they said, "show the fingerprints of neural consciousness at near-death is at a much higher level compared to the waking state. That explains the realer-than-real human experience".

Coverage, of course, concentrated on what this might mean for the mystery of the 'near-death experience' (NDE) - and most of it took Olympic-sized leaps of logic. For instance, the Smithsonian website wrote that the research shows "near-death experiences are most likely a random jolt of activity in our brain just before it shuts down permanently", while some 'skeptic' sites didn't even blush in proclaiming "Goddidit and supernaturalism sidle into the corner of explanatory power as the march of science proceeds".

But has this study done what these sites are claiming (and certainly, to a fair extent, what the study's authors have concluded)? On his blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, Ed Yong quotes some cautionary words from Steven Laureys, who leads the Coma Science Group at the University of Liège:

It’s terribly hard to make strong claims about what these rats actually perceived, or about possible conscious experiences. But the study definitely shows that there is a lot more electrical activity than expected, and it’s very interesting activity. It’s tempting to link that to what we hear in patients, but we need to be very careful.

I think this is exactly the right response at this time. This research provides some fascinating data, and a jumping off point for future research. It also should instill some caution in commentators and researchers into the near-death experience, when they say the brain "flat-lines" almost immediately after cardiac arrest (and, therefore, the NDE is unexplainable by physical sciences). Nevertheless, as long-time NDE researcher and resuscitation expert Dr. Sam Parnia notes on Yong's blog, previous EEG studies of humans during cardiac arrest haven’t found similar patterns to this latest experiment - is this fact a death-blow for the theory, or have we not detected this brain activity before because previous efforts with human subjects had the EEG electrodes on the outside of their skull? Regardless, we should remember that vaguely similar studies in the past have generated exactly the same headline, but have not gone much further.

There are further reasons to be careful in jumping to conclusions. Firstly, the 'correlation is not necessarily causation' argument - is this the brain generating the last moments of 'mind' before it perishes completely, as most people (or at least, newspapers and science journalists) probably assume, or is this 'mind' interacting with the brain as it leaves the physical body for the last time? People will generally read in whichever conclusion suits their particular reality tunnel.

Secondly, as near-death experience researcher Bruce Greyson explained to me recently, explaining the NDE isn't as simple as just finding a neural mechanism for the reports of a bright light, or the tunnel experience. Too often, he told me, skeptics completely ignore other evidential features of the experience, such as accurate out-of-body perception and encounters with deceased individuals not known to be dead. There is no shortage of both types of case, and these are truly what constitute a major part of the mystery of the NDE.

But all in all, an interesting piece of research that could possibly lead us to a better understanding of the NDE. Just let's not jump to conclusions either way at this early stage.

Update: Interestingly, the researcher doing these experiments was a co-author with DMT researcher Rick Strassman on a paper earlier this year regarding the presence of DMT in the pineal gland of rats.

Link: "Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain"

Link: In Dying Brains, Signs of Heightened Consciousness (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

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emlong's picture
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Whether or not the brain "flatlines" is not very germane to the real mystery of NDE's - that they are accompanied by paranormal knowing not usually available to the person pre-death. NDE-ers sometimes have precognitive visions of high intensity and veracity, and they "see" things which subsequently turn out to be real but not accessible to normal consciousness. The brain is a transmitter and receiver. That there should be some activity extant during an NDE is not at all surprising. In fact, that may be necessary for the brain to continue to contribute its radiations to experience.

Greg H.'s picture
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Other points not to be overlooked are examples from Consciousness Beyond Life book: Woman undergoing brain surgery had body temperature lowered to the point of ceasing all brain activity which was extensively monitored, had eyes covered and repetitive clicking sounds over her ears to completely isolate her brain from outside sensory input during her delicate and extensive brain surgery - yet during this period of "near death" with no discernible brain activity of any kind, she not only witnessed her surgery from outside her body, repeated what was said by doctors during surgery, and had an extensive supernatural journey to the afterlife prior to returning to her body. This was clearly not due to some surge in neural activity since none occurred.

Further this does not take into account concurrent NDE experiences of those living but visiting the dying person who simultaneously have a sympathetic experience witnessing the final NDE journey of the dying individual, going through the tunnel with them, etc...

Not saying any of these anecdotes disprove the article's theories, but it is a laughable stretch of its authors and proponents to state this last surge in brain activity explains away all NDE experiences as one last hallucination of a dying brain...

Greg H.

pov's picture
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" It’s tempting to link that to what we hear in patients, but we need to be very careful."

rofl. No you don't need to be careful. The increased electrical activity is not surprising.

The pedestrian thinkers in science seem to continue to engage in the inane fallacy that a change in brain activity means the brain is creating the experience. To come at it from another perspective - if there is no physical imprint or stimulation by a non-physical experience, a person would know of the experience. (N.B. By "physical" here I mean any aspect of physical existence)

Daedalus49's picture
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OK so they stuck electrodes on a rat and found something that registered on their instruments.
Wow.
Even if this had any bearing on the human experience, a possible analogy would be to characterise the function of a theatre by measuring the loud sound of the applause at the end.

From outside the theatre.

Any model we make does not describe the Universe, it describes only what our brains are capable of saying at the time.

red pill junkie's picture
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Awesome analogy :)

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
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alanborky's picture
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Put it this way Greg.

If you removed the various batteries from a laptop and in effect killed it but then its CPU quite independently sprang back into life thirty seconds later operating at a higher level of organized activity than normal that would be one hell of a freaky computer.

If you then put back its batteries and now found a record on it revealing how during the time all it's resources'd supposedly been banjaxed it'd in fact been running an unknown program which wasn't only NOT supposed to be there but which seemed to utilise the machine's entire processing resources at their optimum in an entirely novel way then surely that'd be one very freaky computer indeed.

But let's just assume the brain is indeed only some weird glorified calculating machine.

How the hell does evolution explain the arising of a complex explosion of neural activity almost along the lines of spontaneous human combustion which only ever reveals itself at the moment of the creature's death?

What aspect of the environment the common ancestor of rats and humans evolved in naturally selected for such a highly complex but utterly pointless waste of its best resources?

Kathy's picture
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I listened to an interview of a psychiatrist today wherein she discussed the brain being predominately made up of inhibitor cells. I wonder if, after death, the inhibitor cells simply stop inhibiting.

I also wonder how this new finding would account for the experience of those that have experiences generally associated with Near Death states without actually being near death.

KJA

red pill junkie's picture
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I wonder if, after death, the inhibitor cells simply stop inhibiting.

Now THAT is a great question. Which might be correlated to how the brain operates while under the influence of psychoactive substances --under CT it was observed LESS brain activity instead of more, consistent with the idea that it was filtering less of surrounding stimuli.

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!!!

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Kathy's picture
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Very interesting. I think I read something about that once, about psychoactive substances dampening or turning off inhibitor cells. It would explain so much really. If inhibitor cells inhibit a greater reality, a cessation or interruption would allow for experiences of mystical/cosmic consciousness, death bed visions, near-death experiences and the like, both caused and spontaneous. And, I wonder if it would have any relationship to savants?

If you come upon any further information about this topic, I would certainly be grateful if you would share.

KJA

red pill junkie's picture
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I think (not really sure to be honest) that Dr. Stanley Krippner mentions that kind of info in one of the podcasts he's been invited to.

Try this one for starters.

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
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Kathy's picture
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Thanks for the link!

Have you listened to this http://hiddenexperience.blogspot.com/
interview with Suzanne Gordon Ph.D.posted on Tuesday? Scroll down to "one-click audio download here". It is an AMAZING 2 hours!!!

KJA

red pill junkie's picture
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I'm listening to it right now, as a matter of fact ;)

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
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emlong's picture
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It begs the question too of how the memory of the experience is retained if there is only a glimmer of activity in a small area of the brain.

red pill junkie's picture
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Another fascinating enigma :)

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
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@red_pill_junkie

Daedalus49's picture
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I think you might find this book interesting. It not only covers the inhibition by the dominant left hemishpere of the brain over the right, it explains it. The savant phenomenon is also covered.
"Left in the Dark" by tony Wright and Graham Gynn. Highly recommended reading.
(Foreward by Dennis McKenna)
The link is to a pdf file of the first edition.

http://leftinthedark.org.uk/sites/defaul...

Any model we make does not describe the Universe, it describes only what our brains are capable of saying at the time.

red pill junkie's picture
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The link is much appreciated :)

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
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Kathy's picture
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Thanks!!!

KJA

Greg H.'s picture
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Inhibitor cells...?!! Have to research those. I've had temporary mind expansions in which I've experienced the expansion of consciousness similar to the mushroom experiences I did a few times 20 some years ago, without any outside assistance other than reading contemplating spiritual matters, etc... Rather ecstatic - but was ephemeral lasting one time a week or more with associated phenomena, and another time only a day and then feeling isolated, closed off again... Have never had any specific physical/mechanical avenues of explanation to explore - until now. Since the mind is capable of manipulating body systems through training: biofeedback, meditation, etc... then why not activating and deactivating Inhibitor Cells? Will have to pursue this further :)

Greg H.

red pill junkie's picture
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We should be careful with the language here. A skeptic might accuse us of fabricating a non-existent anatomical feature in the brain! :P

But it's the general idea what should stand out & be pursued further: that what we call 'reality' demands a great deal of our attention during the waking state, leaving little left for what we could say are 'subtler frequencies' --again with the language barrier.

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
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jackinthegreen's picture
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What I find most intriguing about so many of these "NDEs explained" reports etc is the seeming desperation to find a 'simple' materialist explanation. It seems to be largely a media thing for presenting these articles in an attention grabbing way, but a lot of research seems to be determined to do the same. If you start, as most of these reported research projects seem to, from a perspective that there must be a materialist scientific explanation, then the research is automatically narrow in what it can hope to discover.

I also object to the slaughter of other living creatures in this manner (the experiments reported on in the report), which is simply a demonstration of power. Do the same tests on small children and people would be outraged. One cannot simply look at different aspects in isolation.

emlong's picture
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There really is this air of "this can't possibly be true, therefore.." running through pop skepticism.

plusquamcarnis's picture
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Hi all, long time reader, first time contributor...

I think we see one of these "NDEs finally explained" articles every year or two on average- I think the last time I saw one was Kevin Nelson's REM intrusion hypothesis. The sheer number of these publications reminds me of the "Hundred Authors Against Einstein" during the advent of the theory of relativity- "If I were wrong, then one would have been enough!"

In my opinion, The Handbook of Near Death Experiences (eds. Holden, Greyson, and James) is the authoritative book on the topic, but you never really see it in the citations of these articles, and I think that's quite telling. These authors seem to not only ignore a huge body of evidence, but only talk about how their results confirm their conclusions, and never even consider how their results might actually refute their own theory.

Out of charity, suppose we assume that 1) this electrical activity is actually associated with conscious experience and 2) this activity also occurs in humans, but we're simply unable to detect it with surface EEG electrodes. Both of these are completely unsubstantiated, but let's be nice here: Let's consider what's consistent between both rats and humans- all coherent EEG activity is abolished in under 30 seconds from cardiac arrest. One common "explanation" of veridical perception in NDEs is the notion that brain activity is still occurring, but it's not detectable with surface EEG. In this study, they implanted electrodes in the brain and they still can't detect any coherent activity 30 seconds after cardiac arrest. Wouldn't this study actually argue against the dying brain hypothesis in cases such as Pam Reynolds (Sabom, 1998), Al Sullivan (Cook, Greyson, & Stevenson, 1998), and others? If all activity is abolished in 30 seconds, even with the most sensitive EEG examination, perception, memory, and cognition beyond this timepoint are no longer able to be explained away by deep brain activity. This pokes yet another hole in their already shoddy explanation of veridical perception, a topic which went totally unmentioned in this whole ordeal.

red pill junkie's picture
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That's a hell of a way to start contributing to the TDG discussions. I hope you do it more often :)

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
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@red_pill_junkie

Greg's picture
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plusquamcarnis wrote:

Hi all, long time reader, first time contributor...

Hell of a first-up contribution - great comments! Agreed on the Handbook too, should be the go-to reference for most article writers on these topics. Instead we're stuck with Mobbs and Watt for the next how-many-years...

Kind regards,
Greg
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You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

beserker's picture
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As usual, mainstream dogmatic science has found a way to explaine something that fits none of their tests and most certainly does not fit into the ridgid narrow thinking. The fact that countless cultures as far back in time as you can go CLEARLY says there IS some kind of afterlife.

With the greatest of reluctance I am sure, scientists today can not refute the overwhelming evidence of audio recording, magnetic anomalies and full spectrum cameras that are CLEARLY documenting some kind of energy field that can not be explained away like ball lightning or swamp gas.

We do have an ethereal body. There is a state in which you will exist completly unlike the former self. Things are starting to change and the dogmatic thinking is changing lest they are left behind and look like greater fools than they already are, hopeing none remember the dericive comments and the mockery of dissmisal in the not to distant past.

Recently science was FORCED by their own methodology to acknowledge the fact of a recently found 12,000 year old structure. After decades of firmly saying that the oldest civilization was about 7,000 years ect ect.