THE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE: STILL UNDEAD
While other fields within the paranormal seem to fade in and out of the conversation—look at the dearth of psi-related happenings immediately preceding and directly after Daryl Bem’s precognition study—the Near Death Experience nearly always seems to offer some new development to discuss.
Working in its favor, the NDE has a fantastic and ever-growing compendium of cases at the website of the Near Death Experience Research Foundation, run by Dr. Jeffrey Long. But in the months since I finished Fringe-ology there has also been no shortage of news.
Illinois woman Julie Papievis had her NDE story optioned into a film this year by the same production team that made the hit movie The Blind Side. The Daily Herald, a suburban Chicago newspaper, reports that at 29 Papievis suffered a horrible traffic accident. Her injuries were so great she had to be resuscitated and fell into a coma. Her brainstem was “all-but severed,” according to the account, yet she retains a distinct memory of being visited by her two deceased grandmothers. They told her to come back and keep living. (This seems like a story worth following up on; perhaps I’ll give her a call and see if she can offer some supporting evidence of her injuries.)
The Colton Burpo story lit up the book charts, chronicling the NDE of a four-year old boy. This story is most noterworthy because NDEs with specific, religious content are a rarity, rendering Burpo’s story a statistical anomaly for hewing so closely to his parents’ beliefs.
The year 2011 ended with NDEs gone viral—namely, Ben Breedlove’s two YouTube videos, documenting his illness and his Near Death Experiences. I posted Breedlove’s videos earlier here with no analysis. But to give my take, I found the story quite moving. Breedlove unveils a series of flashcards, describing a life he spent living in particularly close proximity to death due to a condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.” The illness thickens the heart, forcing the organ to work increasingly hard to pump blood. It is difficult to understand the pain this might cause, both physically and psychologically. The disease acts as a boa constrictor, slowly tightening its coils. But Breedlove describes all this, including a vision he had during a close brush with death, with a satisfied, contented and warm expression.
The kicker is that Breedlove died shortly after shooting these videos, on Christmas day. And his peaceful demeanor in these shorts suggests he “fits” the NDE profile: The vast majority of those who experience the NDE are greatly changed, rendered more spiritual by the experience. Yet his story, too, violates one of the chief statistical truisms of the NDE. Rarely do experiencers see a living person. Breedlove, however, saw the very much living rapper Kid Cudi. It’s tempting to dismiss that vision as something other than a Near Death Experience. And of course it’s possible that he hallucinated or grafted the "memory" of Cudi into hi experience later. But there is also the chance that the consciousness we experience after the death of the body—if indeed we experience consciousness at all—allows the new reality we’re in to mix with personal thoughts, a merging of objective and subjective realms.
Whatever the case, Breedlove’s story, as told in two videos, has now tallied more than 10 million views.
To me, however, the biggest development is that the Near Death Experience remains, well, so alive.
The NDE has been remarkably consistent over time. Though there is variability in the experience, historical accounts dating from before the phenomenon got a name in 1975 do seem to describe the same event. So the power of suggestion simply does not work as an explanation. And the pattern of distressing NDEs makes it hard, if not impossible, to argue that wishful thinking is at play. Further, as the years have passed, skeptics have responded with a remarkable variety of arguments, which total up to, by now, more than 20 potential explanations. If the skeptics are to be believed, anoxia, carbon dioxide, ketamine, repressed memories, overactive temporal lobes, seratonin, REM intrusion, cardiac massage, lucid dreaming and more are at work (not all at once, of course) in the NDE.
The deluge of possible causes reminds me of the Onion spoof news article that purported to “solve” the Kennedy assassination: “KENNEDY SLAIN BY CIA, MAFIA, CASTRO, LBJ, TEAMSTERS, FREEMASONS,” reads the priceless headline.
To skeptics, the experience is clearly a brain-based illusion. But I placed this particular item so high on my list because I think it is the one area where skeptics are most clearly suffering a kind of brain-based illusion all their own. To me, it simply follows that neurological explanations require skeptics to find some association between the circumstances of the experience, the content reported, and what we know about brain function. In other words, until skeptics deliver a working model explaining how the different circumstances NDErs find themselves in at the time of their experience produce predictable changes in the content and character of what they report, they have yet to produce any scientific explanation at all.
As an example, people lacking oxygen at the time of their experience should report something different than people who had plenty of oxygen. People under anesthesia should describe something different than people under the influence of no narcotics at all. After all, if I took a shower under some form of anesthetic or with something impeding my ability to breathe, it would be a far different experience than if I took a shower with no such variables in play, right?
Let me be clear: The current lack of such a model for how Near Death Experiences are produced doesn't mean no such explanation or combination of explanations will emerge. It doesn’t mean the Near Death Experience does or doesn’t represent a glimpse of an afterlife. But what I am arguing is that because skeptics have thus far failed to produce that model the NDE represents a continuing, deepening mystery.
Quite recently, Dr. Mario Beauregard and co-researchers recorded a case involving veridical (verified, accurate) perceptions in a patient undergoing emergency surgery. The patient, a 31 year old they call J.S., was undergoing a procedure called hypothermic cardio-circulatory arrest, very similar to the famous Pam Reynolds “standstill” case. The authors write: "J.S. did not see or talk to the members of the surgical team, and it was not possible for her to see the machines behind the head section of the operating table, as she was wheeled into the operating room. J.S. was given general anesthesia and her eyes were taped shut. J.S. claims to have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). From a vantage point outside her physical body, she apparently ‘saw’ a nurse passing surgical instruments to the cardiothoracic surgeon. She also perceived anesthesia and echography machines located behind her head. We were able to verify that the descriptions she provided of the nurse and the machines were accurate (this was confirmed by the cardiothoracic surgeon who operated upon her). Furthermore, in the OBE state J.S. reported feelings of peace and joy, and seeing a bright light."
The full write-up, “Conscious mental activity during a deep hypothermic cardiocirculatory arrest?” is available in the January 2012 issue of Resuscitation and can be found here.
Beauregard and his co-researchers admit they cannot be certain the 15-minute subjective experience occurred during the 15-minute cardio-circulatory arrest. But, they write: "Nonetheless, the tantalizing case of J.S. raises a number of perplexing questions. For this reason, we hope that it will stimulate further research with regard to the possibility of conscious mental activity during cardiocirculatory arrest."
That last line, about “further research,” is the final point I’d like to hit: In the battle over worldviews—do we suffer the same fate as meat? Or do we have a consciousness that continues beyond death?—we often seem unable to admit that we really don’t have an answer yet. In this sense, the NDE represents one of those fields that has essentially been hijacked by philosophical agendas rather than studied in careful, rational and patient terms.
Usually, skeptics hold the line against calls for further research, portraying the paranormal as somehow frivolous. Usually, this part of the argument is contextualized as a plea to see scientific research funding and brainpower applied only to worthy and credible causes. But in the case of the Near Death Experience this argument doesn’t really carry any weight.
Skeptics and believers all agree that death provokes great anxiety, often detracting from the quality of the life we live. Yet the great majority of people who undergo NDEs no longer fear death.
If this “cure” for death anxiety is purely the product of brain function—in a materialist sense, the secretion and absorption of various chemicals—then pinning down the exact mechanism that makes this possible seems the most humane thing we could do for ourselves and each other.
In this sense, the skeptical position of “go on about your business, there’s nothing to see here,” seems not only bankrupt of evidence—but simple decency. And the Near Death Experience, 37 years after Raymond Moody first coined the term, simultaneously sheds light on death and retains its deep sense of mystery.