Do near-death experiences (NDEs) offer proof of life after death, or are they just a symptom of a misfiring brain? The debate over this topic has largely become polarized between these two assumptions, but a new paper by two Italian scientists suggests that the NDE remains an unexplained phenomenon, and should therefore be the focus of further unbiased, (truly) skeptical research.
In a new paper published online by the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Enrico Facco and Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova, Italy, work their way through the current set of orthodox explanations for elements of the NDE - including centripetal ischemia of the retina, anoxia, temporal lobe disfunction and psychological expectation - showing how each doesn't offer the answer to these strange experiences had by people facing death.
The authors take issue with the approach of a high-profile scientific paper from late last year that reviewed these same explanations in a far more positive manner ("There is Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences"), labeling it a "prejudicially skeptical review" of the research into the cause of NDEs. "The idea that NDEs are the mere results of a brain function gone awry looks to rely more on speculation than facts", say Facco and Agrillo, "and suffers from bias in skipping both the facts and hypotheses that challenge the reductionist approach".
The paper also notes that while neurobiological correlations between NDEs and brain locations are worth researching, we should be careful not to over-simplify in looking for a conclusive 'NDE part of the brain':
The neurobiological correlations between NDEs, the parieto-temporo-occipital junction, the limbic system, and the temporal lobe are relevant; however, it is widely known that statistical correlations of mental and biological processes do not imply that the former totally derive from the latter and do not prove any cause-effect relationship between the two. Exactly as our legs are the substrate or correlate of walking, neural networks are necessary for mental phenomena, but this does not imply we decide to run because of legs. Even assuming a casual relation, which is not the case, abnormal activity in the temporal lobe or other locations might be sufficient for the occurrence of some features of NDEs, but concluding that such pattern activities are necessary for NDEs is another thing.
Facco and Agrillo suggest more open-minded research is needed into all elements of the NDE, including "odd" aspects that seem "hardly compatible with our present knowledge" (such as veridical OBEs), in case they offer new discoveries regarding as-yet unknown properties of consciousness. In a refreshing take on how science should approach the NDE, they note that "even the oddest facts, if true, should not be neglected but rather received with an open mind and investigated for the sake of coherence with the essence of scientific knowledge."
Read full text of "Near-death experiences between science and prejudice".
One thing I've found while researching the book I'm working on, is that death (and by association, the 'afterlife') is a topic that people don't like talking about, and to all of our detriment. It is one of the biggest, if not *the* biggest moment in our lives (given that it ends it), and there should be far more open discussion of the event and what it means to each of us. So I'm really enthusiastic about the documentary-in-progress Death Makes Life Possible:
What can we learn from the world’s wisdom traditions that helps us understand death and the worldviews people hold? What can science tell us about Life After Death and potential survival of the personality? What about Reincarnation? Heaven and Hell? Do our loved ones wait to guide us across the void at our time of passage? Do dreams help us prepare for our death and beyond? Is it possible to “defeat death” and remove the fear of death so that we may live more freely and more fully? Death Makes Life Possible explores these ideas and shows how contemplation of death may actually result in the achievement of unlimited peace and joy.
The good news is that you can help bring this documentary into the world, and get yourself a copy of the movie in the process, via their freshly-announced Kickstarter campaign. Here's the promo:
Featuring a number of our good friends, including Dean Radin, Stu Hameroff, Rupert Sheldrake, Marilyn Schlitz and Deepak Chopra, I'm sure many readers will be interested in backing this project. If you haven't seen the trailer yet, check it out below...certainly looks like a great feature.
Backing projects such as this helps people create quality content on topics you want to see. So get behind it, rather than enabling the big TV channels and the trash documentaries they are constantly showing.
Wow, after my post a few days ago regarding the faltering crowd-funding campaign for my afterlife book project, the Grailers out there have rallied! As I write this we're now only $84 away from reaching the project's original goal - that means we only need to pre-sell *ONE* more limited edition hardcover to cross the line a winner! Anybody want to take the honour? Click here and select the hardcover option to make my day.
Just to make note of the complete 'package' that you get with the pre-ordered hardcover, for those that haven't clicked through yet: it is not only one of a limited edition, but also signed by myself, and also will include your name within its pages (if desired) for posterity. Not to mention, with the package you also get the eBook gift pack - a DRM-free copy of the eBook version which you have explicit permission to give to 10 other friends/family. Some decent value there surely?
And if the hardcover is out of your range, remember you can still contribute by choosing from a number of other packages which all offer various degrees of awesomeness.
The clock is ticking - only 32 hours to go as I write this. Get in!
Update: Achievement unlocked! We've made the funding goal, with a little over 24 hours remaining - thanks so much for all your support! If you haven't already, make sure you grab one of the special deals before tomorrow if you want one (e.g. getting your name in the book, or the 10 eBooks for $20 package).
Grailers, your help is needed! There's less than a week to go on the crowd-funding campaign for the book I'm currently writing, on scientific research and personal experiences offering evidence for some sort of 'afterlife'. We've done amazingly well to get to 70% of the goal, but without a final effort we're going to fall agonizingly short (the promo on the right side of the page is currently lagging, there are actually only 4 days left!). Are you interested in the topic? If so, chip in a few dollars (or more), and get something awesome in return.
You can get THE ENTIRE BOOK as an eBook, DRM-free and in the format of your choice FOR JUST $5. Or, if you're a collector (or investor), you can grab a limited edition hardcover AND GET A PERSONAL THANK YOU PRINTED IN EVERY COPY, there for posterity. Take a look at all the packages on offer and see what takes your fancy. Even if you can't afford the paltry $5 'entry fee', at least help spread the word by posting about the campaign to your friends, on Facebook etc. You will at least have my deep appreciation!
Here's the promotional video once again to get you in the mood:
Mega-thanks to all those who have contributed so far, and for those willing to do so in the next 6 days to help get us across the line. Here's the link again, in case you missed it:
Cheers, and have a good weekend!
If, like me, you're interested in the field of scientific research into strange experiences at the time of death, then the "Final Passages" conference which took place a couple of weeks ago surely would have been a lot of fun to attend, with talks from the likes of Stan Grof, Raymond Moody, Pim van Lommel, Penny Sartori and Marilyn Schlitz:
The 2012 Bioethics Forum offered two days of thoughtful information-sharing and discussion regarding "Final Passages: Research on Near Death & the Experience of Dying." Designed for the general public, it focused on the sharing of scientific research and the consideration of related social and ethical issues. Many questions related to near death experiences (NDE), dying, and consciousness were addressed by global experts
Welp, here's the good news. All of the talks from that conference have now been made freely available online in video format. Woot, dig in!
This article is excerpted from Darklore Volume 1, which is available for sale from Amazon US and Amazon UK. The Darklore anthology series features the best writing and research on paranormal, Fortean and hidden history topics, by the most respected names in the field: Robert Bauval, Nick Redfern, Loren Coleman, Jon Downes and Daniel Pinchbeck, to name just a few. Darklore's aim is to support quality researchers, so it makes sense to support Darklore.
Hungry Ghosts: The Dark Side of the Paranormal
by Michael Prescott
Years ago, on a whim, a friend led me into a New Age bookstore in Los Angeles. At the time I was a committed rationalist and knew nothing about paranormal phenomena except what I’d read in skeptical, debunking books. Unlike my friend, who found the bookstore’s atmosphere amusing, and who enjoyed pointing out the bizarre titles and covers, I felt distinctly ill at ease. There was something disturbing about being immersed in all that occult literature. I felt as if I’d ventured into unknown territory – dangerous territory. And I was glad to leave.
Later, as I became interested in the paranormal and began to grasp the extent of the evidence for such phenomena, I chalked up my earlier reaction to a form of culture shock. There I was, a rather repressed rationalist, coming into close contact with ideas I found threatening to my worldview. After all, there was nothing actually dangerous about that little bookstore – was there?
Maybe there was. Over the years, as I’ve studied this subject, I’ve encountered a fair number of cautionary tales. People who become unduly interested in psychic phenomena – interested to the point of obsession – can find their mental health deteriorating, their relationships fragmenting, and their social status undermined. Of course, obsession is a bad thing regardless of its focus, but I suspect that it’s easier to become obsessed with the paranormal than with, say, stamp collecting. Something about this field of inquiry tends to draw people in and make them vulnerable to harm.
The Curious Case of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Since I’m a writer, I take particular interest in the case of Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle was one of the most popular writers of his day, and his Sherlock Holmes stories are still widely read and dramatized. Fairly late in life he became convinced that it was possible to communicate with the dead through mediums. As his interest grew, he neglected his fiction writing and spent most of his time traveling the world to attend séances and deliver lectures on spiritualism. His reputation suffered, and he was the target of ridicule from some quarters. He had a widely publicized feud with the debunking magician Houdini. Editors began to dread getting Doyle’s manuscripts in the mail, for fear that his latest contribution would be yet another essay on the talkative dead. Doyle’s fame was such that his essays were invariably published, but his editors weren’t always happy about that fact.
With the passage of time, Doyle’s critical faculties suffered. He became more credulous, more willing to vouch for even the most dubious phenomena. ... Read More »
Fascinated at the moment by the number of times I've come across two aspects of the near-death experience while researching my book Stop Worrying, There Probably Is An Afterlife: that the appearance of the deceased loved ones meeting the newly-dead is 'assumed' for the experiencer's benefit (a la Ellie Arroway/Jodie Foster's father in the movie Contact), and that communication with these individuals is nearly always explicitly noted as being via telepathy.
These elements are present in what I regard as one of the most 'archetypal' near-death accounts that I've ever come across (mentioned previously in my essay "Death Before Life After Life"), the story of Louis Tucker, a Catholic priest. What makes Tucker's NDE account doubly interesting is that it was described in his 1943 memoirs, Clerical Errors, published a number of decades before the near-death experience was common knowledge. The experience itself took place in 1909, when Tucker was suffering the life-threatening effects of a severe case of food poisoning. With the family physician in attendance, Tucker lost consciousness, and was shortly thereafter pronounced dead by the doctor:
The unconsciousness was short. The sensation was not quite like anything earthly; the nearest familiar thing to it is passing through a short tunnel on a train… I emerged into a place where people were being met by friends. It was quiet and full of light, and Father was waiting for me. He looked exactly as he had in the last few years of his life and wore the last suit of clothes he had owned…I knew that the clothes Father wore were assumed because they were familiar to me, so that I might feel no strangeness in seeing him, and that to some lesser extent, his appearance was assumed also; I knew all these things by contagion, because he did.
Soon I discovered that we were not talking, but thinking. I knew dozens of things that we did not mention because he knew them. He thought a question, I an answer, without speaking; the process was practically instantaneous… What he said was in ideas, no words: if I were to go back at all I must go at once…I did not want to go back; not in the least; the idea of self-preservation, the will to live was quite gone…I swung into the blackness again, as a man might swing on a train, thoroughly disgusted that I could not stay, and absolutely certain that it was right for me to go back. That certainty has never wavered.
There was a short interval of confused and hurrying blackness and I came to, to find myself lying on my bed with the doctor bending over telling me that I was safe now and would live… I told him I knew that some time ago, and went to sleep.
For more fascinating glimpses 'behind the veil' of death, make sure you pre-order a copy/package of Stop Worrying, There Probably Is An Afterlife from the IndieGoGo crowd-funding page - every order helps support the writing of the book, and is greatly appreciated.
The near-death experience gets a lot of coverage for its apparent depiction of a wonderful afterlife of grassy meadows, loving relatives and a forgiving deity. However, there is sometimes another side to the experience that is less discussed - the smaller percentage of NDEs that are distressing to the experiencer, with visions of torment and hellish realms.
For those interested in learning more about this aspect of the NDE, you might like to check out a new ebook by near-death experience researcher Nancy Evans Bush titled Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near Death Experiences:
The tinge of centuries colors the way we hear today’s near-death experiences and what we make of them. Why should some individuals tell of blissful heights of spiritual experience while others believe themselves at the depths, lost in the stars or consigned to hell?
Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences, the first comprehensive exploration of disturbing NDEs and how people interpret them, is packed with solid information and first-person narratives that, although marked by dismaying and even terrifying features, turn out to have something vital to say about life itself. Sweeping from research findings to a review of the cultural evolution of hell through a thoughtful analysis of how individuals interpret and ascribe meaning to their near-death experiences, the author, a longtime researcher of these NDEs, brings study data and years of personal insights to the questions that swirl around the topic, providing a wealth of viewpoints and ways of thinking about the subject that will be new to many readers.
You can find out more about the book, its topics, and the author, at the Dancing Past the Dark blog.
Once again, I wanted to point out that my crowd-funding campaign for the book I'm currently working on, Stop Worrying…There Probably Is An Afterlife. Check it out! There's everything from great eBook deals (get 10 DRM-free ebooks for just $20) through to collector's edition hardcovers.
Here's the promo trailer I created to give the vibe of the book:
We're currently running 'behind' schedule on the funding, so we could use your input - even if it's just a $5 eBook! I'm sure you'll enjoy the book thoroughly - I've been hard at work on it and am digging up all sorts of interesting things. Appreciate your assistance in bringing this book into being!
As mentioned a couple of weeks back, I'm currently writing a book exploring the evidence for an afterlife - which you can help me out with, by pre-ordering eBooks, or signed paperbacks/limited edition hardcovers. One of the reasons for this project is to correct some of the misinformation that is spread by scientism-ists and the mainstream media, and I haven't seen much more of a better (worse?) example than this article in Washington Monthly, in which Art Levine 'channels' the spirit of Christopher Hitchins to debunk any idea of an afterlife. In doing so, he seems to take particular aim at the near-death experience (NDE):
What was clear enough before my death was that visions of an afterlife were no more verifiable than any other bedtime tales designed to offer false hope to toddlers frightened of the dark. They are the ultimate embodiment of the solipsism at the heart of all religions. This infantilizing fiction comes in various guises, from orthodox religions with their fabricated consolations of fairytale heavens — whether it is the Islamic fanatic’s seventy-two celestial virgins or the Christian fantasia of winged angels — to the modern pseudoscientific “research” into so-called near-death experiences (known with ridiculous technicality as NDEs). These hallucinatory claims, originally popularized by a Dr. Raymond Moody for Me Generation readers of the 1970s, rest on numerous banal and repetitive testimonials about floating above one’s body, hurtling through a tunnel toward a bright light, vividly reviewing episodes from one’s past as if watching a holiday slide show, and encountering various beings lit up with an unearthly glow. These latter apparitions can range from one’s surprisingly youthful-looking relatives to an omniscient spiritual guide, including the ubiquitous Jesus if you’re a Christian, not-so-coincidentally matching your own faith or lack thereof.
There’s nothing in these visionary tall tales that can’t be either simply explained through an understanding of basic science or discounted as the unprovable “revelations” of individuals with no legitimate claim on our belief. That was my position before I experienced my own peculiar hallucinations after death, and I have seen no evidence since then requiring me to recant my position. Was I wrong on the afterlife, as so many among the bien-pensant brayed for me to admit that I was wrong on Iraq? Plainly, no.
As the psychologist Susan Blackmore has persuasively shown, the near-death experience is a product of the dying brain and shaped by the individual’s cultural expectations. The temporal lobe is especially prone to inducing hallucinations, memory flashbacks, and other visions after death when undergoing anoxia, or oxygen deprivation. In concordance with this understanding, virtually every one of the phenomena I experienced after my own death has a clear-cut neurological or biological cause or an obvious cultural antecedent. As Blackmore wrote recently in the Guardian, “If human consciousness can really leave the body and operate without a brain, then everything we know in neuroscience has to be questioned.”
I really don't know where to start with the sheer number rebuttals this thing demands, and the book is definitely where you'll see me detail all of that. From the anoxia explanation, to claiming that Susan Blackmore has "persuasively shown" the near-death experience is a product of the dying brain, Levine gets everything wrong apart from the final statement in the blockquote above.
I should remark though that the book will *not* be a simple propaganda job for the afterlife conclusion. The goal will not be to assert that any particular conclusion is "true" - just that, on the current evidence, any rational person could certainly 'believe' that there is some sort of existence beyond death, and so perhaps we should all be discussing this possibility.