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For those that don’t know: Penn & Teller are one of the world’s most famous magic acts. They are also card-carrying Randi-acolytes and have a debunking show called Penn & Teller: Bullsh*t!. Here’s an early (2003) episode on near-death experiences (warning: NSFW language):

Glad that’s all cleared up. Although perhaps psychology professor Barry Beyerstein (who, sadly, died suddenly in 2007 aged 60) could have used more precise wording. Sure, “neuroscientists are thoroughly convinced that near-death experiences are things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down.” There certainly are neuroscientists out there who believe that to be the case, so technically he’s correct. But then, there’s guys like Dr Peter Fenwick who don’t believe that to be the case (and more recently, Dr Mario Beauregard), so we could also say just as clearly that “neuroscientists are unconvinced that near-death experiences are simply things that happen when normal brain function is disrupted and the brain is shutting down.” Perhaps Beyerstein’s wording could have something to do with him being a founding member of CSICOP…nah, surely not.

But Barry Beyerstein has nothing on Penn, who is so sure that he’s figured out the “real life explanation” for NDEs that he’s ready to “dance and shout taunting phrases at ‘truthseekers’ like Raymond [Moody].” It’s simple really: “cut off the blood to the brain and nearly 18% of us have an NDE.”

Except the blood flow to the brain theory was one of the earliest explanations put forward for NDEs, but it didn’t hold water. For one, NDEs have been known to happen in situations where blood flow continued (e.g. in falls from heights and near-accident situations) – which does not prove in any way that NDEs are a glimpse of the afterlife…but it does make Penn look not only ignorant, but obnoxious to boot. In fact, in Irreducible Mind – which goes through all the current ‘explanations’ suggested to explain NDEs – we read that the one study frequently cited for the bloodflow theory is…

…that of Whinnery (1997), who compared NDEs to what he called the “dreamlets” occurring in brief periods of unconsciousness induced in fighter pilots by rapid acceleration in a centrifuge (this reduces blood flow, and therefore delivery of oxygen, to the brain). He claimed that some features common to NDEs are also found in these hypoxic episodes, including tunnel vision, bright lights, brief fragmented visual images, a sense of floating, pleasurable sensations, and, rarely, a sense of leaving the body. The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

The most refreshing part of the video is in fact the NDErs themselves – they make clear that they can understand people’s skepticism, and encourage it, but that their experience convinced them personally. And yet Penn still knows more than they do, saying “why wouldn’t our brains freak out a little when injured or dying… Why is that so hard to understand for these people?” In case Penn isn’t aware of other NDE research apart from that of James Whinnery, that “why” would probably be answered by (a) the ‘hyper-realness’ of the experience reported by NDErs, (b) oft-reported cases of evidential OBEs, (d) the fact that people perceive the same set of archetypal elements, despite different inciting crises, and (d) other odd elements such as the life review, where people report reliving their complete lives over again, in 3D panoramas, and yet happening in the blink of an eye.

Personally, I’m still not convinced that NDEs offer proof of an afterlife. But likewise I am yet to see any orthodox theory that can explain it (as yet). As such, the experience (and experiencer) deserves a lot less ridicule, and a whole lot more honest study. . Now I know that Penn & Teller are entertainers, and Bullsh*t! has it’s particular flavour of ridicule and humour which can be a fun ride (though not particularly my flavour of funny), so I’m not saying this to be stuffy or defensive. I’m just saying it to point out that Penn & Teller…errr….bullshit. They glossed over the more interesting facets of the phenomenon, they set up easy targets rather than talking to the hard-nosed scientists investigating NDEs, and they promoted a bogus explanation. Skepticism fail…I guess that’s what happens when they go looking for “proof of whatever their particular myth believes.”

Having said that, I whole-heartedly endorse Penn’s final comments on not fixating on death and what may be beyond, but on living life. Ironically enough, his closing comments are almost word-for-word the ‘message’ that NDErs ‘bring back’ – that you should live your life well, honestly, thinking of others, and questing for knowledge. Sometimes the divide between ‘skeptics’ and ‘believers’ isn’t as great as some might like to imagine…