Near-death experiences are often thought of as mystical phenomena, but research is now revealing scientific explanations for virtually all of their common features. The details of what happens in near-death experiences are now known widely—a sense of being dead, a feeling that one’s “soul” has left the body, a voyage toward a bright light, and a departure to another reality where love and bliss are all-encompassing.
…Recently, a host of studies has revealed potential underpinnings for all the elements of such experiences. “Many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained,” says neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, at the University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit.
I haven’t seen the full paper (but given the offers of help regarding the Paul Davies paper last week, I’m sure a copy might find its way to me soon…*ahem* sorted, thank you!), but my first thought when reading the Sci-Am article was basically “this isn’t really news”. For years many neurological explanations have been offered for various elements of the NDE, and on their own they are interesting enough. The intriguing aspect to the NDE though is why all these particular elements would combine at the time of death, and then coincidentally just happen to provide ‘the illusion’ of a glimpse into an afterlife.
I don’t know of any researchers that consider the NDE to be ‘purely paranormal’ – they all seem to agree that the experience would be at least mediated by the brain in some way. As I said, I haven’t read the paper at this stage, so am reluctant to say too much about it, but given the title (“There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences”), I will be interested to see how Mobbs and Watts manage to not only point out the brain’s involvement in the NDE (which is, as I said, basically a given), but also disprove any paranormal element to the phenomenon.
Focusing on a couple of the things mentioned in the Sci-Am story: firstly, as for expectation creating the experience, I’d note that I’ve written an article previously on NDEs reported well before there was any public knowledge about its phenomenology (“Death Before Life After Life), and as for Olaf Blanke’s “out-of-body experience” research, we’ve covered that previously as well. For a very detailed counterweight to the Sci-Am article though, I’d recommend the paper “Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences”, by Bruce Greyson, Emily Kelly and Edward Kelly (found in The Handbook of Near Death Experiences), in which they cover most of the elements mentioned and explain why they don’t really work as explanations, as well as bringing up salient points about the non-explained factors – such as enhanced mentation at a time when the brain is supposed to be shut down, as well as the anomalous aspects of the NDE, including reports of veridical out-of-body experiences. From the paper:
Despite shaky foundations for assertions that NDEs are similar to experiences associated with abnormal temporal lobe activity, anoxia, ketamine, or endorphins, several multifactorial theories, based on these foundations, combine these putative causes at will to account for whatever constellation of features is observed in any given NDE…
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.