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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“.