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Last week Scientific American featured an article titled “The Death of Near Death“, by Kyle Hill (who you will not be surprised to learn is a research fellow with the James Randi Educational Foundation). I don’t want to spend too much time deconstructing the article, but below I’ll just point out a few things that irked me:

These criticisms of Alexander point out that what he saw was a classic NDE—the white light, the tunnel, the feelings of connectedness, etc. This is effective in dismantling his account of an “immaterial intellect” because, so far, most symptoms of a NDE are in fact scientifically explainable. [I won’t go into depth here, as another article on this site provides a thorough description of the evidence, as does this study.]

One might argue that the scientific description of NDE symptoms is merely the physical account of what happens as you cross over. A brain without oxygen may experience “tunnel vision,” but a brain without oxygen is also near death and approaching the afterlife, for example. This argument rests on the fact that you are indeed dying. But without the theological gymnastics, I think there is an overlooked yet critical aspect to the near death phenomenon, one that can render Platform 9 ¾ wholly solid. Studies have shown that you don’t have to be near death to have a near death experience.

Who has overlooked it? It’s been a mainstay of near-death experience research since not long after Raymond Moody published his seminal book on the topic, beginning with probably Noyes and Kletti’s 1976 articles on “Depersonalization in the Face of Life-Threatening Danger”. It’s been regularly discussed by NDE researchers ever since, and if anything, it actually makes explaining the NDE an even more complex task.

In 1990, a study was published in the Lancet that looked at the medical records of people who experienced NDE-like symptoms as a result of some injury or illness. It showed that out of 58 patients who reported “unusual” experiences associated with NDEs (tunnels, light, being outside one’s own body, etc.), 30 of them were not actually in any danger of dying, although they believed they were [1]. The authors of the study concluded that this finding offered support to the physical basis of NDEs, as well as the “transcendental” basis.

Why would the brain react to death (or even imagined death) in such a way? Well, death is a scary thing. Scientific accounts of the NDE characterize it as the body’s psychological and physiological response mechanism to such fear, producing chemicals in the brain that calm the individual while inducing euphoric sensations to reduce trauma.

Imagine an alpine climber whose pick fails to catch the next icy outcropping as he or she plummets towards a craggy mountainside. If one truly believes the next experience he or she will have is an intimate acquainting with a boulder, similar NDE-like sensations may arise (i.e., “My life flashed before my eyes…”). We know this because these men and women have come back to us, emerging from a cushion of snow after their fall rather than becoming a mountain’s Jackson Pollock installation.

You do not have to be, in reality, dying to have a near-death experience. Even if you are dying (but survive), you probably won’t have one. What does this make of Heaven? It follows that if you aren’t even on your way to the afterlife, the scientifically explicable NDE symptoms point to neurology, not paradise.

No it doesn’t follow. It suggests it if you’re opinion lies in some particular ideology. A supporter of the idea of an afterlife could just as easily say “it follows” that this shows the afterlife is real, because it shows that consciousness detaches from the physical body when it feels under threat. But, just like the above, it just offers support for their own ideology.

How can I dismiss the theological importance of NDEs so easily? As I said, I fully understand how real and valuable they can be. But in this case, as in science, a theory can be shot through with experimentation. As Richard Feynman said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

The experiment is exploring an NDE under different conditions. Can the same sensations be produced when you are in fact not dying?

Really? Which experiments are we talking about? “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.” – “Explanatory Models for Near-Death Experiences”, Bruce Greyson, Emily Williams Kelly, and Edward F. Kelly.

It has become clear that the ‘skeptical’ fraternity have a new favourite article when it comes to the near-death experience: “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them”, by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt, published last year. Kyle Hill leans on it in this Sci-Am piece, and other skeptics have also done so recently. This, despite one of the authors of the paper making clear that the paper was a short piece, published in the ‘Forum’ section in Trends in Cognitive Science, that was simply meant to provoke debate. “The whole idea of this group of articles, this type of articles in this journal, is not to claim that you’re making some comprehensive review,” Caroline Watt told told Alex Tsakiris. “It’s not to produce any new evidence for testing a theory, for example. It’s a bit like an opinion piece, like an editorial in a newspaper, where you make an argument that is intended to stimulate discussion or provoke debate.”

If skeptics want to continue referencing this article, they really need to combine it with the article I cited above by Greyson, Kelly and Kelly. It deals with each of these topics individually and in some depth. The point that becomes clear is this: “When examined in isolation, the features described in this section may seem potentially explainable by some psychological or physiological hypothesis, even though very little evidence exists that supports any of these hypotheses. When several features occur together, however, and when increasing layers of explanation must be added on to account for them, these hypotheses become increasingly strained.” The authors point out that the real challenge facing these these explanatory models is in examining how complex consciousness, including thinking, sensory perception (e.g. veridical OBEs), and memory, can occur “under conditions in which current physiological models of mind deem it impossible”, such as under general anesthesia or cardiac arrest.

Barring a capricious conception of “God’s plan,” one can experience a beautiful white light at the end of a tunnel while still having a firm grasp of their mortal coil. This is the death of near death.