Thursday, June 2, 2011

Critical Examination of the Near Death Experience, Part Two

This is the second essay in a series that examines evidence presented by Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry which, they claim, prove that the Near Death Experience (NDE) is an actual vision of the afterlife. In the previous essay, I interpreted the evidence to indicate that people who experience NDEs are in fact perceiving something, but not the afterlife; they are perceiving, in some way not yet understood, their immediate environment. But there are several reasons to believe that the NDE is a subjective experience inside of the brain. This does not mean that it is a mere delusion or dream. It is clearly a unique kind of experience.

But it is probably subjective. Here are some reasons.

First, not everyone has the same visions. This is hardly surprising for a subjective experience, but cannot be true of someone actually looking into the afterlife, unless, that is, each of us has our own private heaven waiting for us. The authors say that nearly all people who have an NDE report intense joy. Only about one-third report the tunnel, and two-thirds report the bright light. Fewer than one in four reports the stereotypical life-review (see previous essay). And I suspect that there may be even more diversity of experience than the authors report. Long and Perry say that NDEs are blissful experiences, but I remember reading somewhere that a small but significant percentage of people have what they think is an encounter with Hell. The authors, moreover, report a woman who heard, in her NDE, the universe saying Allah ho akbar! Really? Is the afterlife a Muslim one? Obviously, if there is an afterlife, it was experienced as such—and experienced subjectively—by this Muslim woman. Finally, most NDE reports include an altered sense of time. This is a trick that our brains play on us all the time, for example in dreams that seem to last for a long time but which had to occur during a brief minute or so of rapid eye movement.

Second, suppose that we do in fact have our own private heavens waiting for us. If this is the case, then the people in the NDE visions cannot be actual people. How can Granny actually be existing within MY private heaven? Doesn’t she have her own heaven to live in and experience? Why should my dead relatives be sitting around waiting for me to go rocketing up through the tunnel of light? One person reported having seen her grandmother back in the house in which she lived before her death (Chapter 4). How likely is it that her dead grandmother in heaven lived in a house exactly like the one she had on Earth?

The kind of subjectivity experienced during an NDE is probably not a mere cultural phenomenon. Some careless critics dismiss NDEs as the “Oprah effect,” in which people are very likely to report their NDE in terms that they have learned from watching Oprah’s frequent coverage of this phenomenon. This may sometimes occur. A person who experiences an NDE, one that consists of vague sensations, may subsequently interpret these sensations in terms of a life review, tunnel, loved ones, etc., based on what they have seen on television or read in books. The authors claim that since many of the components of an NDE are the same in people from many different cultures proves that it is not something upon which they have imposed their own interpretations. The problem with this claim is that many different cultures have seen western television. The authors point out, however, that NDEs reported from before 1975, when Raymond Moody wrote the first thorough book on the subject (Life after Life), are essentially the same as those reported in the post-Oprah era. But the fact that people who have NDEs are not merely repeating what they have heard on Oprah’s show does not prove that they are really seeing into the afterlife.

I believe the evidence demonstrates that the NDE is a subjective experience—a very unique one, and which may incorporate information from sensory modalities we do not yet understand. At the very least, if they are seeing into the afterlife, each person is seeing it in his or her own way. Still, there remain some unexplained questions, which I will address in upcoming essays.


  1. Just wanted to chime in that I am reading, studying, and enjoying your essays on NDEs. Thanks for sharing your critical interpretations.

  2. I think that the subjectivity of the experience is one of the strongest arguments against the NDE phenomenon. One little girl claimed to have seen Santa, for instance.

    If I may play devil's advocate for a bit, some believers have attempted to reconcile this subjectivity with the idea of a literal afterlife. One valid point they have is that subjectivity doesn't imply falsehood. The "beings on the other side" may appear to an individual in a manner most comfortable to them. (I guess that would make sense.) For a Christian, that might be Jesus, for a Muslim, Mohammed, and so on. For the little girl, who might still believe in Santa Clause and see him as a warm grandfatherly figure, the being might assume that form for her. For others, it may be a dead relative--or perhaps a still living relative.

    1. I forgot to mention this in my previous post, but the argument reminds me of that scene in Contact when the protagonist meets an advanced alien being in the form of her dead father.