Friday, June 10, 2011

Critical Examination of the Near Death Experience, Part Three

This is the third 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 essays, I explain that, while the NDE may contain information that the subject has picked up from his or her environment in some way not yet understood, the NDE itself is a subjective experience.

The authors make the claim that victims or patients that experience NDEs could not have been having a subjective brain experience, because these people were in fact brain-dead at the time that they had the experiences; that is, they were EEG (electroencephalogram) flat-liners. As they write on page 46, “It is medically inexplicable to have a highly organized and lucid experience while unconscious or clinically dead.” Now, if the people who had NDEs were brain dead at the time, then there is no other explanation than that given by the authors: that the people’s spirits had in fact left their bodies and begun their trip to heaven. This is because nerve cells produce electrical and magnetic fields. If the nerve cells were operating at all, delusionally or otherwise, they would have produced some trace on the EEG. Moreover, the authors are very inconsistent on this point. An entire chapter, chapter 4, is about visions that people have had during anesthesia. People are not brain dead during anesthesia. So is NDE something that happens when the spirit leaves the body, or isn’t it? Did my spirit leave my body when I was last under anesthesia?

But the authors have no direct proof that the subjects were brain dead while having their NDEs. The authors have relied upon stories submitted to their online website. Although I agree with the authors that the contributors were seldom if ever actually lying, we simply do not have medical corroboration for the claim that they had NDE during actual clinical death. It is possible that the victims were brain dead for a while, but they may have experienced their NDE either just before or just after their brain-dead period, at a time when they might have been capable of perceiving the things that they later reported.

I would also like to point out that, as I mentioned in the first essay, Persinger’s God Helmet and the drug ketamine produce some of the same mental images as those that appear in NDEs. Of course, NDEs are much clearer and more detailed than those that emerge from God Helmet and ketamine experiences. But this is not surprising, since the God Helmet and ketamine may only partially stimulate whatever brain circuits may be involved in the NDE.

The authors are correct in asserting that an NDE is no ordinary mental experience. They invite you to try closing your eyes and then describing the experiences around you. You cannot do it, even if you are alert, so you could not do so when you are in or in a coma. This is a good point. But the brain, when it experiences an NDE brain, is in extremis, which is a condition you cannot simulate. The mind might become hyper-aware as its last gasp before dying. Warriors sometimes enter an altered mental state when they are in the middle of a battle, one in which time seems to slow down and in which they do crazy things that actually work. The Viking word for such a warrior was “berserker.” It is an altered mental state that occurs under extreme conditions. Maybe the NDE is such a state also.

I would like to offer a possible explanation for the Near Death Experience. This hypothesis is not proven but will explain the phenomena outlined in Long and Perry’s book and in these blog entries.

• First, the patients experienced dreams or received sensations from around them just before clinical death. These sensations were time-distorted, with the result that they seemed to occur throughout the period of death.
• Second, when the patients entered clinical death, electrical imbalances were maintained in the brain, even though there were no impulses traveling along the neurons.
• Third, when the patients were revived, they remembered the things that happened in their brains just before the period of death, which were preserved in the electrical imbalances. This hypothesis would explain how the patients could experience NDEs without actually processing any new experience while they were clinically dead (with flatlined EEGs).

You are particularly encouraged to make comments on this hypothesis.

One important question remains. The NDE is a detailed mental experience that cannot be simply a delusion. It therefore must have evolved. I will approach this question in the next entry.

1 comment:

  1. Your hypothesis seems to be well-presented and provides an alternative to the fact that NDEs = seeing beyond this life. The sensations could be time-distorted...interesting conjecture.