Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
Near death experiences are the sort of thing that grab your attention and hold onto it. About 774 occur daily. People involuntarily leaving their bodies and then coming back again captures our imagination and holds onto it. It is, however, poorly understood in the general population and this is mostly because skeptical doctors and other scientists prefer to accept the dying brain explanation despite it having no factual basis. It’s easier for them to believe than the alternative. However, the evidence for psi is probably stronger in this area of study than in all the others combined. It often evokes strong spiritual changes in the people who experience it. Before we get to that though, what are the skeptic explanations?
There are actually several theories that you can find here: There is the dying brain:
This theory is one that has been popularized by Dr, Susan Blackmore in her book “Dying To Live”
One of the greatest strengths of the afterlife theory and the argument that NDEs are real is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The fact that all those who had NDEs follow the same path toward the light, going through similar stages on the way, makes a powerful case for the whole thing being a profound spiritual journey to an afterlife where everyone, from all ages and cultures, is welcome. But that same case, the “sameness” evidence, is also a fundamental part of the argument that NDEs are not real experiences, not spiritual voyages, but a function of the dying brain. All brains, regardless of where in the world they come from, die in the same way, say the skeptics. And that is why all NDEs have essential core elements which are the same. It is not because the dying person is traveling toward a beautiful afterlife, but because the neurotransmitters in the brain are shutting down and creating the same lovely illusions for all who are near-death.
But why? Why should the dying brain do this, if it is just a highly sophisticated lump of tissue? That question is one of the most fundamental questions in the whole of human thinking.
Charles Darwin’s Theory:
One theory is that it is a deliberate ploy of the human race to help those behind adapt better to the inevitable ending of their lives. Darwin’s simple theory of the survival of the fittest holds that every species is struggling to increase its hold on this planet and guarantee the survival of its descendants. That is our greatest primary urge. Other animals help their peers to survive: the dying elephant, for example, trails away into the bush so that he does not slow down the herd. Are the dying just “helping the herd” by putting out propaganda that death does not contain a sting? But this theory does not explain why NDEs are erratic, or why we shunted down an evolutionary sidetrack for years by making them something that people were reluctant to talk about. After all, in Darwinian terms, humans are the complete masters of the Earth.
The Hallucination Theory:
Some scientists from the camp that believes that NDEs are one day going to be explained by brain functions have suggested that the dying secrete endorphins, hormones which act on the central nervous system to suppress pain and which are known to create the “runner’s high”, which happens when long-distance runners go through a pain barrier and find themselves running with ease and without tiredness, and with a feeling of elation. But endorphins are not hallucinogens and cannot re-create a state similar to NDEs, so although they may be involved in the process as a painkiller, they are not responsible for the whole experience.
Research on neurotransmitter receptors is highly complex and, in terms of our understanding of the functioning of the brain, in its infancy. It is known that a powerful anesthetic called ketamine can produce many of the features of a NDE, particularly the out-of-body element, and one theory is that a ketamine-like substance may be released by the body at the time of a NDE, and may attach itself to certain neurotransmitter receptors and be responsible for producing the whole NDE by blocking those receptors.
A psychology professor named Dr. Ronald Siegel from UCLA rejects the spiritual and mystical importance of NDEs. He claims to have reproduced NDEs in his laboratory by giving LSD to volunteers, but, other researchers say that although drug-induced hallucinations may have some resemblance to NDEs, they are not the same. For one thing, drug induced hallucinations often evoke fearful and paranoid experiences which are not generally found in NDEs. Drug induced hallucinations distort reality while NDEs have been described as “hyper-reality.”
There are also the Temporal Lobe theory, the Lack of Oxygen theory, Depersonalization and Memory of Birth Theories. Here is the link again for a brief description of those theories.
These theories all suffer from not being able to adequately explain various attributes of NDE experiences. In particular, the “hyper-reality” and feelings of calm that people who have experienced NDE’s consistently report has no medical explanation. The most compelling argument against ANY medical theory for NDE’s is that people have been known to have them while they are brain dead.
Dr. Melvin Morse, who did all the ground-breaking research with young children, states unequivocally, “There is no explanation for the light.”
Dr. Kenneth Ring, perhaps the most respected of all near-death researchers, and the one who did most to put the subject on the academic map, says:
“Any adequate neurological explanation would have to be capable of showing how the entire complex of phenomena associated with the core experience [that is, the out-of-body state, paranormal knowledge, the tunnel, the golden light, the voice or presence, the appearance of deceased relatives, beautiful vistas, and so forth] would be expected to occur in subjectively authentic fashion as a consequence of specific neurological events triggered by the approach of death … I am tempted to argue that the burden of proof has now shifted to those who wish to explain NDEs in this way.”
So having considered the medical explanations, we can dismiss them as lacking the ability to adequately explain an NDE. One thing that amazed me about this particular area of psychic phenomena is how thorough and unambiguous the research is and how incredibly strong the case for the survival of death is. Unlike the scientific research into telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition there is very little room to introduce bogus skeptical arguments given the weight of the evidence. Here is a well documented on-line book by Dr. Ken Ring. It is a very comprehensive look at the phenomena: It contains pretty much everything you’d want to know and there is just too much to summarize here. Most areas of psi don’t have much good, scientific information for the average reader, but the field of NDE’s is full of resources.
Dr. Ken Ring
Here is another website devoted to near death experiences and the research surrounding them:
This website has also documented research in this area. And they have documented 2,585 NDE experiences (so far) and labeled them according to reliability.
What makes NDE’s so compelling as evidence are both the number of them, the information people bring back with them and the occasional case that occurs when all brain functions have completely ceased. It is this last point which is the most decisive because it defies absolutely every medical and material explanation. One thing that comes up over and over again is the spiritual side of NDE’s. Not one of these people fear death after they’ve experienced this. I think that’s amazing. Plus, they give more to charities and spend more time helping other people. Perhaps this is why this area of psi is so well organized.