World view, inspiration, self-help
Are near-death experiences (NDE) only a trick played on us by the brain?
Science questions the reality of NDE with new research data.
How right is the evidence?
Ever since the book 'On Death and Dying' by the Swiss physician Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross was published about 40 years ago, and the American researcher Raymond Moody published his bestseller 'Life after Life' in 1975, which contained a number of accounts of what he called near-death experiences (NDE), research on death and dying has become a worthwhile issue.
Swiss physician Dr. Elisabeth Kueber-Ross was the first to publish about 40 years ago the experiences of people on the threshold of death.
Scores of scientific studies have established that dying is a process that runs through a number of definite stages, which occur in much the same way for everybody, notwithstanding age, gender, education or religion. Anyone who believes in a continuation of life after death could consider the result of 'thanatology', as this new scientific study of death has come to be known, as the long awaited evidence in support of this view. Since the 1990's, however, serious counter-arguments worth some consideration have collided with this point of view. In the past 20 years, the neurosciences have gained considerable importance in explaining human life; and brain research has found good reason to oppose the reality of NDE, postulating them to be mere fantasies originating from brain areas which are either oxygen deprived, stressed or permeated with drug-like natural substances. Science has also managed to elicit some aspects of NDE through artificial stimulation of specific zones within the brain cortex, or with the help of drugs. Are we then back to 'square one' regarding the answer to the crucial question of whether there is life after death?
Near-Death Experiences are intriguing
Since faith has lost its primary importance in the shaping of our conception of the world, this role having been taken over by scientific facts, which can both be experimentally verified and are understandable to the human intellect, the influence of materialism has kept growing. That which cannot be proven - for example, life after death - will therefore not be taken seriously and is simply declared as a taboo subject.
This was how the last century was largely characterized by a common fear of speaking out about dying, death and a possible afterlife. We know today that millions of people have experienced an NDE, but until the 1980's hardly anyone dared talk about it openly - and quite frankly, who would enjoy the prospect of being called an eccentric or a nutcase?
Then, all of a sudden, some scientific studies lifted the veil on this phenomenon. These have shown that NDE's are very common throughout the world, thus helping to break the taboo surrounding the subject of death and dying.
Scientific studies of NDEs have demonstrated that dying people go through specific 'stages':
But how can we explain it?
A proof of life after death?
Even if descriptions of near-death experiences do not support the conceptions of heaven and hell or ideas about God's love and justice held by many denominations, NDE research nevertheless made believers think that its findings furnished sufficient proof that life does not end with death. As a rule, those who have gone through these experiences themselves consider the reality of NDE's as irrefutable from the start: according to studies, they lose all fear of death, their outlook on life undergoes a change, and from then on spirituality and religiousness play a major role in their lives, and they often develop special abilities - heightened sensitivity, improved intuition, and at times also healing powers and clairvoyance.
Likewise, people who often deal with death and dying in their professional lives, such as caregivers, nurses and hospice workers, generally consider the descriptions of NDEs to be consistent with their own experiences. The more one is directly involved in the dying process, the more one can clearly experience with the dying person that death is a process of breaking away from the body; the soul consciously leaves the physical shell....
From the beginning, however, science has been sceptical about the interpretation that NDEs prove the reality of life after death. The first fundamental criticism pointed to a crucial weakness common to all studies: for the most part, these were mere compilations of experiences, some of which had occurred far back in the past. Because of the time that elapsed since the incident it was generally no longer possible to retrace the conditions under which the interviewed persons experienced their NDE, or whether or not they had really been clinically dead. It was equally impossible to establish what symptoms they had or the medications they had been given during their ordeal.
Near-death experiences have long been controversial because the exact circumstances were unknown. Targeted studies in hospitals have brought about a change of thinking in the evaluation of these experiences.
Around the turn of the millennium, however, reservations about these studies regarding their 'retrospective character' and thus their limited validity as evidence, could at last be countered. From 1988 to 1992, Dr. Pim van Lommel, the renowned Dutch cardiologist, conducted the first NDE studies under controlled conditions. He interviewed 344 patients who had been clinically dead, but who could subsequently be resuscitated.
62 of these patients gave a description of an NDE. His work, published in 2001, which also included the results of his research into personality changes that came about after such experiences, gave a decisive impetus to the opinion that NDEs represent a proof of life after death. On average, the heart of patients included in Dr. Pim van Lommel's study had come to a complete stop for approximately 2 minutes. This means that as a result of cardiac arrest, a complete cessation of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex occurred after about 10 to 20 seconds. With this study, it was clear that an NDE can also appear under scientifically precise and controlled conditions. Therefore, the question of how to explain these experiences has become more urgent than ever. Even more so, because neuroscientists have recently managed to link many aspects of human life and consciousness to processes in the brain. New imaging techniques have provided the means to observe the interaction of neurons under the skull, and important scientists in the field of brain research have arrived at the sobering conclusion that everything typically human - free will, self-consciousness or an immaterial soul - is no more than the result of brain processes, i.e. of the fascinating interplay of several billion neurons.
Based on this materialistic outlook, many explanatory approaches were developed for the reported NDEs along these lines, while from 2003 to 2006 additional 'prospective studies' were conducted that were similar in design to Dr. Pim van Lommel's work in the Netherlands. For example, an American study by Bruce Greyson in which 1,595 patients were interviewed (2003) as well as a British study by Penny Sartori (2006) have shown that NDEs can be documented quite frequently during cardiac arrest and complete loss of brain function.
Near-death experiences - only a 'trick' played on us by the brain?
So what is the significance of the brain in near-death experiences?
According to the materialistic world view prevalent in the sciences nowadays, the brain is the centre of our personality and the origin of our consciousness. Consciousness is therefore impossible without the brain, and altered states of consciousness must therefore be connected with processes within the brain and the rest of the body.
This assumption has formed the basis for numerous theories developed in the past years to explain NDEs. The main ones are:
The view that NDEs may ultimately be attributable to brain and body functions recently received further boost from the publication and interpretation of results of experiments and research. For instance, it was claimed that experiences similar to partial aspects of NDEs could be elicited by stimulation of specific brain regions. Wilder Penfield, a Canadian neurosurgeon, was able during surgery on epileptic patients to artificially evoke memory sequences as well as perceptions of light and noise. In other experiments, controlled attempts at out-of-body experiences were done through electrical stimulation as well as with ketamine, a drug that had been used for anaesthesia and could trigger hallucinations by blocking specific brain receptors.
Consciousness exists independently of the body
All in all, can these possible explanations indeed shake the opinion that near-death experiences could be conclusive evidence of survival of the soul or of human consciousness?
As previously mentioned, all these explanations have in common that they emanate from a materialistic world view and they seek to support the basic assumption that the brain is the centre of the human being and that consciousness is not possible without brain activity. All interpretations of research results questioning this mindset will therefore be challenged or doubted from the outset or its consequences not be taken seriously.
Current research on death, especially the latest studies that are limited to patients who were proven clinically dead for several minutes, thus several minutes without heart and brain function, is precisely stuck in this dilemma. On closer examination, such circumstances show that practically all materialistic NDE theories - often presented so thoughtlessly as 'explanation' - are inconsistent with the facts.
Oxygen deprivation, for example, can be excluded as a cause of near-death experiences for several reasons: changes in consciousness, which are attributed to acute lack of oxygen in the brain, are generally accompanied by confusion, anxiety, memory disruptions and reduced speech ability. Nothing of the sort is ever mentioned with NDEs. On the contrary: for those involved, the experiences were clear, well remembered and described without reduction in mental capacity. Moreover, NDEs often happen without oxygen deprivation, for instance during a life-threatening accident or in episodes of major depression.
The release of endorphins also fails to fully explain NDEs. Although endorphins actually act to relieve pain and induce a feeling of wellbeing, these effects persist in the body for several hours, while with a near-death experience the special peaceful feeling disappears immediately upon awakening. Moreover, the main elements of an NDE - the out-of-body experience, the perception of an otherworldly environment or the communication with deceased people - were not reported with endorphins. The same applies to the effect of carbon dioxide.
In addition, on closer examination, what can really be achieved through local electrical stimulation or specific areas of the brain is rather meagre.
For example, Dr. Pim van Lommel examined the details of the epilepsy therapies described by Dr. Wilder Penfield. He writes in his book 'Consciousness Beyond Life' : ' Although he (Penfield) treated many hundreds of patients over the years, no real out-of-body experience with verfiable perception ever occurred and no transformation was ever reported. The effect of this stimulation was, in many respects, quite unlike an NDE.'
In this opinion Dr. van Lommel broached one of the most remarkable phenomena within the scope of the NDEs he documented, for which there is still no scientific explanation. Namely, what people experience during their out-of-body experience - the observation of their own body and also of various people and sequences from a vantage point above the body such as the ceiling - could in many cases be confirmed by other persons involved in the event.
The Dutch cardiologist also scrutinized many more scientific reports, including the work of Olaf Blank, made known by a contribution in the scientific magazine 'Nature'. This researcher had written for the first time in 2002 that, following electrical stimulation, an 'incomplete out-of-body experience' occurred in one of his patients, in which she perceived a distorted image of only her lower legs. Dr. van Lommel remarked: "the title of his article in Nature suggested that he had managed to locate the place in the brain where out-of-body experiences originate. This article received extensive press coverage and caused quite a (premature) stir."
Van Lommel was especially critical of the far-reaching conclusions that were drawn from the observation of only a few cases and his analysis he came to the conclusion that 'not one of the thousands of stimulated epilepsy patients around the world has ever reported a genuine out-of-body experience.'
He therefore debunks as a scientific myth the frequently used 'explanation' that an electrical surge in the dying brain may be the cause of near death experiences. Basically, this is merely an entrenched position for those who would rather not depart from their materialistic view of life. For with the results of death research, this idea remains under scrutiny: when clear conscious experiences are possible while the brain is evidently not functioning, it undoubtedly means that consciousness continues to exist independently of the body.
In search of a new concept of humankind
All researchers on death who have engaged in and published prospective studies in recent years have come more or less plainly to the same conclusion: namely that the current definitions of human consciousness as being seated in the brain are woefully inadequate. In an article for the medical journal 'The Lancet', Dr. Pim van Lommel puts this forward: " Scientific study of NDE pushes us to the limits of our medical and neurophysiological ideas about the range of human consciousness and relationship of consciousness and memories to the brain.'
Among other things, the American researcher Bruce Greyson sums up the situation as follows:' A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.'
The well-known British NDE researcher Sam Parnia wrote in a summary (together with his colleague Peter Fenwick): 'The data suggests that NDE arises during unconsciousness. (...) Complex experiences such as are reported in the NDE should not arise or be retained in memory. Such patients would be expected to have no subjective experience, ...as those cerebral modules which generate conscious experience and underpin memory are impaired by cerebral anoxia.'
And the director of another major study on NDE, the Englishwoman Dr Penny Sartori, concludes: " The phenomenon remains unexplained when considered from the current scientific perspective of consciousness being a by-product of neurological processes... The fact that clear, lucid experiences were reported during a time when the brain was devoid of activity - does not sit easily with current scientific belief."
For this reason many critical researchers are looking for a new definition of humankind and of human consciousness and question the central theme of brain research, namely the assumption that consciousness arises as a result of processes in the human nervous system. This is- contrary to widespread opinion - just a guess, for which no evidence or proof has ever been furnished to this day.
It is certainly true that in recent decades medical imaging techniques have made it possible to conclusively verify that a concrete relationship exists between registered brain activity and certain aspects of consciousness. But are these consciousness experiences really always a result of brain activity or conversely, is this activity in the brain the result of the stirrings of consciousness? This question cannot be answered definitely one way or the other at the current state of research. For the time being we must consider the matter as unresolved, but research on death clearly supports the view that the brain does not produce consciousness but rather enables consciousness to be active on the physical level. The brain would then be an organ which acts as a 'receiver' for consciousness rather than as an 'emitter'. In the words of Professor John C.Eccles (1903-1997), it is a 'messenger to consciousness'.
This idea is not new. It was recently merely pushed in the background, because, in the meantime, the neurosciences have provided us with a fascinating insight into the relationships between brain activity and conscious experience. Through this, the materialistic view that represents man as a complex biological machine has received considerable impetus and, as if it were a proven fact, has also found a considerable following in literature and cinematic art as well as wide acceptance among the general public as the dominant conception of the world. In modern science-fiction novels and films, it is often a matter of course that computer-controlled robots can develop consciousness or that human thoughts and perceptions can be manipulated by electronic means.
For critical researchers, however, such bold conclusions are really far-fetched. This is because what is observable in a brain scan can say nothing about the innermost feelings of an individual, which leaves a gaping hole in the scientific case for brain generated consciousness. In other words, the activity of a specific brain area tells us practically nothing of the content of thoughts or feelings. There is no proof that the neural networks are in a position to produce the great diversity of our inner world - which is the actual determinant of our life and consciousness. Some researchers even doubt on the ground of mathematical calculations that the brain of itself would be able to store all the memories of our life, not to speak of the accompanying thoughts and feelings. In short, science still knows nothing about the spirit, the essence of human consciousness.
Perhaps in the future this search for a new picture of humankind, based on the findings of death research, will benefit from the ideas generated from quantum physics. According to this branch of physics, the strict separation between spirit and matter so vehemently defended by materialists does not seem absolutely compelling. For the concepts of quantum physics have made it possible to think that the physical world is influenced by a hidden non-physical reality. In principle, this exactly corresponds to the traditional idea that our body is 'animated' by a spirit or a soul.
A new point of view, which is really an old one
If we allow for the possibility that consciousness is able to exist independently of a material support or receptacle (such as the brain), some of the materialistic explanations put forward for near-death experiences appear in a new light. From these, one can, for example, immediately and without further ado conclude that out-of-body experiences, thus emotional experiences unbound by the physical body, are quite possible for us humans, an indication of which would be that dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is naturally available in the body. Such consciousness experiences would be inappropriate for daily life on earth, so there is a natural blockade system at hand. Moreover, the zinc level in the body would also play a role in this blockade, because zinc is needed to synthesize the neurotransmitter serotonin, which among other things can be converted to DMT. Under extraordinary circumstances, such as facing life threatening situations or through administration of specific DMT injections, this blockade can be overcome, thus rendering the so-called near death experiences possible.
This theory would also satisfactorily explain why studies have shown that older patients tend to report fewer NDEs, with advancing age, zinc level tends to drop in the body. Moreover, short-term memory inevitably plays an important role in the question as to why some people remember NDE's and others do not. If his short-term memory works well, which will usually be the case if a resuscitated patient is not in a coma for several days and needed to be artificially ventilated, the probability that he will report an NDE is significantly higher than a patient who has suffered a stroke or a severe concussion or has been in a coma lasting several weeks.
This means perhaps- as in the case of our nightly dreams - that each individual goes through the same described stages on the threshold of death, but that many simply have no recollection of them. Yet NDE in principle can hardly be compared with dreams, because vivid dreams occur in the so-called REM sleep phase (from 'Rapid Eye Movement', which is a sleep phase recognizable by rapid, jerky ocular movements of the sleeper), in which the brain is evidently very active, while NDEs can also be experienced in phases devoid of brain activity. Moreover dreams, as intense as they may be, do not usually result in dramatic and sustained behavioral changes, while this is exactly what happens in the case of NDEs: these are experienced as more powerful and true-to-life than dreams, and even more intense than daytime conscious earthly life.
On closer examination, none of the materialistic theories so often put forward can really explain what happens in near-death experiences. Nevertheless, such experiences are a well founded indication that our life does not end with death and that we human beings, as expressed in all major religions and other teachings bearing true wisdom, are not only a body, but, instead, that we enliven this body only for a short time...with the help of a powerful tool that enables our consciousness to unfold in the physical world: the brain.
Author: Werner Huemer
Compiled by Edeltraud Grace
Edeltraud Jakob Grace:
Start looking with your heart. Join the Being Truly Beautiful community. Click on image below