Near-Death Experiences

Over the Summer I saw the film Heaven Is For Real:

Here is an alternative trailer:

It has to be said that the film is not exactly a masterpiece, but I am interested in the phenomenon described in the movie – the Near-Death Experience, a sensation or vision of the afterlife reported by a person who has come close to death One of the earliest accounts of an NDE is the Myth of Er, featured by Plato in The Republic. A soldier revives on his funeral-pyre and describes his journey in the afterlife.

What is an NDE? They typically occur when a patient has either been close to clinical death or has recovered after having been declared dead. There are some common experiences that characterise them. You typically hear about bright lights, dark tunnels and celestial music. The subjects’ lives flash before them. It is frequently an out of body experience with subjects reporting hovering above the operating table. Without physical bodies, they are able to travel through walls and doors and project themselves wherever they want. Ultimately they are told that it is not their time yet and that they have to go back to the land of the living.

In the 1980s, NDEs gained a certain degree of “credibility” through the work of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, an American psychiatrist. Incidentally, she was also the one who pioneered the theory of the five stages of grief. Kübler-Ross provided this classic example of an NDE:

Mrs. Schwartz came into the hospital and told us how she had had a near-death experience. She was a housewife from Indiana, a very simple and unsophisticated woman. She had advanced cancer, had haemorrhaged and was put into a private hospital, very close to death. The doctors attempted for 45 minutes to revive her, after which she had no vital signs and was declared dead. She told me later that while they were working on her, she had an experience of simply floating out of her physical body and hovering a few feet above the bed, watching the resuscitation team work very frantically. She described to me the designs of the doctors’ ties, she repeated a joke one of the young doctors told, she remembered absolutely everything. And all she wanted to tell them was relax, take it easy, it is all right, don’t struggle so hard. The more she tried to tell them, the more frantically they worked to revive her. Then, in her own language, she “gave up” on them and lost consciousness. After they declared her dead, she made a comeback and lived for another year and a half.

I have to say that I am underwhelmed by the claims about NDEs. They are not as the neurosurgeon Eben Alexander has claimed in a best selling “non-fiction” book, proof of God’s existence. I am sure they feel real to those who experience them, but that doesn’t mean they actually happened. In some cases it may be down to drugs that have been administered to the patient. Lack of oxygen to the brain can interfere with the normal rate of firing by nerve cells in the visual cortex. This may trigger the images that subjects see. I have already mentioned in another post the fallible nature of memory. Memory does not work like a VCR. You don’t just record the event and play it back later. What happens is that every time we recall them we reconstructing them anew. This can explain why eyewitness testimony can be so unreliable. When recovering from an NDE, the brain has absolutely no problem inventing a continuous narrative to fill in the blanks. This is exactly how our minds work; we want a coherent story. Confirmation bias is also at work here. We hear these stories about subjects remembering things that they could not have possibly known. But when they get something wrong nobody notices. This is why they say that the plural of anecdote is not data. NDEs remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of psychology. We do not have all the answers yet. But we need to apply Occam’s Razor. Which is more likely, that an NDE is a phenomenon that science has been unable to explain completely up until now or that it is proof of an afterlife?


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