Near Death Experiences Part I

Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist, performed a large study of resuscitated cardiac arrest victims who had experienced flatlined brain activity. 18% of the people reported near death experiences including out of body experiences. They remembered details that coincided with the time their brain was flatlined. Van Lommel says that this provides evidence that consciousness can continue despite an absence of electro-chemical processes occurring in the brain.[i]

Olaf Blanke, a Swiss researcher, listed similar experiences by direct stimulation of brain regions. The explanation for what he found is “Using event related potentials, Blanke and colleagues showed the selective activation of the TPJ (a brain region) 330–400 ms after stimulus onset when healthy volunteers imagined themselves in the position and visual perspective that generally are reported by people experiencing spontaneous OBEs. Transcranial magnetic stimulation in the same subjects impaired mental transformation of the participant’s own body.”[ii] In english, this means that people sitting in chairs watching a video of themselves from behind could have an OBE when touched in the chest with a rod at the same time as viewing it. This fit a 3-point definition of an OBE.

An article commenting on this was titled ‘Why being out of the body is all in the mind.’ “The sensation of watching your own body need owe nothing to the supernatural, research has proved. Scientists have recreated out of body experiments successfully for the first time in a pair of experiments that show them to be nothing but tricks of the mind.”[iii] After this statement, the writer describes the preceding experiment. Unfortunately, with his logic, this only proves that in this particular case people report an experience with similarly described external criteria that also apply to what other people refer to as OBE’s. It is valid evidence and should be taken into account, but the readiness to jump to conclusions verifying one’s pet view is the concern. The study doesn’t prove anything, except that a mechanical means can induce a minimal OBE. But there are other levels of OBE’s and perhaps we are discussing different phenomena.

Far more profound OBE’s have been induced in a variety of ways. If he is saying that this is the conclusion because OBE’s have been induced in this manner, then he must claim that this is the sole method to induce OBE’s. Otherwise, the titular claim is invalid.

An analogy – when one puts a hand in very hot water, the hand feels cold for a moment. Experiences can be simulated so successfully that people cannot tell the difference, but that does not make the experiences identical. After making this bold claim, the author quotes Ehrson (who conducted the study). “Although out of body experiences have been reported in clinical conditions, the neuro-scientific basis of this phenomenon remains unclear.”

In other words, they don’t know what causes it. Ehrson continues, “…it reveals the basic mechanism that produces the feeling of being inside the physical body. The experience of one’s own body as the center of awareness is a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness.” Nowhere does he say, or even imply, that out of body experiences are merely an aspect of the brain. Instead, he says that we experience the body as the center of awareness because of an area of the brain. The area creates the sense that the body is the center of awareness. The researcher and the article writer came to wildly different conclusions.

One interpretation of NDEs is that people encounter another dimension. This is immediately dismissed by the skeptics. How could the mind encounter other dimensions? This, they say, is it. There is nothing more. Yet that toy of the neo-scientific skeptic, String Theory, claims to solve most problems of physics, if only we had 25 dimensions. It is not consistent to deny the dimensions for the mind, but accept them for this non-empirical theoretical construct.

James Whinnery, while investigating the blackout of pilots at high-g, found that many of them had NDE’s and OBE’s. He concluded that these experiences were related and that one might be a subset of the other. He found a causal relation between length of time unconscious and nearness to brain death. There was a high correlation between nearness to brain death and the OBE becoming an NDE.[iv]

Criteria of NDEs include a sense of well-being, understanding of the functioning of the cosmos, unqualified love, observation of one’s body (not a video of it), irritating sounds, a life review, a feeling of being dead, powerful light, beings of light, and a tunnel experience. To compare this set of criteria with an experience of someone watching themselves being poked with a stick seems a bit of a stretch. There are numerous gaps here. One ‘OBE’ seems to be a surreal dislocation between the visual and the tactile created by experimental design. The other occurs when people fall unconscious under high gravity or severe trauma. It is disingenuous to claim the two are the same when the stick-poked subjects were conscious and the others were not. The former were relaxed and the latter were subject to extreme stress conditions. The stick experiment cannot make global claims about OBEs and can say nothing at all about NDEs. The human brain is the most complex mechanism ever discovered. It’s capable of an astounding number of connections and phenomena, many of them quite similar in vague criteria.

Statistically, an NDE is no more likely if one is religious or not. A number of hard-rock atheists have been converted to a belief in consciousness existing beyond brain death through a personal NDE.

Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick said, “One of the things we know about brain function in unconsciousness is that you cannot create images and if you do, you cannot remember them … But, yet, after one of these experiences (an NDE), you come out with clear, lucid memories … This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact.”[v]

There are a number of theories of NDEs. Following are the most common. Oxygen starvation, the temporal lobe theory, depersonalization, birth memory, Darwin’s theory, hallucination, dying brain, and afterlife theory. (continued in Part II)


[i] Wikipedia.org/out of body experience/induced/van Lommel

[iii] Timesonline.co.uk “Why being out of the body is all in the mind.” Henderson, Mark.

[iv] stevencutler.com, node 70

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