From The Skeptic Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience
Barbara, CA., ABC-Clio, 152-157
is it like to come very close to death and survive? In 1975, physician
Raymond Moody hit the best-seller lists with Life
after Life, claiming that hundreds of near-death survivors had
reported overwhelmingly pleasant experiences. During these
experiences, he noted, they seemed to leave their bodies and view
resuscitation attempts from above; then they passed down a dark tunnel
toward a brilliant light, met a “being of light” who helped them
to evaluate and judge their own lives, and finally decided to return
to life rather than go on into the peace and bliss of death (Moody
1975). The near-death experiences (NDEs) were difficult to talk about
for the survivors but left them changed for the better—reportedly
less materialistic and with a reduced fear of death. Reactions to
these claims ranged from the popular view that these experiences must
be evidence for life after death to outright rejection of the
experiences as, at best, drug-induced hallucinations or, at worse,
The State of the Evidence on Near-Death
years and much research later, it is clear that neither extreme is
correct. On the one hand, the claim that the experiences are evidence
for survival after death is untenable. Even though the boundary
between life and death is pushed back by improved techniques, it is
always possible to argue that the person did not actually die and that
the experiences were part of life and not death. Of course, if there
is life after death, these experiences may give a clue as to what it
is like, but they can never be definitive evidence that there is.
the other hand, the experiences cannot be dismissed as either
invention or the product of medical intervention. Moody simply
collected cases as they came along, but research by Kenneth Ring,
conducted on 101 randomly selected survivors, soon confirmed that such
reports are common. In that research, about 60 percent of the
participants reported peace, one-third mentioned out-of-body
experiences (OBEs), one-quarter said they had entered the darkness (or
a tunnel), and rather fewer reported the later experiences (Ring
1980). Near-death experiences (NDEs) also appear to be widespread
through many ages and cultures. Long before Moody, there were similar
descriptions of deathbed experiences (when the patients did go on to
die) in the psychical research literature (Barrett 1926; Osis and
Haraldsson 1977), as well as isolated reports in the medical
literature (Dlin, Stern, and Poliakoff 1974; Dobson et al. 1971; Druss
and Kornfeld 1967; MacMillan and Brown 1971). In addition, there are
both historical and contemporary accounts from many different cultures
(Blackmore 1993), and in our own culture, children also report similar
experiences, although their reports tend to be fragmentary compared
with those of adults (Morse et al. 1986; Morse 1990).
Explanations for the Near-Death Experience
some modern stories may be inventions based on the widespread
publicity about the phenomenon, it seems unlikely that people across
so many other ages and cultures would have invented similar stories.
The question then becomes why the features are so often the same.
Common theories include the effects of (1) expectation, (2)
administered drugs, (3) endorphins, (4) anoxia (oxygen depletion) or
hypercarbia (excess carbon dioxide),(5) temporal lobe stimulation, and
(6) life after death. Each will be considered in turn.
clearly has an effect on NDEs, though there are two different aspects
to this factor. First, NDEs often happen to people who think they are
dying when, in fact, there is no serious clinical emergency. This adds
to the general conclusion that you do not have to be physically near
death to have an NDE (Gabbard, Twemlow, and Jones 1981; Owens, Cook,
and Stevenson 1990). Indeed, some aspects of the NDE, such as the
out-of-body experience (see the “Out-of-Body Experiences” entry in
this encyclopedia) can occur at any time and to perfectly healthy
people (Blackmore 1982; Gabbard and Twemlow 1984; Irwin 1985). There
are some differences between the NDEs of those who are and are not
close to death, but they are small compared to the similarities
(Owens, Cook, and Stevenson 1990).
the details of the NDE may vary with expectations about death. For
example, Christians tend to see Jesus in the light, and Hindus see the
messengers of Yamraj coming to take them away—and
they often refuse to go! (Osis and Haraldsson 1977). However, the
general pattern seems to be similar across cultures, suggesting that
religious expectations are not responsible for the entire experience
or for most of its common features. If they were, we might expect more
pearly gates and fewer tunnels. We might also expect those who attempt
suicide to have more hellish experiences, but they do not (Greyson and
Stevenson 1980; Ring and Franklin 1981-2; Rosen 1975). Their NDEs are
much like others and tend to reduce future attempts at suicide.
this suggests that, although expectation may change the details of
NDEs, it cannot be used to explain their occurrence entirely or even
to account for the similarities across ages and cultures.
suggestion that the NDEs are created by drugs administered to dying
patients does not hold up either. Many classic cases have been
reported from drug-free patients and from people who were falling from
mountains (Noyes and Kletti 1972) or involved in other accidents in
which no drugs were involved. More specifically, research shows that
patients given anesthetics or painkillers have fewer or more muted and
less detailed NDEs than others (Ring 1980; Osis and Haraldsson 1977;
Greyson and Stevenson 1980). It seems likely that it is the brain’s
own drugs that are more important for the NDE than drugs administered
Carr (1981, 1982) first suggested that endorphins could account for
the NDE. Endorphins are released under stress (including both actual
physical trauma and extreme fear―such as the fear of dying).
They are known to block pain and to induce feelings of well-being,
acceptance, and even intense pleasure, which might suggest they are
responsible for the positive emotional tone of most NDEs. There is
much controversy over the occurrence of “hellish” NDEs, with some
researchers arguing that they are far more common than previously
suspected (Atwater 1992; Greyson and Bush 1992; Rawlings 1978).
Occasionally, NDEs change from pleasant to hellish, as occurred in one
seventy-two-year old cancer patient who was administered naloxone. His
pleasant NDE turned to horror and despair as the friendly creatures
morphed into the doctors treating him—suggesting
that the naloxone (a morphine antagonist) had blocked the endorphins
that were providing the pleasant feelings (Judson and Wiltshaw 1983).
This is circumstantial, though, and Melvyn Morse has argued that
endorphins are not responsible, suggesting that the neurotransmitter
serotonin plays a more important role. Of eleven children who had
survived critical illnesses, including coma and cardiac arrest, seven
reported NDEs, while twenty-nine age-matched controls, who had had
similar treatments including the use of narcotics, did not report any
NDEs (Morse et al. 1986). However, it is questionable whether the
effects of narcotics administered during critical illness are
comparable with those of endorphins. Karl Jansen has argued that
endorphins are not potent hallucinogens and suggested instead the
involvement of NMDA receptors (Jansen 1989). Thus, it is still not
known just how far endorphins are implicated in the NDE.
Anoxia or Hypercarbia
argument over the role of anoxia has been complex. Some blame anoxia
for all the features of the NDE, though this reasoning is implausible,
since so many NDEs clearly occur in the absence of anoxia (e.g., when
the person only thinks he or she is going to die).
have argued that the cortical disinhibition associated with anoxia may
be responsible for the tunnel and light experiences. Since the visual
cortex is organized with many cells devoted to the center of the
visual field and few to the periphery, random excitation will produce
the effect of a bright light in the center fading out toward
darkness—in other words, a tunnel effect (Blackmore and Troscianko
1988). More generally, it has been suggested that it is the
disinhibition (not the anoxia per se) that is responsible for much of
the NDE (Blackmore 1993).
in non-life-threatening situations does cause odd experiences, such as
the visions and out-of-body experiences reported by pilots trained in
gravity-induced loss of consciousness (Whinnery 1990). There are also
suggestions of NDE-like experiences in children suffering from reflex
anoxic seizures, though most of these children are too young to
describe their experiences (Appleton 1993; Blackmore 1998).
all this, others argue that the effects of anoxia are not like those
of NDEs (for example, producing confusion rather than the clear
thinking of a typical NDE), though this is complicated by the fact
that different types and speeds of anoxia cause different effects.
There is also one case of an NDE in a patient with measured, normal
blood gases (Sabom 1982), although it has been argued that his blood
was taken from the femoral artery and that peripheral blood bases are
not a reliable indicator of cortical blood gases (Gliksman and
may also be a role for hypercarbia, which has long been known to
induce strange experiences such as lights, visions, and out-of-body
and mystical experiences (Meduna 1950).
Temporal Lobe Stimulation
temporal lobe is likely to be crucial in NDEs, since it is sensitive
to anoxia and its stimulation is known to induce hallucinations,
memory flashbacks, body distortions, and out-of-body experiences (Halgren
et al. 1978; Penfield 1955). The limbic system is also sensitive to
anoxia and involved in the organization of emotions and memory,
suggesting a possible link with the life review that sometimes occurs
during NDEs. An interesting effect of endorphins is that they lower
the seizure threshold in the temporal lobe and limbic system (Frenk,
McCarty, and Liebeskind 1978), so they might produce the same effects
as anoxia. One neurobiological model of the NDE is based almost
entirely on the notion of abnormal firing in the temporal lobe and
associated parts of the brain (Saavedra-Aguilar and Gomez-Jeria 1989).
Also, research looking for an “NDE-prone personality” has led to
the conclusion that those most likely to have NDEs may have more
unstable temporal lobes and show more “temporal lobe signs” than
others (Ring 1984), though it is not clear how much of this
association is a cause or an effect of the NDE.
Life after Death
of the previous mechanisms can account entirely for the NDE, and many
theorists argue that something beyond the brain is involved—for
example, that there is a soul or something else that leaves the body
at death and that the NDE is a glimpse of what follows. Direct
evidence for this explanation is impossible to obtain. However, there
are claims that during NDEs, people have been able to hear
conversations and see the actions of people around them and even
observe things such as the behavior of needles on dials, all of which
they could not possibly have known about while in a comatose state (Sabom
1982). If such paranormal acquisition of information really occurs, it
is evidence that any naturalistic account of NDEs must be incomplete.
But does it occur? Many of these claims are based purely on anecdotal
evidence, and very few have any independent corroboration.
example, the most famous case involves a woman named Maria who
apparently saw a shoe on an inaccessible ledge of a hospital in
Seattle. The social worker attending her later found this shoe just as
Maria had described it (Clark 1994). The problem with this case is
that we only have Clark’s description to go on. Neither Maria nor
anyone else involved gave an independent account of the experience and
Maria herself is now untraceable and presumed dead. There are other
similar cases as well (Ring and Lawrence 1993). Yet skeptics tend to
reject the evidence as inadequate, whereas proponents think it is
conclusive. Perhaps the matter might be resolved by appropriate
experiments, such as those using concealed targets in operating
theaters and recovery rooms. Some are presently under way, but no
results have yet been published.
transformations reported in the lives of some individuals after
near-death experiences after NDEs are also taken as evidence of the
NDE’s heavenly nature. However, simply facing up to death can bring
about a change in personal values, and there is conflicting evidence
about whether an NDE is necessary for such an outcome (Greyson 1990;
Pope 1994). It has also been argued that during the NDE, the usual
model of self breaks down, and this brief experience of selflessness
may bring about personal changes (Blackmore 1993).
the end, it is probably a matter of personal preference whether to
interpret the NDE as a glimpse of the life beyond or the product of
the dying brain. In either case, the NDE deserves serious research,
and the dying, the recovering, and their relatives deserve to know
what we have learned. As Morse (1994) put it, these experiences can
help us to restore dignity and control to the dying process. Just as
NDEs reduce the fear of death in the people who have them, so they can
help all of us to accept death as a positive aspect of life. Indeed,
the study of life at its last limits may tell us more about ourselves
and our lives than it does about death.
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