Near-death experiences: A challenge to materialism?

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Near-death experiences: A challenge to materialism?

Research on near-death experiences may provide evidence for the universal religious claim of an existence after death.

Why near-death experiences are interesting

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are the unusual and extremely vivid experiences some people have when they are physically or psychologically close to death.[1] These experiences have been studied by scientists for decades. According to recent studies, NDEs may occur in about 10-20% of patients close to death.[2] The most interesting variety may be the ones where the brain of the person is either completely shut down or severely impaired, but they nevertheless report having detailed experiences during that time. This functioning of consciousness in the absence of brain activity may provide evidence for the universal religious claim of an existence after death.

The features of near-death experiences

Near-death experiences have been described throughout history and by all cultures. Most of the defining features are common across cultures, even though they are usually interpreted differently.[3] Some of the key features include:

  • Feelings of joy and peace.
  • Out-of-body experiences.
  • Enhanced mental function.
  • Seeing a dark tunnel or void.
  • Seeing an extremely bright light (sometimes a loving being of light).
  • Encountering other beings, often deceased people whom the experiencer recognises (about 42% of experiencers reported meeting one or more deceased acquaintances).
  • Experiencing some ‘other realm’, often of great beauty.[4]

The most common feature is the out-of-body experience, which was reported in 81% of NDEs.[5] A surprising finding was that many of these experiences involved verifiable perceptions. In other words, people perceived things that later turned out to be true, even though their brains were not functioning.

For example, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel reported the case of a cardiac arrest victim who arrived in the hospital in a comatose condition, and was kept in a coma for a week. Yet, when he awoke, he explained how he had witnessed his own resuscitation from above his own body, and was able to correctly describe all the details of the people and the procedures in the operating room. He immediately identified the nurse who had removed his dentures, and in which cart drawer they were stored.[6] [7]

Some of the other features, such as seeing a bright light, enhanced mental function, and positive emotions occurred much more frequently among people who were physically close to death than in those who were not.[8] This is precisely what you would not expect, because brain function gets more impaired as one approaches death.

Similarities with mystical and conversion experiences

Many of the features of NDEs, including the positive personality changes, are also reported in mystical and conversion experiences. For example, mystical experiences tend to be characterised by inexpressibility (ineffability), the presence of something transcendent, powerful feelings of peace and happiness, and enhanced perception and mental function.[9]

Conversion experiences, on the other hand, tend to produce profound and sudden changes in the values and character of the individual, such as their attitude towards death, and their sense of meaning and purpose in life. The most common after-effects of NDEs include precisely these elements; increases in spirituality, love and connection, and a sense of purpose, and decreases in greed and competitiveness.[10]

Models for explaining NDEs

Many models have been proposed to explain how NDEs work. Some of the least likely explanations are:

  1. that the expectation of having these experiences produces them,
  2. that NDEs are a reliving of birth memories, and
  3. that NDEs are produced by depersonalisation (a psychological disorder).[11]

However, NDEs usually violate people’s expectations about death, they rarely contain any features of a birth experience, and the vast majority of NDE experiencers are psychologically healthy.[12]

The more likely explanations are neurophysiological. For example, NDEs could be produced by imbalances in blood gases, changes in neurochemicals, or abnormal brain activity.[13] However, blood gas imbalances produce very different kinds of experiences, neurochemicals are too slow to produce the rapid onset of NDEs, and abnormal brain activity has not been shown to produce the features of NDEs. Also, none of these mechanisms has been shown to actually occur during an NDE.[14]

The challenge to materialism

The main reason that NDEs cannot be explained with a materialistic model of the mind is that mental complexity, memory, and vividness are increased during an NDE, while brain activity is severely impaired or even non-existent. In other words, these experiences occur under conditions in which conscious experience should be impossible, according to materialistic models of the mind.[15]

The two clearest examples are anaesthesia and cardiac arrest. About 23% of the NDE cases studied by the University of Virginia occurred under general anaesthesia.[16] They included the same features as other NDEs, even though general anaesthesia deactivates all neurological functions necessary for conscious experience. Cardiac arrest is even more abrupt, since brain activity ceases completely (flat-line EEG) after about 10 to 20 seconds. A significant percentage of NDEs therefore occur while the person is clinically dead.[17]

What this indicates – according to the researchers – is that NDEs are scientifically studied phenomena that are impossible to explain with a materialistic model of the human mind. If the mind is produced by brain activity, or is somehow identical to it, then these experiences should be impossible. Yet they occur.[18]

The NDE researchers at the University of Virginia therefore argue that careful studies of these phenomena should inform scientific, philosophical, and religious debates about the nature of the human mind, and what happens to it after death.[19] It should not be ruled out in advance that scientific experiments could prove that consciousness can function independently of the brain, and can therefore survive death. In fact, these scientists argue that all the research points in that direction.[20]

Timo Pieters

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[1] Edward F. Kelly et al., Irreducible Mind: Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2009), Kindle edition. Loc. 8750 of 18017.

[2] Ibid, Loc. 8800.

[3] Ibid, Loc. 8773.

[4] Ibid, Loc. 8811.

[5] Ibid, Loc. 9072.

[6] Ibid, Loc. 9167.

[7] See also: Pim van Lommel M.D., Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience (Harper One: 2011).

[8] Kelly, Irreducible Mind, Loc. 8833.

[9] Ibid, Loc. 9603.

[10] Ibid, Loc. 8838, 9610.

[11] Ibid, Loc. 8854, 8892, 8901.

[12] Ibid, Loc. 8864, 8898, 8908.

[13] Ibid, Loc. 8940, 8963, 8989.

[14] Ibid, Loc. 9044.

[15] Ibid, Loc. 9690.

[16] Ibid, Loc. 9707.

[17] Ibid, Loc. 9738.

[18] Ibid, Loc. 9807.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, Loc. 9911.