Near-Death Experiences Without Being Near Death

I’ve written before about near-death experiences and what they can prove about the existence of the soul. Now another study has come to my attention, one that has an even more potent conclusion. (HT: Boing Boing)

It’s long been known that the content of NDEs is influenced by religion and culture. People who have them consistently encounter the kind of afterlife they expect and meet the religious figures they’ve been taught to believe in. For example, while Christian NDEs often include Jesus or angels, Hindus report NDEs in which they meet Hindu gods, or a clerk in a celestial bureaucracy who says that there’s been a paperwork error and someone else with the same name was supposed to die instead.

This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences. Like dreams or hallucinations, they’re shaped by people’s background beliefs and expectations. And there’s more evidence for this in a 1990 article in the Lancet, with the wonderfully sardonic title, “Features of ‘near-death experience’ in relation to whether or not patients were near death”. (The abstract is online, as is full text.)

As the article says:

The medical records of 58 patients, most of whom believed they were near death during an illness or after an injury and all of whom later remembered unusual experiences occurring at the time, were examined. 28 patients were judged to have been so close to death that they would have died without medical intervention; the other 30 patients were not in danger of dying although most of them thought they were.

There were some differences between the two groups. People who were genuinely near death were more likely to report perceiving some kind of strong light (whether diffuse, at the end of a tunnel, or emanating from people they saw during the NDE). They were also more likely to report “enhanced cognitive function”, including greater speed or clarity of thought or unusually vivid sensory perceptions. However, when it comes to the “classic” NDE elements, the sense of leaving one’s body and of experiencing a “life review”, there was no difference between the people who were actually near death and those who weren’t:

Belief in having left the body and seeing it from above. The two groups showed no difference in this belief. 68% of both groups reported this belief.
Memories of earlier events in life. The two groups also did not differ in proportions reporting memories of earlier events in the subject’s life (sometimes called “life review” or “panoramic memory”). 6 (27%) of 22 patients near death and 4 (17%) of 23 patients not near death reported some such memories. Most patients reported only a few memories; only 2 (9%) patients near death and 2 (9%) patients not near death reported a review or replay of his or her whole life.

Some of the patients who were not near death were judged to have no serious illness or injury; others had a serious illness or injury, but not one that put them in danger of dying. Regardless, they believed they were dying or near death, and they had NDEs that seemed indistinguishable from those of people who had serious impairment of vital signs and would have died without medical intervention. The conclusion is clear: NDEs are the product of imagination, of a brain that thinks it’s dying, whether it actually is or not. As the authors of the paper say:

The psychological interpretation receives support from the evidence that persons who are not near death (from illness or injury) may have experiences that in all respects resemble those of persons who are near death. It would seem that among those who were not near death their experiences were precipitated by their belief that they were.

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  • http://memerocket.com Bill

    There was a great Radiolab about jet pilots and test subjects in centrifuges experiencing OOBE’s. They chalked it up to (temporary) loss of blood flow to the brain. Though your source above shows that just thinking we are dying might bring about related perceptual phenomena. Anyway, here is the Radiolab, it’s pretty interesting: http://www.radiolab.org/2006/may/05/out-of-body-roger/

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com Katherine Lorraine

    Geez, I hope I never have an NDE – it would be terrifying. Though I am an atheist now, I grew up under a fundy household and I’m sure my image of “the afterlife” would be the fundy one, which means I would be in Hell for daring to abandon my faith, being transgender, and dating a guy.

    Ya, that would suck.

  • Jeff

    This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences.

    Not necessarily – it could be that the belief system mediates the experience, that it serves as a filter for interpretation.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    Over the years, I’ve been on death’s doorstep 3 times, once by accidental electrocution, once by severe dehydration, and once by gangrene. I never had any sort of NDE with these events, but during two of them I was unconscious. and both of those cases I was later told that I had experienced seizures.

    So my hypothesis on NDEs is that when someone is near death, some may experience a clonic seizure, and that the brain activity creates a false short term memory. Later, during REM sleep, when the brain seems to reconcile short and long term memory, the anomalous event gets linked to a long term memory of descriptions of NDEs as reported in popular media, and the person will recall this false memory.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    However, when it comes to the “classic” NDE elements, the sense of leaving one’s body…

    Out Of Body Experiences (OBE or OOBE) can be treated separately from NDEs. They sometimes happen when the subject is not near death, as in the case of the pilots mentioned by Bill.

    Being able to see things not visible to the eyes is a fairly standard paranormal (ESP) claim, which has persistently failed to pass properly controlled experiments.

    OBEs as reality are wildly implausible because we know how people see. Light bounces off objects, enters the eye, gets focused by the lens onto the retina, where photoreceptors are excited and pass neural signals to the brain through the optic nerve, etc. When people report having OBEs, their eyes are usually still in their bodies. If there is any kind of a supernatural “soul,” then explanation is required of how these supernatural entities can perform the very natural task of vision.

    The best experimental report of an OBE was in 2002: Brain probe triggers out-of-body experience. Prior to surgery to correct an epileptic condition, a patient’s brain was being probed with electrodes. When the right angular gyrus was stimulated with an electrode, the patient reported seeing her body from above. Unlike cases where a patient reports an OBE after emergency room procedures, the patient was awake and could respond to questions, allowing the doctors to perform some controlled experiments. However, she was unable to see cards, etc. which were placed so they would be visible from above but not from where her head lay. Conclusion: the patient had not actually left her body, but was suffering a perceptual illusion.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Well, the problem is that an actual soul model can explain at least the study explicitly stated here quite well. Presume that there is such a thing as a soul separate from the body that is nonetheless embodied (just for the moment). Since souls generally only separate when the body is dying, there must be some sort of indicator in the physical portion of the physical state that triggers separation, an alarm that says “Body’s dying, time to leave!”. Now, in the cases where the person thought they were dying, presumably there was some sort of physiological state that made them think that, and that physiological state might have tripped the detection mechanism and started a separation. But it’s also quite likely that there’s not only a detector, but some actual connection as well. So, what you have is the start of the separation process and all of the attendant perceptions, but no actual separation because the body isn’t actually shutting down and severing the real connection. Ultimately, this also explains OBE vs NDE cases.

    Now, the first comment people will make is that I don’t have studies for this, which I concede. But it isn’t ad hoc either; it follows from what must be true if we are going to have a soul. And so as a response to “This study demonstrates that NDEs are likely completely psychological” it’s completely valid, as it shows that the “soul” theory can easily incorporate this study, and so a better study is required.

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Reginald,

    How can you dream if light isn’t striking your eyes, under your analysis?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    This suggests that NDEs, rather than a glimpse of another reality, are brain-generated experiences.

    Jeff: Not necessarily…

    We’ll wait right here while you go look up the word “suggests.”

  • Reginald Selkirk

    V. Stoic: How can you dream if light isn’t striking your eyes, under your analysis?

    What? What does dreaming have to do with this?

  • http://verbosestoic.wordpress.com Verbose Stoic

    Reginald,

    This is what it has to do with you:

    “OBEs as reality are wildly implausible because we know how people see. Light bounces off objects, enters the eye, gets focused by the lens onto the retina, where photoreceptors are excited and pass neural signals to the brain through the optic nerve, etc. When people report having OBEs, their eyes are usually still in their bodies. If there is any kind of a supernatural “soul,” then explanation is required of how these supernatural entities can perform the very natural task of vision.”

    The problem is that all of the actual perception part is something that can be done without the eyes at all, as seen in dreams. Thus, all it needs is the data. So if a mind was disembodied — as is the claim — all that would be missing is a way to get the data, but surely that’s not enough to make it “wildly implausible”.

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    But it isn’t ad hoc either; it follows from what must be true if we are going to have a soul.

    Oh really? Let’s examine this claim, shall we?

    Since souls generally only separate when the body is dying, there must be some sort of indicator in the physical portion of the physical state that triggers separation, an alarm that says “Body’s dying, time to leave!”.

    Oh really? I wasn’t aware that souls must leave the body as it is dying and not at any other time. Nor was I aware that there must be some physical trigger to tell the soul what is happening so it can leave. I guess the soul is too stupid to perceive what is happening and leave on its own? I guess it has to leave the body before it dies so that it doesn’t get stuck in a dead body and become a ghost? I can see how this must be true if souls exist.

    Now, in the cases where the person thought they were dying, presumably there was some sort of physiological state that made them think that, and that physiological state might have tripped the detection mechanism and started a separation.

    So, if souls exist, it must be true that thinking really hard about something can fool the soul that’s inside you into leaving.

    Nope, nothing ad hoc here.

  • penn

    @Jeff (#3), It’s always possible to give the invisible dragon in your garage additional features that explain why each new test shows no evidence for it’s existence.

    NDE’s are ridiculous even operating under the soul hypotheses. My soul doesn’t know if I’m really dead? It just jumps out early to get sent back? Some celestial bureaucrat working for an omnipotent deity calls the wrong guy? Did the right guy just happen to be suffering from a major health threat at the same time, but didn’t wake up? It’s all ridiculous, and it’s only taken as evidence for religion because everything is taken as evidence for religion.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Verbose Stoic: The problem is that all of the actual perception part is something that can be done without the eyes at all, as seen in dreams. Thus, all it needs is the data. So if a mind was disembodied — as is the claim — all that would be missing is a way to get the data, but surely that’s not enough to make it “wildly implausible”.

    Do you think visualizing things during dreaming is the same as actually seeing them with your eyes? I have noticed that my dreams do not necessarily correspond to reality. If you think there is another path, other than the eyes, to accurately see things, the burden of proof falls on you to make the case. I noted already that seeing without the eyes is a fairly common paranormal claim, and one that has failed abysmally under properly controlled experimental conditions.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    On occasion, I have experienced very realistic dreams. For example: I once dreamed that I woke up and was going about my morning routine. I was starting to shave when I really did wake up and was quite confused. Dreams can be very realistic and it’s tough to realize that they are dreams. In situations where persons are under anesthesia there is often a dream like state where it is difficult to distinguish reality from hallucinations.

  • http://waialeale.org Mike Kersey

    Isn’t a so-called Near Death Experience similar to being Near Pregnant or some other “Almost” contradiction in terms. An oxymoron. You are dead or you are not dead!

  • heliobates

    …all that would be missing is a way to get the data, but surely that’s not enough to make it “wildly implausible”.

    Well, you can’t really go about explaining how the soul “gets the data” in the first place without venturing into the “wildly implausible”. The long and the short of it is going to be:
    * if the soul is mind, then the soul dies with the body (see pretty much all of neuroscience and then read The Problem of the Soul)

    * if the soul is something in addition to mind, not only “how does the soul interact with the mind”, but also “how does the mind interact with the soul”? It’s not just an intractable problem (such as “what is consciousness”) but an inscrutable one.

    So I’ll do you one better: positing a soul is impossibly far from “implausable”.

  • Rae

    To Mike Kersey-

    You said “Isn’t a so-called Near Death Experience similar to being Near Pregnant or some other “Almost” contradiction in terms. An oxymoron. You are dead or you are not dead!”

    I disagree because I think that the Near Death category has a lot to do with the phyiscal deterrioration or malfunction of the physical human body, and in more rare cases, collapse of the psychological system.

    Example: John Doe gets shot. The bullet creates a hole in his body that wasn’t there before. His wound is critical; it put a hole through an organ and severed an artery which led to massive loss of blood. This would make it a malfunction of the physical body. The condition of John Doe then would be on the complete other side of the spectrum from some young 20-something who is in perfect health. Both are still alive, but both have major variances in what their bodies are experiencing, along with the psychological trauma that one would most likely sustain after being put through such an ordeal. While both of them have the same body parts, those parts are in different levels of distress from one another.

    Same goes for an end-stage terminally ill cancer patient. Their bodies go through a much more abrasive and volitile experience than someone who is in good health.

    This is how someone could be considered “near death”. Their time is limited and coming extremely close to the end, instead of someone who is young and who doesn’t die for several decades.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    In cases of severe trauma or disease, the biochemical processes in the body can start to deteriorate. In the case of electrocution, for example, the heart may go into fibrillation, resulting in a near stoppage of blood flow. Within minutes, toxins begin to build and cells and nerve begin to starve. thousands of hormonal reactions and immune system factors that are reliant on the circulation to keep things stirred up, start to go awry. After a certain point, a turning point where the damage becomes irreversible and severe, a patient can not be revived.
    close to the point of no return is the near death state.
    There is another mechanism that could account for the NDE. When someone is revived from a near death state, there is a brief time period when the brain chemistry re-balances itself. During this time, the brain may experience a temporary sensory overload. Combine the sensory overload with a temporarily reduced cognitive functions, and a predisposition to magical thinking, and voila …. an NDE.

  • http://cafeeine.wordpress.com Cafeeine

    Verbose Stoic,
    I haven’t followed a lot of your comments here, but it seems to me that, if you are promoting the possible veracity of OBE/NDEs, comparing them with brain-generated imagery such as dreams might not be the way to go to make your case.