Being Skeptical of Near-Death Experiences (Pt 1)

Being Skeptical of Near-Death Experiences (Pt 1) August 21, 2020

In another conversation on Facebook, I have been reminded that I have previously written on NDEs – Near-Death Experiences. Let me remind some of you longer-term readers and repost this for you newer ones.  I hope this is still current – you’ll let me know.

As a skeptic, certain ideas and associated names often come up. Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) are one such phenomenon, and accompanying names and pieces include the 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real (the book it was based on has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list); the bestselling book The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven (now admitted to have been made up); and two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal (these have spent 94 and 36 weeks on that list).

The claims of the last two books have been damaging to the positions held by most skeptics in calling into question naturalistic worldviews and explanations for such supposed phenomena, being as they are from doctors in positions of seeming authority.

Indeed, as The Atlantic stated some time ago:

Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquire questioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.

These sorts of beliefs are the types that all of us, growing up, at some point were taken in by, even if merely from a sort of X-Files perspective. It can be exciting stuff, considering what might be after death; what might be surrounding us now.

However, truth often spoils a good and exciting idea or theory. Truth, via science.

In most cases, NDEs aren’t constructed out of nothing. There is something going on in the most complex structure in the known universe, in the brains of those experiencing the phenomenon. Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff can be a difficult pastime. As The Atlantic article continues:

Written accounts of near-death experiences—or things that sound like them—date back at least to the Middle Ages, and some researchers say to ancient times. The medical journal Resuscitation recently published a brief account of the oldest known medical description of an NDE, written by an 18th-century French military doctor. But the modern era of research into near-death experiences is generally said to have begun in 1975. That was the year Raymond A. Moody Jr., a philosopher turned psychiatrist, published Life After Life, a book based on interviews with some 50 experiencers.

Moody’s book set off a steady stream of memoirs, TV shows, and articles. Since then, a small community has emerged of psychiatrists, psychologists, cardiologists, and other specialists. They share Moody’s belief that consciousness—the mind, the soul, call it what you will—may exist in some nonmaterial form, independent of but closely connected to the brain, and that NDEs may be able to provide evidence of it. The leading members of this coterie have distinguished careers at respectable universities and hospitals. They blurb one another’s books and give talks on spirituality and the nature of consciousness.

The problem for a lot of studies into NDEs is that they are retrospective, which means researchers have to wait for people to have them and come forward with their experiences. This process is very much open to problems, such as the self-selecting nature of the method (do you get more pleasant ones being reported than scary ones, which only account for 23% of reports across countries?); the reliance on memory and all its shortcomings; and the inability to observe and study what is actually going on in the bodies and brains of the individuals concerned. Indeed, of those more decent data, (perhaps some 300 cases from prospective studies), this can be said:

The goal for those who believe the mind really does leave the body is to find a verified case of what one prominent researcher has termed “apparently nonphysical veridical perception”—in other words, having an experience during which you see or hear things you otherwise couldn’t have perceived that are later confirmed to have actually happened. (Veridical means “not illusory.”) An out-of-body experience is only one of the 16 possible elements of a near-death experience on the Greyson scale, and the proportion of experiencers who report having had one varies widely from one study to another.

As the only stage in an NDE that involves perceiving the physical rather than the spiritual world, an out-of-body experience has the most potential to convince skeptics. If you could prove that someone saw or heard things that brain science says they could not have seen or heard, you would have, at the very least, evidence that our understanding of the brain is even more incomplete than we thought, and at most, a sign that a conscious mind can exist apart from a living body.

When such instances do bring up seemingly great evidence for out-of-body experiences, they are held in huge regard by proponents of this kind of dualist worldview. The problem for such stories is that they lack much evidence. One example is about a woman in the 1970s who, whilst being resuscitated, was able to see a tennis shoe on a third-floor hospital window ledge. It was found, and was supposedly in such a place that it could not have been seen in the way described. However, Maria, the woman who had the experience, disappeared soon after, never to be heard from again.

The Skeptical Inquirer isn’t so credulous:

Our investigation cannot prove that Maria’s spirit did not leave her body and return, nor that Kimberly Clark’s recollections and interpretations are wrong. It does, however, show that this case, often touted as the best in the area of neardeath studies, is far from unassailable, as its proponents assert.

We have shown several factual discrepancies and plausible ways that Maria’s supposedly unobtainable knowledge could have been obtained by quite ordinary means. On delving into this incident, we were first disappointed, then amused, that such a weak case should have achieved the importance it has been accorded. Ring and Lawrence (1993) certainly must have spoken in haste when they issued theit challenge; for rather than “arrest[ing] the skeptic’s argument in mid-sentence,” investigation of Maria’s story has shown us the naivete and the power of wishful thinking in the supposedly scientific area known as “near-death studies.” Once again, it is apparent why Demosthenes cautioned, more than 2000 years ago, “Nothing is easier than self-deceit, for what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.”

Another such case is that of singer-songwriter Pam Reynolds.

The medics working on an aneurysm worked to make sure her brain was effectively dead for the operation:

To make absolutely sure that Reynolds’s brain was completely inactive during the operation, the medical team put small speakers into her ears that played rapid, continuous clicks at 100 decibels—a sound level described as equivalent to that produced by a lawn mower or a jackhammer. If any part of her mind was working, that insistent clicking would show up as electrical signals in the brain stem, which the surgeons were monitoring on an electroencephalogram.

The machine confirmed that for a number of minutes Reynolds was effectively dead in both brain and body. Yet after the surgery she reported having had a powerful NDE, including an out-of-body experience, and accurately recalled several details about what was going on in the operating room

As wikipedia states:

Reynolds reported that during the operation she heard a sound like a natural ‘D’ that seemed to pull her out of her body and allowed her to “float” above the operating room and watch the doctors perform the operation. Reynolds claims that during this time she felt “more aware than normal” and her vision was more focused and clearer than normal vision. Reynolds says she was able to identify surgical instruments and hear conversations between operating room staff.

At some point during the operation she says she noticed a presence and was pulled towards a light. She says she began to discern figures in the light, including her grandmother, an uncle, other deceased relatives and people unknown to her. According to Reynolds, the longer she was there, the more she enjoyed it, but at some point in time she was reminded that she had to go back. She says her uncle brought her back to her body but she didn’t want to go so he pushed her in accompanied by a sensation like that of jumping into ice water.


But none of Reynolds’s reported veridical perceptions happened while her EEG recorded a flat line. They all took place before or after, when she was under anesthetic but very much alive. “Anesthesia awareness” is generally estimated to affect roughly one in 1,000 patients. (See “Awakening,” by Joshua Lang, in the January/February 2013 Atlantic.) Therefore, the skeptical argument goes, Reynolds could have heard snatches of conversation; she might have deduced some things about the bone saw from the noise it made or the vibration of it against her skull; and she might have reconstructed some false memories out of details she’d noticed before or after the operation.

For a thorough analysis of the claims and the skeptical debunking thereof (and for many others) see the excellent article on the Secular Web which includes:

Gabbard and Twemlow conclude that “thinking one is about to die is sufficient to trigger the classical NDE” (42). After comparing experiences that occurred in nonthreatening conditions with those where subjects were actually close to death, they also concluded that no particular elements were “exclusive to near-death situations,” but “several features of the experiences were significantly more likely to occur when the individual felt that death was close at hand” [emphasis mine] (42). That expectation alone can trigger NDEs in certain individuals, then, is well-documented.

If Pam had truly been out of body and perceiving, both her auditory and visual sensations should’ve been accurate; but when it came to details that could not have been guessed or plausibly learned after the fact, only her auditory information was accurate. Moreover, it is significant that as her narrative continues beyond the three visual observations outlined above, the remainder of her reported out-of-body perceptions are exclusively auditory. Finally, it is interesting that Pam reports uncertainly about the identity of the voice she heard when her OBE began: “I believe it was a female voice and that it was Dr. Murray, but I’m not sure” (Sabom, “Light” 42).

These facts strongly imply anesthesia awareness, and tend to count against the idea that Pam’s soul left her body during the operation. If her soul had left her body, the fact that her account contains out-of-body discrepancies doesn’t make much sense. But it makes perfect sense if she experienced anesthesia awareness, particularly when one looks at which sorts of information that she provided were accurate and which were not. Pam Reynolds did not report anything that she could not have learned about through normal perception, and this is exactly what we would expect if normal perception alone was operating during her OBE. It is little wonder that Fox concludes that “the jury is still very much out over this case” (Fox 210).

Disembodied consciousness can be tested with some simple preparation (Janice Holden in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences):

In a place where NDEs are likely to occur, plant some perceptual stimulus and then interview everyone who survives a near-death episode in the vicinity of that stimulus to determine whether they perceived it … Place the stimulus so that it is perceivable by an NDEr but not by other people in the area; in fact, to rule out the possibility that an interviewer or others might intentionally or unintentionally convey the content of the stimulus to the NDEr through normal—or even paranormal—means, arrange it so that the stimulus is not known even to the research team or associates.

Six studies have tried to do this, with Sam Parnia’s being the most famous. In it, “15 participating hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria installed shelves bearing a variety of images in rooms where cardiac-arrest patients were likely to need reviving”.

The problem for such studies is getting enough data. Of 2,060 cardiac arrests, it boiled down to 9 patients with experiences that counted as an NDE, of which two remembered an out-of-body experience, with only one well enough to be interviewed. His did not happen near one of these shelves. With 1000 installed shelves and only 22% of cardiac arrest happening near them, the results are particularly sparse!

In tomorrow’s piece, I will look at what science has to say about these experiences.

What explanations does science have?


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