On this page ….
I’ve been doing some reading on near death experiences (NDEs) and the claims of the true believers (who believe people can travel out of body to a heavenly realm when we die) and the sceptics (who believe it is all in the mind and can be explained by neuroscience.
Is there anything we can say with confidence about NDEs?
An unexpected discovery
Maria was visiting friends in Seattle in 1977 when she had a severe heart attack. She was taken to the Harborview Hospital coronary care unit. A few days later she had a cardiac arrest, but was quickly resuscitated.
The next day, Maria told social worker Kimberley Clark that while she was unconscious she was able to look down on herself and the doctors resuscitating her. She told of floating outside the hospital building and seeing a tennis shoe on a ledge on the north side of the third floor of the hospital. She described the shoe and how one of its laces was lying underneath the heel.
Maria begged Kimberly to try to find the shoe and verify what she had seen in this strange experience. Although the social worker was sceptical, she checked out the north side of the third floor.
She found the shoe, exactly as Maria had described. She recovered it and brought it back as tangible evidence of Maria’s experience.
Questions we all want to ask
Surely the first question is….. How did a tennis shoe get onto a ledge outside the third floor of a hospital? Use your imagination!
But, more importantly, how did Maria “see” that shoe?
She couldn’t have seen it from any place she had been during the hospital visit, even if she had been conscious. And at the time she was in cardiac arrest, when the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted and the brain’s activity ceases in about 30 seconds. A patient in that condition shouldn’t be able to see, let alone remember.
And such a patient, or any person for that matter, shouldn’t be able to float up to the ceiling and then outside. Yet Kimberly Clark said: “The only way she could have had such a perspective was if she had been floating right outside”.
Not only …. but also ….
This is just one of many stories. Pam Reynolds, Reinee Pasarow, Eben Alexander, Al Sullivan, Jeff Olsen, and Nancy and so many others tell similar stories. (You can read some of these stories in Near death experiences (NDEs).)
Seeing themselves from above, with the medical team at work. Floating outside, travelling down a tunnel into a realm of light and peace and love. Meeting dead family members. Meeting angels. Maybe even meeting the bright light that is God. Reviewing their life and gaining a renewed sense of purpose.
And then returning to their bodies and this life.
So what’s going on?
Investigating near death experiences (NDEs)
Maria’s story seems to demonstrate that our consciousness can exist apart from our physical bodies and brains. That out-of-body experiences are possible. That there is a beautiful other-worldy or heavenly realm awaiting us when we die.
And yet, there are doubts and questions about her account.
Principally, no-one knows where Maria is now, so her story can’t be verified directly. It all depends on social worker Kimberly Clark. She is still around and active in the International Association for Near-Death Studies, but her evidence is only second hand.
Similarly the other stories of NDEs are problematic. Some have very clear evidence, many have just the reports and a few have been found to be invented.
The true believers enthusiastically embrace the idea if out-of-body travel and a glorious life after death. The sceptics are profoundly sceptical and look for sensible neuroscientific ways that the reported experiences could occur.
Who is right?
Or could it be like a scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry dies and meets his late headmaster in an ethereal white place. He asks: “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?” Albus Dumbledore replies: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why one earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Perhaps we will get the best answers from some open-minded neuroscientists who try to find ways to objectively test these experiences to see what may be true and what may not.
The AWARE study
Five years ago Dr Sam Parnia and a team at Southampton University conducted a rigorous scientific study on NDEs. There wasn’t any way to test the reports of travelling to another realm, but they could test whether a patient being resuscitated after cardiac arrest could experience any real world events while effectively “brain dead”, and whether they could actually see events from above.
The experiment was partially successful. Out of more than two thousand cardiac arrest patients, more than 1700 didn’t survive. Of the survivors, just over 100 were able to be interviewed. Just 9 had NDE experiences and only two of these reported any awareness of events around them.
One was too unwell to complete the survey, so it all came down to one man who accurately reported events that occurred in the hospital room while he was unconscious and minutes after his brain stopped showing any signs of life, as measured by the medical equipment.
I have put in quite a few hours of reading all the different hypotheses and evidences, and outline what I have found in Near death experiences (NDEs). My conclusions were:
- Most people who report NDEs really had these experiences in their minds. Only a few have been invented.
- The reports of being aware while the brain is “dead” are sometimes true and accurate. Therefore it seems that the mind must be more than the physical brain, and it appears that the mind can exist at least for a short time (maybe more) after the brain is “dead”. This evidence supports the christian view that humans are more than physical.
- There is no evidence that out-of-body travel actually occurs in most or all NDEs. I think these visions are in the mind and the causes may well be those suggested by the neuroscientists. Nevertheless, they may reveal truths and realities of one kind or another.
- I believe many or most NDEs are probably just products of the individual person’s mind, experiences, hopes and fears. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that there may be more to them than that. And I believe God could certainly use NDEs to reveal truth, even though I doubt that is happening in most cases.
- I think christian belief in an afterlife doesn’t depend on NDEs or the hope that our “soul” lives on. The christian hope is that God will resurrect us into a new earth, just as he resurrected Jesus.
Check out the reasons why I came to these conclusions in Near death experiences (NDEs).