Sunday Thoughts – Understanding Near Death Experiences

On matters Near Death Experiences, last Sunday my colleague Enock Bett asked the question:

Is there proof of life after death?

To that question a friend of his answered,

“Yes there is. My father has experienced what they call a ‘Near Death Experience’ where you’re declared dead but you are not. I used to rubbish it until I read a book called Life After Life by Raymond Moody. What my father was narrating is similar to the experiences you read in that book.”

That answer prompted me to update my Facebook status thus,

Near Death Experience is not evidence for life after death. It is evidence that someone who is about to die has a malfunctioning brain“.

With that I invited my friends Musili and Mildred Awino to criticize my seeming materialistic worldview. Musili asked,

“My question is, have you read reports of Near Death Experiencers, what they have said to perceive, how they perceived it and compared it to a definition of malfunctioning brain?”

And Mildred also asked,

“I am assuming your key premise is that the mind emanates from the brain?”

This article is therefore meant to provide a comprehensive answer to both Musili and Mildred on what modern science has to say about near death experiences.

Near Death Experiences are experiences described by people who have recovered from a state that is so close to death. More precisely, “a near-death experience (NDE) is a profound personal experience associated with death or impending death which researchers claim share similar characteristics. When positive, such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. When negative, such experiences may include sensations of anguish and distress.”

The question at heart here is not whether NDEs happen. Data of people who have experienced NDE abound both in history and from every part of the world. Not only that, researchers have also been able to replicate NDEs on healthy people through the use of psychedelics such as DMT. The question at heart therefore is whether NDEs are experiences solely limited to the brain, or are they experiences that let people actually get into another dimension?

This other dimension could be a spiritual world that actually exists out there for example a heaven, a parallel universe, or any other similar metaphysical reality. For the purpose of this article, I will group all these non-material explanations for NDEs as metaphysical.

Explaining NDE therefore boils down to two models – a model that assumes metaphysical is real, and a model that assumes that metaphysical is not real (naturalism). Naturalism is properly defined as “the the philosophical belief that everything arises from natural properties and causes, and supernatural or spiritual explanations are excluded or discounted” – or generally as an expanded formulation of materialism.

Understanding Near Death Experiences – Assuming metaphysics is true

It is very easy to explain NDE under the assumption that metaphysics is real, even though this assumption will produce varied explanations. That’s because given metaphysical reality, you just push anything that seems not to make sense under naturalism into metaphysical. There are explanations that assume existence of other universes where the ND experiences could occur, and others that assume some kind of a heaven (or hell), where such ND experiences take place.

Assuming metaphysical reality makes investigations of NDE impossible, given that the only way for anyone to gain knowledge of the supposed metaphysical world will be for the investigator to reach a near death state – a state at which we haven’t figured out how objective data can be collected.

Also, we do not have an objective framework by which we can trust or objectively map to reality the signals generated by a brain that is near death. This is not to say that we can’t objectively investigate NDE, but rather, it is acknowledging that it is still out of reach for someone to perform an NDE experiment when the person doing the experiment is at an NDE state of awareness.

The biggest problem with assuming metaphysics is true is that there isn’t actually a way to provide evidence that metaphysics is actually real – not forgetting the different varieties of metaphysical realities that have been postulated. That is, in as much as we would like to assume the truthfulness of things like extra dimensions, parallel universes under many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, heavens and hells under any of the diverse religions in the world, we do not have a mechanism by which we can establish the existence of those possible and at times contradictory worlds that could be existing apart from the world we know exists.

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Despite the lack of a mechanism by which we can ascertain the existence of the metaphysical, meta-physicists have attempted to sneak in their metaphysical claims into mainstream science – which they do by taking advantage of the gaps that currently exist in neuroscience, quantum physics and other branches of science that are yet to be fully understood (See God of the gaps fallacy) .

The gaps that exists in neuroscience are many but the most conspicuous one is the mechanism by which the brain generates consciousness. This doesn’t however mean that neuroscientists have completely no clue of how the brain plays a role in conscious thoughts. This article and this other one clearly show that the understanding of consciousness is rather thorough, allowing scientists to narrow down the theories that can provide verifiable explanation for consciousness to suitable two. In fact, as of October 2019, scientists that support either of the two competing theories for consciousness had agreed to conduct a $20 million experiment that would allow them to falsify either one of them – or possibly both. The two competing theories both of which rely on naturalism are the Global Workspace Model and the Integrated information Theory that  attempt to explain what consciousness is and why it might be associated with certain physical systems.

On the gaps that exist in quantum physics, we have things like the measurement problem, quantum entanglement, the misunderstanding of the word observer (observation) and the different philosophies upon which quantum phenomena ought to be interpreted. These philosophies include Copenhagen Interpretation and Many Worlds Interpretation. For the purposes of Near Death Experiences, it is the misunderstanding of the meaning observer that seems to play a great role.

Proponents of observer effect on quantum mechanics usually relate observation with conscious observer – whereby if there wasn’t any conscious observer, then reality wouldn’t exist. This was famously put forth by Albert Einstein thus, “does that mean the Moon is not there when I am not looking at it?”

There are several experiments that have tried to demonstrate that consciousness affects reality, but the more these experiments are done, the more they produce inconclusive results. As explained by this PBS Space Time video, mainstream quantum physics currently disregard the notion that quantum mechanics can be affected by consciousness. Thus, as provided by this Wikipedia article on observation which states that “… “observer” [means] … measurement apparatus…”, consciousness is not required to make a quantum observation. This is noted as follows in this other Wikipedia article, “Despite the “observer” in this experiment being an electronic detector—possibly due to the assumption that the word “observer” implies a person— [the results of the 1998 Weizmann experiment] have led to the popular belief that a conscious mind can directly affect reality.”

Needless to say, understanding quantum mechanics if you do not know anything about the math and the implications of the math behind quantum physics is impossible. Richard Feynman, one person who is considered to have understood quantum physics more than any other physicist of his time, famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody really understands quantum mechanics”, a statement that has been held to still hold as true by Sean Carroll, the theoretical physicist who currently sits at Richard Feynman’s seat at CALTECH, through his September 2019 article titled Even Physicists Don’t Understand Quantum Mechanics.

It is therefore recklessly bold for anyone to purport to understand metaphysics (a mystery) from quantum theory that experts of the theory themselves acknowledge they do not fully understand. Quantum Physics, although the most established of all scientific theories, is also the most mysterious. Metaphysics is a mystery, and so is consciousness. As widely acknowledged, we cannot explain a mystery by invoking yet another mystery, and that’s why attempts to explain consciousness by invoking quantum physics are not taken seriously. Those who want to explain any mysteries through quantum physics ought to wait at least until the mysteries of quantum physics are resolved.

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Understanding Near Death Experiences under Naturalism

If it is assumed that all we have is this natural world, then we are able to come up with a framework through which we can make sense of the NDEs – and if that sense can be made, then until sufficient evidence to falsify the made sense is produced, it will be justifiable for anyone to hold onto the explanation provided under the assumption of naturalism – and that’s because we have reasonable reasons to axiomatically take as true the postulate “the natural world exists”.

The explanation for NDEs under naturalism boils down to brain activity – particularly activity of a brain that’s close to death. At this point it is very important to highlight some of the available naturalistic explanations for the NDEs.

First, as summed in this Newsweek article, “Neuroscientists Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez have proposed two types of near-death experiences … Type one, which is associated with the brain’s left hemisphere, features an altered sense of time and impressions of flying. Type two, involving the right hemisphere, is characterized by seeing or communicating with spirits, and hearing voices, sounds and music.” What the findings by Olaf Blanke and Sebastian clearly illustrate is that NDEs are characteristics of brain functions, and depending on what part of the brain is involved, a person is likely to experience one of the two types of NDEs.

Secondly, one of the first thorough studies on NDE was done by Professor Kevin Nelson of Kentucky University. His work was reported by BBC as follows, “Near death experiences appear to have a biological explanation”. This explanation includes the realisation that same areas of the brain that dictates REM sleep are also responsible for Near Death Experiences.

The study, in Neurology, compared 55 people who had had near death experiences and 55 who had not. Those with near death experiences were more likely to have less clearly separated boundaries between sleeping and waking. People who have had near death experiences commonly report being surrounded by a bright light or gazing down on themselves in an operating theatre. Many of these sensations are also common to experiences of being in the dream state, or rapid eye movement (REM), stage of sleep.

A more clear biological explanation for experiencing the bright light or going through a tunnel that is reported by almost every person who goes through Near Death Experience was provided by Laci Green in this YouTube video. She said, “Because REM intrusion happens in the brain stem, it is possible for [NDE] to occur even when higher functioning parts of the brain have gone dead… [thus] trauma to the brain can result in a sensory mixed up. As your brain struggles to stay alive, all that chaos results into information overload in the visual cortex.”

The information overload explanation is further supported by the Newsweek article that provided that “The temporal lobes also play an important role in near-death experiences. This area of the brain is involved with processing sensory information and memory, so abnormal activity in these lobes can produce strange sensations and perceptions”.

Laci Green continued with her explanation as follows, “The brain also releases a flood of happy endorphin which puts you in a profound state of peace and calm. And because your body is responsible for orienting your body relative to everything around you, trauma and oxygen deprivation can cause sort of out of body experience [as] has been observed in many people who are not having any near death experience.”

These weird experiences reported by people who have come close to death would make more sense if brain activity increases either at the point of cardiac arrest (clinical death) or at the point of recovering from that cardiac arrest – that is when the heart comes back online just before the brain could die. An experiment done on rats and published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “after cardiac arrest there is crazy spike in neuron activity. The lead author said that the brain is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state. So essentially the neurons going into overdrive as death sets in causing the brain to go haywire in a predictable way”, explained Laci Green.

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This Nature article explains the same concept as follows, “In further analyses, the researchers also show that this ‘afterlife’ brain activity is also highly coordinated across brain areas and different wavelengths. These are the neural hallmarks of high-level cognitive activity. In sum, these data suggests that long after clinical death, the brain enters a brief state of heightened activity that is normally associated with wakeful consciousness.”

Thirdly on these scientific findings, I have to mention the modelling of near death experiences by use of substances generally known as psychedelics. The theory here is that if NDEs are purely a function of the brain, then if we can put the brain to mimic an NDE state then the brain ought to have similar experiences as reported by people who have recovered from near death, and we have a number of experiments that have been done with psychedelics, the leading psychedelic being N, N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

A study by Christopher Timmermann, et al (2018) titled “DMT Models the Near-Death Experience” published in Frontiers in Psychology provides this conclusion as contained in the abstract of that paper:

… we found significant relationships between the NDE scores and DMT-induced ego-dissolution and mystical-type experiences, as well as a significant association between NDE scores and baseline trait ‘absorption’ and delusional ideation measured at baseline. Furthermore, we found a significant overlap in nearly all of the NDE phenomenological features when comparing DMT-induced NDEs with a matched group of ‘actual’ NDE experiencers.

Psychedelics not only mimics the NDE experiences associated with visualising light, dead friends and relatives, tunnels or even talking to angelic or godly beings, but have also been found to mimic out of body experiences. The Newsweek article states, “Some researchers claim that endorphins released during stressful events may produce something like near-death experience, particularly by reducing pain and increasing pleasant sensations. Similarly, anesthetics such as ketamine can simulate near-death experience characteristics, such as out-of-body experiences.”

Although it is clear from the foregoing paragraphs that the brain plays a central role in the experience of NDEs, there still have been questions as to whether the brain activity can fully explain certain NDE reports, especially those relating to out of body experiences. Some of those reports include ability of people having had out of body experience to vividly narrate events that happen when they were technically unconscious hence ought not be able to know what was happening to their bodies. This mystery has been partly put in context of naturalism via experimentation where those people were not able to recognise items or markings placed at points in a room their normal body, if it were conscious, could not be able to see. The spyke in brain activity as shown in the rats’ brains can also put such awareness into perspective.

Lastly, having listened to several testimonies about NDE on YouTube, listened to medical practitioners and experts who have studied NDE up to some level (see here, here, here and here), I understand Near Death Experiences to be influenced by the following:

  1. Activity that happens either when the brain is about to die, or activities that are happening by the time the brain is recovering from near death.
  2. Personal experiences informs the type of an NDE an individual may go through.
  3. Socio-cultural and religious background contributes very significantly to the narrative in an individual’s NDE.
  4. NDEs seem to unlock an individual’s greatest life purpose/fear/longing buried deeply as Unconscious Memories, memories that can be unlocked by some psychedelics.

From the four points I have outlined, it is easy to see that Near Death Experiences are both personal experience and culture dependent. This then means that although the experiences are similar no matter the individual or the geographical, religious or cultural background, story details of those experiences depend on those factors. That is, the brain will undergo a similar set of predictable brain activity as it approaches death, but the interpretation of those activities by the very brain will depend on an individual’s personal history and cultural/religious upbringing.

Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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