Near-Death Experiences in Retrospect

By now it should be abundantly apparent that the positive human encounter with Divinity -- with light and ecstasy -- spans cultures and the ages. Whether it be a Hindu yogi centuries before Christ was born, or a middle class, not especially religious person in the United States, the phenomenon continues to be reported in surprisingly similar terms. While there is no firm agreement on exactly what -- or who -- it might be that the experiencer encounters, it can be said that the person considers it to be profoundly real; the ultimate; the experience par excellence. For the Jew, Christian or Muslim it is God. For the Hindu it is the discovery of the true soul (Atman), which happens to be identical with the true God (Brahman). Buddhists refer to it as the Ultimate Reality; nirvana; the Clear Light of the Void, or Buddha. A modern near-death experiencer might well also believe that he or she has encountered God, or the person might simply use more descriptive terminology such as "an unconditionally loving Being of Light." Divinity, of course, means different things to different people. The description of the experience itself, however, remains remarkably consistent no matter who is telling it.

However, the near-death experience has not gained general acceptance by scientists and academics as being any sort of an encounter with the Divine by a "soul" that survives death. In fact, a fairly extensive literature has developed criticizing contending the contrary. The trouble with these critics, though, is that not all agree on exactly what the cause of the experience might be. Theories range from the influence of an unusual flow of brain chemicals; to the reaction of the dying brain to reduced levels of oxygen; or to purely psychological factors such as dreams, hallucinations, or wish fulfilment. While all of these criticisms offer interesting possibilities, none of them rise above the level of speculation. In short, the critics have no better claim to what the experience really means than anyone else.

Still, critics have raised many points that are well worth considering. One possibility is that the experience could be induced under the influence of drugs. As Aldous Huxley first published in 1954, drugs such as mescaline can induce mystical states very similar to the ones that are under investigation. In The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell, Huxley wrote,

What are the common features which this pattern imposes upon our visionary experiences? First and most important is the experience of light. Everything seen by those who visit the mind's antipodes is brilliantly illuminated and seems to shine from within. All colours are intensified to a pitch far beyond anything seen in the normal state, and at the same time the mind's capacity for recognizing fine distinctions of tone and hue is notably heightened.1
Huxley's observations led in part, of course, to the 1960s drug culture. Well known authors, as well as respectable academic researchers, investigated the validity of drug-induced mystical experiences. In 1966, researchers Walter Pahnke and William Richards found that LSD could produce experiences that correspond to the essential categories found in the literature dealing with mysticism. These include unity, changes in one's perception of objectivity and reality, transcendence, sacredness, paradoxicality, ineffability, transiency, a very positive mood and positive changes in attitude and behaviour.2 Similarly, author Alan Watts, philosophy of religion professor Huston Smith, and psychoanalyst Stanislav Grof have concluded that psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, LSD and psilocybin are capable of inducing mystical experiences.3

Further, psychedelic drugs seem to be able to induce NDEs or something very much like an NDE. Ronald Siegal found that PCP can induce an experience very much like an NDE. This includes images of tunnels and lights; out-of-body states; spirit guides, and a life or memory review. Siegal concludes that this indicates that NDEs are some form of hallucination that uses images already stored in the brain.4 Similarly, J.W. Provonsha found similarities between NDEs and experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, and carbon dioxide. Provonsha asks rhetorically if NDEs are, by extension, really the work of psychochemicals. This would mean that the NDE is really an experience of the dying process, not death itself.5 D. Scott Rogo, in the same vein, has reviewed the literature on the parallels between NDEs and the effects of anaesthetics, particularly ketamine. He concludes that while no direct causal parallel can be drawn between the two, the parallels are strong enough to cast doubt on purely metaphysical explanations of the NDE.6

Interestingly, psychedelic drugs can even have some of the beneficial after-effects as those who have undergone an actual NDE. Walter Pahnke found that the majority of terminally ill cancer patients who were administered LSD benefitted from the treatment. The after-effects included lessened anxiety and depression, as well as a reduced fear of death.7 William Richards also concluded that after having been administered LSD, one third of terminal cancer patients experienced dramatic improvement in outlook regarding their condition. Death was no longer regarded by these patients as an end to all personal existence, but rather "as a transition to different type of existence."8 Stanislav Grof found similar, but even more positive results: 27 of 31 patients administered LSD showed improvements in the same areas noted by Pahnke, and those who had "peak" experiences such as unity, transcendence, and sacredness ended up having the most positive and lasting attitude changes of all.9

By extension, some argue that the brain itself can manufacture chemicals that act very much like their artificial psychedelic counterparts. Endocrinologist Daniel Carr has argued that beta-endorphins and similar brain chemicals that are released during the dying process might very well trigger the NDE.10 Even changes to blood pressure in the inner ear can produce the sensation of rising out of the body, floating away in space, and even near-death visions.11

Several critics of the metaphysical model of the near-death experience argue that levels of oxygen to the brain -- of which varying levels are found in people who are about to die -- can trigger images commonly reported in NDEs. Richard S. Blacher, in an early rebuttal to Raymond Moody's claim that the NDE constitutes evidence of the survival of bodily death, claims that those who have had NDE-like experiences of the type that Moody describes are likely suffering from hypoxia.12 Neurologist Ernst A. Rodin claims that NDEs are simply hallucinations or delusions caused by the deprivation of oxygen to the brain, and says so on the ground that he himself had had a near-death experience.13

Critics of this brand of critic have plenty to say in rebuttal. First, of course, not all of those who have had an NDE were under the influence of any drugs or anaesthetics. Moreover, beta-endorphins cannot in and of themselves account for the whole of the NDE, only perhaps the part dealing with feelings of well? being or ecstasy. Cardiologist Michael B. Sabom takes exception to Blacher's claims that NDEs result from hypoxia. Sabom counter-claims that persons suffering from that condition typically end up with a confused and muddled memory, quite the opposite of the clarity found in the NDE.14 Further, Sabom claims that Rodin's personal experience might not be a genuine NDE at all.15 Ian Stevenson agrees with Sabom that oxygen deprivation to the brain typically induces a "toxic psychosis," but this is not at all the kind of report given by those who have had an NDE. Rather the latter "never have been more alive and aware."16

Other critics have used psychological counter-explanations of the metaphysical model of the NDE. In another response to Ernst Rodin's article mentioned above, Nathan Schnaper supports Rodin's contention that NDEs are probably delusions or hallucinations. Schnaper extends Rodin's thesis, however, to include other possible sources for the experience. These include considerations of physiology (hypoxia, anoxia, etc.); pharmacology (ketamine and other anaesthetics and pharmaceuticals); and psychology (dissociative reaction, panic, psychosis etc.). The great public interest in the NDE phenomenon is best understood as death denial.17

Ronald K. Siegal also contends that NDEs are hallucinations, brought about by psychological and neurophysiological factors, although he admits that those processes are not yet fully understood. Like Schnaper, Siegal maintains that NDEs are a product of a human imagination longing for an afterlife.18 Jan Ehrenwald agrees that "most claims of survival near death or after resuscitation result from a blend of hallucinatory wish fulfilment and massive denial of illness in terms of defensive maneuvers."19 Russel Noyes, Jr., concurs that NDE occurrences such as depersonalization serve as a defense mechanism against the threat of death. The "life review" and other sweeping recollections are likely a result of the dying person attaching him/herself to memories that will act as reminders of their own existence.20 Susan Blackmore adds that while NDEs are indeed hallucinations, visions of a tunnel and/or a great light are most likely the result of activity in the visual cortex of a dying brain. Survivors transform these images into objective concepts drawn from sensory experience.21

Psychoanalysts have come up with some possible explanations of the NDE phenomenon. According to Uri Lowenthal, the bliss felt during an NDE is an infantile regression to the memory of the bliss felt under a mother's protection. Likewise, the "dark tunnel" is a recollection of the mother's birth canal, and the "bright light" would be a memory of the mother's radiant face.22 Similarly, Glen Gabbard and Stuart Twemlow surmise that when viewed psychoanalytically, the "being of light" may represent an internalized parent.23 Mortimer Ostow and N. Lukianowicz agree that the NDE can be explained in part by ego wish fulfilment.24

Some social scientists have concluded that NDEs are akin to a dreams that seem very real. Anthropologist Dorothy Counts found that in New Guinea, the culturally structured nature of out-of-body and NDE accounts suggests that both are the product of a state of mind known as hypnagogic sleep.25 Similarly, Celia Green has argued that certain aspects of NDEs such as out-of-body experiences and the travel through a tunnel are very much like the lucid dream phenomenon, where the subject is aware that he or she is dreaming.26

The field of sensory deprivation also has application to the near-death phenomenon. John C. Lilly observed that some subjects in sensory deprivation tanks experienced the "out of body" sensation.27 Even more suggestive is the story of two miners who were trapped underground for six days. The two had hallucinations that included people, a cross, a heavenly garden, and blue lights. The authors of this work conclude that under conditions as stressful as this, hallucinations serve to address perceived needs.28

Psychological explanations of NDEs have raised some very interesting analogies from various aspects of the field. However, none as yet constitute proof that the NDE is caused by one factor or another. There might very well be some truth in some or all of these explanations, but we have not yet seen any definitive explanation for the whole phenomenon.

In her 1993 book, Dying to Live: Science and the Near-Death Experience, Susan Blackmore has tried to debunk all aspects of the metaphysical explanations of the NDE. She agrees that NDE accounts are consistent; however, this does not constitute proof of an afterlife. Blackmore draws upon various aspects of modern science to demonstrate her contention. For example, the joy and peace people experience are a result of "natural opiates released under stress." The "life review is consistent because the endorphins cause random activation and seizures in the temporal lobe and limbic system where memories are organized." Positive transformations in one's life can be attributed to the fact that one is now thinking about death, which in and of itself is enough to make one "less selfish and more concerned for others." Blackmore concludes that the dying brain hypothesis best explains the near-death phenomenon. She goes on to say that there really is no "soul" to survive death: "We are simply here and this is how it is. I have no self and 'I' own nothing. There is no one to die. There is just this moment, and now this and now this."29

Again, Blackmore has come up with some interesting possibilities regarding the causes of the NDE, but the work is really as conjectural as the metaphysical model. Even though the book is subtitled "'Science' and the near-death experience," this is not a scientific analysis of the phenomenon. We only have a collection of various studies from various fields of science that, when put together, give us a physical and psychological alternative to the metaphysical understanding of the NDE. This is really an exposition of the author's and likeminded individual's beliefs, not anything that approaches scientific proof.

Further, as the mystical traditions of the world's religions have shown, one does not have to be near death in order to experience key elements of an NDE. In fact the encounter with the "Divine Light" and the accompanying ecstasy can be achieved by a number of means, none of which have anything to do with a dying brain. Until we see something more substantial from those who postulate a purely physical and/or psychological cause for the NDE, metaphysical arguments are still well worth considering.

One point that Blackmore raised that might well be worth developing further from a metaphysical point of view is the concept of self. Blackmore prefers what she defines as the Buddhist position that "neither self nor anything pertaining to self can truly and really be found."30 Unfortunately, whether intentionally or not, this leaves the impression that Buddhism advocates some form of pure materialism. This is far from the truth. While Buddhism does propose that ultimately the self does not exist, and that the truth beyond the self is nothingness, this does not mean that nothingness is "blackness," or has no intrinsic reality. On the contrary, as we have seen, some scriptures such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead speak of the "Clear Light of the Void." For Buddhists, the void is vividly real, the ultimate reality, and hardly the cynical non-existence tacitly referred to by Western atheistical materialists.

Ironically, Blackmore's reference to the Buddhist conception of self can lead us to a new metaphysical understanding of the nature and meaning of life and death. It might very well be that the soul does not continue to exist indefinitely beyond death, whether in "heaven" or in some form of reincarnation. Buddhist philosophy allows us to see that there might very well be a state of being beyond this life and even beyond the near-death experience. We will explore this metaphysic in the concluding chapter.




Divine Encounters
Near-Death Experiences in Retrospect


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