The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences

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I’ve never had a patient confess to having had a near-death experience (NDE), but recently I came across a fascinating book called The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain by Kevin Nelson, M.D. that reports as many as 18 million Americans may have had one.  If true, the odds are not only that some of my patients have been among them, but also some of my friends.  Which got me wondering:  just what does science have to tell us about their cause?

That NDEs happen isn’t in dispute.  The sequence and type of events of which they’re composed are similar enough among people who report them that NDEs could be considered a syndrome of sorts akin to a disease lacking a known cause.  But just because millions of people have experienced NDEs doesn’t mean the most commonly believed explanation for them—that souls leave bodies and encounter God or some other evidence for the afterlife—is correct.  After all, people misinterpret their experience all the time (an optical illusion representing the most basic example).  Without a doubt, many people who report NDEs are profoundly affected by them, but usually more as a result of their interpretation of the experience (i.e., the afterlife is real) than as a result of the experience itself.  It turns out, however, that a number of reproducible observations combined with a bit of conjecture yield an entirely plausible neurological explanation for all the reported experiences that comprise NDEs.

In his book Nelson, notes that normally 20% of the heart’s blood flow is directed to the brain, but that it can drop as low as 6% or so before we fall unconscious (and even at this level, no permanent injury will result).  Nelson further observes that when our blood pressure drops low and we faint, the vagus nerve (a large nerve that connects to the heart) tilts consciousness toward REM sleep—but interestingly in some people not all the way.  A number of subjects seem to be susceptible to what he calls “REM intrusion.”  REM intrusion most typically occurs, when it does, in the transition from wakefulness to sleep.  Nelson found in his research that the functioning of the mechanism that flip-flops people between REM sleep and wakefulness tended to be different in people who reported NDEs.  In those people, he found the switch was more likely to “fragment and blend” those two states of consciousness (control of our state of consciousness is found in the brainstem and is tightly regulated), causing such people to simultaneously exhibit features of both.  During REM intrusion people have found themselves paralyzed (“sleep paralysis”), fully awake but experiencing light, out-of-body sensations, and stunningly vivid narratives.  During REM sleep, many of the brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated as well (animals that have had their REM regions injured lose all interest in food and even morphine), which may explain the feelings of peace and unity also reported during NDEs.

Neurophysiology can also explain the feeling of moving through a tunnel so commonly mentioned in NDEs.  People are well known to experience “tunnel vision” immediately before fainting.  Experiments with pilots spun around in giant centrifuges have reproduced the tunnel vision phenomena by increasing G-forces and decreasing blood flow to their retinas (the periphery of the retina is more susceptible to drops in blood pressure than its center, so that the visual field appears compressed, making scenes appear as if viewed through a tunnel).  When special goggles that generate suction were applied to the pilots’ eyes to counteract the blood pressure lowering effect of the centrifuge, the pilots lost consciousness without developing the tunnel vision effect—proving the experience of tunnel vision to be caused by decreased blood flow to the eye.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NDEs is how often they’re associated with out-of-body experiences.  This, too, however, turns out to be an illusion.  Evidence that out-of-body experiences have nothing to do with souls leaving bodies can be found in the observation that they’ve also been reported by people just awakening from sleep, recovering from anesthesia, while fainting, during seizures, during migraines, and while at high altitudes (there’s no reason to think the souls of people are leaving their bodies during any of those non-life-threatening situations).  But the most fascinating evidence that out-of-body experiences are neurological phenomena comes from studies initially performed in the 1950s by a neurosurgeon named Penfield.  He was interested in figuring out how to distinguish between normal brain tissue and brain tumors or scars that were responsible for causing seizures.  So he stimulated the brains of hundreds of awake patients in an effort to map the cerebral cortex and figure out where in our brains our physical body is represented.

One patient suffered from temporal lobe seizures and when Penfield stimulated the temporoparietal region of his brain, he reported leaving his body.  When the stimulation stopped, he “returned,” and when Penfield stimulated the temporoparietal region again, he left his body once more.  Penfield also found when he varied the current and stimulus location that he could make his patient’s limbs seem to shorten or create a body double that existed next to him!  In The Tell-Tale Brain, V.S. Ramanchandran describes a patient who had a tumor removed from his right frontoparietal region and developed a “phantom twin” attached to the left side of his body.  When Ramanchandran applied cold water to his ear (a procedure known as cold-water caloric testing, which stimulates the brain’s balance system, known to have connections to the frontoparietal region), the patient’s twin shrunk, moved, and changed positions!

Neurologists have since recognized that the temporoparietal region of the brain is responsible for maintaining our body schema representation.  When external current is applied to this region, it ceases to function normally and our body schema “floats.”  Further evidence that this phenomenon is an illusion comes from experiments in which people who’ve had out-of-body experiences when transitioning from sleep to wakefulness were unable to identify objects placed in the room after they’d fallen asleep, strongly suggesting the picture they viewed of themselves sleeping in their beds was reconstructed from memory.  Though no evidence yet exists that low blood oxygen levels cause dysfunction of the temperoparietal region in the same way as does applied current, this remains a testable hypothesis and the most likely explanation.

In sum then, though far from proven, as an explanation for what actually explains near-death experiences, the REM intrusion hypothesis has far more evidence to support it than does the idea that we actually do leave our bodies when death looms near.

Next WeekThe Problem With Being Too Persuasive

40 comments to The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences

  • The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences | The Personal Website of Philip Fizur

    [...] From Happiness in this World: “I’ve never had a patient confess to having had a near-death experience (NDE), but recently I came across a fascinating book called The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain by Kevin Nelson, M.D. that reports as many as 18 million Americans may have had one. If true, the odds are not only that some of my patients have been among them, but also some of my friends. Which got me wondering: just what does science have to tell us about their cause?” [More] [...]

  • This may not qualify as a near-death experience, but it certainly seemed like one. A number of years ago, I swallowed an aspirin the wrong way. It lodged, I think, in my windpipe, which swelled up and slowly (well, not that slowly) prevented me from breathing altogether. I experienced the tunneling of my vision, and then blackness. And then all that happened was that I felt enormous calm and a sense of peaceful resignation. And then after some time, I don’t know how much, I found I could breathe again slowly, in starts and gasps. My husband had been about to call 911. He’d found me and rushed over to the phone. We were enormously happy he didn’t have to. But I thought afterwards that this was nature’s way of letting me die without panicking. It reassured me enormously, since I’m not religious, that perhaps there was a natural mechanism that let people die peacefully. Maybe I didn’t get far enough along in the “dying” process!

  • Steven P

    Having been through three near death experiences, something I would think few people experience in a life, I find your explanations to be completely inadequate in explaining what I experienced. Moreover if I may ask, what is your point? I mean what are you attempting to teach or prove?

    Let me share my experience as I have had 3 near death experiences.

    The causes of my three near death experiences were very different from one another (thrown from a convertible when rear ended by someone at 70 mph while I was at a stop light waiting for the left turn signal—my car was a complete total and I became unconscious upon impact or when my head hit the pavement—1989); internal hemorrhaging while on an airplane leading to the loss of 5.5 pints of blood in a matter of hours (due to an undiagnosed ulcer—I became unconscious before my LA to Miami flight could make an emergency landing in Houston landing—1994); and acute anaphylactic shock (resulting from a doctor failing to read my chart and giving me a sulfa-based drug to which I am deathly allergic and then I was misdiagnosed as having a reaction to taking a “recreational” drug and not given the epinephrine and slipped into a coma for a week 2006).

    Let me also state that I am not a religious person. Though raised and thoroughly educated as a Jew, I do not believe in organized religion not do I attend synagogue. Furthermore, my religious upbringing never dwelled on any aspect of heaven or the afterlife but focused entirely on leasing a good and ethical life in this lifetime.

    In addition to the explanation you are attaching to some of the common phenomena experienced by many. But even if those fully explained away the common experiences you have enumerated, what of the other common experiences that you did not explain away?

    — Receiving messages in telepathic form.

    — A sense/awareness of being dead

    — A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A feeling of being removed from the world

    — A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light. Communication with the light.

    — An intense feeling of unconditional love.

    — Encountering “Beings of Light,” “Beings dressed in white,” or other spiritual beings.

    — Being given a life review and coming face to face with every one you have ever known

    — Being presented with knowledge about one’s life and the nature of the universe

    — A decision by oneself or others to return to one’s body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return

    — Approaching a border.

    And again I come back to “what is your point in this article” and so negative compared to others?

    Steven

    Steven: I fail to understand why you think I’m being negative in offering neurological explanations for NDEs. Regarding the phenomena you raise, Nolan addresses each on in his book. I didn’t go into the details here because of concerns about length.

    Alex

  • Maria

    Thank you for this very interesting explanation. Having had multiple patients experience NDEs, they are quite moving and perplexing. However, I also had interesting experiences with family members after the death of a child who have reported simultaneous dream states that are impressive. One young child appeared in the same outfit with his dead pet and said the same thing to two family members—one who did not know about the dead pet and reported exactly the same comment. I had a hard time figuring that one out!!!

    Do you think endorphins are released or stimulation of some specific area of the brain that results in the prolonged sense of euphoria, meaning in life, etc after a NDE?

    Maria: I don’t honestly know. I suspect the euphoria or increased sense of meaning in life that sometimes results after an NDE is the result of the person’s interpretation of the NDE.

    Alex

  • Fascinating—thanks!

  • Chris

    With respect to the peaceful feelings associated with a NDE/REM intrusion experience . . . I experienced this peace as detachment in my own NDE 30 years ago.

    Do you think it is possible that when we meditate, we achieve something similar? Are there states of profound meditation which mimic NDE/REM intrusion? So that peace and detachment can be experienced and embraced? (For example, do slowed brain waves, either alpha, or any other kind, mimic REM intrusion, neurologically? Do the works you quote address this question?)

    Chris: Great questions! I don’t know if REM intrusion has even been studied in meditation.

    Alex

  • gloria morey

    I read your comments on NDE—although there seems to be never just one cause of one’s mental state, many wish to explain away NDE’s as neurologically induced—isn’t it just possible to believe that we are all connected to the universe and like the universe, eternal and therefore privy to information and encounters with others?

    Gloria: I readily admit that it’s possible, but I’ve seen no evidence that it’s true.

    Alex

  • rdp

    I loved this post, Alex. The best sort of inquiring is open, like this, based on what we have discovered through our investigations, but not rushing to any final conclusion. REM intrusion is something I had not known about. What intrigues me most is the question what is REM sleep for? We know we need it, but are you aware of any thorough explanation of the why of needing it? What I mean here is something comparable to an in-depth explanation of digestion. I like the theory that suggests REM disconnects us from what holds us to reality (via hippocampal operations relating to inhibition, memory, and space), but I don’t know much about the hard science.

    When you think about how life-changing (and in some cases, history-changing) dreams have been for human beings, it’s surprising REM remains kind of a “dark continent.” Likewise the NDEs you describe.

    rdp: I’m not aware that we’ve yet achieved as thorough an understanding of the function of REM sleep as you wonder about.

    Alex

  • Alex,

    This is timely. A friend had a massive cerebral hemorrhage and has been in a coma since Saturday. The doctors are unable to stop the bleeding and as a result the situation is left to take its eventual course. I was wondering what she was experiencing, if she is in pain or discomfort. Is she dreaming? Mainly, I am praying she wakes up without any residual damage. Although, I know it is improbable that she will wake up.

    Angelina: So sad. I’m so sorry to hear about this.

    Alex

  • anne

    Alex, I don’t find your post in the least bit negative. There is so much we don’t know, but that’s no reason to not try to figure it out, since it’s a fascinating thing that happens to all of us. I doubt anything that is found out scientifically will be accepted by those who claim to “know the truth,” whatever that means for them (and as long as they don’t harm others in their belief of what happens after we die, I am happy that they find comfort there). I myself find comfort in both the scientific findings, AND in the fact that I don’t know what will happen when I die—leave me a little mystery and adventure :) My personal belief is that there is no afterlife, but I’ll keep an open mind.

  • Giselle Massi

    Alex,

    Great topic!

    Nearly 19 years ago my father shared his unique near-death experience with me a few weeks before he died. I wrote about it in my book, “We are Here for a Purpose: HOW TO FIND YOURS” and I also wrote a column related to what he shared titled “The Law of Invisible Consequences” that you and some of your readers may also find helpful or of interest.

    You write: (there’s no reason to think the souls of people are leaving their bodies during any of those non-life-threatening situations)…

    My response to your sentence is that this is an easy statement for those to make who may be similar to you Alex who have not yet had either 1) a near-death experience or 2) the mystical experience when in full and fine health and nowhere near death that is also called “being out of body.” But for those of us—such as your reader Steven P and my father—who have had these and other metaphysical experiences, and for some of us many times, there is no denying our personal reality and whatever evidence we may provide.

    And also as important, that there are in fact great reasons to know with our own personal conviction that the metaphysical dimensions of our being—whether one chooses to call it soul or spirit or mind or whatever other name—manifests actions that are sometimes seen and unseen by others.

    I do not think at this time science can tell us definitively the operational mechanisms of many of these experiences of metaphysical dimensions, including near death, and it really doesn’t matter to me if science and scientists ever state a theory, as there will always be those who have yet to experience it firsthand and/or will remain skeptical or in some form of disbelief … sort of like those who say Elvis is still alive. :)
    For those who know otherwise from firsthand experience, we too choose to keep an open mind, and therein may be the simple key to a deepening understanding.

    Giselle
    http://www.gisellemassi.com

  • Graycard

    My NDE:

    This brings to mind the day I was hospitalized here in Philly for bogus stroke/heart attack and lying in my bed I heard a medevac chopper come in and land on the roof with its urgent dramatic whock-whock-whock and then take off again a few moments later, making room for the same routine from another chopper. And then another.

    I’d been under surveillance for two days by that time, having passed out at a dinner party. Talk about taking over the conversation! There’s nothing like this maneuver. So I came to to see people standing around staring at me as though I were a specimen. Come to think of it, I guess I was. An ambulance came along, its gravely impassive attendants loaded me, and I went to the hospital.

    While they shlepped me on a gurney I looked over the V of my feet at the swirling blank hallways and had an epiphany: “Woo-hoo! It’s my Six Feet Under moment!” Things only got sillier: then my cell phone rang and my son in LA asked, “Where are you?” “On my way to getting a CAT scan,” I replied. “WHAT? Why are you getting a CAT scan?” “Oh, they think maybe I had a stroke or something cause I passed out a little while ago.” “Where’s mom?” “She’s in the waiting room until I’m done with this.”

    Her cell phone rings. She looks and tells our friends waiting with her “It’s Ben. I can’t tell him what’s going on.” And she picks up and the first thing he says is “Why is Dad getting a CAT scan?” “What!? He’s getting a CAT scan?” And everybody there, including the security guy, cracks up.

    I felt completely joyous. Everything was funny; I laughed the whole time I was there. “Hysteria,” you’ll say, but it wasn’t. I could stop when I needed to, to answer questions or do a conversation. My wife got quite stern with me, telling me it was “inappropriate,” until I got her laughing too.

    They kept me for the weekend, for observation, as I mentioned. Late the first evening a nurse comes into my room, and, seeing I was awake, starts a conversation. I had spent a few years previous studying religious stuff and writing about it, a thing she couldn’t have known but just the same she tells me she’s a Zoroastrian. I knew a bit about that belief, arguably the world’s first monotheism that keeps an “eternal” flame alight in its temples, a sign of God’s presence. It’s an extremely small and exclusive group: You can’t become a Zoroastrian. Turns out the nurse’s uncle is the equivalent of their Pope, based in India since Islam rooted them out of their native Iran.

    She told me stories of how evangelical Christians kidnapped her in college, aiming to convert her. They failed.

    So after the last chopper goes, I reflect on that hysterical and very expensive life-saving drama, and the tale I heard about the old Buddhist monk, lame and quite ill, who one afternoon decides he’s had enough and struggles to his feet, leaning on his cane. He hobbles out on to the path and goes to local sky cemetery (a field where corpses are laid until buzzards finish eating them; Tibet has precious few places where the soil’s deep enough for our style of burial). He gets there. He lies down and dies.

  • Leo

    Maybe you should all read this article about NDE from Prof. Augustine; he specializes in this area; his perspective is of hallucinatory causes, i.e. no afterlife. This is also my view.

    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/keith_augustine/HNDEs.html

    I had something similar to NDE, a “religious” experience at a moment I was deeply thinking on suicide, moaning and crying all that day, these behavior kept for weeks, I was really exhausted and debilitated, so the day my mind cracked it happened and I can say it feels real, but the mind is no perfect thing; it’s far from it, under that much stress we get all kind of deviancy of the mind; these things happen in controlled experiments or well-known circumstances where the subject is exposed to their limits, like the navy seals who get all kinds of hallucinations when they are completely deprived of sleep for about one week. I think the neurological explanation is the best; this is my perspective and I knew that the moment it happened so no change in my life occurred.

  • Leo

    @Steve P:

    All your examples are explicable by the neurological theory.

    Maybe the “receiving messages in telepathic form” is the trickier, but I conclude this is simply coincidence. Count the number cases that when actual “messages” are completely wrong then that, I think, will give you the right perspective as the occurrence of the cases when the “messages” are right approaches the probability of this coincidences happening.

    Read Prof. Augustine’s article, the link is in an older comment.

  • B

    Thank you Alex for this post.

    Fortunately I have not had NDE so far. But I have clearly experienced so many things that Steven P mentioned in the above post. And as Chris said, all those times, I was meditating. Good to know the scientific basis of meditation practice. Gives me more incentive to continue!

    Oh, yes, I also have to get this Kevin Nelson’s book.

    Thanks for pointing to that.

  • Seri M

    Alex, what do you think about the experiences reported where people later reported details from their treatment or other information that they should not have been able to know because they were either unconscious or their heart had stopped?

    Seri: I don’t know.

    Alex

  • Your posts are always thought provoking, Alex.

    What puzzles me is how you reconcile Buddhist beliefs like a belief in reincarnation (and ku) with your rationalist scientific skepticism. I don’t know where you stand with regard to parasychology, but if you stick to mainstream science there are no mechanisms to explain the Buddhist conceptions of life or consciousness.

    So where do you stand on these issues?

    Dennis

    Dennis: My view is that to believe something without evidence is to allow ourselves to be unduly influenced by what we’d like to be true. I believe what my experience has shown me to be true, that chanting has the power to bring revelatory wisdom (I readily admit my ignorance about the mechanism with which it accomplishes this). Regarding many other Buddhist principles, such as the eternity of life and the law of cause and effect, I have to confess I don’t yet believe them, as I’ve had no experience that’s provided evidence that they’re true. I am, however, quite open to the possibility that they are true. I continue to practice Buddhism because of the benefit I receive from it as well as because I hope to have experiences that prove its principles to me.

    Alex

  • Columbiarose

    Death is like sex. You can be endlessly fascinated by the physiological manifestations during the process, but you should be careful to avoid confirmation bias or drawing conclusions about causation when the evidence only supports correlation. Keep an open mind. Like sex, if at some point in your explorations you haven’t also seen God, then you just might have more to look forward to.

  • [...] week, in “The neurology of near-death experiences“, Alex debunks the religious trappings that attach to the “out-of-body” and [...]

  • Elena

    Something is missing here—the subjectivity of the experience. How do we measure it? Can we quantify meaning? “What is it like to be a bat?” (A famous question posed by Thomas Nagel which highlights the validity of subjective experiences).

    I think that the author likes the certainty of positivism/reductionism. Most likely, due to his professional training. However, science is not limited to these methods. Systemic qualitative observations also count.

    Moreover, Buddhism cannot be reduced to the reductionism of positivist methodology either. Therefore, Dennis poses a very valid question here, on how to reconcile Buddhism with reductionism. Something to ponder, and very seriously.

  • [...] The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences Posted on May 22, 2011 by marksolock The Neurology Of Near-Death Experiences [...]

  • Paul

    I agree with you. Every time a type of NDE has been put to empirical method, the conclusions have been identical. No evidence to suggest an afterlife, evidence to suggest NDE is a naturally explainable phenomena. I’ll take empirical evidence over anecdotes every day of the week.

  • Aaron

    There are serious problems with Nelson’s hypothesis. Anyone who has read a number of the thousands of NDE accounts available online will quickly learn that the “tunnel” often occurs long after the person has “blacked out.” Also, the idea of the tunnel being caused by blood flowing away from the retina is easily disproven by the fact that people who are blind from birth with retinal destruction have still reported tunnels. Also, these blind people do not dream visually at all, which poses a serious challenge to the REM intrusion idea. They’ve never known the concept of sight until they had their NDE. I read Nelson’s book, and like most other people who try to explain away the NDE, he did a good job of displaying that he cherry picks NDE accounts that fit his pet idea, and ignores the ones that shoot gaping holes into it.

    Aaron: I was unaware of the observations you mention. I don’t think they necessarily invalidate Nelson’s theory, but if true, they certainly do demand a modification/better explanation. I think Nelson makes clear in his book that what he’s developed is a working theory only. I would hope that Nelson, like any good scientist, would be open to altering his hypothesis as new, reproducible data that contradicts it comes to light (so to speak).

    I would say, however, regarding the first point you make, that the “tunnel” occurs long after a person has blacked out, strikes me as a remarkably difficult thing to prove. One’s subjective sense of phenomena and recall can be seriously impaired around an episode of loss of consciousness.

    Alex

  • Aaron

    Alex,

    There are many reasons why, after reading countless NDE accounts, the explanations of the tunnels sound extremely unlikely to me. But the link at bottom provides one very good example.

    Skeptics often don’t believe in other skeptical theories. For instance, in a Skeptico interview, neurologist and pro skeptic Steven Novella says he doesn’t buy into the REM intrusion idea.

    Even Nelson in his own book gives multiple explanations (seizures, anoxia) for the single phenomenon of the tunnel, then comes up with the audacious heading—The Tunnel Explained! Followed by the weakest argument (in my opinion) in the history of NDE speculation.

    My jaw dropped reading that heading. When I see explanations like this, I wonder whether these people have spent any time at all scouring the actual NDE accounts. I can’t imagine anyone would believe such an explanation if they had.

    When people have a cardiac arrest, for instance, it is usually lights out almost immediately. They fall to the ground. Then they often have an OBE and sometimes find themselves in a dark void after that. Then perhaps there is a tunnel which leads to a light (usually there is no tunnel at all, and some researchers argue that tunnels don’t exist at all outside Western NDE accounts). That is by no means a fixed recipe for an NDE, but since it does happen that way it makes the G-force type explanation and fainting explanation seem ridiculous to me. Need I mention that a good percentage of these experiences happen nowhere near death, such as in the link below. Skeptics have to result to false memory and confabulation to make sense of it. This is unlikely because, as in link below, the experience clearly happens in real time.

    When multiple arguments are required to explain a single ubiquitous phenomenon, it greatly weakens the power of the argument. And that’s exactly what we see with most of these NDE theories. Unfortunately, the community of skeptics don’t read NDE accounts and don’t understand how blatantly flawed some of these explanations are. They just know what they’ve been told and say, “Ah, its been explained away!” This is why I am currently making a mini-documentary on YouTube to simply show people NDE accounts that refute commonly held beliefs. I am open-minded either way personally, whatever these experiences are. But I am completely unconvinced by any neurological theory to date.

    Dale’s NDE

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XD7LMb5RWTs

  • Patrick

    “But just because millions of people have experienced NDEs doesn’t mean the most commonly believed explanation for them—that souls leave bodies and encounter God or some other evidence for the afterlife—is correct.”

    True, but the assertion is vacuous. The same argument is used to “disprove” the moon landing. Just because millions of people observed the moon landing on TV, so the conspiracists say, doesn’t mean the moon landing happened.

    “After all, people misinterpret their experience all the time (an optical illusion representing the most basic example). Without a doubt, many people who report NDEs are profoundly affected by them, but usually more as a result of their interpretation of the experience (i.e., the afterlife is real) than as a result of the experience itself.”

    First, let’s acknowledge that there is no single adequate explanation for the experience of consciousness. Secondly, let’s acknowledge that there is no “experience“ that is not “interpreted.” To say that the experience of near death is an interpretive matter is to say that all conscious experiences are a product of interpretation. The scientific method can tell you what the temperature is (using any arbitrary system of measurement) but the scientific method cannot tell you how a sentient being will experience or interpret that temperature. Since the experience of consciousness remains inscrutable, the only responsible position is to conclude that all conscious experiences are illusory. This effectively puts the NDE on the same plain as eating vanilla ice cream. However, skeptics do not devote considerable portions of their lives trying to debunk the experience of eating vanilla ice cream. Why? Because the NDE contradicts the *belief systems* of these individuals.

    “In his book Nelson, notes that normally 20% of the heart’s blood flow is directed to the brain, but that it can drop as low as 6% or so before we fall unconscious (and even at this level, no permanent injury will result). Nelson further observes that when our blood pressure drops low and we faint, the vagus nerve (a large nerve that connects to the heart) tilts consciousness toward REM sleep—but interestingly in some people not all the way. A number of subjects seem to be susceptible to what he calls “REM intrusion.”

    A fairly detailed rebuttal of this position can be found here: http://www.nderf.org/longholdenremintrusion.pdf

    But more importantly, one of the key features of REM intrusion is paralysis. However, REM intrusion offers no explanation for classic near-death experiences that do not occur while the subject is “near death.” They are commonly referred to as near-death-like experiences. In fact, some individuals report experiences while their “physical bodies” were not paralyzed at all, but continued functioning normally while driving or peeling potatoes or sitting with a friend. To explain such experiences as REM intrusion must require ever more convoluted definitions of REM intrusion. Unfortunately, as with all such explanations, they fall short when the entirety of the experience is considered.

    “Neurophysiology can also explain the feeling of moving through a tunnel so commonly mentioned in NDEs. People are well known to experience ‘tunnel vision’ immediately before fainting. Experiments with pilots spun around in giant centrifuges have reproduced the tunnel vision phenomena by increasing G-forces and decreasing blood flow to their retinas.”

    Again, this explanation is (I hesitate to say) easily dismissed by individuals who have experienced tunnels when there was no physical trauma. One might suggest that these individuals had already read descriptions of tunnels and so created this experience for themselves, but there are also some individuals, without a prior knowledge of NDE, who have reported experiencing a tunnel. The skeptic must conclude that they are lying or they must seek a different “physiological” explanation. The fallback position is that the individuals are either lying or don’t know they are lying (the memories were dredged from the sub-conscious). This kind of argument, from a skeptic, is little different than the arguments made by fundamentalists who insist, contrary to evidence, that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old.

    “Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NDEs is how often they’re associated with out-of-body experiences. This, too, however, turns out to be an illusion. Evidence that out-of-body experiences have nothing to do with souls leaving bodies can be found in the observation that they’ve also been reported by people just awakening from sleep.”

    Curiously, such experiments were conducted on lucid or otherwise healthy individuals. And this gets to the crux of the classic NDE. Many of these experiences reportedly occur while the individuals could not possibly be conscious (unless modern medicine’s understanding of a functioning brain requires a complete reassessment). Grant that the OBE is a neurological phenomena, that is still no explanation for the lucidity of the ensuing experience, the veridical observations and the narrative cohesiveness when the individual’s brain could not possibly be capable of creating these experiences. The skeptic must conclude that these experiences did not occur during brain death but were fables created by the brain once, let’s say, a heartbeat had been restored (see Richard Carrier). And yet no mechanism has been posited that can adequately explain such a phenomena. Secondly, why should individuals, who are not near death, have similar experiences? On the one hand, individuals would like to assert (as you implied in your article) that the NDE is the product of a brain in severe trauma. OK. But then why should one have these experiences when the brain is *not* in trauma?—when there is no need to fill the temporary loss of consciousness and sentience created by momentary “brain death”?

    “In sum then, though far from proven, as an explanation for what actually explains near-death experiences, the REM intrusion hypothesis has far more evidence to support it than does the idea that we actually do leave our bodies when death looms near.”

    If you truly explore the subject you will find the opposite to be true.

    I am not wedded to the notion that the NDE indicates a transcendent experience, but I also am skeptical of the skeptic. At present, the evidence in favor of a transcendent experience is stronger than the evidence against simply because consciousness itself eludes explanation. However, I’m not willing to assert that the NDE is “real.” To do so, at this point, would be a statement of belief. To state that the NDE is “not real” is also a statement of belief. The wise conclusion is none at all—and that makes believers on both sides extremely uncomfortable.

  • A Neurologia das Experiências de Quase Morte

    [...] de Alex Likerman, publicado em Happiness in this World Traduzido por colaboração de Rodrigo Véras e André [...]

  • [...] de Alex Likerman, publicado em Happiness in this World Traduzido por colaboração de Rodrigo Véras e André [...]

  • Alexandre

    “During REM sleep, many of the brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated as well (animals that have had their REM regions injured lose all interest in food and even morphine), which may explain the feelings of peace and unity also reported during NDEs.”

    Does anyone have a reference for this? What the author means when he says “REM regions”?

    Alexandre: The references can be found at the end of Nelson’s book.

    Alex

  • Logan

    Dr. Raymond Moody and others who have studied the NDE phenomenon in great depth for many years talk about the out-of-body experiences (OBEs) of some people as being truly paranormal, or at least inexplicable in terms of our current definition of consciousness. As you note, some OBE’s don’t stand up to scrutiny when examined afterwards. But some NDEs include out-of-body experiences in which patients report with great accuracy and detail events such as conversations and activities occurring at some distance from where their bodies are lying. For instance, a patient, while “dead,” may report finding themselves back at the family home, able to observe what people were wearing, eating, saying and even thinking at that precise moment. A famous example from Dr. Moody involves a patient who had an OBE and floated around outside the hospital, where he spied a pair of sneakers sitting on a ledge that nobody, particularly he, would have had the opportunity to observe unless they were literally floating in the air in the shaft 8 or 9 stories off the ground at the time. A subsequent search turned up the sneakers, exactly where the patient reported he saw them. Children are particularly attuned to the NDE and are able to identify medical personnel who worked on them, even though they’d never met before, and to describe with a sophistication far beyond their years the medical procedures their bodies were undergoing as they stared down at themselves from the ceiling. Dr. Melvin Morse’s collection of the NDE’s of children are startling in their specificity and naivete (entitled Closer to the Light).

    We tend to ascribe spiritual explanations for the NDEs, but I agree with you that the neurological ones have to be accounted for first. However, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a non-local dimension to consciousness that has not been explored by the medical community. Somehow we have to find a way to make room for these paranormal phenomena, because they do exist, in both humans and animals, and they should be studied without drawing conclusions about spirituality. I also recommend biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s groundbreaking studies concerning animal and telepathy.

  • Amanda

    Thank you, Steven P. I’m having a bad few days and needed to read that. Doctor, you underestimate how negative you are. I’ve read a few of you articles.

  • telson

    Most people are probably curious about what lies ahead after death, beyond the border of death. This may be a reason why they seek knowledge from spiritism sessions or books that discuss this issue. Many have also had personal close-to-death experiences—i.e., experiences when their heart has stopped in the hospital or in connection with an accident and when they may have seen themselves as if from the outside; they may have seen the operations done to them or the entire operating room. Some may have also seen in connection with their experiences a being of light that seems to be full of “love and compassion.”

    The major topic as comes to this conversation is indeed generally connected with the question of whether all near-death experiences are positive and will everybody end up fine beyond the border in spite of the way they have lived on the Earth. Many researchers want to believe this but is it true? We are going to study this issue below. Several observations and examples seem to indicate that not everyone will necessarily end up well.

    The source: http://www.jariiivanainen.net/Border_of_death_experiences.html

  • dr ramesh k k

    I have experienced a zero-gravity sensation for nearly thirty minutes following a bout of migraine. I was just moving up and up with no sensation of the body.eyes were closed. So it could not have been NDE like experience; mass into gravity was zero; a space shuttle experience; a hallucination of kinaesthetic experience and zero weight.

  • Louise

    My mother “transitioned” five years ago this month. Three years after her death she, rather, her spirit/soul which survived physical death, visited me one early morning while I was in a state of lucid sleep, about 5:30 a.m. near the time I’d soon awaken. There was no previous dreaming (and I’ve never dreamed of her), no animation, no dialogue. Her face, just spontaneously appeared in my vision at very close range. I knew I was seeing her in another realm, outside of this Earth. I was startled by her appearance. I studied her for a few seconds, recognizing her as my deceased mother. She was gazing at me. She appeared almost like the old film negatives, ethereal, sepia in color. The visitation did not last long for the shock of seeing her again, in such an unusual way, caused me to awaken. Immediately I felt joy and was overwhelmed with gratitude for the experience. The only thing that bothered me is she was not smiling. She was just looking at me; it was enough and believe it served her purpose in coming. Now, two years later, I find myself seriously ill and the illness started about the time she appeared to me. I’ve had symptoms for about two years and no doctor had an explanation. I would later be diagnosed with Portal Vein Thrombosis a very rate blood clot near the liver for which nothing can be done. I wonder if my mother knew I was very ill and thus came to me – her visit was more real than anything I’ve ever.experienced because it was supernatural and definitely was not a dream. The moment is still vivid, seared into my brain. No one will ever be able to make me believe other than my deceased mother visited me from another realm. I believe the visit may have been for the purpose of showing me the soul survives physical death, to comfort me, possibly because she knew what I would be facing. My mother was a spiritual woman. I am not religious but believe our purpose for being on earth is for growth through experiences with others. I believe there is a higher purpose for everything that comes, for the suffering on earth. This experience caused me to read as much as I could about afterlife and introduced me to NDE, reincarnation. I’ve come to believe there is divine order in the universe—there is no other explanation for my mother’s soul to have made that effort.

  • Felicia

    I have not read the book you mention, but have experienced out-of-body states. I’m a novice at the practice, but have had enough experiences to know quite clearly: I AM well and truly OUT OF MY BODY. While science hasn’t a way to categorize or understand these experiences, I think it’s important to keep the door open to all possibilities if you haven’t experienced this yourself.

    I also suffered from some “sleep paralysis” for many years, which has been 95% solved once I had an out-of-body experience and learned that all of this time, when sleep paralysis struck, it was actually me trying to leave my body and (subconsciously) panicking (a common response to the onset of the experience). Sleep paralysis is really a horrid thing to experience, so I try to communicate this to others who may have suffered from it.

    f.c.

  • Bule Voador » A Neurologia das Experiências de Quase Morte

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  • Steve

    What about the people who explain what the people around them are doing when they have no pulse. Don’t say the doctors are playing along.

  • How about those (close relation with the deceased) who also experienced the NDE? Some called it Shared Near Death Experience (SND). Read these stories from http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence09.html.

    I believe those experienced the SND, their brains should functioned normally that wouldn’t cause the NDE. Therefore the neurology of brain functions have failed to explain the NDE in these regards.

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