Friday, May 30, 2014

Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death

Book Review: Science and the Near Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death by Chris Carter (2010 Inner Traditions

This is really an excellent, non-biased overview of all the research and studies on these phenomena. The title is good as the book is both about science and the NDE. The nature of science is examined in regard to the implications of NDEs and similar phenomena that defy the materialistic paradigm – which, as the author demonstrates – can be akin to an ideology. The subtitle is stretching it a bit, as there is only the pretty good suggestion through examining the data, that consciousness survives death.

Part I of the book examines the question of whether consciousness depends on the brain or not. A full 50+ pages are devoted to “physics and consciousness” and include some interesting quantum mechanical theories of the mind. The mind is also examined from the view of neurology. Since this book is more like two books in one, this will be a long review of both the possible Quantum effects of consciousness and of NDE research.

Humans have considered immortality for aeons and organized preparation for an afterlife was a feature of early civilizations. The Greek atomists (Democritus, Epicurus, and the Roman Lucretius) defined the soul in terms of atoms. Lucretius argued that mind and body were virtually inseparable. This is perhaps the beginning of a materialistic view of mind. Thomas Huxley in the 19th century argued that consciousness was merely an epiphenomenon of brain activity. Darwin disagreed. Bertrand Russell noted that mind and matter cannot be fully comprehended by causal logic since the nature of matter is subjected to the uncertainties imposed by quantum theory and mind is subjective. Russell merely considered the possibility of “disembodied mind.” Gilbert Ryle’s influential work – The Concept of Mind – (this was the textbook in a ‘Philosophy of Mind’ class I took at college) – argued that mind and body were inseparable, that mind is merely the “ghost in the machine,” and to conjecture that there are psychological laws beyond physical laws is to make a “category mistake.” Another behaviorist/materialist advocate was the humanist writer Corliss Lamont who wrote that “man is a unified whole of mind-body or personality-body so closely and completely integrated that dividing him up into two separate and more or less independent parts becomes impermissible and unintelligible.” These are mostly philosophical positions but there are many behaviorist/materialist advocates in neurology too. Perhaps it is the physicists who are most open to mind/consciousness as stretching beyond the boundaries of the physical due to the paradigm-shattering paradoxes of quantum theory. A key question is whether consciousness can exist independently of body. Hippocrates referred to the brain as a messenger or interpreter for consciousness. Does the brain produce consciousness or does it receive and transmit consciousness? This question is considered throughout this book. French philosopher Henri Bergson suggested that “matter and consciousness interact, with both being elemental components of the universe, neither reducible to the other.” William James first brought the question to the forefront with his idea that the brain does not produce or permit consciousness but transmits it. The brain may receive, limit, and selectively transmit consciousness – as James conjectured. It has been pointed out that both the production and transmission hypotheses of consciousness can be supported by research in neurology and psychology although most neurologists seem to favor a more materialistic approach.

A section on consciousness and neuroscience includes the work of Wilder Penfield with ESB – electrical stimulation of the brain, and epilepsy. Penfield did many experiments. He concluded that the brain and stimulating certain areas of it may give rise to neurological phenomena but they don’t give rise to consciousness itself. In other words, brain activity alone cannot account for consciousness – but it may be a necessary condition for consciousness (as we know it). Still the question remains whether the mind can exist and function independently of the brain. Penfield thinks it can and does. The author refers to this idea of mind independent of brain as a dualistic model of mind-brain interaction. Neuroscientist John Eccles also favors this view. He noted time discrepancies between neuronal activity and conscious experience. He utilized Ryle’s “ghost in the machine” metaphor so he was at least partially a materialist. He saw a two-way interaction between mind and brain. Mind gives brain a willed action and brain returns a conscious experience. Neuroscientists tend to favor the production hypothesis (that the brain produces consciousness) but the same data (neural correlates of consciousness, ESB, and the effects of brain lesions) could equally support the transmission hypothesis (that the brain transmits consciousness). The author uses the analogy of the TV set as a transmitter of signals into moving pictures. My own view is that the mind is indeed separate from the brain – it seems intuitive enough. I seem to favor the transmission hypothesis.

Physicist James Jeans noted that: “the universe begins to look like a great thought rather than like a machine.” The author sees our modern scientific worldview as a legacy of classical Newtonian physics, and thus flawed in various ways. Both Newton and Descartes thought that human consciousness and free will were beyond the realm of the physical world. Descartes included animals in the mechanistic universe as mindless automatons. Others followed later with all life, including consciousness and free will, being in the domain of the mechanistic universe, with mental processes seen as epiphenomena, mere by-products of brain activity.

In the early twentieth century quantum mechanics was developed. “Quantum mechanics replaces the deterministic universe described by classical physics with a probabilistic universe.” The role of the observer is emphasized in quantum physics and observation is dependent on consciousness. There are three main views of quantum physics among scientists: 1) the Copenhagen interpretation that suggests conspiratorial determinism, 2) Von Neumann’s version where the consciousness of the observer fits into the Copenhagen interpretation, where consciousness collapses the wave function replacing the conspirator with the observer 3) the hidden variable theory, and 4) the many worlds hypothesis. The last two are described here as attempts to rescue determinism. The Von Neumann interpretation seems most relevant. The author does note that all four of these interpretations are consistent with observed facts. These quantum theories are considered to be metaphysical rather than physical but they are supported by experiment and mathematics. Psychokinesis experiments also suggest that in addition to the conscious observer collapsing the wave function he or she may also shift the odds in certain directions – mentally. Such a suggestion gives consciousness a hint of creative power.

Bell’s theorem provides mathematical and experimental evidence that the universe is non-local. Non-locality supersedes classical physics. Along with non-locality and the related concept of entanglement, another feature of quantum mechanics is nonmechanical causation. Examples would be nonlocal instantaneous influence of phase entangled particles, the collapse of the wave function by conscious observation, and the so-called quantum Zeno effect where a continuously observed unstable particle does not decay.
Quantum theorist Henry Stapp has noted that in the probabilistic quantum universe, a potentiality is more like an idea of what might happen than an enduring material substance. The author examines three Quantum Mechanical Theories of Mind, those of Henry Stapp, John Eccles, and Evan Harris Walker. All of these theories follow the Von Neumann/Wigner interpretation of quantum mechanics.

“ … today most quantum models of consciousness place the mechanism of mind-matter interaction at the level of the neural synapse – the tiny gap between the electric tentacles of the nerve cell.”

Eccles was key in discovering how neurons communicate with chemicals, neurotransmitters, across the synapse, to cause or inhibit firing of adjacent cells.

“Most mind-altering drugs achieve their effects by altering the transmission of neurotransmitters, which gives us important clues about the consciousness-sensitive areas of the brain.”

Eccles notes that “consciousness affects brain activity by manipulating the way chemicals are released into the synaptic gap.” The neural sites are so small that some consider that quantum uncertainty may dictate whether the release mechanisms are activated. Apparently, at the level of more smallness the role of quantum uncertainty is increased.

Henry Stapp’s model is similar to that of Eccles but he places the critical juncture between mind and matter at the level of the calcium ion which is about one-millionth the size of the synaptic site but is essential to the operation of the synapse. Stapp suggests that when we will to do something consciousness collapses the wave function of the calcium ions in our brains that are responsible for initiating the “template” for such an action. The template is based on previous similar actions through first learning then habit. These ideas could have an interesting tie-in to Sheldrake’s “habitual memories of nature” through “morphogenetic fields.” However, Stapp thinks that the quantum randomness of nature tends to dilute conscious intent. The templates of conscious intent may be preserved as needed, according to Stapp, by the quantum Zeno effect which keeps the template from decaying. He also noted that animals who can sustain a quantum Zeno effect the longest and more effectively would gain a survival advantage so that (in the words of Stapp:

“… the rules of quantum mechanics can endow conscious effort with the causal efficacy to permit its evolution and deployment via natural selection.”

Stapp also noted that distraction saps will so that a given “quantum template for action” will be more likely to decay with less application of will. Fascinating stuff there about how will, consciousness, and quantum effects may function as a system.

Evan Harris Walker’s quantum theory of consciousness favors the electron as the mind-matter interface – one-hundred thousandth the size of the calcium ion. Quantum tunneling electrons traveling instantaneously to even far-away synapses are proposed as the basis of a proposed second (quantum) nervous system. Walker’s theory has been mostly ignored by neuroscientists but it is apparently the most developed of the quantum models of consciousness. The author notes that all three of these theories are dualistic in that they “postulate a nonphysical mind that also exerts a real influence in the physical world.”

According to the author the quantum mechanical models of mind can explain: 1) the placebo effect, 2) cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), 3) psychic abilities, and 4) the NDE. Non-materialist neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz writes, “The time has come for science to confront the serious implications of the fact that directed, willed mental activity can clearly and systematically alter brain function.”

The author also goes through materialist theories of mind. Thomas Huxley’s notion that the mental activity is an epiphenomenon of brain activity was not supported by his friend Darwin nor by Karl Popper who noted that our mental activities influence our behavior and thus our evolution. One noted problem in this field is known as the “interaction problem” – how can mind and matter interact? Philosopher Daniel Dennett stated that interaction of mind and matter was not possible because it violates physics. Henry Stapp counters that while it may violate the laws of classical physics it does not violate the mechanisms of the Von Neumann interpretation of contemporary quantum physics. There is the question whether the mind is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain, that it emerges with brain activity, or whether it is an elemental property of the universe itself. The latter seems more intuitive to me. One may call these notions mind/matter dualism but there is much more implied than what Descartes proposed as mind as director of body.

Experiments to determine where memories are stored have revealed neural correlation in several parts of the brain and suggest that no one place or structure stores them. Cells and structures decay and are replaced. Memories may change but often they can exist far longer than the structures that are thought to support them. There is even the possibility that memories are stored outside the brain. Neither materialist nor non-materialists have adequately solved the memory-storage problem.

The author compares two main theories of life: vitalism and the mechanistic theory.
Developmental biology stressed a concept called morphogenesis, the development of one form from another – such as the development of an adult from an embryo or a plant from a seed. Cells and body parts of creatures also regenerate. Machines cannot do such things. Vitalists claim that morphogenesis cannot be explained mechanistically and stress the possible presence of non-material vital factors, ie. souls or fields. Biologists have proposed the idea of morphogenetic fields that influence development. Rupert Sheldrake proposed the Formative Causation Hypothesis which is based on what he calls “morphic resonance” where nature develops habitual patterns mainly at the species level that can be interpreted as species memory or on a wider scale, the habitual memory of nature. In Sheldrake’s idea there is no transfer of energy but only of information. His ideas have been controversial but it is clear that he is on to something about how self-organizing systems develop. His ideas support the possibility that memories and information can be stored beyond the brain. Aldous Huxley, in describing his experiments with mescaline, became convinced that the brain filters sensory and mental data to a finely selective set. A situation like experiencing hallucinogens bypasses the filter to variable extents and brings what is often described as expansion of consciousness with accompanying distortive effects. He called this unfiltered mind, “mind-at-large.” Thus, he was a strong advocate of the transmission theory. The author points out that certain features of the NDE also support the selective transmission theory. The first hundred or so pages of this book set up the scientific evidence for the transmission theory and its implications: that mind and memory could possibly exist independently of body. Now we come to Part II – The Near-Death Experience.

The NDE phenomenon may shed light on the mind/body interface. Various estimates for the frequency or NDEs experienced by those on the brink of death range from 5 to 30%. In the ancient past there are hints such as Plato’s legend of Er and Bosch’s painting – Ascent into the Empyrean. The visions of seers and shamans may have been influenced by NDEs and accounts of the NDEs of others. Systematic study of NDEs began in the 1970’s with Raymond Moody’s 1977 Life After Life. The Journal of Near Death Studies continues to accumulate data. The large amount of data has enabled researchers to present a composite experience as well as features of the NDE. These features may or may not occur in sequential stages as given in this order: 1) Feelings of peace – while there may be periods of sadness and anxiety, accounts overwhelming indicate peaceful and joyful feelings. 2) Separation from the body – a high percentage report these OBEs, yet most don’t remember leaving the body, just appearing out of it. Reports indicate that the OBE experiencers feel that they are clear, rational, and that the experience is vivid. The author gives several accounts. He notes that from a researcher’s perspective the OBE part of an NDE is most important since it is the only part that could possibly give independent corroboration. Later in the book he gives a few intriguing examples. 3) Passage through darkness – often this is seen as going through a tunnel, a corridor, or some pitch black surroundings. Interestingly, descriptions of shamanic journeys also often involve going through a tunnel. 4) Seeing a Light – often the light is describes as brilliant but not blinding and the passage through darkness to a new place of light is often interpreted as entering a different realm, often with different qualities. 5) Encountering the deceased or a presence – these encounters are reported in about 40% of cases and often include the deceased in a youthful and healthy state. Most encounters of a “presence” are not in terms of one’s religious beliefs. There are a few interesting examples of encountering someone very recently deceased that was not known to be deceased by the NDE experiencer. 6) Life Review – this occurs in about 3-25% (avg 13%) of cases. This part may be the only distressing part of an NDE to some as painful memories are invoked but not always. NDEs are often profound and life-changing to those who experience them. After-effects include a thirst for knowledge, increased compassion and tolerance, reduced interest in material possessions, and increased interest in spirituality (but rarely religion or dogma), reduced fear of death, and increased belief in an afterlife. Type of near-death trauma does not seem to influence the experience.

There is a chapter on – Horrific Near-Death Experiences. Fundamentalist Christian cardiologist Maurice Rawlings wrote a book which he says shows the literal existence of hell but it appears to be strongly biased and he suggests that encounters with hellish realms are forgotten by NDE experiencers. Though some may experience prolonged situations described as a’meaningless void’ the author acknowledges Rawlins bias as B.S.
Some frightening accounts changed to blissful when the person gave up and accepted that they were dying during the NDE. Hellish NDEs are pretty rare in the accounts and some (classical hot hell experiences) were extensions of heat stress during an accident or treatment – such as suffering a heatstroke or being in a heat cage. In a few rare NDEs though, there is fear and panic, sensing an evil presence, or entering a hell-like place. One might also see frightening NDEs as similar to the underworld or lower world journeys of heroes, mystics, and shamans.

Interestingly, cross-cultural studies of NDEs indicate fairly similar experiences. There are some cultural influences but they seem secondary. Life reviews seem to be  more common in a Chinese study. Indian accounts seem to have the highest percentage of dogmatic influence. There is a recurring theme of Yama, the lord of death, and his assistants, called minions, or yamadoots. Another recurring Hindu religious theme in Indian accounts is that of the man with the book, Chitragupta, who consults a book – akin to the so-called Akashic records, that contains the life deeds of the person and their karma. This could also be considered a kind of life review. Other than this the NDE is more or less the same with most of the other features, with the notable exception of the tunnel. NDE-like experiences of some indigenous peoples – Native Americans, Maori, and peoples of Guam, are also given and though they often show relations to landscapes, the other features are more or less similar, which does kind of confirm the cross-cultural similarities of NDEs. However, the life-review was often not a feature among indigenous folk and some researchers think it is more of a feature of those concerned with morality and karma in the context of religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism, and Christianity.

Proposed psychological explanations of the NDE include: 1) Fantasy and wishful thinking – this has very little merit and is not supported by the data. 2) Dissociated states – these are defense mechanisms associated with intense psychological stress. These states have been associated with realization of immanent death or injury and include dissociation, derealization (where the environment feels unreal), and depersonalization (one’s existence as a person becomes uncertain). Psychiatrist Russel Noyes has studied these phenomena and NDE. According to Noyes these dissociated states include an “altered sense of time, increased speed of thought, a sense of detachment, a feeling of unreality, a lack of emotion, sharper vision or hearing, flashbacks of memories, and a sense of harmony or unity with the universe.” He thinks that perception of immanent death is the prerequisite to such states as well as to full development of the NDE. Others disagree regarding NDEs since there are several cases where NDE experiencers seemingly had no time to consider a threat to their lives. Noyes’ case studies were mainly of those who were psychologically, rather than physically close to death. Descriptions of dissociated states, however, differ from the NDE and many researchers, including Sabom, have thrown much doubt that NDEs can be explained as dissociated states. It seems likely that dissociated states are a different phenomenon, though there are some similarities. 3) Imaginative reconstructions – cardiologist Michael Sabom basically debunked this idea that NDE experiencers who noted the details of their own resuscitations were merely reconstructing them based on what they know about how such resuscitations happen. The details in many cases were far too precise. 4) Semi-conscious perception – again from Sabom’s work it is clear that many who have had an NDE as well as experienced multiple semi-conscious states due to anesthesia and illness can clearly distinguish between them. 5) Memories of birth – Carl Sagan actually favored this explanation but it has been rather soundly discredited. The similarities of birthing to the tunnel, light, and OBE of the NDE state have certainly been noted but there is little to no evidence linking them to a memory of birth. While there may be some connection of the two phenomena in the psyche, it seems unlikely that there is an actual correlation. Features of the NDE such as seeing deceased relatives, feelings of peace, and the life review seem to have no connection.

Proposed physiological explanations include: 1) Endorphins – the role of endorphins is usually attributed to the first stage of the NDE – feelings of peace and joy. However, in NDE accounts the pain-free time does not continue after the NDE and pain returns upon re-awakening and since endorphins last much longer this is a blow to the endorphin hypothesis. Other, shorter acting neurotransmitters such as enkephalins, have also been proposed. Many neurotransmitters are released under stress but this explanation would be hard to test directly. 2) Oxygen starvation (hypoxia) – this explanation is frequently invoked. However, in thousands of hypoxia experiments done on thousands of people, many to the point of unconsciousness, no NDEs have been reported. Blood gases have been monitored during resuscitations. In a few comparisons it was found that in those who had NDEs, their oxygen levels were actually higher than those who reported the typical confused states associated with hypoxia. Others, such as Susan Blackmore have proposed that oxygen starvation produces the tunnel effect. The lack of tunnel effect in Indian and other non-Western accounts may be significant. There are other accounts where a tunnel effect was noted but oxygen starvation was not occurring. Pilots in training routinely undergo acute anoxia to make sure they can don their masks in time and those that fail do not have NDEs or similar experiences. Others who have experienced both acute anoxia and NDEs note that the experiences were much different.
3) Excessive carbon dioxide (hypercarbia) – these effects are well-known and some do resemble features of the NDE – feelings of well-being, OBEs, and revival of old memories. However, blood gas monitoring during NDEs also suggests that hypercarbia is not an explanation as there are NDE cases with both high O2 and low CO2 recorded. There is, however, the question whether measurement of blood gases equates to oxygen in the brain itself.

Another interesting aside are records of rapid acceleration and accompanying unconsciousness experienced by fighter pilots. This can be considered to be acceleration-induced anoxia and hypercarbia. The U.S. Air Force has conducted extensive experiments in simulations with up to 5Gs. There are very short periods (seconds) of unconsciousness followed by equally short periods of confusion. Feelings of euphoria are reported as are long lasting detachment and dissociation and an occasional OBE. Short dreams similar to sleeping dreams have also been reported. Aside form the feelings of euphoria and the occasional OBE, the differences from NDE are more than the similarities. 4) Temporal lobe seizures – these may cause memory flashbacks, hallucinations, and occasional OBEs. Hypoxia may cause these seizures and possibly the release of endorphins at death. The author notes research by pediatrician Melvin Morse who considered the ESB temporal lobe experiments of Wilder Penfield and attributed NDE to such seizures but aside from Penfield’s observations that they can bring old memories to the surface there seems to be little else characteristic of NDEs. Neurologist Michael Persinger stated that by stimulating the temporal lobe with magnetic fields, NDE-like experiences were induced but others have criticized his research and a team of Swedish researchers attempted to replicate his findings with a double blind study and failed to find anything similar. They attributed Persinger’s results to suggestion and placebo. Persinger’s experiments were widely publicized but many other scientists strongly questioned both his methods and results. Persinger’s results included accounts of much more fear, sadness, and loneliness than in the NDE literature.

NDE-like effects of certain drug experiences are next examined. Ronald Siegel, an expert on drugs and hallucinations (see his good book on Intoxication for one) thought that set (expectations and attitudes) and setting (physical and psychological environments) determines hallucinatory imagery. While this may be true for hallucinogenic drug users it is not necessarily for NDE experiencers. The NDE-like effects of drugs are random and partial and not wholly characteristic of reported NDEs. Having experienced many different hallucinogens myself I have never experienced anything I would strongly associate as an NDE-like experience – a few “sort-of(s)” here and there though. Geometrical patterns (cobwebs. Lattices, honeycombs, etc) are often reported with hallucinogens (I have experienced many times) but not at all with NDEs.

Another drug that is said to produce NDE-like effects is ketamine. I have never experienced this one but some scientists have claimed that they can basically induce an NDE with it. Timothy Leary considered it a voluntary way to experience a death-like state. Anesthetist Barbara Collier conducted large studies of the effects of ketamine. Many people had undesirable experiences in the hospital setting. Common features were kaleidoscopic effects of light, floating in space (OBE), a sense of fear, and depersonalization. Experiences were similar to those associated with sensory deprivation and it is thought that ketamine suppresses sections of the brain responsible for processing sensory information. Many accounts involve OBEs but only a few accounts resemble NDEs. It seems that ketamine experiences involve a wider range of phenomena than NDEs. Some have suggested that the brain may synthesize a chemical similar to ketamine as a protective function that occurs near-death. This is called the “glutamate hypothesis.”  The author notes that “the ketamine model is the most sophisticated attempt so far to provide an explanation for the NDE in terms of brain chemistry.” Ketamine experiences may depend on set and setting but NDEs do not appear to depend on a person’s previous mental state. Brain trauma of most every sort is associated with mental confusion rather than states of clarity so the idea of NDE being based on a protective brain chemical emitted during brain injury seems unlikely. Some have argued that the NDE may be experienced when consciousness is lost or recovered. However, severity of brain injuries is often gauged by the length of amnesia following them. Famed consciousness researcher John Lilly has experimented with ketamine on a large scale and is convinced that it is a chemical method of inducing an OBE. Other researchers such as Stanislav Grof and Rick Strassman tend to agree. The author notes that the possibility that ketamine causes a separation of mind and body needs to be verified with “veridical perception during a drug-induced OBE.” Apparently, there are some examples of veridical perception during an NDE which are recounted later. According to Scott Rogo, most of the NDE-like effects of ketamine were produced in patients recovering from surgery and most recreational users don’t report such intense effects. This may be due to the higher dosages required for anesthesia and/or the hospital surgery setting where patients are concerned with death. NDE researcher Kenneth Ring has used ketamine and notes that no effects he had resembled an NDE. Psychiatrist Rick Strassman also notes that in his hallucinogenic research trials with ketamine that the effects do not resemble accounts of NDEs. Ring noted that it is not known whether any NDE-ers ever experienced ketamine to compare. The author sees the ketamine model as both speculative and vague and that more research could be done to examine it.

A chapter examines psychologist Susan Blackmore’s Dying Brain Theory described in her book, Dying to Live. Her stated goal was to explain NDEs in a purely physiological/neurological and materialistic manner. She thinks the brain creates a new model of reality when the older model can no longer be sustained – so that it is a type of imaginative reconstruction which utilizes existing memories. She talks about neural disinhibition (where neurons are only excited rather than both excited and inhibited) brought on by anoxia. This, she thinks, causes random excitation of whole brain areas. Drugs, fever, exhaustion, brain chemicals such as endorphins, and temporal lobe seizures can also cause cortical disinhibition and these phenomena are associated with OBEs and possibly NDEs. Blackmore’s theory does not account for encountering deceased relatives. The author notes that “a major difficulty of all dying brain theories of the NDE is that they assume that clear memories can be formed at a time when cerebral function is severely compromised. An important consideration and one with significant variation is the question of what makes one clinically dead. It is not possible, according to modern neuroscience, that some residual consciousness remains during a flat EEG and no oxygen gets to the brain. Patients attribute NDEs to a time of unconsciousness although no one knows if time itself is altered. Scientifically, it seems unlikely that they occur during loss or recovery of consciousness but with severe time distortion it remains possible – though the author discounts it. The best evidence against the dying brain theories of NDE are the veridical perceptions during an NDE where people actually described things in sufficient detail happening to them while unconscious as they were in an OBE state. 

The author gives several examples of more recent accurate perceptions from those in an unconscious OBE state during an NDE. NDE researcher Janice Holden reviewed the available cases and found quite a few where details that could not have been known beforehand were described by those in the state. The author gives several examples that are fairly convincing. One was during a daring surgery to remove an aneurysm involving induced hypothermic cardiac arrest where the patient’s body temperature was lowered, her heartbeat and breathing stopped, and the blood drained from her body, so by some accounts she was clinically dead. The operation was a success and the patient had an NDE during the procedure. She described parts of the surgical procedure and details of the tools used that she could not have known about. She experienced a deceased grandmother and uncle. The uncle took her back through the tunnel and presumably into her body. It is a fascinating case.

Accounts of NDEs of blind people (many blind from birth) often involve them experiencing sight. Accounts are very similar to non-blind people. Some involved seeing accurately things in the house that they would not have known about.

The author also presents a scientific challenge to materialism involving philosopher Neal Grossman, philosopher of science Karl Popper, and NDE researcher Greyson. Grossman notes that science is a methodology of discovering reality but materialism often becomes dogmatic. Somewhat controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake has also written extensively on the dogmatic leanings of materialists in the modern scientific community. Materialists may be guilty of model-fitting and ignoring evidence that does not fit the model.

It is debatable whether those that have experienced NDEs were really dead. They may have just been at a gateway environment so it is also debatable whether NDEs are evidence for life or survival after death. Is death an irreversible state? With the advent of CPR and resuscitation death has come to be defined as loss of brain function. But some parts lose function before others so the debate continues. The author gives the following features of NDE that suggest survival:

1)      Normal or enhanced mental processes at a time when brain processes are severely impaired or entirely absent.
2)      Out-of-body view of one’s own body and of the surrounding environment
3)      Perceptions of deceased acquaintances
4)      Corroborated perception of events not accessible to one’s biological sense organs, apparently while out of the body

The first feature is most common and suggests that clarity of perception is not entirely dependent on proper brain function. These features only suggest survival. They do not prove it. The author, however, adds other phenomena that also support survival such as accounts of reincarnation, apparitions, and communication from the deceased.

There is a fascinating section on deathbed visions. Apparently, many people see an apparition that has come to take them away and then die within minutes. Others have had accurate perceptions of events (such as a recent death) that they could not have known about. Osis and Haraldson did studies in the West and in India and they note that “When the dying see apparitions, they are nearly always experienced as messengers from a post-mortem mode of existence.” Their studies also concluded that deathbed visions in the West and in India were nearly identical in format but with some cultural variation. In the West the apparitions were mostly defined as deceased relatives while in India they were religious figures or unknown persons. Another difference was that in the West the patients were generally eager to give their consent to go but those in India were not eager to give their consent. Apparently, there is a teaching in India that if a person has good karma and has led a moral life then a pleasant yamadoot (or messenger of death under the death lord Yama) will appear to them and if not then an unpleasant one will appear. In any case we see cultural expectations influencing these visions. In the Tibetan tradition it is said that during the process of death that visions will appear and that they are projections of one’s mind and should not be readily accepted as real. This is perhaps significant and indeed the Tibetans also say that at death the mind and body separate. Such projections may be influenced by cultural expectations. In Osis and Haraldson’s studies it was also noted that religious affiliations did not seem to have any effects on the experience aside from those who experienced what they perceived as yamadoots. They also concluded that a slow death was more conducive to these experiences of deathbed visions that are broadly similar to NDEs. NDEs seem to be more associated with unexpected near-death through accidents, heart attacks, drowning, and suicide attempts.

Though it was a noble effort I don’t think the author’s data do more than suggest evidence for survival beyond death. But a suggestion is better than no suggestion.
It is certainly plausible.

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