Scientific Explanations for Near-Death Experiences Still Fail

Near-death experiences are alive and well, and not explained away.

Over a dozen years ago, University of Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I wrote a book titled The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul (HarperOne, 2007). One of the ultra-sensitive topics we took up was near-death experiences (NDEs).

By then, the ability of modern medicine to induce and then rescind clinical death had resulted in a number of survivors' accounts that could be corroborated in various ways. At the time, however, the "scientific" approach generally amounted to making attempts to explain away the experiences. Some explanations leaned heavily on evolution: animals like the opossum can feign death to escape predators; might evolution not have selected for pre-human ancestors who could experience feigning death?1 Another line of attack was psychological: as Professor Sherwin B. Nuland at Yale Medical School put it, "You know the thing that unifies so many of these people—they are so narcissistic. It's 'Look at me. I saw God. I saw Jesus. I am different.'"2

Whatever opossums experience, we can be sure that none of our ancestors was in a state of clinical death, managed and monitored by modern technology. So those aren't conditions that "evolution" could "select for." And as for psychology, those who had near-death experiences were noted for becoming less egotistical. But more on that later. Generally speaking, evolution and pop psychology functioned back then rather like squid ink. Their power was not to shed light on a topic but to misdirect one's gaze—in effect, to change the subject to one the expert felt more confident dealing with, for the purpose of dismissing the evidence.

On some recent Mind Matters podcasts, Baylor engineering professors Robert J. Marks and Walter C. Bradley discussed near-death experiences,3 which spurred me to take a closer look at what has happened to the field of near-death studies since publishing The Spiritual Brain. Had the whole thing been utterly disproven? Or was it discredited because so many bogus demonstrations had been exposed? That's often been the fate of, for example, those who claim psychic powers.

Quite the opposite, I discovered; some key general findings have proven robust. Informed discussion in mainstream cultural venues is edging out village-atheist putdowns. Here are some highlights from recent years.

A Genuine Mystery

It was once assumed that, once we knew more about what happens to people when they die, we could explain away near-death experiences. Well, we do know more now, and near-death experiences are generally seen as real and comparatively common, even though they do not fit easily with traditional hardcore naturalism (materialism). As a psychologist acknowledged not long ago in Psychology Today:

NDEs have never been satisfactorily explained in neurobiological terms. Various theories have been suggested, such as hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain, undetected brain activity during the period when the brain appears not to be functioning, the release of endorphins, a psychological "depersonalisation" in response to intense stress, and so on. All of these theories have been found to be problematic.4

Even naturalist skeptics like Susan Blackmore and Michael Shermer disparage foolish dismissals as unhelpful and crude in the face of a genuine mystery.5

The Problem of More Colors

Many expected that the advance of science in general would make accounts of near-death experiences seem less plausible. But the opposite has happened. The unsettling claims can often be accounted for within science as such, if not necessarily by naturalism. For example, in his discussion with Walter Bradley, Robert J. Marks recalled that people who have near-death experiences talk about "the fact that there were more colors. That the spectrum was actually expanded, that they saw colors that they've never seen before. I want to see colors that I've never seen before."

The reason he doesn't (and we don't) see some colors on the spectrum is that there are limits on human vision. (The same principle applies to sounds, of course.)6 If whatever happens during the near-death experience is not constrained by the physical limits of human vision, such colors might appear to the mind's eye.

People who have had near-death experiences often say that they cannot explain what they see. That could be due to the overwhelming nature of the experience, to be sure. But it is also possibly due to a practical problem: if you saw a color for which there is no word in your language, you would not know what to call it. That fact does not, in itself, cast doubt on your experience.

Beneficial Effects

The two best-established outcomes of near-death experiences are a greater focus on relationships and spirituality, and a loss of the fear of death. For example, from a 2014 study:

In this study, we examined spiritual well-being, using Paloutzian and Ellison's Spiritual Well-Being Scale, among 224 persons who had come close to death. Participants who reported having near-death experiences reported greater spiritual well-being than those who did not, and depth of spiritual well-being was positively correlated with depth of near-death experience.7

And from Psychology Today: "Perhaps the most common after-effect of an NDE is the loss of the fear of death and a strengthened belief in the afterlife."8

Even distressing NDEs—and there are a few—can have beneficial effects. For example, the best predictor of a successful suicide attempt is a previous failed suicide attempt—except that would-be suicides who have had a near-death experience usually stop making such attempts, even if they fear death less.9

Fundamental changes in personal values or behavior do not happen easily, nor is the fear of death lightly overcome. Therefore, the reasonable conclusion is that something significant happens to those who have near-death experiences. That's probably the main reason why most traditional skeptics now attempt to accommodate NDEs to naturalism rather than just dismiss them with a nod to evolution or pop psychology.

The Corpse Twitches

But every so often, the corpse of village atheism twitches. Neurosurgeon Michael Egnor noted a recent attempt by Scientific American to equate near-death experiences with recreational drug highs, based only on language use:

The scientific "method" of inferring a common biological cause of the experiences by analyzing the language used to describe them is junk science. One may as well infer that lung cancer and tuberculosis have a common cause because sufferers from both diseases report cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, and weight loss.

He adds, "Estab­lishing causation in medicine is a complex and subtle matter—but it's fair to say that 'linguistic analysis' has never been a credible guide to scientific inference."10

And if that is really the best skeptics can do, we may infer that things are not going well for naturalism in science.

Notes
1. Jeffrey L. Saver and John Rabin, "The Neural Substrates of Religious Experience," Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences 9 (1997): https://neuro.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/jnp.9.3.498.
2. Quoted in Michael Sabom, Light and Death: One Doctor's Fascinating Account of Near-Death Experiences (Zondervan, 1998), p. 174.
3. Here are some partial transcripts of their discussions at Mind Matters News: "Why Medical Scientists Take Near-Death Experiences Seriously Now" (Nov. 21, 2019): https://bit.ly/2Et0SI9; "Do Near-Death Experiences Defy Science?" (Nov. 25, 2019): https://bit.ly/34wSfXH; "Does the Bible Talk About Near-Death Experiences?" (Dec. 8, 2019): https://bit.ly/2S4PDNX.
4. Steve Taylor, "Near-Death Experiences and DMT," Psychology Today (Oct. 12, 2018): https://bit.ly/2EGQb53.
5. Blackmore: quoted in "The Science of Near-Death Experiences: Empirically investigating brushes with the afterlife," The Atlantic (April2015): https://bit.ly/2Q0zrdV; Shermer: discussed in Marilyn A. Mendoza, "Aftereffects of the Near Death Experience: Adapting to an 'exceptional experience,'" Psychology Today (March 12, 2018): https://bit.ly/2PxF3NM.
6. "Do Near-Death Experiences Defy Science?", Mind Matters News (Nov. 25, 2019): https://bit.ly/34wSfXH. For the explanation of colors that humans can see: Natalie Wolchover, "Red-Green & Blue-Yellow: The Stunning Colors You Can't See," LiveScience (Jan. 17, 2012): https://bit.ly/2S41R9G.
7. Surbhi Khanna and Bruce Greyson, "Spiritual Transformation After Near-Death Experiences," Spirituality in Clinical Practice Vol. 1, No. 1 (American Psychological Association, 2014): https://bit.ly/36XTAZl.
8. Steve Taylor, "Near-Death Experiences and DMT," Psychology Today (Oct. 12, 2018): https://bit.ly/2EGQb53.
9. "What If a Near-Death Experience Is a Vision of Hell?" Mind Matters News (Dec. 5, 2019): https://bit.ly/38OTqVH; Steve Taylor, "Near-Death Experiences and DMT," Psychology Today (Oct. 12, 2018): https://bit.ly/2EGQb53.
10. Michael Egnor, "Near-Death Experiences Are More Real Than Some of the Research," Mind Matters News (Sept. 19, 2019): https://bit.ly/38JSeCW.

is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #52, Spring 2020 Copyright © 2020 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo52/borderline-answers