Near-Death Experiences -- Real or Imagined?
The much-discussed near-death experience is not one of the world's great mysteries on a par with the Abominable Snowman or flying saucers. But since so many people claim to have had these occurrences, it is a topic certainly worth researching. Indeed, are near death experiences (NDE) real? Is it possible to see something when the body is basically brain dead? There are those who say that have had a "Near Death Experience" and they have descriptive accounts of what they witnessed. Others are not so sure about these events. This paper will describe what a NDE is, who believes in them and also look at the skeptical side of the issue -- those who feel that typically an NDE is based on religious beliefs or hallucinations resulting from medications or recreational drugs.
What is a Near Death Experience? That refers to a wide range of personal experiences that are all associated with impending death, and these experiences as reported involve "multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body" according to The Lancet (2002). John Evans writes in The Lancet there are patients who experience -- or say they do -- NDE during "episodes of recovery of consciousness" and those episodes are "invariably attributed to an insufficient supply of anaesthetic, and are not generally associated with hypoxia" (Evans).
The NDE phenomena are usually reported after a person has been pronounced clinically dead, or otherwise very close to death and many of the NDE experiences are believed by scientists to be based on hallucinations but paranormal specialists and others who believe in mystical phenomena believe that the NDE are some kind of evidence of an afterlife.
John Evans, a physician at Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, England, is not saying flatly that he doesn't believe that NDEs are fakes but he suggest that NDEs "are simply an episode of consciousness modulated by drugs, hypoxia, hypercarbia, or other physiological stressors." Evans also points out that many patients who have reported a NDE have been given "a cocktail of potent, centrally acting drugs… [like] opioids (e.g., fentanyl), benzodiazepines, and other psychotropic drugs (e.g., droperidol)" that were given to them with the purpose of "preventing consciousness" (Evans, 2002).
The Wikipedia encyclopedia (quoting from Psychology Today) explains that "approximately eight million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience" and another source (Journal of Advanced Nursing) says that the eight million number is "underestimated…because some individuals are presumably afraid or otherwise reluctant to talk about their experiences."
Meanwhile, "The Skeptic's Dictionary" (TSD) asserts that there is "no single shared experience" that has been reported by those who have had NDEs. And what many of these people are really experiencing is an out-of-body experience (OBE) based on drugs and not necessarily anything mystical or metaphysical. The Skeptic quotes from Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, among the first to popularize the idea that OBE is "proof of life after death." Kubler-Ross claims that she herself had OBEs and saw herself "lifted out of my physical body…as if a whole lot of loving beings were taking all the tired parts out of me, similar to car mechanics in a car repair shop" (www.skepdic.com).
The part of Kubler-Ross's explanation that stretches credulity is when she claims that people after death "become complete again"; the blind can see, the deaf can hear, "cripples are no longer crippled after all their vital signs have ceases to exist" (Skeptic).
Is NDE a real, verifiable and documented phenomenon? Writing in the Web site www.spiritandsky.com, the author says "Sadly, in many documented cases [of NDE] it is not" real. Why is it not real? Because when the heart stops beating, and you stop breathing, the brain is starved for oxygen." And, the writer goes on, the brain responds to the lack of oxygen and instinctively understands that it is running out of fuel, and "goes through an acceptance." That acceptance, according to the author of this article, results in the supposed experience of seeing your life "flashing before your eyes." This phenomenon is basically a result of the brain giving up and dying.
In order to accept that NDEs are real, one has to believe that "consciousness is not destroyed when our brain activity ceases." In fact, to continue the explanation, it is irrational to believe that in the absence of a brain's normal functioning a person would be experiencing colors, or sounds, or sights, according to this theory in Spirit and Sky.
Meanwhile, in a more scientific approach, the well-known doctor, psychologist, philosopher and social critic Deepak Chopra engaged in a debate with Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic Magazine who is also a regular columnist for Scientific American. An article in the journal Skeptic (Crislip, 2008) reviewed the debate between the two well-known scholars. The debate centered around an article in the highly regarded British medical journal called Lancet. An article in the Lancet pointed to a study of 344 cardiac patients who had been "resuscitated from clinical death"; the article claimed that 12% of those cardiac patients had reported near-deal experiences.
In those near death experiences the 12% said they had out-of-body experiences and "saw a light at the end of a tunnel" (Crislip). Mark Crislip, author of this article on the Chopra-Shermer debate, is himself a physician who practices in an acute care hospital and who has "seen many cardiac arrests over the years." Crislip claims that after a heart attack, the brain can still get oxygen in many cases; "Declaring someone dead just because their heart isn't beating is not a good definition," Crislip goes on. And so the basic tone of this article in Skeptic is that the author Crislip is questioning the facts of the article in Lancet, and he says that Chopra's analysis that NDE patients are flatline and brain dead suffers from the same problems as do the authors of the Lancet article" (Crislip). Chopra is known as a brilliant, educated and polished speaker and author on all things spiritual, and would likely take the position that those 12% of cardiac patients did indeed see something during the intense situation of a cardiac arrest. Based on the data from the original article, Chopra claimed that 18% of patients (not 12%) had experienced NDE.
And here is the point of this paper's referencing the Chopra-Shermer debate over whether or not these people had actual near-death experiences. Two years after the original research, the investigating doctors re-interviewed 37 of the patients who suffered cardiac arrest and were part of the research project. Four of the 37 who had "not initially reported an NDE" reported two years later than in fact that had indeed had a near death experience. "If this sub-sample is at all representative," the article explained, "it implies that around 30 patients from the sample of 282 who initially denied an NDE would, if they had survived for another 2 years, be claiming that they had had one" (Crislip).
The author of the original article in Lancet claims that "NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation," but Skeptic writer (and doctor) Mark Crislip says: "I do not see this conclusion from the data in this article… the only thing this paper defines is a description of who gets NDEs and what patients report." The Lancet authors' "reach," Crislip goes on, "exceeds their grasp" (Crislip). He isn't saying that NDEs don't happen but "the devil is in the details," Crislip concludes.
In the Web site www.near-death.com there are numerous testimonials from people who claim to have had near-death experiences. Larry Hagman (late actor who played in the TV series "Dallas") supposedly had a near-death experience when he was a young man -- he had taken an "acid trip" and had a dramatic NDE, according to the Web site. But later in his life on the surgery table Hagman claimed to have had another NDE. The author of the Web site says this is common, that once a psychedelic trip has been taken, those hallucinations can return at some time later in life.
Meantime, here are two NDE as reported to www.near-death.com, and both raise serious questions as to their believability. In the first recounting, the writer admits that he had an "overdose on heroin and LSD and a series of other drugs I don't even remember taking" (www.near-death.com). Before continuing into his story, any sane, sober reader has to wonder in the first place what kind of person would inject heroin into his veins while under the powerful psychedelic drug LSD? No wonder he saw things that appeared to be end of life images.
"I felt myself age, die, and be reborn again over and over again. The rebirth felt great but I felt myself go sour as I aged and I saw I was missing something in my life." A skeptic could easily interject some comments here, like, no wonder you felt yourself age, the powerful drugs you ingested were aging…