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What Do Near-Death Experiences Tell Us?

Reader Tim G. passes along this fascinating 2012 essay by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard saying what we know to this point about Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Beauregard tells the amazing story of Pamela Reynolds, an Atlanta woman who was put into clinical death (no measurable brain activity) in an operating room to allow surgeons to perform an […]

Reader Tim G. passes along this fascinating 2012 essay by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard saying what we know to this point about Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Beauregard tells the amazing story of Pamela Reynolds, an Atlanta woman who was put into clinical death (no measurable brain activity) in an operating room to allow surgeons to perform an extremely delicate procedure on her brain. When she was brought back to life, she reported having had a classic NDE:

At this point, Pam’s out-of-body adventure transformed into a near-death experience (NDE): She recalls floating out of the operating room and traveling down a tunnel with a light. She saw deceased relatives and friends, including her long-dead grandmother, waiting at the end of this tunnel. She entered the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving light, and sensed that her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the light (the breathing of God). But this extraordinary experience ended abruptly, as Reynolds’s deceased uncle led her back to her body—a feeling she described as “plunging into a pool of ice.”

Her case is unusual in that it was induced under controlled medical conditions, and recorded in detail. Here’s another interesting one:

Some skeptics legitimately argue that the main problem with reports of OBE perceptions is that they often rest uniquely on the NDEr’s testimony—there is no independent corroboration. From a scientific perspective, such self-reports remain inconclusive. But during the last few decades, some self-reports of NDErs have been independently corroborated by witnesses, such as that of Pam Reynolds. One of the best known of these corroborated veridical NDE perceptions—perceptions that can be proven to coincide with reality—is the experience of a woman named Maria, whose case was first documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

This case is particularly impressive given that during cardiac arrest, the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted. When this happens, the brain’s electrical activity (as measured with EEG) disappears after 10 to 20 seconds. In this state, a patient is deeply comatose. Because the brain structures mediating higher mental functions are severely impaired, such patients are expected to have no clear and lucid mental experiences that will be remembered. Nonetheless, studies conducted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States have revealed that approximately 15 percent of cardiac arrest survivors do report some recollection from the time when they were clinically dead. These studies indicate that consciousness, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can be experienced during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity.

Beauregard takes on various theories attempting to explain NDEs as hallucinations caused by a brain dying (e.g., from oxygen deprivation), and says the data simply do not fit those conclusions. More:

The scientific NDE studies performed over the past decades indicate that heightened mental functions can be experienced independently of the body at a time when brain activity is greatly impaired or seemingly absent (such as during cardiac arrest). Some of these studies demonstrate that blind people can have veridical perceptions during OBEs associated with an NDE. Other investigations show that NDEs often result in deep psychological and spiritual changes.

These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity. As we have seen, such a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience—while their hearts are stopped—vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies.

NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.

Before you comment on this, read the whole thing.  I have a couple of general observations, neither of which are surprising. For one, the NDE research pretty clearly undermines, even demolishes, a purely materialist viewpoint on consciousness. For another, NDEs undermine generally the received Christian teaching on life-after-death. As Beauregard reports, the basic NDE experience doesn’t really change across religions, and even unbelievers report the same ones.

However, David Sessions at the Daily Beast writes that about one in five NDEs are hellish. I knew a man once who had an NDE like this, and it radically changed his life. I believe in Hell, and not only because the Bible tells me so. I believe it exists, and it is possible to go there. The fact that the great majority of NDEs are “heavenly” does not mean that an incorporeal realm of darkness, rage, and pain does not exist. It does mean, however, that strict Christian orthodoxy may not accurately describe the afterlife. I will point out, though, that NDEs broadly support the Christian teaching of salvation as theosis, a merging with God, an “engodding.” If you’re reading Dante’s Paradiso with me, you understand this.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s difficult for me to shed the idea that I had for much of my life that heaven is a place where we are as we were on earth, only everything is always wonderful, everybody you love is there, and not annoying in the least, and God’s down in City Hall in the New Jerusalem, like an omnipotent Mr. Rourke, making sure everything on Fantasy Island is going just swell. I put it crudely, but my guess is that most of us Christians who believe in the afterlife conceive of it in that way, more or less. If that’s how you see it, it’s easy to think that salvation consists of doing what’s necessary in this life to make sure you gain entry into the Ultimate Resort. Especially since becoming Orthodox, I’ve been trying to understand salvation as theosis, a process that starts now. Nothing has helped me grasp and absorb this like The Divine Comedy. Salvation is moving towards union with God, of joining our spirits to His. We don’t pray, fast, do good deeds and avoid sin because we want to keep a clean record and build a good transcript so we can graduate to heaven after we die. We do these things because they allow us to participate more fully in the life of God both right now, and after we die.

I hope you theologians among us will correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this way of conceiving salvation could explain why most NDEs, if they are real, show good people of all (or most) religions, and no religion, ending up in the same place: united with God. If true, it is first an example of God’s great mercy, but also a logical consequence of this model of how we are saved. That is, if the goal of our earthly life is to move toward ultimate union with God, then this is something people who did not have the Christian revelation have managed to achieve by the grace of a God they may not have fully understood (as if any of us could fully understand the Infinite, the Absolute!), or even believed in. But they lived as if He were real. All of us Christians know people who are unbelievers, or who believe in another religion, who live more lovingly and mercifully than many who profess Christ. In fact, Jesus himself taught that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will be with Him in Paradise.

None of this is a reason not to preach the Gospel. If we are to be saved, we are saved by Christ, whether we confessed Him with our tongues or not. I believe, though, that in God’s boundless mercy, it is possible to confess Christ with our hearts, by our own deeds, and by the power of God’s grace. We believe and follow Jesus not transactionally, so we can get into heaven when we are at life’s end, but so we can begin entering into union with God today, in this moment.

That’s a theory, anyway. I’m not a theologian, or even very smart about this stuff. I welcome correction. This is all speculative.

To me, there’s also an interesting question in what these stories — in particular the Pam Reynolds case — say about metaphysics (as distinct from theology). In modernity, we who are not materialists tend to believe that there is a sharp, clear line between the soul and the body, between the material and the immaterial. This is called dualism: the belief that the mind (that is, consciousness, or the spirit) and the body are separate. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps some forms of Protestantism; I don’t really know the theology well enough to say) teach that were are not ghosts dwelling in a corporeal home, but that we are incarnate — literally, we are enfleshed spirits. The spirit and the flesh separate at death. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense that it’s perfectly natural for the spirit to make that separation when the flesh reaches a certain biological point of no return (or at least, almost certainly no return)? Maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be, but I’m trying to think through what NDEs tell us about the way the nonphysical aspect of our being relates to the physical. Do NDEs tell us that the spirit and the flesh are less distinct from each other than we may believe? I think of consciousness/spirit not as bound to the brain, but as a field that pervades our flesh, but that finds its focus in the brain.

An imperfect analogy that may nonetheless indicate what I’m getting at: I’m sitting at my kitchen table writing this on a laptop that is connected to the Internet via wi-fi. The wi-fi signal is filling this room, but it finds its focus in my laptop. If my laptop crashed, the wi-fi signal wouldn’t cease to exist; it would simply no longer be accessible to me.

Again, this is all mere speculation. But these are things I like to think about. If you’d like to have a conversation about them, I’m eager to hear from you. If you just want to be this guy, either from a theistic or non-theistic point of view, don’t bother; I’m not going to post it.

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