Saturday, August 11, 2012

Death- beginning or end?

What are we to make of the near death experience? A review of "Evidence of the afterlife" by Dr. Jeffrey Long.

Apparently, it feels wonderful to die. Everyone has by now heard about near death experiences (NDEs), which comprise floating out-of-body experiences, approach to a white light or tunnel, a highlight reel of one's life, communing with others who are dead, and positive feelings all around. This book is built around a large compendium of first-person reports of such NDEs, and, as the title indicates, comes to a definitive conclusion about what they mean for one of the most durable hopes of humanity- the afterlife.

The book is build from a web site the author set up to solicit NDE reports from around the world. He has compiled over 1,000 reports, using a structured survey form, and has personally interviewed over 600 respondents.

The first thing to say is that these observations all seem true. These people are not lying, and accurately report what they experience. The experience is not only curious, and very positive, but also personally powerful, altering their view of life and death, and their personalities. They are often making reports many years after the fact, recalling phenomenally durable and affecting memories. Just that alone is amazing to hear about, and even to the most inveterate skeptic makes the whole process of death a bit less daunting.

One example with many of the typical elements:
I found myself floating up toward the ceiling. I could see everyone around the bed very plainly , even my own body. I thought how odd it was that they were upset about my body. I was fine and I wanted them to know that, but there seemed to be no way to let them know. It was as though there were a veil or a screen between me and the others in the room. 
I became aware of an opening, if I can call it that. It appeared to be elongated and dark, and I began to zoom through it. I was puzzled yet exhilarated. I came out of this tunnel into a real of soft, brilliant love and light. The love was everywhere. It surrounded me and seemed to soak through in my very being. At some point I was shown, or saw, the events of my life. They were in a kind of vast panorama. All of this is really just indescribable. People I knew who had died were there with me in the light- a friend who had died in college, my grandfather, and a great-aunt, among  others. They were happy, beaming. 
I didn't want to go back, but I was told that I had to by a man in light. I was being told that I had not completed what I had to do in life. 
I came back to my body with a sudden lurch.

On the other hand, Long handles these observations in a most unscientific way, hammering away on the "proofs" he has assembled for the interpretation that they are exactly what they seem- trips to that undescovered country, from whose bourn Shakespeare thought no traveller returns. His proofs are nine-fold:

1. In medical terms, the patient is dead or close to death when these experiences take place- no pulse, no EEG, no breathing. Squaring this with the complexity of the NDE experience is rather difficult.

2. Out of body experiences occur, typically a sense of floating high in the room, and observing what is going on, often in precise detail, even of activities going on in nearby rooms.

3. Even people who have been blind from birth can have visual experiences during an NDE.

4. Subjective consciousness is typically heightened during NDE- the person reports feeling exceptionally clear, and is later able to report quite a bit of detail. This while they would otherwise be going unconscious and losing bodily function, blood circulation, and EEG signals.

5. The flashing life review is accurate, even dredging up forgotten episodes.

6. 96% of the beings encountered in this experience have previously died, consistent with the idea that their final abode is being encountered.

7. Children as young as three have all the elements of these experiences that adults do.

8. People around the world have all the elements of these experiences as well.

9. Those who experience NDE frequently undergo deep changes in their attitudes and lives, including increased psychic abilities.

As you can imagine, some of these characteristics are less probative than others, and their value as evidence depends on what counter-model one uses for comparison. For instance, the ability of blind people to have visual experiences during an NDE (even though they do not typically have visual dreams, for instance) may derive from a brain experience that exists purely in consciousness, rather than requiring the sensory brain areas. One is eating the pure frosting, as it were, rather than the whole cake. Blind people have functional and physical maps of the world, so transposing them into pure experiential consciousness might make them seem visual, under unusual circumstances. Similar arguments apply to the moving nature of these experiences, and the sense of understanding everything (which often comes up in NDE narratives) which arise in LSD trips and other extreme hallucinations.

A great failing is that Long does not offer very coherent skeptical perspectives. My model of all this is that hearing may remain intact during these experiences and accounts for the ability to perceive quite accurately what is going on around the patient, during the out-of-body experience. This resembles our ability in dreams to incorporate auditory perception, though to a less accurate degree. Out-of-body experiences are more common than NDEs, happening during nightmares, drug experiences, etc., and do not seem to generally require a non-naturalistic explanation. Looking to Long's web site for NDEs by deaf people, there are a few, and none appear to offer the kinds of precisely observed out-of-body experiences that the others do, which would be consistent with such a hypothesis.

A second part of my model for NDE is that there is a great deal more to the brain than is detected by an EEG. EEG picks up surface brain waves, but the more important areas, at any rate more emotional and consciousness-forming parts, seem to lie deeper. One could imagine that loss of blood flow does not lead to a uniform shut-down of everything, but rather a flooding of some pain-relieving hormones, and concentration of remaining activity in some core areas.

Key areas for emotion (and memory) happen far from the surface of the brain.

Additionally, the executive cortical areas of the brain typically have the function of slowing down or modulating older areas, (the old Freudian super-ego/id system), so one can imagine that a catastrophic loss of blood flow might have just the NDE effects based in core brain areas plus persistent auditory function. Indeed, study of decapitated rats indicates that there really is quite a bit going on in the minute after blood flow stops, even under a naturalist paradigm.

At any rate, the NDE is a serious challenge to a naturalist world view. While one can offer some speculative models of how all this might be explained from brain activities, we are dealing with a lot of unknowns. We don't even know how consciousness arises in the brain, so determining how extremely unusual alternate states of consciousness happen is going to be heavily speculative for the time being.

The main issue, however, is that "soul" theories have many more problems than naturalistic ones do. The scope of soul theories has steadily contracted over time. No one expects to explain liver function by invoking the soul, or function of the heart. Those days are long gone. Our mental lives too are being progressively pinned down to physical events in the brain. Memory, for instance, depends on hippocampal function, and can be tracked to cortical engrams relayed from the hippocampus. What is left for a putative soul to do, once memories are stored physically, emotions happen via basal areas like the amygdala, and decisions are made in the neocortex? The whole concept makes less and less sense with time, as intuition gives way to reality-based analysis of what actually creates our minds and selves.

Lastly, whether the NDE is informed by some cultural programming as well as biological programming is quite a live issue. One subject related as follows:
"The review was measured in the beginning, but then the pictures came faster and faster, and it seemed like the movie reel was running out ... It went faster and faster, and then I heard myself, along with the entire universe in my head, screaming in crescendo, "Allah ho akbar!'"

Such a fate would surely be disconcerting, not only to me, but to many believers in the soul and afterlife.

  • Islam's gravest sin. God: “I am as My servant thinks of Me.”
  • Apparently, atheists are at fault.
  • Finding gullible, on TV.
  • Some notes on corruption, cooptation, and Washington sleazefests.
  • Republican strategy of complete intransigence and destruction emerges. Why is anyone surprised?
  • Why does this man want to be president? Krugman chimes in too.
  • Tribute to Milton Friedman.
  • Elvis Costello provides a playlist.
  • What happened to Japan? Is this what we are facing?
  • Economists lying for ideology.
  • Local police get awfully trigger-happy around black people. 
  • Is race less of a factor in this election? I would say it is more.. in a future blog.
  • A little Oscar Peterson.
  • Economics quote, from Mark Thoma, on the Ryan budget.
"If you think the middle class has it too good, too much security, taxes aren't high enough, not enough fear of unemployment, too much help for education, and so on, while the wealthy haven't been coddled enough in recent years, not enough tax cuts, too little upward redistribution of income, not enough bank bailouts, etc., etc., then the Republican proposals should make you happy."


  1. Good thoughts, Burk.

    I have always been fascinated by NDE's - also the effects of mirror-gazing in providing NDE-like effects and out-of-body experiences. Drug experiences too, of course, and heightened states of meditation.

    I tend to favor naturalistic explanations - though this does not exclude possible natural features of our existence that could blow our minds completely. In fact, I like the term "intangible naturalism" over "supernaturalism" as the former has the connotation of unity with a reality beyond our understanding, whereas the latter has the connotation of inherent duality and a complete lack of concrete epistemology.

    Anyway - I am really glad that we are hopefully in for some great times when we die - whatever it means in the "long" run (if time is even meaningful when considering what happens to us "after" we die).

    On a more personal note, in the moments when my father passed away, my brother and I spoke with him regularly (and loudly). If he was experiencing an NDE, however we interpret that, we wanted to be a part of it.

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  3. Thanks, Steven-

    I do hope your father was appreciative.

    I forgot to note that my discussion all keyed off a comment thread conducted on Eric's blog with Pat, who recommended this book to me.

    Ultimately the explanation is whatever it will be. I am for reality, whatever that holds, super or otherwise. Our ability to investigate things via naturalistic hypotheses makes that the go-to method of approach. In comparison, theists tend to make do without empirical work, favoring intuition and authority as ways to anchor narratives. It hasn't worked so well in the past, but that doesn't mean that there is nothing to it. The cosmic origins story has been claimed as a "win" for theists of some stripes- they had a 50% chance (between a time/point of origin, and a perpetual universe) and nailed it!

    The NDE question is truly perplexing. I certainly away better-controlled studies on its super-characteristics, with OBEs, and the like. But more importantly, I await better understanding of the brain, which would get at the mechanisms involved, either way. As you say, the whole thing could be a subjective time phenomenon, where a subjective eternity happens in a this-world minute.