The most important question about the near death experience (NDE) turns out to be a very simple one: When does it occur? Does it occur in the last few minutes of life, when those who have had one think it occurs? Or is it an invention of the mind after the fact of recovery to full consciousness, a confabulation, the well known ability of the mind to fill in memory gaps.
Science has now answered this question. The facts of the NDE, supported by 50 years of clinical AND experimental research are clear: it is in fact the dying experience. It happens in the last few minutes of life. It happens to fully conscious brains in the last few minutes of life. It happens to completely comatose dysfunctional brains in the last few minutes of life. It happens to heavily medicated brains in the last few minutes of life. It happens to patients who are not taking any medications at all, in the last few minutes of life.
(click here to see video) I Wasn\’t Dead At All: I Was Alive
Unfortunately, most scientists, especially neuroscientists who specialize in studying how the brain works, seem completely unaware of the research and facts documenting that the Near Death Experience is in fact the dying experience. We die awake, aware, thinking and learning, mostly people report learning lessons of love about living.
So What Does Science Have To Say About NDEs?
In 2007, in a dense heavily referenced tome (1) Bruce Greyson MD Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, after 45 pages of summarizing the scientific literature wrote: “In sum, the central challenge of NDEs lies in asking how these complex states of consciousness, including vivid mentation, sensory perception, and memory, can occur under conditions in which current neurophysiological models of the production of mind by brain deem such states impossible. This conflict between current neuroscientific orthodoxy and the occurrence of NDEs is head on, profound, and inescapable. Dr. Greyson goes on to state that no further progress in understanding either the brain or consciousness can be made until scientists in general and neuroscientists in particular comes to grips with the facts, the facts, the facts, and nothing but the facts, of the near death experience.(1)
Spoon Feeding the Neuroscientific Community
In November of 2010, the Neuroscientific Community had their annual convention. 30,000 people attended. Statistically speaking, over 700 of them had had near death experiences, 900 had spontaneous out of body experiences, and 2400 had profound spiritual experiences coupled with vivid perceptions of another reality. They were enthralled by lectures on bird songs and how they impact the human brain. There was not a single lecture or poster presentation on spirituality or the implications of the near death experience.
Since then, I have deliberately provoked and engaged neuroscientists, to see what they are thinking (and not thinking). One thing I learned was that they are NOT thinking about science. Here are these highly educated neuroscientists general thoughts about NDEs
1. NDEs are hallucinations: They make this sort of statement that has absolutely no basis in the scientific literature. It is an off the cuff assumption on their part, completely unsupportable by science. Specifically, hallucinations are caused by brain dysfunction. They involve distortions of reality or denial of reality. For example, the patient having an operation might believe he is home having coffee with his family, is a common ICU delusion. In sharp contrast, patients having NDEs are oriented to person, place, time, accurately describe their current surroundings and describe a second reality superimposed or intermingled with this one. The one serious attempt I am aware of to catagorize NDEs as hallucinations concluded that they are so different from other hallucinations that they needed their own separate descriptive category.(2) Well, if that’s the case, then if called hallucinations it should be pointed out they are unlike any other hallucinations.
2. NDEs are dreams of the dying brain I love the poetic beauty of this statement. After all, if they are dreams of the dying brain, then what happens when we awaken to a new reality? However it is not a scientific statement. Dreams occur to healthy brains when asleep. Dreams have specific stages, rapid eye movements are associated with them, etc. NDEs, as stated above, occur to completely awake brains and profoundly comatose brains, the common element being they occur in the last few minutes of life.
So How Do We Know They Are the Dying Experience?
1. The first clinical study of NDEs in the medical literature I am aware of was published in 1968. The authors concluded that ‘interviewing survivors of cardiac arrest, as crude a tool as that may be, is the best way to learn about the final moments of life” In fact, we have not improved on that understanding. However, this was a retrospective study, interviewing survivors of cardiac arrest.(3)
2. In the 1990s, my research team at Seattle Children’s Hospital, concluded the first prospective study of near death experiences. It was more fascinating in that we studied children, ages 3-12, who were less likely to have cultural expectations about the experiences. Our research team consisted of the Heads of Child Neurology, Child Psychiatry and the Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital, affiliated with the University of Washington. We concluded that the experiences were not statistically associated with a lack of oxygen to the brain, being hospitalized in a scary intensive care unit (the fear death response), medications, or psychological factors. Control patients who were seriously ill did not have the experience. Only when they came close to death, did they report being conscious of their dying experience.
My favorite experience was a young man who was completely conscious, not taking medications, but had a heart pacemaker. His pacemaker failed in the lobby of the hospital and he collapsed in coma and full cardiac arrest. After we resuscitated him, he opened his eyes and said: ” that was weird, you guys just sucked me back into my body.” Obviously not a dream, a hallucination, or medication induced.
We published our research in the American Medical Associations Pediatric Journals and Contemporary Pediatrics.(4,5)
3. Pim van Lommel did a similar prospective study of near death experiences in adults. I met with Dr. van Lommel in the 1990s and we co-ordinated our research design to make sure they were similar. He reached the same conclusion as our team, and published in the Lancet.(6)
4. There was an excellent experimental study of near death experiences in completely reproducible laboratory conditions, done by the United States military and James Whinnery MD. Click here for video of his research: Experimental Study of Near Death Dr. Whinnery has published the results of his study in the medical literature (7,8). I have known Dr. Whinnery for years, we both served on the National Institute of Discovery Science, a private scientific effort to understand consciousness in the US led by Robert Bigelow.
Dr. Whinnery was studying the effects of high G forces on pilots. He whirled them in a centrifuge to the point of near death, to the point of theoretical cessation of blood flow within the brain. He varied the intensity of the centrifuge runs and was able to very nicely document exactly when the near death experience occurred. It was not enough for the pilots to collapse into coma, have seizures, and complete loss of bladder and bowel control. When revived, they did not report NDEs. Only when they went beyond that point, to the brink of near death, did they have a near death experience. For the pilot in the video, his near death experience was bouncing out of his physical body, being fully conscious, as if he were in a bumper car. Obviously he was not having a dream.
5. It is reasonable to ask if near death experiences are then simply the result of a dysfunctional dying brain, with all the release of endorphins, endopyschosins (neurotransmitters that cause hallucinatory experiences). At the end of the day, I don’t think anyone can argue with this point of view. All of life could be considered in that perspective. There is a philosophical line of thinking that all of this is a dream and we will wake up from it. There are people who believe that love isn’t a “real” experience, but simply the result of various hormones designed to control the organism to reproduce. These are all philosophical constructs, and I am not a philosopher. I am simply a scientist, documenting that the experience occurs in the last few minutes of life. It is up to the individual to interpret that experience.
However, for those who interpret the near death experience to be a hallucination of a dying dysfunctional brain, consider this: Near death experiences also occur to fully conscious brains in the last few minutes of life. Any neuroscientific understanding of how the brain mediates the experience also has to explain how it can occur BOTH in dying dysfunctional brains and alert fully conscious brains. This evidence comes from the Journal of the Swiss Alpine Club, over 100 years ago. They documented that mountain climbers who fell from great heights but were saved by falling into a snow bank, for example, also had all the features of the classic near death experience. More recently, a researcher at Yale documented that children had near death experiences even if fully conscious and were not taking medications. (9,10)
The Response From the Neuroscientific Community: You are Psychotic and Insane to Believe This
The reason for this reaction is simple. The scientific facts of the near death experience point to a different reality, a different scientific model than the current one. Terms such as ‘psychotic” and ‘delusional” are terms we use when we believe that another person perceives a different reality than the rest of us. Within the narrow confines of the rigidly dogmata philosophically monochromatic neuroscientific community, anyone who concludes from scientific facts that we can think without a brain must be delusional. This is why Dr. Greyson pointed out that the collision between the Science Fundamentalists (my term) of Neuroscience and the scientific facts of the near death experience are inescapable.
It is not generally well understood that science is a system of inquiry designed to help us understand reality. Although it is a branch of philosophy, it is really a process, a protocol. It is not supposed to have one philosophy or another embedded in it. Yet it does, simply because scientists are human beings with emotions and feelings and preconceptions as well. When we speak of science, we generally mean ‘the scientific method coupled with the materialistic philosophy’. Therefore, the reaction of your average neuroscientist to anyone who ‘believes” that we can think without a brain, is in fact an emotional and philosophical reaction. We are no longer engaging such a scientist on the rational level, but we have attacked his underlying belief systems. They typically react with rage.
But not all scientists embrace materialism as their underlying and hidden philosophy. Robert Lanza is often described as the world’s most brilliant scientist. As a teenager, he cloned an animal for a science project! Recently he wrote an article in the American Scholar stating that consciousness is the underlying reality of the Universe and that it uses the brain to interact with this local perceptual reality. (11) Click here for his website: He is certainly not alone. Nobel Prize winner molecular biologist Christian De Duve, who discovered how RNA evolved from the primal chemical soup of this Earth, also states that consciousness was part of that evolutionary process, and exists independent of a working brain.(12)
A Child Has the Last Word
The science of the near death experience is clear. We die awake, aware, with an expanded sense of reality. I have studied NDEs in Japan and Africa, as well as in the United States. Cross cultural studies of the NDE show that the common elements are that we die the life we live, in terms of the specifics of the experience. However, we all die consciously, learning lessons of love about our life.(13)
Perhaps some will interpret this as simply a hallucination of the dying mind. Frankly from a scientific point of view, I don’t see how we can argue with that. Yet I see it as circumstantial evidence that we continue to live, that death is just a body problem. After all, why would we have evolved a complex neurobiological system involving easily 25% of our brain, just to give us a pleasing hallucination at the point of death.
Listen to Chris’s near death experience. Notice when he says “everything went blank” as corresponding to the cessation of ordinary sensory input, and yet he still was awake, aware, and alive. Click here Five year old NDE Was it a tunnel or a noodle?
1. Greyson B: Unusual Experiences Near Death pp 367-421 in Kelly EF, Kelly EW, Crabtree A et al (eds) Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology for the 21st Century. (2007) Rowman and Littlefield
2. Schnaper N: ”The Psychological Implications of Severe Trauma: Emotional Sequelae to Unconsciousness” J Trauma 15 (1975) 94-98 Click here for pub med link
3. Bruch GE, DePasquale NO, Phillips JH. What death is like, Am Heart J 1968;76/l438-9 (Does anyone have this article? If so, email me and I will add it to the blog. This article is an awesome classic.)
4. Morse ML, Castillo P, Venecia D: “Childhood Near Death Experiences” American Journal of Diseases of Children 140 (1986) 110-114 Click here to read
5. Morse ML: “Near Death Experiences and Death Related Visions: Implications for the Clinitian” Current Problems in Pediatrics (February 1994) 55-83 Click here to read
6. Lommel P van, van Wees, Meyers V et al: “Near Death Experiences in Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 358 (2001) 2039-45 Click here to read
7. Whinnery JE, Whinnery AM: “Acceleration Induced Loss of Consciousness” Archive of Neurology 47 (1990) 764-76 Click here to read
8. Whinnery JE: ”Observations on the Neurophysiological Theory of Acceleration Induced Unconsciousness” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 60 (1989) 589-93
9. Heim A “Notizen uber den Tod durch Absturz” Jahrbuch des Schweizer Alpenclubs 27 (1982) 327-37 Translated by Noyes R: “The Experience of Dying From Falls” Omega (1972) 45-52 Click here to purchase copy
10. Komp D: A Window To Heaven: When Children See Life in Death (1992) Zondervan Grand Rapids, Michigan
11. Lanza R: “A New Theory of the Universe” American Scholar Spring 2001 Click here to read
12. Duve C de: Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative Basic Books (1995) New York
13. Carr C. “ Death and near death: a comparison of Tietan and Euro-American experiences”. J Transpersonal Psychol 1993;25:59-110. Click here for Journal of Transpersonal Psychology website to purchase article. (this is a very hot article, referenced a lot. I am proud that I played a small part in Dr. Carr’s research for this article- Strong work Dr. Carr!)