- freely available
Humanities 2016, 5(2), 18; doi:10.3390/h5020018
Abstract: This paper critically reviews assertions that near-death and out-of-body experiences (ND/OBE) offer proof of extra-corporeal existence when the brain is supposedly “dead”. While this field has almost moved away from mere anecdotal recording, the current trend is focussed on demonstrating existence without functional brains. These endeavours have fallen far short of anticipated results—that cardiac patients would report on strategically-placed markers around acute resuscitation units. Two problems arise: a failure to produce corroborative empirical evidence for extra-corporeal cognition (a) when the brain is “dead”, (or “clinically dead”, so-called) and (b) how the memory required for recall could paradoxically be set down at that critical time-point. The view advanced here is that ND/OBE occur as subjects’ states are returning to complete resumption of conscious-awareness and which, from several published accounts, is particularly abrupt but which nevertheless accounts perfectly for memory—and recall. Similar transcendental adventures accompanying returns to conscious-awareness occur with other preceding states of reduced consciousness. Most recollections are intensely geo-physical, anthropomorphic, banal and illogical: their dream-like fantasy provides nothing revelatory about life without a brain, or importantly, about other supposed cosmic contexts. Additionally, it is proposed that since prevalence rates are so extremely low (<1% globally), the few subjects undergoing ND/OBE may have predisposed brains, genetically, structurally or resulting from previous psychological stress. In a somewhat similar vein to post-traumatic stress disorder, subjects with predisposed brains exhibit markedly changed post-experiential phenotypes, so that the ND/OBE itself could be viewed as a transient, accompanying epiphenomenon.
1. Some Initial Considerations
2. The ND/OBE Experiential Curriculum
2.1. Baseline Features
2.2. How Trustworthy Are NDE Reports?
2.3. The Idiosyncratic Nature of NDE
2.4. Hellish Experiences
2.5. The Semantic Content of Experiences Undergone
2.6. The Jesus Characteristics and Geography of Heaven: True Insights—or Not?
“I can see that form now—it had blond-gold hair…and a beard—very light, and a moustache [and] a white garment on—there was a red spot here [points to image of a Sacred Heart on gown]—and a chalice in his hand”.(, p. 60)
Or: “He was tall—had a white robe on—his face was beautiful—his skin was glowing and absolutely flawless”.(, p. 49)
And “She [in reference to the subject’s mother] was wearing a long sparkling silver gown—[as] did Christ—he had long hair—long beard”.(, p. 169)
And: “...I saw Christ. He was incredibly beautiful...his feet were bare. The bosom was open and you could see his chest. He had hair down to his shoulders and a beard. There was light coming out of his head like a star”.(, p. 229)
3. Neuro(patho)logical Considerations
3.1. The Physical Features of the ND/OBE Body
3.2. Duality of Conscious Awareness during ND/OBE
3.3. The Vestibular System and the Out-of-Body Component
3.4. The Tunnel Phenomenon and the Perceived Light
3.5. How Accurate Are Reports about OBE?—General Comments
3.6. Are OBE Reports Reliably Accurate?—The Non-Contributory Case of Pam Reynolds
3.7. The Neurophysiological Basis of ND/OBE Phenonmenology
“[I came] rushing through a tunnel and snapped back into my body”;“When they put the shocks [electrical defibrillation] on me and I fell back, down to my body, like a dead weight. And the next thing, I was in my body again”;“Then there was sudden confusion—I was upset and scared—something was wrong. I regained my body and felt tremendous pain all over”.
- NDE terminate as subjects regain full conscious-awareness—there is no recorded case to the contrary;
- it follows that ND/OBE occur in the immediate run-up period to that objective time-point;
- the use of word-counts (as used in dream research) suggests that these events are ephemeral and generally last only a few seconds or minutes: there can be no escape from that conclusion, and is a key issue;
- this seems to be a sensible conclusion since, on physiological grounds, memories can only be set down when the brain is not in a moribund state—a fourth vital point needing recognition. Surely the most sensible conclusion is that ND/OBE do occur, and are remembered during those final moments as subjects are rapidly returning to full conscious-awareness;
- ND/OBE are therefore brain-originating phenomena, and not trips to “Heaven”, “Hell”, other imagined cosmic spaces, or generated by external agencies.
- suicide survivors from the Golden Gate Bridge ;
- from military pilots centrifuged to unconsciousness.
3.8. Is there a Predisposed Brain Underlying ND/OBE Phenomenology?
3.9. REM-Intrusion and the Emergent State of Otherworld Possession
4. Theological Considerations
4.1. Considering the Spiritual Domain of NDE
4.2. Changed Perceptions in Subjects Post-Event
4.3. Comments on So-called Paranormal Outcomes of ND/OBE Phenomena
4.4. Grappling with Those Eternal—Yet Persistent—Key Questions!
5. Summary: Checking Reality
5.1. The Background Perspective
5.2. Some Conceptual Inputs
- It seems important to stress again that ND/OBE are non-uniform, extremely heterogeneous events—viewed historically, culturally, or personally. They are heavily overloaded with anthropomorphic and geophysical reference. Their idiosyncratic personally-biased characteristics almost deny definition. Their dreamlike content can be absurd, illogical, and even frankly silly. The juxtaposed occurrence of “hellish” as well as “heavenly” reports, and their inter-conversions, seriously undermines the possibility of sensibly belonging to, or even representing, another presumed non-physical realm. That difficulty, to my knowledge, has not been fully acknowledged by the ND fraternity.
- Another threat, excluding willful dishonesty, is that some of the reported happenings are factually incorrect. Yet these aberrations are glossed over in the attempt to assert often with considerable force that the ones which are supposedly not incorrect indelibly point to existence away from, and independent of, the body. The current trend is based mainly on cardiac patients who may represent particular, and possibly biased, kinds of ND experiences. Apart from their employment in supporting the "consciousness-exists-outside-a-dead-brain" mantra, they cannot be made to generalize upon, or even promote, those proposals advanced.
- And while a few people have apparently learned all knowledge, and amassed the information residing in large (earth-like, it should be noted) libraries, these revelations are never capable of disclosure on return to earth. There has never been one, single revelatory report bringing to our attention something never before witnessed throughout the annals of recorded history on this planet. All we are served with are blue skies, fluffy white clouds, beautiful flowers, and so on (see Section 4.4, above). To me that sounds rather locally suspicious, and not the ideal programmatic material with which to usher in the new “Omega” or “Millennium”, or whatever else we are headed for.
- Another major problem that requires addressing is how the memory for these events is put down. It should be obvious to everyone that our memories require defined neural process for their capture, thus to facilitate subsequent expression. The increasingly ravaging effects of dementia severely remind us of that. However, “cosmic consciousness” seems very reluctant to relieve us of our failures to remember things on earth, neither those, it seems, having had the privileged luxury of travel to other-world destinations. This critically applies to all those experts who insist that some form of non-neural mentation can exist alone, or as part of the “Big Mind” somewhere out there. If it were insisted that the memories recollected were not due to neural function, then why are these same subjects incapable of bringing back remembered aspects of their experiences while away from earth, notably answers to the important questions about knowledge, life and existence? In that respect, there has been a consistent, miserable failure.
- In addition, there must be some resonances to the fact that for many subjects, their experience ends precisely when conscious-awareness returns, reminding us of the abrupt return when our last period of nocturnal REM sleep finishes—so-called hypnopompic re-awakenings. Since this implies that ND/OBE occur during that period as conscious-awareness is being resumed, there is no problem concerning how memory for the event is set down. That period of resumed conscious-awareness can be quite rapid. That, for example, was demonstrated by scientists carrying out laboratory-timed observations with unconscious military aircrew as they came back to life. Their recollections occurred within 40 laboratory-timed seconds.
- Some post-experiential subjects undergo profound changes in their lives and outlooks. Unfortunately, we still do not know what percentage of experients are so involved. But these life-changing reversals, although of great personal significance, are not unique to ND/OBE, since they frequently occur as a result of a profound life stress, an acutely fearful occurrence, childhood abuse, or the result of taking drugs, such as LSD. We do not have a clear picture why only a few ND/OBE subjects experience these changes, yet it is a phenomenon which could be empirically investigated through use of appropriate questionnaires and neurophysiological investigations. There must be discernible differences between those subjects affected, and those not. I have alluded to genetic, structural, and psychological differences that could be relevant: those ideas need follow up.
- On a wider front, we need some answers as to why 90+% (cardiac) subjects never have ND/OBE. Investigative techniques could be employed to attempt to find differences. It must be asked why these are not being employed to find solutions to these remaining uncertainties. Far better to devote time and money updating those unknowns rather than to continue the vain, dogged attempt to see whether subjects out-of-body can report on played videos or marked boards distributed around intensive care settings.
- Neurophysiological data are rapidly transforming the ND/OBE scene. Work on the temporo-parietal junction gives insights about the self, and of its projections into peri-personal space (OBE) and the sensing of other presences. The concept of REM intrusion, elucidated in context of sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming, and narcolepsy offers profound insights into the apparent loss of selfhood when the switching between the relevant neural loci in upper brainstem is disturbed. In that “no-man’s land”, the resulting experience does become ineffable, such that the subject feels entirely separated from reality and thus in the presence of God, or “Absolute Being”, etc. The third neurophysiological prong concerns possible developmental abnormalities in left-right bodily orientation, and the resulting propensity to extend towards the paranormal, magical ideation, fantasy proneness, and so on.
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|NDE: Early & Late Phase|
|● No pain||● Increased pain perception|
|● Ability to traverse physical objects||● Hearing real voices|
|● Absence of gravity—floating/weightless||● “Moral” imperative to assume earthly responsibilities|
|● Sense of motion—acceleration/gyration||● Unable/unwilling to cross physical barriers|
|● Seeing light & people||● Bumpy return to body—weight/pain|
|● No “moral” qualms when leaving family|
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