I’ve just watched a remarkable program on the National Geographic Channel, “Return from the Dead”. It is a look at the research of a Belgian neuroscientist who is investigating the “near-death experience” (NDE) that many people have reported when near death due to surgery, accident or disease. Several individuals were interviewed who had perceived many of the phenomena associated with this condition, for other reasons. Among some of the perceptions have been out-of-body experiences, the feeling one was re-living one’s life, that it was flashing before their eyes, that the soul was rushing through a long tunnel towards a light, feelings of peace and ecstasy and great enlightenment and religious insight, voices, music, visions of deceased friends and relatives and so on. I’m sure you’re familiar with the whole catalogue.
A series of experiments were carried out, as well as interviews and testimony from witnesses and recovered victims from traumatic experiences. The tunnel experience was reproduced on a centrifuge, the kind used to train astronauts and fighter pilots. Other experiments used psychoactive drugs, talks to individuals who had suffered brain injuries, stroke and epileptic seizures, and some clever experiments using sensory deprivation chambers and virtual reality equipment, mind-body confusion scenarios, all monitored by neural scans and brain electrodes, giving physical evidence of the brain reactions to these events while they were being experienced.
In short, every one of the phenomena reported during NDEs were reproduced in people who were not dying, including a set of simulated NDEs generated in volunteers by oxygen deprivation (under medical supervision) while hooked up to the machines. It seems pretty conclusive that all the reported NDE experiences can be reproduced in brains under stress for a variety of reasons, and they are not necessarily evidence of any metaphysical phenomena.
It occurred to me after the show was over, this should pretty much put an end to the NDE mystique, that all the events reported in these cases at least have precedent in purely physical reactions to stress and trauma. Of course, no experiment can prove or disprove the existence of a soul or an afterlife, but it is pretty clear that plausible alternative naturalistic explanations to all the reported experiences of NDE witnesses at least exist. Most of us have known this all along, but it is something else to see it demonstrated in the laboratory, by professional, peer-reviewed investigators. Yes, we all see the world through different filters, but we never really know for sure, do we?
It occurred to me how disappointing this must be to individuals who have accepted NDE reports as evidence of an afterlife. I find it difficult to believe anyone who watched that program could still cling to these reports as hope of a traditional life after death scenario as held by most religious people today. But I also know how powerful those feelings of hope and faith can be.
Of course, if we’re honest with ourselves, we must concede it works both ways. As an ardent, even strident materialist, I couldn’t help but notice in myself a profound, yet totally subjective sense of relief as my own mechanistic view of reality and consciousness was justified and reinforced by clever experimental technique and the “scientific” philosophical defenses I have erected between myself and this terrifying universe we live in.