from Wolf - Friday, October 24, 2003
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Here's a research paper I wrote for my college that may be of interest to those who are curious about NDE's. I don't pretend to know the answers, I just compiled some facts and opinions from various researchers.
AN OVERVIEW OF NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
I chose to write a research paper on this subject for two reasons: First, I have never had a Near Death Experience (NDE) and I am interested in understanding this phenomenon. Second, I have experienced a form of déjà vu, clearly and distinctly witnessing certain events in advance, in some cases several years before they happened. I am interested in discovering a scientific explanation for my experiences.
One of the first modern psychologists to study NDE’s, Dr. Raymond Moody, declared: “the extraordinary states of consciousness commonly deemed paranormal are an enduring human concern that will not go away, and I have been hopeful that students with a serious interest in these topics would have a setting within which they could learn about paranormal phenomena from a non-ideological perspective” (1998, ¶6). Another researcher, Dr. Karl Jesen, claimed “the NDE is still of considerable importance to medicine, neuroscience, neurology, psychiatry, psychology and, more controversially, philosophy and theology” (1996, ¶3).
2. A Description of NDE
In the “Skeptic’s Dictionary” Robert Caroll stated “the term NDE is most often used to refer to an OBE (Out of Body Experience) occurring while near death” (¶1). Victor Zammit described NDE as “an intense profoundly meaningful experience in which (individuals on the border of clinical death) seem to be alive and functioning outside of their body” (2002, p. 116). It should be noted that NDE experiences are not limited to individuals who are apparently about to die. Dr. Susan Blackmore says “Perhaps more important is whether you have to be nearly dead to have an NDE. The answer is clearly no” (1991, p. 34). Dr. Karl Jensen says “The intravenous administration of 50 - 100 mg of ketamine can reproduce all of the features which have commonly been associated with NDE's” (1996, ¶11).
Ring (1980) classified NDE's on a 5 stage continuum:
1. Feelings of peace and contentment;
2. A sense of detachment from the body;
3. Entering a transitional world of darkness (rapid movements through tunnels: 'the tunnel experience');
4. Emerging into bright light; and
5. “Entering the light”.
60% experienced stage 1, but only 10% attained stage 5 (Ring, 1980). As might be predicted in a mental state with a neurobiological origin, mundane accounts with less symbolic meaning also occur, e.g. children who may “see” their schoolfellows rather than God and angels (Morse & Perry, 1985). NDE’s are not unique to one religion or part of the world.
NDE’s have become more common in the last 50 years, and most researchers agree that this is apparently due to improved resuscitation techniques (Blackmore, 1991). Here is an example of an NDE, from Dr. Melvin Morse’s book, “Parting Visions”:
"When I died, I went into a huge noodle," said Chris, who was four years old when the accident happened. "It wasn't like a spiral noodle, but it was very straight, like a tunnel. When I told my mom about nearly dying, I told her it was a noodle, but now I am thinking that it must have been a tunnel, because it had a rainbow in it, and I don't think a noodle has a rainbow.
"I was being pushed along by a wind, and I could kind of float. I saw two small tunnels in front of me. One of them was animal heaven and the other one was the human heaven. First I went into the animal heaven. There were lots of flowers and there was a bee. The bee was talking to me and we were both smelling flowers. The bee was very nice and brought me bread and honey because I was really hungry.
"Then I went to human heaven. I saw my grandmother [who had died years earlier]. Then I saw heaven. Human heaven was beautiful. It was like a castle, but not one of those grungy old places. This was not a golden castle, it was just a regular old castle. As I looked at heaven, I heard music. The music was very loud and it stuck in my head. I started looking around at it, and then all of a sudden I was in the hospital. Just like that I woke up, and there were nurses standing around me. It was just that easy" (Morse & Perry, 1994, p. 3).
According to the Gallup poll on NDE, 26% of NDE experiences were combined with “out of body” feelings, or “astral projection” (Gallup 1982). Our textbook says “depersonalization experiences sometimes include the illusion that the mind has left the body” (Lahey 2003, p. 180). Dr. Susan Blackmore says “For many scientists these experiences are just hallucinations produced by the dying brain and of no more interest than an especially vivid dream” (1991, p. 34). Some, however, disagree with the idea that astral projection is an illusion. Dr. Raymond Moody said “with these near death experiences, we have many cases where the patients, while they are out of their bodies, are able to witness something going on at a distance, even in another part of the hospital, which later turns out by independent verification to have been exactly as the patient said. So this is very difficult to put together with a simple physiological or biochemical explanation” (1995, ¶8).
3. The History of NDE studies
The tale of a soldier named “Er” in Plato’s “Republic” is often cited as the oldest published description of a NDE (Plato, book X, 614 b,c,d). Dr. Susan Blackmore told us that in 1926 a psychical researcher and Fellow of the Royal Society, Sir William Barrett (1926), published a little book on deathbed visions. The dying apparently saw other worlds before they died and even saw and spoke to the dead. There were cases of music heard at the time of death and reports of attendants actually seeing the spirit leave the body (Blackmore, 1991). However, modern NDE studies were popularized by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 book “Life After Life”.
As Dr. Blackmore said “Many scientists reacted with disbelief. They assumed Moody was at least exaggerating, but he claimed that no one had noticed the experiences before because the patients were too frightened to talk about them. The matter was soon settled by further research. One cardiologist had talked to more than 2,000 people over a period of nearly 20 years and claimed that more than half reported Moody-type experiences (Schoonmaker 1979). In 1982, a Gallup poll found that about 1 in 7 adult Americans had been close to death and about 1 in 20 had had an NDE. It appeared that Moody, at least in outline, was right. Within a few years some of the basic questions were being answered. Kenneth Ring (1980), at the University of Connecticut, surveyed 102 people who had come close to death and found almost 50 percent had had what he called a "core experience" (Blackmore, 1991, p. 34).
A number of psychologists, doctors and scientists have examined this phenomenon and come to varying conclusions. Allow me to cite writings that argue two opposing hypothesis regarding “astral projection” as experienced in many NDE’s. I am aware of a number of other hypotheses, but I think these two best represent the opposing arguments:
4. The Dying Brain Hypothesis
In “Dying to Live” Dr. Susan Blackmore, a leading researcher in NDE, reviews the events commonly reported by NDE survivors, and describes how they can be produced by physical brain activity. She calls this the “Dying Brain Hypothesis” (1993).
To explain “the Tunnel” that is commonly reported in NDE, Dr. Blackmore said “Tunnels do not only occur near death. They are also experienced in epilepsy and migraine, when falling asleep, meditating, or just relaxing, with pressure on both eyeballs, and with certain drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline...in the 1930s, Heinrich Klüver, at the University of Chicago, noted four form constants in hallucinations: the tunnel, the spiral, the lattice or grating, and the cobweb. Their origin probably lies in the structure of the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information…brain activity is normally kept stable by some cells inhibiting others. Disinhibition (the reduction of inhibitory activity) produces too much activity in the brain. This can occur near death (because of lack of oxygen) or with drugs like LSD, which interfere with inhibition. (Blackmore, 1991, p. 36).
Dr. Blackmore went on to explain OBE (Out of Body Experience, often featured in NDE) by saying “What we need is a theory that involves no unmeasurable entities or untestable other worlds but explains why the experiences happen; and why they seem so real. I would start by asking why anything seems real. You might think this is obvious—after all, the things we see out there are real aren’t they? Well no, in a sense they aren’t.
As perceiving creatures all we know is what our senses tell us. And our senses tell us what is ‘out there’ by constructing models of the world with ourselves in it. Yet we are sure, all the time, that this construction—if you like, this ‘model of reality’—is ‘real’ while the other fleeting thoughts we have are unreal. Our brain has no trouble distinguishing ‘reality’ from ‘imagination’…I suggest it does this by comparing all the models it has at any time and choosing the most stable one as ‘reality.’”
This will normally work very well. The model created by the senses is the best and most stable the system has. By comparison, when you are almost asleep, very frightened, or nearly dying, the model from the senses will be confused and unstable. If you are under terrible stress or suffering oxygen deprivation, then the choice won’t be so easy…so what will happen now? Possibly the tunnel being created by noise in the visual cortex will be the most stable model and so, according to my supposition, this will seem real. Fantasies and imagery might become more stable than the sensory model, and so seem real. The system will have lost input control. Now we know something very interesting about memory models. Often they are constructed in a bird’s-eye view. That is, the events or scenes are seen as though from above” (Blackmore, 1991, p. 37-39).
In “Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Clinical Neuroscience” Rhawn Joseph described the contributions that the amygdala, in conjunction with the hippocampus, may make to phenomena such as dissociative states, hallucinogenic and dreamlike recollections, and the experience of gods, demons, and ghosts. He maintained that mystical states may be voluntarily or involuntarily induced and are dependent upon the differential stimulation and differentiation of limbic system nuclei, including the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala, as well as the right frontal and right temporal lobe. He also says that such experiences may result from an intense activation of these brain areas (1996).
Rwhan further explained that the capacity to cognitively map, or visualize, one’s position and the position of other objects and individual in visual-space is dependent on the hippocampus. The hippocampus contains "place" neurons that specify one’s position and movement in space. This means the hippocampus can create a cognitive map of an individual’s environment and his movements within it. It is most likely via the hippocampus that individuals can visualize themselves as if viewing their bodies from a distance, and can remember, and thus "see" themselves, engaged in certain actions, seemingly as an outside witness.
Rhwan went on to relate how the preeminent neurologists Penfield and Perot described several patients who, during temporal lobe seizures, claimed they could see themselves in different situations. One woman stated that "it was as though I were two persons, one watching, and the other having this happen to me", and that her conscious self was doing the watching, as if she were completely separated from her body.
Rhwan proposed that the feelings of peace or euphoria that usually accompany NDE are a result of hyperactivation in the amygdala and hippocampus, which begin to secrete opiate-like neurotransmitters that induce a state of euphoria. He raised the possibility that the hippocampus and amygdala may be the first areas of the brain to be affected by approaching death, and the last regions to actually die, so that as one approaches death or even after “clinical death” the amygdala and hippocampus may continue to function briefly and produce a feeling of peace and tranquility, and hallucinations of floating outside the body, meeting relatives, etc. (1996).
5. The Afterlife Hypothesis
In his book “Closer to the Light” Dr. Melvin Morse relates the following story:
“I stood over Katie's lifeless body in the intensive care unit and wondered whether this little girl could be saved…no one knew how long she had been unconscious or exactly what had happened to cause her to lose consciousness.
The machines to which she was now hooked up told a grim story. An emergency CAT scan showed massive swelling of the brain. She had no gag reflex. An artificial lung machine was breathing for her. In the blunt jargon of emergency room physicians, she was a train wreck. Looking back even know, I would guess that she had only a ten percent chance of surviving.”
“(After recovery) Katie clearly remembered me. After introducing myself, she turned to her mother and said, ‘That's the one with the beard. First there was this tall doctor who didn't have a beard, and then he came in.’ Her statement was correct. The first into the emergency room was a tall, clean shaven physician named Bill Longhurst. Katie remembered more. ‘First I was in the big room, and then they moved me too a smaller room where they did X-rays on me.’ She accurately noted such details as having ‘a tube down my nose,’ which was her description of nasal intubation. Most physicians intubate orally, and that is the most common way that it is represented on television.
She accurately described many other details of her experience. I remembered being amazed at the events she recollected. Even though her eyes had been closed and she had been profoundly comatose during the entire experience, she still ‘saw’ what was going on” (Morse & Perry, 1990, p. 1-5).
Many doctors, psychologists and scientists researching NDE’s have recorded stories such as this one, where patients vividly recalled details that seemingly could only be known by a person who was conscious during the procedure. Dr. Blackmore said “American cardiologist Michael Sabom (1980) claims that patients reported the exact behavior of needles on monitoring apparatus when they had their eyes closed and appeared to be unconscious. Further, he compared these descriptions with those of people imagining they were being resuscitated and found that the real patients gave far more accurate and detailed descriptions (Blackmore, 1991, p. 40).
In his book “Recollections of Death” Dr. Sabom explored the hypothesis that patients were using creative imagination, or knowledge that they subconsciously gained through earlier experiences with emergency care. In interviews with seasoned cardiac patients who had not experienced NDE he asked them to picture a medical team reviving a heart attack victim and give a detailed description of steps being taken. To his surprise 80% of them made major mistakes in their descriptions. In contrast, none of the group which claimed to have witnessed their resuscitation during astral projection made mistakes in describing the procedure (Sabom 1980).
There are also reports of blind people accurately describing things they “saw” during their NDE, deaf people accurately reporting things they “heard”, etc. Some argue that this and other evidence validates the afterlife hypothesis. Victor Zammit summed this hypothesis up pretty well: “In a crisis situation, where death is almost inevitable, the duplicate physical body, the astral or etheric body, leaves the physical body and experiences the first stages of the afterlife. When death does not occur, the duplicate body resumes its place in the physical body (2002, p.116).”
Advocates of the afterlife hypothesis claim NDE’s produced “artificially” by drugs such as LSD or ketamine do not undermine the hypothesis, since they claim that imminent death is not a prerequisite for the “astral” body temporarily parting with the physical.
Those who us who have experienced unusual psychological phenomena, such as clearly foreseeing a future event, know that there are mental processes which both cannot be explained by our present medical and scientific knowledge, and seem to be caused by forces which are currently outside mankind’s scope of understanding. NDE seems to be one of these phenomena, and it seems we will need to do a great deal more research before we can accurately describe what happens during an NDE. Here are some examples of research that could shed some light on this subject:
· Conduct more interviews with patients who experience NDE.
· Research NDE among diverse cultures and religions.
· Compare NDE experienced by two types of blind people: those who have a damaged cortex, and those who do not. If they both report the same visual stimuli, the “dying brain” hypothesis will be partially disproved (Blackmore 1991).
· Use advanced techniques for measuring brain activity during lack of consciousness, and compare the data with subsequent NDE reports.
If there is such a thing as an “astral body” it would probably consist of a type of energy or matter that is currently undetectable. I suspect, however, that even if proof were presented that an “astral body” separates from the physical during NDE, many doctors, psychologists and scientists would have a hard time accepting it. On the other hand, those who want to believe in life after death will do so no matter what, because it’s virtually impossible to disprove.
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Caroll, R. T. (n.d.). Near death experience. The Skeptic’s Dictionary . Retrieved September 20, 2003, from http://skepdic.com/nde.html.
Gallup, G., Jr. & Proctor, W. (1982). Adventures in immortality. McGraw Hall, New York.
Jansen, K. L. R. (1996) Using ketamine to induce the near -death experience: mechanism of action and therapeutic potential. In Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness (Jahrbuch furr Ethnomedizin und Bewubtseinsforschung) Issue 4, 1995, pp. 55-81 (Ed.s C. Ratsch; J. R. Baker). VWB, Berlin.
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Moody, R. (1998). In The skeptic’s dictionary . Retrieved September 20, 2003, from http://skepdic.com/moody.html.
Morse, M. & Perry, P. (1990). Closer to the light. Villard Books, New York.
Morse, M. & Perry, P. (1994). Parting Visions. Villard Books, New York.
Plato. (n.d.). Republic.
Rhawn, J. (1996). Neuropsychiatry, neuropsychology, and clinical neuroscience (second edition) . Williams & Wilkins Press.
Ring, K. (1980). Life at death. Quill, New York.
Sabom, M. (1980). Recollections of death . Harper and Rowe, New York.
Zammit, Victor. (2002). A lawyer presents the case for the afterlife. Retrieved September 20th, 2003, from http://www.victorzammit.com.