Barney Leith Blog #7a: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith Blog #7a: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith

The modern tradition of equating death with an ensuing nothingness can be abandoned. For there is no reason to believe that human death severs the quality of the oneness in the universe.Larry Dossey, MD

“Dad, I had a dream last night.”

I was driving my thirteen-year-old son home from school sometime in the mid-1980s. “Tell me about it,” I said.

“I dreamt I was looking down at myself in bed,” he said. “And then I started to go through a dark tunnel towards a bright light.”

I almost drove off the road. “It sounds like you were dreaming about a near-death experience. I’ve been writing about near-death experiences for the university,” I said.

Ascent of the Blessed, Hieronymus Bosch

At the time I was taking a course on the philosophy of the paranormal – jointly taught by a philosopher and a theologian – as part of my  degree in social psychology and philosophy. I had opted to write an extended essay on near-death experiences, NDEs.

I read much of the literature that was available at the time about NDEs. The questions on many people’s minds were – and remain – do NDEs tell us anything about life after death? Which is likely to give a more reliable account of NDEs: science or religion?

Chris Cherry, the philosopher who co-taught this fascinating course, pointed out that those who reported NDEs had, by definition, not died. Death is most definitely a one-way gate. Discounting the spurious idea of conversations through a medium with the dear departed, nobody who is alive can tell us about life after death.

But some would argue that near death experiences come tantalisingly close

The literature describes a range of experiences from out-of-body excursions around operating rooms to the classic trip through a dark tunnel towards a light, variously interpreted according to the subject’s cultural and religious background. Some who reach the light describe meetings with deceased family members, waiting on the “other side” to welcome the dying one into the post-mortem world, with significant religious figures – including Jesus – or even with God.

At some point on this journey something occurs which sends the person back into their body and they awake with a jolt.

Believers and sceptics

Explanations for these experiences generally fall into two camps. There are those – let’s call them ‘believers’ – for whom the experiences are definitely evidence that there is a life after death, that life after death is a wonderful place or experience, and that they will be welcomed into that world by family or friends, just as the baby that is born into this world is welcomed by his or her parents and relatives.

Then there are those – ‘sceptics’ – who reject entirely the notion that there is a life after death and who posit scientific explanations, or claimed scientific explanations. Anoxia, the cutting off of the supply of oxygen to the brain, was said by some, for example, to be the cause of a dreamlike illusion that people experience as a near-death experience. Or the person claiming to have had an NDE is merely reporting half-heard conversations and partially seen sights during a hypnagogic state – hearing, it seems, is the last of our senses to switch off as we become unconscious and the first to switch back on as we regain consciousness.

The believers see the sceptics as attempting to explain away what they have rejected a priori, the notion that there is life after death. The sceptics see the thinking of the believers as equally shaped by their a priori belief in life after death.

When posed as in these adversarial terms, the questions about near death experiences would seem to be insoluble.

Pam Reynolds

One of the most striking accounts of a near-death experience comes from musician Pam Reynolds.

In 1991, when she was 35, she underwent surgery for an aneurysm deep inside her brain. To get at the aneurysm the surgical team had, in effect, to put Pam to death. Cardiologist Michael Sabom describes the procedure, known as hypothermic cardiac arrest:

It allowed Pam’s aneurysm to be excised with a reasonable chance of success. This operation, nicknamed “standstill” by the doctors who perform it, required that Pam’s body temperature be lowered to 60 degrees, her heartbeat and breathing stopped, her brain waves flattened, and the blood drained from her head. In everyday terms, she was put to death.

When brought to “standstill” and before surgery commenced, Pam was found to be “dead” by all three of the standard clinical tests for death: her electroencephalogram was silent; her brain stem did not respond to the clicks that played out of  speakers in Pam’s ears; and no blood flowed to or through her brain.

After her return to consciousness Pam gave detailed and accurate descriptions of surgical instruments, such as the bone saw, that had been kept out of her sight until she was at “standstill” and she was able to recall things that were said by the doctors and nurses in the operating room, despite having “clickers” in her ears to block out any external sounds and to test for brain-stem response.

Pam’s NDE took her through the classic dark tunnel into the light. She reported that she’d met her grandmother and other deceased members of her family, who, she said, “were specifically taking care of me”.

She wanted to go on into the light, but she had children to care for, and she knew that she had to go back. Her uncle took her back through the tunnel and, as she describes it, gave her push back into her body. Reentry was like jumping into a pool of ice water. “It hurt,” Pam said.

You can read Pam Reynolds’ description of the experience here. Sadly, she died of heart failure on 22 May 2010.

Gustave Doré's depiction of the highest heaven as described by Dante Alighieri in the Paradiso

Real or imagined?

So was Pam Reynolds’ experience the result of changes in the chemical and electrical activity in her brain, as some scientists theorise? Or was it a real experience – whatever “real” might mean in this context?

Neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick, a leading British authority on NDEs considers that changes in brain activity cannot alone explain all the facts. He described the state of a brain during an NDE in a documentary:

The brain isn’t functioning. It’s not there. It’s destroyed. It’s abnormal. But, yet, it can produce these very clear experiences … an unconscious state is when the brain ceases to function. For example, if you faint, you fall to the floor, you don’t know what’s happening and the brain isn’t working. The memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness. So, you won’t remember anything. But, yet, after one of these experiences [a NDE], you come out with clear, lucid memories … This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact.

An article in The (London) Times in October 2006 describes Fenwick’s own journey from sceptic to believer that human consciousness survives death. After listening to a patient who described a near death experience that took place during cardiac surgery that went wrong, Fenwick began to collect stories of NDEs:

They tell of dying patients being greeted by dead relatives and of close family members being visited by the patient at the moment of passing — a girl reported “knowing” the moment that her brother had died in hospital on the other side of the city and of being “reassured” by him that he was all right. There were many reports of a bright light floating above dying patients, generally believed to be the soul leaving the body. Patients speak of tunnels leading towards a bright, welcoming light.

Scientists have rational explanations for these phenomena, which include hormonal and neurotransmitter changes in the body as it is closing down, a veridical perception triggered by the heart stopping and the general suggestibility of patients and relatives.

Fenwick is not unsympathetic. “The cognitive neuroscience explanation for the girl’s experience of her brother’s death is that he was expected to die, and she resolved the pain of that internally.” And he is equally in tune with the physical explanation of light phenomena. “But that doesn’t explain the fact that the light is repeatedly and consistently associated with love, peace and compassion,” he says. “It’s this lovely, ineffable quality which distinguishes it.”

However, according to this account, two studies conducted on separate aspects of Pam Reynolds’ experience claim to be able to explain NDEs.

REM intrusions

A 2006 study, done at the University of Kentucky, claims to show that NDEs are actually hallucinations caused by “rapid eye movement (REM) intrusion”, a sleep disorder in which the sleeper’s mind can wake up before his body and generate hallucinations and a feeling of being physically detached from the body. The Kentucky researchers believed that the triggering of REM intrusions in the brainstem – which can continue to function after other parts of the brain have died – by cardiac arrest or other traumatic events – could explain how people can experience sights and sounds after brain death has been confirmed.

To be continued next week …..

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This is first part of the 7th in a series of blogs on the unity of science and religion and its applications by Barney Leith, a member of the UK Bahá’í community and its National Spiritual Assembly. For more of his blogs, see http://barneyleith.com on Posterous.

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