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

Barney Leith Blog #7b: “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

… continued from last week …

Stirring up the angular gyrus

Out-of-body experiences (OBE) are distinct from NDEs, although people often report having OBEs as part of their near death experiences.

Back in 2002, University of Geneva Hospital neurologist Dr Olaf Blanke accidentally gave an epilepsy patient an OBE. Dr Blanke and his team had inserted up to 100 electrodes in the patient’s brain in an effort to find out where her epilepsy originated. The patient had no idea which electrode would be stimulated or when, but every time part of her brain known as the angular gyrus was stimulated she reported that she felt she was floating above her body and watching herself.

This experience came as a complete surprise to both patient and the neurological team. However, it was not possible to draw firm conclusions from the event, since it was not part of a controlled study of OBEs.

The angular gyrus is part of a region of the brain, the temporal parietal junction (TPJ), that controls our sense of our own body and its orientation in space. The suggestion is that if the information being sorted by the TPJ becomes scrambled we may experience ourselves as being outside our body.

In 2007 Blanke induced experimental OBEs by fitting subjects with 3-D headsets and making them watch a virtual figure (a picture either of themselves or of a dummy) standing two metres in front of them being stroked on the back. Blanke varied the experimental conditions and found that subjects who had seen the virtual figure, whether themselves or a dummy, being stroked while themselves being stroked can be tricked into subconsciously relocating their sense of self away from where it should have been.

Blanke acknowledged that his illusion did not create full out-of-body experiences. A comment on a neurophilosophy blog draws a distinction between the elements of OBEs that Blanke was able to induce and the full out-of-body experience:

The above article mistakenly described the experiences produced by the research teams as out-of-body experiences. The journal Science and Science News (AAAS) describe that “this week’s issue of Science, two teams of cognitive neuroscientists independently report methods for inducing elements of an out-of-body experience in healthy volunteers.” The operating word is elements. The experiences reported by the volunteers have 3 elements of some out-of-body experiences but they were not in fact out-of-body experiences a distinct state of consciousness and neurophysiology from the normal waking state.

The OBE is characterized by a visceral feeling of being embodied in a more subtle body away from the physical body itself, often with exotic “energetic,” “take-off” and “re-interiorization” sensations. In the virtual reality experiment volunteers did not feel they were no longer present in their body and did not report these other characteristics of the OBE (significantly more numerous than the 3 selected by the researchers).

In an OBE, the individual is not always looking back at the physical body at a few feet of distance (although this can occur in some cases). OBEs are not always a visual phenomena either, as there are OBEs without sight and blind people may have OBE’s. The majority of OBEs also occur mainly when the eyes are closed and when the body is in a more vegetative state with brain wave patterns distinct from even lucid dreaming — let alone the normal waking state of the volunteers.

Scientific materialism doesn’t cut it

Why are the sceptics sceptical? There’s no doubt that the thinking of many scientists is firmly held by a materialist paradigm, what One Common Faith, a document commissioned by the Bahá’í community’s world governing council, the Universal House of Justice, refers to as “the iron dogma of scientific materialism”.

It seems to me that scientific approaches that deny the existence of any kind of life beyond what we can see, feel and touch will never get to the heart of the NDE as an experience. Such approaches exclude the possibility of a non-material, but real, world a priori.

There’s no doubt that death itself will remain a mysterious realm and that we will continue to be fascinated by the accounts of those who seem to have ventured to the borders of that realm and peered over the fence.

Knowledge from the religious realm

Perhaps this is an area in which scientists should acknowledge that religious and spiritual texts include important clues about what happens to us after our bodies die. Science and religion are humanity’s two great knowledge systems. There is a strong case for cooperation rather than confrontation between these two systems when it comes to investigating the reality of near death experiences. This article on the howstuffworks.com website puts it well:

If neurology does come up with the definitive explanation for NDEs, the mystery may still remain. Science could explain the “how,” while leaving the “why” unanswered. Discovering an explanation for NDEs may reveal a door to the metaphysical world, which could possibly be unlocked — and explored — by science.

As physician Dr. Melvin Morse wrote, “Simply because religious experiences are brain-based does not automatically lessen or demean their spiritual significance. Indeed, the findings of neurological substrates to religious experiences can be argued to provide evidence for their objective reality”.

Bahá’í teachings

Now, I have to declare an interest here. I am a believer. I believe that there is a life after death.

Bahá’u’lláh, Whose teachings I strive to put into practice in my life, has revealed more about the life after death than any previous Manifestation of God.

The Bahá’í teachings compare the life we live on this plane of existence to the development of the baby in the womb. Just as the baby in the womb develops the organs, limbs and senses that it will need to live and fulfil its potential out of the womb, so we in this life develop the virtues and qualities of the soul that we will need in the next life.

The soul, which begins its journey in this life, continues to progress in the life after death.

What is the nature of life after death? Bahá’u’lláh teaches that this realm is, and will remain, a mystery.

The nature of the soul after death can never be described, nor is it meet and permissible to reveal its whole character to men.

According to the Bahá’í teachings, souls retain their individuality and consciousness after death. Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith, explains:

The possibility of securing union with his beloved in the next world is one which the Bahá’í teachings are quite clear about. According to Bahá’u’lláh the soul retains its individuality and consciousness after death, and is able to commune with other souls. This communion, however, is purely spiritual in character, and conditioned upon the disinterested and selfless love of the individuals for each other.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes it clear that the next life is close to us, perhaps as close to us as we are to the baby in the womb, even though the baby is completely unaware of what is happening a matter of inches away:

Those who have passed on through death have a sphere of their own. It is not removed from ours … but it is sanctified from what we call “time” and “place”.

Intriguingly, Bahá’u’lláh tells us that dreams, “the most mysterious of the signs of God amongst men”, are proofs of immortality. The dream world can be said to be both “within thy proper self and is wrapped up within thee” and a realm which “lieth hidden in the innermost reality of this world” and which the spirit “having transcended the limitations of sleep and having stripped itself of all earthly attachments” traverses.

Verily I say, the creation of God embraceth worlds besides this world…

If the sphere of those who have passed on through death is not removed from ours, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá says, perhaps some of those who come close to death are permitted a glimpse over the horizon that we see as death. Yes, changes take place in the physical substrate of the brain and its activity, but these changes are not necessarily the whole story.

Over the horizon

Mirza Ali Kuli Khan

Ali-Kuli Khan, a well-born Iranian Bahá’í, was sent to the United States in 1901 by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to act as translator for revered Bahá’í scholar and teacher, Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl, known to all as Mírzá.

Khan would often ask Mírzá about the afterlife, but Mírzá would always smile and evade the question. Eventually, Mírzá told Khan that he would not be able to grasp the answer he would give. Khan, pride piqued, protested that he read Kant and the Greeks. Of course he would understand Mírzá’s answer.

“Yes,” said Mírzá, “but I know you could not understand about immortality. How do I know? The reason is, because you ask. This is a mystery that will not pass into words. It can only be felt in the soul.” (Marzieh Gail, Summon Up Remembrance. Oxford: George Ronald, 1987, p. 219)

Khan was indignant, but Mírzá would not change his mind.

Some years later, Khan was taking a walk on a New Hampshire beach:

That morning on the beach at Portsmouth, enjoying the sunlight on the rippling blue water, Khan noticed some men going into a boathouse nearby. He watched idly as they dragged out a heavy rowboat, launched it, climbed aboard and rowed away. Deep in his thoughts, he kept an eye on the boat, and he saw that the farther it moved on, the smaller it got, until to his surprise, it vanished completely and nothing remained of it but empty blue water and the bow of the horizon.

Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl

Khan said to himself, “What happened to the boat? Where are the rowers gone? Did they melt away into another world, and onto a different sea? Or are they still out there rowing in our world, on this very same sea? And because they are moving and I am sitting on the beach, the limitations of my physical body and the curve of the earth have thrust us apart.”

With these thoughts, Khan felt he had his answer that could not be put into words, and he thanked Bahá’u’lláh for it and blessed Mírzá Abu’l-Fadl… (Summon Up Remembrance, p. 219).

Perhaps my teenage son’s dream of a near death experience vouchsafed him a glimpse over Ali-Kuli Khan’s horizon, the horizon we call death.

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3 thoughts on “Barney Leith Blog #7b: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

  1. Great post.

    A few years ago I had a dream that I had died and was in an airplane that was taking me somewhere. In this journey, I tried to use my credit card, and it did not work! When I woke I realized, what you said, that there is a horizon a boundary we pass when we die.

  2. I love the story about Ali Kuli Khan. It so reminds me of the ways in which I have often received answers to questions I’ve had about a variety of subjects.

    I experienced it profoundly as I was investigating the Baha’i Faith and struggling with the concept of the Manifestation of God and His relationship to God. When I first read Baha’u’llah’s metaphor of the Sun shining in the Mirror, I was able to grasp the concept at last, but I could not articulate it other than to repeat the metaphor.

    it’s a peculiar feeling for a writer, I must say, to have a crystal clear understanding of an idea yet know that you couldn’t articulate it in everyday language.

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