Are NDE’s just DMT trips?

Drive by Shooting

Updated: 10/25/12

Much of the unfolding debate surrounding Eben Alexander involves speculation of the drug DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) being implicated in creating the near death experience. After reading this interesting blogpost by C4Chaos, I started to write a reply, then decided to make it into an abbreviated blogpost. Although I would like to elaborate much more on DMT as it relates to NDEs (as time permits), I wanted to get a few observations out there while the discussion is hot.

I am confident that I can tell the difference between a highly transcendent NDE account and a typical DMT account the great majority of the time. Once in a while a DMT trip account has distinct elements which sound very similar to an NDE. But real NDEs almost never include a pointless disjointed narrative. DMT trips almost always do- interesting random geometric patterns, “machine elves”, and unrelated elements that skip around pointlessly. Browsing through DMT forums, I’ve seen posters who have taken DMT over a hundred times who openly admit they have never experienced anything like what classic NDErs describe.

It can be argued that the content depends on the dose, environment, and whether it is smoked or injected. But the most obvious problem with the idea that the NDE is merely a dump of DMT, is the length of the recovery period after the peak. Powerful DMT trips take time to come down from as the chemical is broken down in the brain. The user is still seeing visuals while virtually helpless inside their own heads, laying down or sitting, for several minutes. NDE’s which do not involve severe trauma can be completely different. Powerful NDE’s can be very short in real-time (though they often feel much longer) and end abruptly with no continuation of any sort of visual hallucinations at all. It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever that a brain flooded with DMT could be the cause of this kind of NDE.

You can watch many videos of people doing DMT on YouTube and see for yourself how thoroughly incapacitated they are for several minutes, and how slowly it wanes. The trip is not like a light switch going on and off.

None of this is to say that some similar neural activity couldn’t be happening that ties the two experiences together. One does not necessarily need a flood of a specific neurotransmitter to replicate a very similar pattern of naturally occurring brain activity. But equating NDEs to the DMT trip is perfectly negligent of how NDErs actually describe their experiences. Although it is important to notice various similarities between psychedelics and NDEs as we try to get to the bottom of this mystery, it makes no sense when someone says, “Oh, that was just DMT”. Worse, there is a certain street lore about how the pineal gland releases DMT at the point of death, creating the classic NDE experience. This idea was always just total speculation. Somehow the hypothesis has been repeated so often that it’s now almost impossible to peruse a message board about NDEs without someone declaring that “science” has already proven the pineal gland releases DMT at death, and everyone else on the message board is an idiot who just hasn’t done their “research” (which usually means sifting through a few random blogs while stoned).

Where it concerns Eben Alexander, his cortex was not functional enough to react to DMT even if it *was* released during the coma. And for those who insist that the NDE happened only as he was coming out of the coma and thus recovering from the trauma of almost dying (which is the most common hypothesis by most skeptics), you must realize that the supposed DMT dump could not have occured as the brain was spiraling towards death (as the hypothesis predicts), but as it recuperated. This doesn’t fit the DMT hypothesis either.

The following account of an NDE-like experience completely debunks any sort of simplistic DMT theory of NDEs.

This man was driving his car and suddenly had an experience that was, for all practical purposes, identical to a classic transcendent NDE. When the experience ended, he was still driving. He pulled the car over right when he returned to his body. The experience was probably fairly short (he doesn’t say and probably has no way of knowing how long), and he was not seeing any beautiful geometric shapes or wild random colors immediately upon coming back and finding that he was still driving his car. He was not incapacitated, nor was he half-way in and out of his bodily awareness, struggling to see in front of him. In other words, the experience (whether real or hallucinatory) began abruptly and ended abruptly like flicking a light switch on and off. Despite having many of the same standard elements of so many other NDEs, He was simply not hallucinating the way someone on DMT hallucinates. Period. Furthermore, he was not near death (and not even in fear of death before the experience started), and there is no reason to suspect that his pineal gland was releasing DMT.

If this were a DMT trip, we would expect him to gradually come to his bodily senses, probably with a ruptured spleen, a fractured pelvis, and some broken arms, laying amidst twisted metal in a ditch on the side of the road. I hope nobody tests whether they can drive a vehicle two seconds after the peak of a powerful enough DMT trip to make you think you are talking to God. I think it’s pretty obvious what the outcome would be.

Sam Harris was recently criticized for refusing to debate with Eben Alexander. Although I would like to see a debate between Sam Harris and Eben Alexander on the nature of consciousness, I think debating the neuroscience of NDEs would be like arguing how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin. Despite the propaganda, we simply don’t know what is happening in the brain during NDEs (specifically the type of NDE where a highly transcendent experience accompanies a truly near-death physical state).

The annihilationist crowd has been adept at pretending (while effortlessly convincing their base) that NDE’s are scientifically “explained” because it is possible to come up with some 20 or more untestable and often contradictory neural correlates and conjectured causes that can be chosen ala carte to fit any given account. As someone who has read thousands of these NDE accounts myself, I can say confidently that most of these “explanations” are embarrassingly naive. But don’t take my word for it- the people who come up with these pseudo-explanations don’t believe in other competing pseudo-explanations. The explanations ignore what NDErs actually describe.

Even if any specific mechanism proposed were actually true, it would only explain a subset of NDEs for which it was suited, and still require multiple completely different explanations to explain why some other subset of NDErs had the same experience under very different physiological circumstances. The fact that very similar experiences with identical insights happen under a wide range of physiological states doesn’t convince skeptics that those insights are describing an actual reality. For instance, even though modern physics has demonstrated conclusively that time is a relative illusion of sorts, NDErs are given very little credit for harping on and on about how they learned that time is an illusion.

According to the official grab-bag of explanations, there are many reasons NDErs often see a loving globe of light. Sometimes it’s the overhead lights of the operating room, sometimes it’s the dying retina, sometimes it’s the occipital lobe going haywire, sometimes it’s endorphins leading to rapture, sometimes it’s REM intrusion, sometimes it’s a false memory constructed by the brain after trauma, sometimes it’s the temporal lobe seizing, sometimes it’s just a psychological reaction, and today apparently, all of those theories which have been touted to have given us an official scientific explanation for over twenty years, have been debunked. Now we finally know, it’s all because of DMT.

Hell, it’s just about anything anyone wants to say it is. The idea that this cocktail of hypotheses can pass for an “explanation” is insulting to those of us knowledgable about NDEs. The whole oily scheme of pretending NDEs are explained is about as convincing as the title of Daniel Dennett’s book, “Consciousness Explained”, where everything *but* consciousness is explained.

To use the DMT theory to explain NDEs as a whole doesn’t work on its face. Even if some subset of NDEs are caused by DMT release, you still have all your work ahead of you to explain other NDEs which clearly aren’t. And then the hard part- why do NDEs sound so similar, with a common message, no matter what the cause? And why do DMT, LSD, psilocybin, peyote and ayahuasca trips sound so variable from one to the next if they are supposed to be related?

To Eben Alexander the answer is apparently clear- there really is an environment outside of space-time which is the more natural locale for which consciousness is suited. To him, the physical universe is like some sort of biological virtual reality, where consciousness is funneled down and limited in scope (“dumbed down” as he calls it) in order to perceive through the biological sense organs.  In this other more expansive realm, it would appear that thought, emotion, and imagination are themselves solid realities, and communication is in the form of non-verbal concepts which are transmitted wholly formed, and not through the clumsy and fallible medium of language.

Of course, if there is such a thing as a “non-physical” realm, how could it be any other way?

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Sam Harris and Eben Alexander “Proof of Heaven” Part 1

The long awaited publication of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s NDE book is quickly approaching. With it is perhaps the fiercest maelstrom of criticism and rage ever unleashed towards a near death experiencer we’ve ever seen, and some of it for good reason. After reading a couple of hundred comments from Facebook, Twitter, and various news sites that mirrored Dr. Alexander’s controversial Newsweek cover story, I have a good idea of what is enraging people.

Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and non-theist, wrote very eloquently about what troubles him, so I will provide my commentary by addressing the many good points he makes in his blog article– many of which I agree with.

My first objection is with the title of the magazine and the book. Here I will focus on Dr. Alexander and the book only, because what he actually believes is more important than how he is portrayed. Thanks to his interview on Skeptiko, we know that this absurd book title, “Proof of Heaven” was not originially chosen by Alexander himself as the working title, and is clearly a profit driven title pushed by Simon and Schuster  to appeal to an audience of Christians.

Although I do not in any way approve of this title, it must be pointed out that the crowd who opposes the idea of survival of consciousness and prides itself on scientific integrity are guilty of exactly the same propaganda, using various equally ridiculous and contentious titles such as this one- “Peace of Mind: Near Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations”,  which appeared in Scientific American. Even materialist atheist commenters noticed that, despite the provocative title, not one new piece of information concerning NDEs was presented. It was merely a summary of prior research that leads to no definitive conclusions.

How would Sam Harris or any reasonable neuroscientist feel if Scientific American published a piece entitled, “New research definitively solves the hard problem of consciousness”, and then gives nothing at all but neural correlates of consciousness? He would surely consider it an abomination of intellectual integrity, a childish joke, a sales pitch, a scam, totally unworthy of a serious forum.

Skeptic Ben Radford wrote an article entitled, “Near Death Experiences Explained” for Discovery News in which nothing new was presented and the same untestable cocktail of contradicting arguments were used to “explain” nothing but the fact that people can imagine potential explanations. When questioned in the comments section, Radford admitted that he did not come up with the title himself, that it was set in place by his publisher.

But the worst offender is clearly the paper by Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt. The first part of the title is, “There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences:”. The article goes on to completely ignore everything intriguing about NDEs that might be paranormal. When pressed about the disingenuous title in a an interview, Caroline Watt stated,

“We initially submitted it with a much more moderate title, which was, “Can neuroscience explain NDEs?” with a question mark at the end of it. Because it ended up being directed to this category in TiCS, this Science & Society type of article, which is meant to be provocative, the editor requested that we change the title to something which is much more bold and deliberately making a statement that would provoke a reaction. It ended up with that changed title, which in fact I didn’t know about until I saw the published paper.”

Alex Tsakiris (Interviewer): Is it suitable in terms of representing your position? It’s quite a statement. It doesn’t represent you.

Dr. Caroline Watt: Yes. It’s a bold statement, which is suitable in the context of that class of article, which is something to provoke debate. However, I believe it’s an overstatement. It’s too soon to say there’s nothing paranormal, because we don’t have all of the evidence in yet.

I agree that “Proof of Heaven” is a horrendous title, and it embarrasses me. The title directly counters Eben Alexander’s stated mission to demonstrate to his academic colleagues and to the world at large that consciousness survives death, and to unite science (in the broad sense) with spirituality. By using the word “Heaven”, he immediately paints himself as someone who accepts Christian theological doctrine, even though from everything he actually says in his interviews, there is virtually nothing in his experience that aligns with any standard form of Christian doctrine.  Sam Harris bites right into the plastic lure in his opening paragraph:

“Once upon a time, a neurosurgeon named Eben Alexander contracted a bad case of bacterial meningitis and fell into a coma. While immobile in his hospital bed, he experienced visions of such intense beauty that they changed everything—not just for him, but for all of us, and for science as a whole. According to Newsweek, Alexander’s experience proves that consciousness is independent of the brain, that death is an illusion, and that an eternity of perfect splendor awaits us beyond the grave—complete with the usual angels, clouds, and departed relatives, but also butterflies and beautiful girls in peasant dress.”

Here, Sam Harris is rolling his eyes at the confidence Dr. Alexander has that his experience is going to be instrumental in overturning the status quo in neuroscience and philosophy. While I am deeply skeptical of materialism’s ability to ever give us any accurate picture of reality, I share the feeling that Alexander is overly optimistic.

Dr. Alexander calls the girl on the butterfly wing his “guardian angel”, purposely setting himself up by his word choice, as a Christian straw-man to those who only have a little four page book excerpt to go by. But in reality, he believes it was a sister he had never met who died earlier. This should probably disqualify her from being what most people in Christianity would consider an angel, but Alexander chooses the word, “angel” anyways. This all reminds me of the trouble Einstein dug for himself by constantly using the word “God” to describe the workings of what he saw as a dead, unconscious universe, in which there is no possibility of the survival of consciousness.  To this day, despite many pages of his own writings to the contrary, people mistakenly reference Einstein as a theist.

I have no idea whether Dr. Alexander would call himself a Christian. Perhaps he would, merely because he is part of a Christian community. But I can’t see what such a description could actually mean to him. What I do know from his interviews is that he believes in reincarnation, and states that he was surprised to learn in the NDE that all religions are “spokes to the hub”, and that unconditional love is the “coin” of that other realm- an uncannily consistent NDE message. He was also told that he could “do nothing wrong”.  These beliefs have as much to do with what most people call “Christianity”, as the Jewish deity, Jahweh, has to do with Einstein’s “God”. 

Then there is the problem with the word, “proof”. Alexander provides one primary (and possibly one other) piece of veridical evidence from his account, which is only verifiable to himself. He claims that the girl (the “guardian angel” who escorted him) was the sister he never met, and that he instantly recognized it was the same person when discovering a photo of her later. As someone open minded on NDEs, I am intrigued by this, but not powerfully convinced. Having watched video of Alexander tell the story, it is abundantly obvious that he is perfectly convinced it was the same person.

The fact that there are several other fascinating NDE accounts which contain similar veridical evidence is blocked from the discussion, dismissed instantly as anecdotes, or in the case of most of Sam Harris’ readership- never heard of before, even in passing.

Each case is treated as a one-off, not bolstered in credibility by other similar cases. Only when it shows up on the cover of some magazine where the word “Heaven” and “God” cloak it in the rotted straw of religion by the publishers almighty finger, do people take notice.

The fascinating case of Anita Moorjani with her amazing recovery and veridical elements don’t seem to exist to that crowd, or give any increased value to Eben’s NDE claims. David Bennett watching his future life review and knowing he would get a highly lethal form of cancer in advance, and survive it, seems to give no weight to Anita, Eben, or any other NDE. Gerald Woerlee can make some hand-waiving speculations about how Pam Reynolds recognized the surgical equipment , therefore Pam gives no weight to Eben, David or Anita, and so on and so on down a line that is ever growing. The famous cardiologist Lloyd Rudy tells a story of a man describing the scene in an operating room with astonishing detail some 20 minutes after a well-documented cardiac arrest, given up for dead, instruments still attached, but the conversation still involves what the brain is doing during those few seconds coming in and out of unconsciousness, as if none of these accounts exist.

The other piece of evidence which must constitute proof to Alexander is his insistence that his brain could not have possibly generated the rich, lucid and powerful experience during the coma. Now obviously, given the gap in our understanding of what a brain can do in such duress, people like Sam Harris are going to vehemently disagree with this, so once again, it is proof only for Eben Alexander and those who agree with him. Alexander guarantees us that our present neurological models are not going to explain the stunning richness and vibrancy of the experience (a richness and vibrancy he cannot share with the rest of us as evidence). Unfortunately, our current neuroscientific models can’t describe how consciousness is generated in a normal brain, let alone how it can be altered to such a state in an abnormal brain. One could take that knowledge gap as evidence in favor of either side of the argument, as any “theory of consciousness” which even remotely addresses the hard problem (why cells generate awareness of any kind)  is a “god of the gaps” theory, not *just* the ones that postulate survival of consciousness.

So the word “proof” raises hackles, because real proof should be proof to us all, and one person’s NDE account cannot provide that, no matter how real and true it might have been. So the title is horrible on many levels, and actually detracts from Alexander’s cause, regardless of how great the book might turn out to be.

Harris writes:

” …this issue of Newsweek is best viewed as an archaeological artifact that is certain to embarrass us in the eyes of future generations. Its existence surely says more about our time than the editors at the magazine meant to say—for the cover alone reveals the abasement and desperation of our journalism, the intellectual bankruptcy and resultant tenacity of faith-based religion, and our ubiquitous confusion about the nature of scientific authority. The article is the modern equivalent of a 14th-century woodcut depicting the work of alchemists, inquisitors, Crusaders, and fortune-tellers. I hope our descendants understand that at least some of us were blushing.”

I agree that this issue (and the debate surrounding it) will certainly embarrass people in the future, mostly because of how primitive and inaccurate our neurophysiological attempts to explain consciousness and NDEs probably are at the present. I say this whether or not consciousness actually is a fundamental property of nature, or whether it is entirely extinguished with the brain. If it is ever found out scientifically (some believe it already has been) that consciousness  is some fundamental element of existence independent of brains and nervous systems, the most embarrassing faction involved will be the materialist champions of science and reason who have done a brilliant job of blocking the progress of our understanding by clinging desperately to a bankrupt paradigm while ignoring various phenomena right in front of their faces which would overturn it. If I didn’t think this was a distinct possibility, I wouldn’t bother writing about NDEs.

Eben Alexander’s actual beliefs concerning consciousness and survival are more nuanced than has been portrayed in a four page excerpt. There are several interviews available for anyone to see for themselves, and I’ve listened to them all multiple times over the last year, before Sam Harris had probably even heard of Eben Alexander. You’ll see very little discussion of religion and almost no discussion of Christianity within them.

The article is primitive yes, but so are the models of Sam Harris’ colleagues who, in essence, deny the need to explain the phenomenon of consciousness altogether, apparently motivated by the heroic desire to solve a tough puzzle without admitting that some of the pieces are missing.

The cover does in fact reveal the “abasement and desperation of journalism”, and as I have shown, so do the other covers and titles which peddle untested opinions supporting materialism as if they were facts, written by people who openly admit they don’t even believe what they represented themselves saying.

I certainly agree with Harris’s complaint about the ubiquitous confusion on the nature of scientific authority concerning all sorts of issues, from evolution, to climate change to claims about golden tablets, holy underwear, and the age of the planet.

But we must keep in mind that the scientific method cannot even detect the existence of phenomenal consciousness, and therefore nobody should be expected to acquiesce to science to be the ultimate arbiter of its nature and limitations.

Silly Primates and their Belief Systems

Is there a better way to offend a group of strangers than to discuss Near Death Experiences (NDE)?

The Christian evangelicals in the group will likely consider the average NDE account occult, evil or delusional. After all, only  a small fraction of accounts include Jesus, and when they do, Jesus almost never says, “I’m Jesus”.  Oddly enough, the atheist NDErs are loved unconditionally just like everyone else, and so are those of other “heathen” religions. Even the Christian NDErs  are often shocked to learn of their previous lives, and that there is no judgement based on religious belief. No wonder organized Christianity has been terrified of the liberal nature of the NDE message over the last thirty years, cherry picking a handful of accounts here and there for mass market while blatantly ignoring the core message of the other thousands. 

It should be obvious to any literate third grade child that NDE accounts, taken as a whole,  do not fit traditional Christian doctrine AT ALL. How can the blood sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of a couple of naked people seduced by a talking snake in a garden created about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue, possibly have any value when everyone existed before they were born, had numerous other lives, and came into this world for various “missions”, “tasks”, or “purposes” which invariably involve learning, giving, receiving, and experiencing a higher form of love?

When literally thousands of people are coming back from death saying the same things again and again, what sort of mental contortions must a fundamentalist Christian have to make to continue upholding the exclusivity of their doctrines?

Witness for example, the gold metal cognitive gymnastics of Dinesh D’Souza (Life After Death: The Evidence). Somehow D’Souza manages to maintain his Christian fundamentalist beliefs despite using the NDE as his primary piece of evidence for survival after death. Apparently, he didn’t read the same 2,000 or so randomly submitted NDE stories that I have. 

[Howard Storm] What is the best religion?

[Light Being/Jesus] The one which teaches you how to love.

“Buy only the essentials.”

In fact, according to the bulk of NDE accounts I’ve come across, it occurs to me that  if we highlighted 1 John 4:8, and jettisoned the entire rest of the Bible, we’d have the complete message of the NDE intact, with absolutely nothing missing of any relevance whatsoever. Sure, we can argue over what the word “Love” actually means, but I suspect nobody is going to be shooting anyone over it, or protesting “Fags” on street corners because of it (Watch out Westboro Baptist Church- you’re in the “Bailiwick” of unconditional love). 

Fortunately, that will probably be the only Bible verse you ever see on this blog. 

Then there are the materialist reductionists in the crowd. They generally find it ridiculous that anyone would seriously consider survival of consciousness after death. After all, they learned that the religion of their childhood was false years ago, and never looked back. When asked any specific thing about NDE’s they’ll usually reveal a radical ignorance of the entire subject, offering trite explanations they believe easily dismiss the entire phenomenon. One must roll their eyes and calmly explain that administered drugs have been shown not to be associated with NDEs and oxygen deprivation is clearly not present in every NDE.  These trite “explanations” sadly persist among popular atheist bloggers and podcasters who can’t be bothered to check into it, even though a cursory glance at the research will reveal a far deeper complexity and a thorough dismantling of their simplistic objections.

Classic NDEs happen under a wide variety of physiological circumstances. If anyone were able to correlate NDE elements with causes of death and physical states, you could rest assured they would have scrambled to write a book about it many years ago.  So far it can’t be done. This is because precisely the same NDE elements happen to people who are oxygen deprived, not oxygen deprived, in a coma, struck by lightening, or nowhere near death at all! You can’t tell the stories apart based on the physical state the person was in. Obviously, the closer one really is to death, the more likely they are to have an NDE. Yet the same experience may happen to someone while simply driving their car!

That is central to the mystery. Identical features happen under this wide array of brain physiologies. That alone should be interesting enough to give everyone pause before claiming to know what is happening. But it gets fishier. The same experiences happen during brain states not generally considered capable of supporting conscious experiences by current neuroscience (after cardiac arrest, severe meningitis, coma). Yet it gets fishier still. It isn’t just that these people are conscious at these times where they shouldn’t be. They typically claim to have never been more lucidly aware or capable of sharper thought and mental clarity in their lives! Despite being one of the most important features of NDE accounts, this one is rarely mentioned.  All that would be astonishing and unexpected, but it gets yet fishier. People are occasionally given information during their experiences about the future and about their lives that they could not have known.  For example, here is an account from a pregnant woman who was told in the NDE that she would have a boy and that she would have to raise him alone, despite being happily married. It was a boy, and the marriage broke apart, forcing her to raise the child alone. David Bennett (Voyage of Purpose) learned in a future life review during his NDE that he would acquire cancer later in his life, but would survive it. The odds of survival of this type of metastasized cancer were close to zero, and doctors were reluctant to offer any hope.  Bennett says that since he had already seen in the life review that he would survive the cancer, it gave him the determination to seek out his own doctors. He survived and is doing well today.  Anita Moorjani was given a choice in her NDE whether or not to return to earthly life. She was in a coma due to an advanced cancer which had overtaken her body with tumors. In the NDE, she was told that if she chose to return, the cancer would quickly dissipate. She chose to return, and that is exactly what happened. Within four days, the tumors had shrunk 70%. The doctors were astounded. The story has been investigated and is well documented by medical records. 

And I haven’t even mentioned the many accounts of people claiming to verify things they saw in the out of body state. The stories are a dime a dozen now, and accumulating. Staunch materialists either don’t know these stories exist, or they try to debunk them one by one as if each story is a one-off that requires its own unique and elaborate explanation. The extent of the creativity employed to debunk such cases stretches believability. For every one of these veridical claims we hear about, there are several others buried within online account submissions from anonymous NDErs you’ve never heard of. 

Despite this litany of “fishy” elements stacked one after another, they aren’t the key features I personally find most compelling about NDEs. What I find most compelling after reading through many hundreds of accounts is the eerie similarities, the logical timing, and the consistent meaning in the experiences. It leaves me with the impression that something is actually going on. To read again and again how the resuscitation is timed perfectly with the decision to return or how the experience of unconditional love or the life review is timed logically within the narrative of the account, leaves the biological explanations routinely given to “explain” NDEs  stranded in a bubble of stammering “just-so story” conjecture, with all their explanatory work left ahead of them. Unfortunately, to know this, one must do the work of reading many accounts. When you get to the point of boredom where you can say out loud what the experiencer you’ve never met before is about to say in the next paragraph, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. I cannot read them all to people or download the experience of reading them to anyone else. It takes a lot of time and an openness to the possibility that they may be real. Because of the work required, all the prior beliefs people bring to the table, and the conditioning and indoctrination that distorts the lenses through which each individual reads the NDE accounts, it is easy to understand why so many people who have opinions about NDEs are unaware of the bigger picture being presented. There are deep cognitive and cultural blinders at play. 

In the end, considering this string of “fishy” phenomena associated with NDEs, one must honestly ask themselves whether they would have expected all of this to be associated merely with the quirks and idiosynchrocies of a dying brain, were they never to have heard of the NDE before now. It would be much easier to sort out if NDEs sounded precisely like drug trips or mind-addled hallucinations. But the vast majority do not.  If NDEs generally consisted of talking “machine elves” and nonsensical communication with large insects, we could chalk it all up quickly to hallucination. But they do not. The clarity and value of the experience is so convincing that at least one Harvard trained materialist neuroscientist has become convinced of the primacy of consciousness after having one.  

From a purely scientific perspective, I still think it is reasonable to maintain the position that somehow NDEs are entirely brain generated phenomena. I think it is also scientifically respectable to suspect that consciousness somehow is not generated by biology alone, and our assumption that electrical action potentials in cellular membranes mysteriously “compute” conscious awareness into existence is an entirely misguided footnote in the history of science and philosophy. I am genuinely open-minded to either possibility.

But the one attitude which I find utterly absurd is the attitude that there is no real mystery to explain.  This attitude is not only negligent of the phenomenon itself, and clearly motivated by deep insecurities and politics, but it is also blind to the scientific endeavor to understand the nature of brain, mind and consciousness. It is an inexcusably stupid perspective motivated by the desire to obliterate the significance of a certain type of human experience (spiritual), merely because they give traction to a specific group of objectionable people (the religious). One may as well try to eliminate all discussion of olfaction because they aren’t fond of wine snobs who get off on the whiff of “earthy notes” in their glass. 

Every explanation proposed about why NDEs occur is part of a shot-gun of speculation at this point, generally untestable. Something like twenty or more explanations (several contradicting each other) can be chosen ala carte as needed to fit each particular account. The people who invent these explanations often don’t believe in the other explanations. Multiple explanations are liberally employed to explain the same element across different accounts as needed. Obviously, if you have to use multiple explanations for the same element across different NDE accounts, it diminishes the likelihood the explanation is true, especially when the element is woven seamlessly and logically into a meaningful narrative. That approach is called “playing tennis without the net”. 

This is the trick people use to say they can “explain” the NDE. The shot-gun approach should not be persuasive to any knowledgable person open-minded on the question of survival. The transparently disingenuous tactic is to completely ignore the most interesting aspects of NDEs entirely (not difficult if you don’t know they exist), thus building a prototypical straw-man experience which can be explained away.  Any imaginable brain correlate will do just fine. Vision? Occipital lobe. Memory? Hippocampus. QED. The untestable hypotheses are later described as “explanations” in the popular press in order to generate mouse clicks, sell advertising, and drum up controversy.

A great paper was written recently to summarize the failure of physiological explanations of NDEs, and the need to remain open minded to future developments of NDE research. 

If I knew nothing of NDEs, and assumed they were merely the dying brain shutting down, my instinctive expectation would be for a lot of chaotic and senseless hallucinations happening in a random and pointless order; hazy, unclear, and little to none of it remembered.

Oddly enough, it just doesn’t work that way. The NDE cuts to the heart of the deepest mysteries of the mind-body problem and the origin and nature of our greatest, most revered intuitions. 

“I feel it in my heart, that makes it true!”

The third faction offended by NDEs, will be those who are certain we survive death, and want to inform you all about the afterlife, how it works, the color of your aura, how to heal yourself from past life trauma, your soul’s mission, and so on. They’ll talk about using spiritual talents to “manifest” various trivial displays of egoic status, hedonistic pleasures, and social dominance. Their version of the afterlife sounds like a scenario straight from a game of Dungeons&Dragons, where characters advance through hierarchies of power by accruing experience points and gaining special magical abilities. These afterlife beliefs are so blatantly Darwinian in nature, they would likely make the staunchest evolutionary biologist blush for having not come up with a more thorough description of primate social behavior himself. Because virtually everyone in this camp is either completely unaware of the natural forces behind Darwinian evolution or rejects their existence outright, the joke is utterly lost on them. Worse, one of the most potent fuels for the fire that motivates materialist dogmatism is the deep ignorance of the natural world found within this group of people. It certainly was for me.

Although this group prides itself on being post-religious, they’ve set up what amounts to a new religion, complete with the typical shunning of science and reason when convenient, in-grouping, radical narcissism, and sloppy acceptance of unverifiable claims. Any interpretation of NDEs which does not fit into their Marvel comic universe might lead to a lecture about how you need to “live in your heart” and not in your head. They believe themselves to be superior to others, despite maintaining beliefs about the world which are deeply ignorant and demonstrably false. 

From personal experience, I can say that it was reading the entire Bible for myself in my teens which led me to reject Christianity. Then it was hanging around with New Age spiritualists which led me into full-fledged atheism by the age of thirty. But in recent years, it has been brushing shoulders with fellow atheists and materialists which has led me towards a more neutral attitude, skeptical of everything, including the very capacity of the human mind to grasp any sort of answer.

We are primates, with primate minds. We are deeply flawed and radically limited creatures. If you’re like me, you find a part of yourself and your history in each of these categories. You see how your thought has evolved through experience, and you see that there is no reason why this process should suddenly stop in your present state. There are areas of understanding you are not aware of that exist, that unfold over time.

It seems to be a process. Whether you are a New-Ager, a materialist, or an open-minded skeptic, I believe the understanding we arrive at through living is independent of our beliefs. 

Ray Bradbury was not an NDEr. He was an atheist.