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.