I confess. I once spent a couple of years as an absolute NDE junkie. In my early search for evidence of the soul, NDE survivors seemed to have the proof I was searching for. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was hooked by all the similar and compelling stories… for a while.
My interest in NDEs eventually waned after reading a book by Christian cardiologist Dr. H. Leon Greene. In his book If I Should Die Before I Wake, Dr. Greene reports having revived hundreds of patients, none of whom ever reported having a NDE. This experience, along with his contempt for the idea that non-Christians could have positive NDEs, prompted him to write a thorough and critical examination of the NDE. While biased by his Christianity, his arguments against the NDE were nonetheless logical and compelling.
Still… all the people I’d read about seemed so sincere and convinced. Shouldn’t all the claims, and the similarities of these claims, count as some evidence that humans have a spirit?
The Near Death Out of Body Experience (ND OBE)
ND OBE patients sometimes claim to have accurately witnessed some pretty amazing things whilst outside their body. Things such as their own body, the operating room, medical instruments, procedures, where items were placed, the physical characteristics and behaviors of doctors and nurses, a penny atop a high hutch, a red shoe on a rooftop, and various remote events.
These compelling stories were enough to inspire several researchers to look more closely at ND OBEs. In these studies, a “target image” is usually placed above a hospital bed, facing the ceiling. If the revived patient can identify the image, then it’s possible evidence that OBEs are real events. But so far, no patient has ever successfully described the target image.
One of the largest studies of this kind, known as the AWARE study, placed target images above 2,060 cardiac arrest patients. Of these, 330 would survive the cardiac arrest, and 140 would go on to be interviewed. Before the study was conducted, researcher Dr. Sam Parnia had said, “If no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.” And just how many survivors were able to correctly identify the image? Not one.
Similarities in NDE Stories
Still, NDE survivors tell some amazing and powerful stories, many containing similar elements. NDE episodes frequently consist a bright light, a tunnel, and encounter with spiritual beings, feelings of peace and love, a life review, meetings with deceased loved ones, etc. Isn’t this evidence? Maybe, but there are many good reasons to suspend belief.
1. The existence of a spirit has yet to be proven.
For many, the existence of the spirit is a foregone conclusion, but despite its popularity, it remains an extraordinary supernatural claim, one that requires equally extraordinary evidence (and not just anecdotal stories). If people really can exist apart from the bodies, this should be something that can be proven, and we need repeatable experiments that can demonstrates this claim.
2. Stories may be selected with bias.
It’s worth nothing that the majority of people who suffer a cardiac arrest (some 90%) don’t report having any kind of NDE (see here and here). So by far, the norm is to not experience anything, but this is not the story we want to hear. However, a completely unbiased book (or movie) about NDEs would feature nine stories about going unconscious and experiencing nothing, for every one where someone felt something different.
Of those who do experience something, roughly 1/3rd are not deemed “core experiences.” These a-typical experiences suggest that the body experiences strange things in the throes of death. But we toss out these experiences, along with all the non-experiences, in favor of the core NDE everyone wants to hear about.
3. What about other stories with shared core experiences?
While many NDEs share some core elements, this is not uncommon. Alien abductions, for example, also feature shared core experiences, including the capture, the examination/implant/probe, the tour, missing time, the return, etc. And the aliens are almost universally described as “grays” that speak telepathically.
Just because many of these stories contain similar details, it doesn’t necessarily follow that these stories are all true. These story tellers may have heard these details from other sources, and incorporated them into their own dreams, hallucinations, or fabricated stories.
4. Why do NDEs vary with culture?
Most NDE studies are based in Western culture, and while we sometimes hear that other cultures also have NDEs, we’re rarely told how different they really are. For example, the core experience for residents of Thailand may include:
- Strong Buddhist and Hindu themes.
- Traveling with 1-4 Yamatoot to the underworld for judgment by Lord Yama.
- Being told that one avoids hell by following the teachings of Buddha, building temples, offering gifts to monks, and not killing animals.
- Feelings of hunger or thirst followed by failed attempts to eat or drink because they did not offer food or drinks to Buddhist monks.
- A tour of the multiple levels of heaven and hell.
- Being told their death was as a case of mistaken identity.
The fact that Westerners don’t share these core experiences suggests that these details stem from cultural ideas about death, and not actual experiences.
5. Who’s religious NDE should we believe?
Should we believe Buddhist Go Taeng Saeyep who was told to follow the teachings of Buddha, or Mormon Betty Eadie who was told the LDS Church was “the truest Church on the earth?” Should we believe Dr. George Ritchie who was given a tour of the afterlife by Jesus, or Vasudev Pandey who met the Hindu god of the dead? Should we believe Catholic Kolleen who saw saints and the Virgin Mary, or Frank who saw his spirit ancestors? Should we believe Mickey Robinson who woke up Pentecostal, or Dr. Eben Alexander who was reincarnated as a worm?
6. What about simulated experiences?
Users of the “God helmet” report experiences similar to NDEs, such as being in the presence of God, or seeing an angel or a deceased person, along with feelings of meaning, importance, and bliss. Even those who have had an NDE admit the experience is similar.
Likewise, 18% of people who lose consciousness in a centrifuge also report symptoms similar to NDEs.
The fact that we can reproduce similar experiences by stimulating or stressing the brain is evidence that these experiences are being driven by the brain.
7. Why do NDEs occur in people who are NOT dying?
In the Lancet study, NDEs were said to have been brought on by things like serious depression, traffic accidents, mountaineering accidents, isolation, and for no apparent reason whatsoever. If people have NDEs when they’re not near death, then aren’t they just… experiences?
8. What about atheists who have similar experiences but remain skeptical of them?
Some skeptics experience NDEs, but remain convinced they are biologically driven, like dreams, and not actual spirit worlds.
9. Where exactly are our memories stored?
The fact that brain damage can cause us to lose specific memories suggests that memories are physical in nature. If our memories are stored in our “spirit” (and they would have to be, if NDE survivors can form new memories while apart from their physical body), one might wonder why we forget things. How does our spirit lose the ability to relay this information?
10. What about Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)?
Dr. Rick Strassman has suggested the powerful psychedelic DMT, which occurs naturally in the body, may be responsible for NDEs in higher doses.
People who take DMT often say they are transported to a spirit world and they even become convinced it’s a real place. Their reports about spirit beings, elves, and sexual abuse by aliens has convinced that these are nothing more than hallucinations, but DMT has demonstrated that natural chemicals can trigger convincing spiritual experiences.
11. Why are people with elevated levels of carbon dioxide more likely to have an NDE?
If not DMT, how about CO2? Critical Care reported in 2010 that patients with elevated levels of carbon dioxide in their blood were more likely to have an NDE.
12. What about the association between NDEs and dissociative disorders?
Researcher Bruce Greyson has reported that people who report having an NDE often share symptoms in common with those who have pathological dissociative disorders.
13. Why don’t only Christians have positive NDEs?
As Dr. H. Leon Greene points out, positive NDE experiences don’t seem to hinge on one’s religious preferences. If hard-line Christianity is correct, then only Christians should be having positive NDEs, while everyone else should have negative NDEs.
14. What about the association between NDEs and REM intrusion?
And finally, the April 2006 issue of Neurology reported that 60% of NDE survivors also suffer from REM intrusion, a disorder where the rapid-eye movement (REM) state of sleep sometimes intrudes into their regular consciousness while awake, compared to only 25% who did not have an NDE.
There seem to be many different factors that can bring about an NDE. If 90% of people who are near death do not experience anything, perhaps it is only the 10%, the outliers, who have experiences influenced by things like REM intrusions, dissociative disorders, or increased CO2 levels.
Conclusions about NDEs
If NDEs were real, what might we expect to see? We might see (or be able to detect) the spirit departing from the body. Or we might see NDEs occurring in 100% of cardiac arrest patients, with many of them being able to identify hidden “target images.” Or we might see people of all faiths returning from the dead with a universal religious perspective (for example, all Muslim NDE survivors might convert to Christianity). But these are not the kinds of things we are observing.
Conclusions about Evidence for the Spirit
The challenge with contesting the idea of the spirit is that it is ultimately non-falsifiable. We cannot slice open a body and say, “See, look, no spirit!” One can always formulate a new excuse for why the spirit cannot be tested or observed.
If there is no spirit, than the truth is rather obvious: the brain is responsible for making a person who they are, and nothing else. This is why we have no recollection of existing before we had a body, and likely why we will have no recollection after our death.
But the idea of a spirit that survives death satisfies our will to survive, promises us future justice, aids in grief, and gives our lives more meaning and purpose. These are all powerful reasons to cling to a belief in the supernatural. But do these powerful desires prevent us from seeing a more obvious truth? That we observe nothing, because there is nothing.