20. Is there evidence that humans have a spirit? Part 2: Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

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… at least 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 single NDE. This, along with his distaste for non-Christians having positive NDEs, prompted him to write a thorough and critical examination of the NDE. While biased by Christianity, his arguments against the NDE were nonetheless logical and compelling.

Still, the people who report having NDEs seem so sincere and convinced. Don’t all their claims offer some sort of evidence that humans have a spirit?

The Near Death Out of Body Experience (ND OBE)

ND OBE patients have claimed to accurately witness some pretty amazing things while outside their body, such as: their own body, the operating room, medical instruments, procedures, where items were placed, the behavior 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 evidence for an OBE. 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 said, “If no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.” And just how many were able to float above their body and identify the image? Not one. 

Similarities in NDE Stories

Still, NDE survivors tell some amazing and powerful stories, many containing similar elements. Stories frequently consist a bright light, a tunnel, and encounter with spiritual beings, feelings of peace and love, a life review, meeting 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 (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.   The ND OBE stories that become popular may have been selected with bias.

Roughly 90% of the people who suffer a cardiac arrest don’t have a core NDE (see here and here). By far, the norm is to not experience anything, but this is not the experience many choose to validate. 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 an NDE, roughly 1/3rd are not deemed “core experiences.” The prevalence of a-typical experiences should tell us that, for whatever the reason, the body sometimes experiences strange things in the throes of death, and not necessarily for religious reasons.

When we read about NDEs, we are reading about the “hits,” and ignoring all these “misses,” which paints an inaccurate picture of what makes up a typical near-death experience.

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.

If we allow shared experiences to validate things like NDEs, we also obligate ourselves to accept evidence for things like alien abductionsBigfootghostsfairies, and Leprechauns.

Just because many people share similar stories, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are true. They 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 they 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?

Either religious matters are not settled in the afterlife, these people are lying, or these experiences are being influenced by popular culture.



6.   Where are memories stored? 

The fact that brain damage can cause us to lose specific memories suggests 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 body), then why should we ever forget anything? Why does the spirit lose the ability to relay information?

7.    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 also evidence that these experiences are being driven by the brain.

8.    Why do NDEs occur in people who are NOT dying?

The famous Lancet study, NDEs can be 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?

9.    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.

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. After hearing reports about spirit beings, elves, and sexual abuse by aliens, I’m personally convinced 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 says that people with NDEs share symptoms in common with those who have pathological dissociative disorders.

13.     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.

If that 1 patient in 10 having an NDE is also likely to have REM intrusions, dissociative tendencies, and/or increased CO2 levels, how reliable can the testimonies from this group really be?

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 observe.

If I had to guess what causes NDEs, I’d say that dying is a unique experience, and some people’s brains cope with death in novel ways. Like a dream, the brain uses popular themes and existing knowledge to fill in the blanks during this difficult and stressful time. This is why 1) most people do not experience NDEs when dying, 2) one third do not have a “core” experience, 3) people from different cultures experience different NDEs, and 4) tricking or stressing the brain can result in similar experiences.

Conclusions about Evidence for the Spirit

The challenge with contesting the idea of the spirit is that it is ultimately non-falsifiable; we can never slice open a body and say, “See, look, no spirit!”  The idea cannot be falsified, and it’s impossible to prove a negative (can you prove there’s NOT an invisible dragon in my garage?). One can always formulate excuses for why the spirit cannot be tested.

If there is no spirit, than the truth is rather obvious: the brain is responsible for making a person who they are. 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.

The idea of a spirit that survives death satisfies our will to survive, promises us future justice, aids in our grief, and gives our lives more meaning and purpose. These are all powerful reasons to cling to the supernatural. But do these powerful desires prevent us from seeing the more obvious truth?

When I die, I really do hope that something exits my body. I’m not opposed to the idea of the spirit, but I have no interest in engaging in self-deception, either. Given proper evidence, I’d be happy to change my mind, but under the circumstances, it appears the only reason we believe the spirit exists is because we need it to, and not because there is clear evidence for it.

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11 Responses to 20. Is there evidence that humans have a spirit? Part 2: Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

  1. rautakyy says:

    Many religions claim a person should, for the benefit of the eternal soul, choose to believe in that particular religion and join the congregation. (To pay for the expenses, well, not the eternal expences, but the expences of spreading the joyfull message of salvation, and removal of the other joyfull messages of salvation.) As if faith and plausiblity would be a matter of choise. No, doubt people make these choises all the time, or tell themselves that they have made aware choises. But what we percieve as plausible is not a matter of choise. What we know affects what we find believable. If a notion is totally unbelievable to us, we can not simply choose to believe it. Or if we tell ourselves we can, we are decieving ourselves. Therefore we must first let someone else, or try to, on our own, convince ourselves of something we would otherwise find unbelievable.

    The spirit or soul seems to be completely and utter nonsense to me, though I find the idea of a second chance compelling. Compelling is not however enough to convince me. During my lifetime I have given a chance to a number of religions to change my mind. This has resulted in me finding out more about the “truths” they offer and become even more skeptic about all of them. It might be it is just Ahriman, Devil or what ever evil force leading me away of the light of Ormunzd, Jehovah or what ever, but I have no means to detect that. If I am to be punished simply for my disbelief, it alone works to lessen the compelling side of these myths. I do not know what kind of person can be frightened by that sort of logic to “believe”, but on me it has an opposite effect. This is propably a result of my pride. I however, do not regard my pride as anything wrong. How could I give up on my pride? It is an essential part of my identity. To give it up, I would first be convinced I really need to do so, but before I do I can not be. It seems, if I have an eternal soul it is lost…

    • “…The expences of spreading the joyfull message of salvation, and removal of the other joyfull messages of salvation,” that bit of satire made me laugh. 🙂

      “If a notion is totally unbelievable to us, we can not simply choose to believe it.” I agree. I used to tell my wife “I can only believe insomuch as God has given me the ability to believe. But if something else strikes me as more reasonable, I must be honest with myself and believe in that thing, whatever it is.” She now thinks I’m deceived by Satan, and maybe she’s right, but I don’t think so. Why? Because a Muslim would say we’re both deceived by Satan, and so on, so who’s Satan is right? We “have no means to detect that.”

      I think we all tend to believe whatever we’ve heard most. We learn how to defend those ideas, and why all other offending ideas are wrong. (No wonder the Bible says that faith comes by hearing the word of God! Turns out, faith comes by hearing many words about ANYTHING!)

      That’s why I think it’s good idea never to listen too much to any one side of things, and to even remain skeptical of one’s own skepticism. You need to listen to all sides, which is difficult, because our brains like to take sides, and seek out only confirming information. But, like you said, the more religions you hear from, the more you start to see the logical fallacies inherent in the arguments used to defend them.

      So, I may be wrong. But if I am, it’s either because God didn’t provide clear evidence or give me to have enough faith to believe without it. If I must stand before Him and explain my choice, I have at least 500 questions to start with.

  2. Moondoggy says:

    If a soul exist, by what mechanism does it have the ability to detect and focus the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum? To detect audible vibrations? Or any of the other senses? Outside the body, the soul would be alone in a senseless world. I would think any out of body experience would not reveal the contents or sounds of a room. If the soul did have some supernatural way of detecting its environment, shouldn’t a deaf person still be able to detect vibrations even if the soul was still residing in the body? To me, this line of reasoning is more evidence that these OBEs are just generated in the mind.

    • That’s an interesting point. Similarly, I’ve read one or two stories where blind people leave the body and claim they could see, but strangely they can no longer see when their spirit returns to their body. It’s strange to think there is a set of “spirit eyes” that function only outside the body; but while inside they are subject to input from physically inferior eyes, even non-functional ones.

      Likewise, how does one experience the fires of hell without flesh? Can spirit be burned and injured? Can it be injured in heaven? Or does God allow exceptions for those in hell?

  3. Common sense is so rare it should be classified as a super power. SOOOO TRUE!!!

  4. BriBrit says:

    Still… the people who report having NDEs seem so sincere and convinced. Don’t their claims offer some sort of evidence that humans have a spirit?”
    I, like you, could not read enough about NDEs and for the same reasons. I have probably read around 100. The most compelling is Reverend Howard Storm’s. I bought his book and found it amazing. In fact his NDE presents lucid intelligent and non-contradictory evidence that is also theologically persuasive from a Christian point of view. As a Christian who believes in the inerrancy of scripture there is little to set Howard’s theology apart from mainstream Christianity which, I might add, is typically fractious. As for all the other NDEs I have read only two stand out as passing my self-imposed test of a genuine NDE (if such a thing exists) as far as scripture is concerned.

    You present reasons for suspending belief in NDEs and I am inclined to agree with you. But let me comment on some of your statements.

    “Many NDE stories share striking similarities,…..”
    I have compiled rough list of 76 similarities from among 100 stories and am stunned by what they reveal. Most impressive! But I am also perplexed by the conflicting the worldviews that many of them reveal.

    You also mentioned similarities with alien abductions. I don’t believe that this necessarily disproves NDEs because quite clearly there is a good chance that there is something going on in a plane which we have dubbed “spiritual” and which could be a real dimension. If there is then it is wide open to intrusion from good and bad spirits as the Bible tells us. This may account for Grays and it may account for the common characteristic of seeing a being or beings of light – they may emanate love and peace and safety but the Bible tells us that Satan can simulate all those things. I wonder, then, if this is a genuine plane of existence that some enter albeit temporarily and, subject to God’s will, in their NDE to 1. left alone to experience that which is in harmony with the spiritual worldview they already hold because they have rejected God’s Spirit or 2 with God’s Spirit guiding permitted to experience a genuine spiritual awakening. I think of an atheist like Howard Storm can be is changed into a son of God then NDEs are a good thing! The atheist who makes a spiritual experience only to reject its validity afterwards is .
    Simply evidence that even if one were to rise from the dead he may still refuse to believe.

    “ Why do NDEs vary with culture?” I take your point and it’s a strong one but you did not mention that not all do vary. That for me is very significant.

    “Who’s religious NDE should we believe?”
    Again, it’s a valid point but in the end you and I are Christians are we not? Perhaps I am assuming too much but for individuals who believe in the infallibility of God’s word this is not relevant. Again, if it is a spiritual plane that NDE are experienced on, then what people believe is going to be influenced by demographic culture. And before I forgt, it was Dr. George Ritchie’s experience that set the alarm bells ringing for me and caused me to suspect that NDEs are on a spiritual plane that is open to exploitation by the Devil.

    “What about atheists who have similar experiences but remain skeptical of them?”
    My response is that we can still decide for or against what we experience spiritually and, perhaps, even during the NDE.

    “What about Dimethyltryptamine (DMT)?
    Most serious NDE researchers do not hold that DMT can result in the core conditions of NDEs and I have personally discounted this possibility but hey I might yet be persuaded to change my mind!!

    I think the jury is still out on NDEs since there is still too much that we don’t know and cannot prove and have not been able to prove scientifically but I for one still believe that the similarities and consistencies between NDEs is remarkable and defy explaination. I think this is an area where we need to avoid making sweeping statements and generalisations (no reference to you). They do not help. But we all do it especially when we don’t understand something.

  5. Hi BriBrit, thanks for the reply.

    “The most compelling is Reverend Howard Storm’s.”

    I have his book, too! Great story, but he gets a little weird at the end with his crazy visions of the future where he says we’ll make plants grow (in minutes) by just thinking about them growing. This revelation alone made me question his visions.

    Moving on, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that you believe these spiritual experience may be real, but are being interpreted by different people in different ways. This is a possibility, but I’d tend to disagree, because I think there’s more evidence supporting that NDEs are more likely a mental experience than a spiritual one.

    I think the best example is a dream. Most of us experience dreams, but realize they have no basis in reality, they are just a product of our imagination. This is extremely important because (I believe) it proves our brain is capable of creating stories and events where we feel out of control. We do not realize we are creating the experience, we feel it is happening to us, and yet it is all imagined.

    Also important is the evidence that shows our minds can be made to believe things that are not true, either through chemicals, physical manipulation, suggestion, hypnosis, brainwashing, lack of reason or intelligence, bias, and so on.

    Combining these two ideas, there is also evidence that our minds can imagine ideas and we can perceive them to be VERY real. Take, for one example, this bloke who jumps through a glass window trying to escape the horrors his mind has imagined.

    My hypothesis is that, during death, the same part of our brain that powers dreams powers an NDE, based on knowledge of death it has accumulated. Simultaneously, the process of coping with the stress and fear of death produces a chemical or situation that weakens the brain’s wall between our conscious and subconscious, so that the dream is cemented in our conscious as a real event.

    Knowing that the brain is capable of both inventing and believing invented stories, I’d have to say that there is more evidence for this probability than assuming we have spirits, and our spirits travel to spirit worlds (to be later interpreted in different ways).

    If we had other strong evidence that spirits exist, or could prove that NDE survivors could routinely identify hidden target images, then we could support the spirit hypothesis, but I think it’s far too early for that. I think most people are reading the spirit into NDEs because they’ve already presumed the spirit to exist, which (so far) is a matter of faith.

    Just my .02. 🙂

  6. Anonymous says:

    umm do you have any refrences for all these claims??

  7. Alexsky says:

    Good thoughts. A worthwhile book on this subject: “The Irreducible Mind: Toward A Psychology for the 21st Century” (Kelly/Williams). A formidable scientific inquiry, rather than just the more common ” I saw Heaven” New Age babble you see on Amazon along with advertisements for magnets and psychic healing. Any, I digress.
    My thoughts: I certainly agree that the is a lot to be skeptical about with regard to the the claims of mainstream religions. However, from a purely scientific perspective, does the concepts of 1.) a Creator and 2.) a Supreme Being really seem at that far fetched? Consider– We share 95 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees. One one those species can peel a banana and some gifted ones can count to ten–the other build the Hubble telescope, nuclear reactors and the Hadron Collider. What would a being with another 5 percent of DNA beyond ours be like? 20 percent? 75 percent? I have the sneaking suspicion he would be able to manipulate the laws of gravity and nature and yes, change the algorithm of space and time. Result: “God”. Many evolutionary biologists would likely posit than mankind, if it should survive another billion years, will evolve into this type of super being. Fascinating when you consider it.

    In addition, while science has been a true salvation for mankind and continues to be, to state that nothing within the four corners of this universe exists that cannot be explained– or eventually explained by science, is to hold an opinion that, respectfully, smacks of the same bullheaded fundamentalism as those who hold that the Earth is 6000 years old.

    Great site and great post. Thank God for free thinking.

  8. bbnewsab says:

    Reblogged this on Mass Delusions a.k.a. Magical & Religious Woo-Bullshit Thinking and commented:
    Very good summary of the NDE delusion. But as always, comforting lies are preferred to unpleasant truths.

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