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.
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.