This is a slight elaboration on some of my earlier comments on Near Death Experiences (NDE's) and proposes materialistic explanations for them. It is argued that such chemicals as ketamine and dmt, or direct stimulation of certain areas of the brain – can produce episodes that are similar in some ways to NDE’s. This is true, but there are several important points.
- They are similar to NDE but there are also differences. NDE’s have their own range of elements, and neither ketamine or dmt reproduces it exactly.
- The experiences of ketamine, dmt, lucid dreaming, etc all produce abundant and identifiable brain wave activity. Many NDE’s, including some of the most spectacular – occur when there is a complete cessation of all measurable brain wave activity. Cardiac arrest, in particular, produces extremely rapid cessation of all brain activity, as reported in the study by Lommel I referenced in my article: (http://www.skepticalinvestigations.org/whoswho/vanLommel.htm) The whole point of introducing NDE’s into this discussion is that they present a mental phenomena which doesn’t seem at all connected to the physical function of the brain. If some kind of hallucination is occurring because of abnormal brain function, then it should be detectible as brain activity. It isn’t.
- I personally believe that altered states of consciousness, arrived at chemically, may indeed be “real” in the sense of being alternate realities that can be explored and about which there can be some degree of group agreement. This is similar to what one finds in the astral worlds of the OBE for example. While some of it is plastic, and it’s size and variety are near infinite – it is possible for different observers to visit the same “locations” within it and report commonalities. The fact that a state of consciousness can be triggered by drugs doesn’t invalidate the truth of that state. For some people, it requires chemical assistance to experience the state of consciousness we would call “normal” 😉 If there is a “spirit” or “spiritual body” – we might well expect physical chemicals in the body to alter the interaction between body and spirit. This particularly true of DMT, which is a natural body chemical who’s very purpose may BE to alter that interaction.
- Still, the amount of DMT produced by the brain is a tiny fraction of the amounts required to produce significant altered states in the lab.
It is argued that the anoxia itself mentioned above produces patters of neural firing that could be perceived as a “tunnel” of some kind, as reported in NDE literature.) Some points:
- If there is a direct correlation between brain anoxia and NDE, why do only a small percentage of victims of brain anoxia report NDE’s?
- The “tunnel” aspect of the NDE, which occurs typically at the beginning of the experience, might be compatible with the evidence of some cases, but the most vivid parts of the NDE typically occur AFTER the tunnel episode – when brain activity has virtually ceased. There is simply no neural activity present to support the very rich sensory experience that is reported.
- Not all NDE’s occur because of cardiac arrest, and not all of them happen in a state of anoxia – yet the non-anoxia NDE’s fit the same pattern.
Some mention is made of the fact that experiments in placing “targets” in areas like emergency rooms for NDE experiencers to report haven’t been statistically successful.
- While this is a commendable attempt to introduce some “control” into such study, the dying subjects are obviously not given instructions on what to look for – and it’s doubtful if they would follow them. The attention of the NDE experiencer tends to be drawn by things that are unpredictable, and even trivial – a doctor’s plaid shoelaces, a sneaker on a window ledge, etc. But they very very often include items of conversation, medical devices and instruments, and other details – some of which would not have been visible to them. At the very least, all these remembered conversations and perceptions occur during a time when the brain shows no correlate physical signs of registering any sensory activity.
For the record, let me re-introduce the case of Pam Reynolds, which I pointed to in my other article. Briefly, Pam underwent an experimental surgery for a brain aneurysm. The procedure involved hypothermic cardiac arrest. The body temperature is lowered to 60 degrees – heartbeat and breathing stopped, and brain waves flattened. Blood is drained from the head. This allows the otherwise inoperable aneurysm to be repaired. Once repaired, Pam was revived. She reported a particularly vivid, classical NDE, including conversations, medical devices and procedures which all corresponded with events which had occurred WHILE her head was totally drained of blood and the brain flatlined. The NDE then went with the classical light, tunnel and visitation events.
(an account can be found here: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/evidence01.html
I don’t really see any of the alternate explanations coming close to addressing a case like this.