I intended on a different, more scholarly post today but unfortunately I must instead subject you to a rant. Below is one of many misleading media articles about near-death experiences that lead readers to assume that science has somehow ‘proven’ the mechanism for these superconscious experiences before and during clinical death. I would normally ignore articles like this, but I thought it would illustrate just how potentially damaging poorly-researched articles can be for readers who are undecided, questioning, or simply uninformed.
Here’s the news article in question, from Metro.uk.co. My comments to each troublesome statement are in purple.
This is what actually happens in your brain during a near-death-experience
by Rob Waugh on July 18, 2016
Metro Article: Religious people often point to ‘long dark tunnel’-style near death experiences as proof that God exists – and we’re all going to meet him after death. But the truth is actually a bit different. Belgian researchers analysed the experiences of 400 people around the world – and found that experiences tended to be similar, regardless of culture.
Me: How does the similarity of near-death experiences refute their validity?
Metro Article: This suggests that ‘near death experiences’ are actually biological, rather than religious, according to Steven Laureys – who used brain scanners to identify the area of the brain responsible.
Me: In response to the first statement regarding the biological bases of NDEs:
“NDEs are quite varied, but the consistency of the NDE elements (OBE experience, tunnel, light, meeting other beings, etc.) is striking. There is no plausible biological explanation of NDEs. There is no other human experience so dramatic, shared by so many people, and so relatively consistent in its elements. The preceding suggests faith in the validity of NDE accounts is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence.”
– Dr. Jeffrey Long, Oncologist and NDE Researcher
In response to the second statement: Neurologists have never ‘found’ the part of the brain ‘responsible’ for near-death experiences. There are plenty of hypotheses, but certainly no scientific proof.
Metro Article: He also found that it was possible to induce a near-death experience artificially.
Me: This ought to be good.
Metro Article: People can trigger near-death experiences by hyperventilating and rapidly changing posture – and one researcher did it and saw a ‘long dark tunnel’.
Me: Hyperventilating? Really? And your scientific proof is ‘one researcher’ did it?
Metro Article: Dr Laureys used a brain scanner and found that the experiences trigger activity in a brain region called the temporal parietal junction.
Me: If I am understanding this correctly, Dr. Laureys used a brain scanner on his hyperventilating colleague and recorded what happened in the brain. So, he recorded what happens during hyperventilation?
Near-death experiences mostly happen in people who are either clinically dead or near clinically dead. Hyperventilation is not at all similar to an actual NDE situation. In many NDEs, brain scans register zero activity because the person is clinically dead at the time of their reported conscious experience.
Metro Article: Dr Laureys said, ‘All over the world, stories of near-death experience keep emerging and that means we can pick out similar factors and try to work out what is causing them.’ What we found suggests that even people who seem unconscious or in a coma could be living a rich neurological life.’
Me: True, for totally different reasons.
Metro Article: What people actually see during near-death experiences
Metro Article: Seeing a long, dark tunnel with a light coming towards you as you die is actually surprisingly rare, according to a study of more than 1,000 people who ‘died’.
Me: According to ‘The God Study’ by Dr. Jeffrey Long, 33% of NDErs had the tunnel experience. In another study of 50 NDEs, 47% have the tunnel experience. However, NDEs that lack the tunnel experience aren’t any less authentic, sincere, genuine or important. NDEs can have any number of elements on the Greyson Scale, but very rarely do they have them all.
Metro Article: Sadly, so is seeing a kindly old man playing a harp on a cloud
Me: If the writer is sarcastically referring to ‘God’ or ‘the light’ or the sense of divinity in general, it’s a significant part of NDEs; in the same NDE study as above 56% saw what they called ‘God’. In Dr. Jeffrey Long’s God Study, 45.5% saw ‘God’ or a ‘Supreme Being’. I would not categorize this as rare.
Metro Article: Around half of the patients recalled something from their time in cardiac arrest – but many of these experiences are frightening, or involve memories of real events (from a time when the person is supposedly dead).
Me: Only 17-18% of NDEs are considered frightening to the experiencer. –Source
The second statement about memories of real events during clinical death seems to support my position, so I’m a bit confused.
Metro Article: Only around 2% of patients have ‘classic’ near-death experiences – for the others, it is often very different.
Me: What defines a “classic NDE”? “Near death experiences (NDE) are reported in 4-9% of general community members and up to 23% of critical illness patients, although they can occur in healthy individuals who may think they are in peril.” –Source
774 NDEs occur in the United States every day. –Source
Metro Article: The researchers, from the University of Southampton, studied 2,060 patients who had been through cardiac arrest, and then come back. Dr Sam Parnia said that in one case, researchers were able to verify that a patient had recalled real events after their heart had stopped. Several patients remembered real events from the operating theatre after they had ‘died’.
Me: So, the title of this article is “this is what actually happens in your brain when you have a near-death experience, and yet Dr. Parnia’s patients remembered real events after their brains were clinically dead? Doesn’t this refute the article’s initial assumptions?
Metro Article: Dr Parnia said: ‘This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating.
Me: Dr. Parnia’s statements about the AWARE study results were probably included to try to argue that this article was fair, balanced and properly researched. Unfortunately, most of the article completely attempts to refute what Dr. Parnia asserts here, and most readers won’t get past the headline anyway.
The last word:
I am not arguing that we know for sure what causes NDEs or why they occur. We don’t have scientific proof that near-death experiences aren’t neurological in origin. (They certainly aren’t caused by hyperventilation). What we do know is that NDEs occur in a wide segment of the population, are incredibly common, share common elements despite drastic differences in demographics and beliefs, can’t be pinned to any particular physical crisis state either before or during clinical death. They are unusual from a medical and psychological perpective.
They can’t all be simply explained away by lack of oxygen, morphine, REM states, that infamous rat study, evolutionary responses to impending death, or many other “one size fits all” explanations. NDEs occur in people who know they might die, and those who don’t have time to realize it. They occur with drugs and without drugs, in children and in adults, atheists and the religious, in every type of clinical death experience, and many that occur without clinical death.
All we have on both sides of the argument are hypotheses, guesses and more questions. We may have personal beliefs about what NDEs mean, but we cannot and should not ignore the lack of scientific proof in favor of our desire to be right – and I mean that for both sides of the argument.
We also can’t forget that NDEs are life changing to the experiencer to a degree that few other experiences are. I have never come across a person who has had a real near-death experience that ever denied that it wasn’t absolutely, 100% real. I think it does a real disservice to the people who have had this very real, life-changing event to pretend that it isn’t important or simply write it off with an unproven pseudo-scientific explanation.