Sep 22 2008

More On Near Death Experiences

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Comments: 36

There has been a great deal of discussion about the planned study of near death experiences (NDEs) since I wrote about the study on Friday. I focused my attention primarily on the neurological and scientific issues, but other issues were raised with regard to this study.

GM Woerlee wrote an extensive piece on this topic focusing also on the medical aspects of what happens during cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). His primary point is that CPR generates enough blood flow to the brain in order to explain the experiences that survivors report. He also emphasizes that this research into NDEs has been done enough to arrive at the reliable conclusion that it is the experience of an anoxic brain and tha this further research is unecessary.

This, of course, raises the question of the usefulness of this proposed study – to place signs near the ceilings in ERs and ICUs and then see if people with NDEs could read the signs, meaning they were actually outside their bodies and not just feeling as if they were. I agree with the argument that this is a questionable use of finite research funds. There are certainly more pressing medical questions with a greater probability of a practical outcome. Public interest and the ideology of individual researchers – not good medicine – is driving this research.

Susan Blackmore, however, disagrees. She herself had a drug induced out-of-body experience and then spent years researching such things only to conclude that there is no evidence for the paranormal and what she experienced was a brain phenomenon. But she says that such research, while low probability, could have far-reaching implications and it is worthwhile to have researchers follow their interests against the grain of mainstream science.

I consider this to the the Lotto approach to research – the chance of winning is almost insignificant, but if you do win you’re an instant millionaire. I have no problem with a small relative amount of research money going in this direction, especially if it is private.  I liken this to a typical investment strategy: 60% conservative, 30% moderate risk, and 10% risky.You want the bulk of your investment (in this case investment in research) to go into projects that are very likely to yield fruit, with progressively less funding to progressively higher risk investments. The question is, should 1% of your investment strategy go into playing the lottery?

I guess the answer it, it depends. I think this line of reasoning can be used to justify projects like SETI – the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, but not questions that have already been adequately answered, like whether or not humans have ESP.

The final concern that was raised was about Sam Parnia, the head of this new NDE study. He is clearly a believer. In a 2001 interview, for example, he said:

“When you damage the brain or lose some of the aspects of mind or personality, that doesn’t necessarily mean the mind is being produced by the brain. All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged,” Parnia said, adding that further research might reveal the existence of a soul.

This is a breathtaking non sequitur.  A charitable interpretation is that the brain is necessary for mind but not the source of it, meaning that maybe it is the conduit for the mind. But this hypothesis (favored by some dualists) can be rejected by other lines of evidence. Certainly there is no evidence for this interpretation.

The concern is that the execution of the study will be tainted by Parnia’s clear bias. What protections will there be, for example, against simple cheating? We will have to wait and see. Hopefully the protocol will be documented sufficiently to evaluate the quality of the study’s execution.

But this also brings up another point – that if this study is positive it will need to be replicated. As the recent stem cell saga and the experience with Benveniste’s lab (doing homeopathy research) reminds us, there is fraud in science. Other than the occasional tattle tale, the only way to root out fraud is with replication. If NDEs truly represent the mind leaving the body, then anyone can follow this protocol and get positive results. Basic findings in science, ones that establish new paradigms, are typically replicated dozens or hundred of times. They become standard experiments on which grad student cut their teeth. New paradigms are never established by a single study, no matter how good they look on paper.

36 responses so far

36 thoughts on “More On Near Death Experiences”

  1. Joe says:

    What does it cost to put signs up in a few operating rooms?

    For those who do not know, Susan Blackmore has written several popular books. I read one (“In Search of the Light”) which describes why she quit doing that sort of research (paranormal phenomena) and she writes well.

  2. Jim Shaver says:

    I suspect that Seth Shostak might take mild issue with the characterization of the SETI project as “Lotto” research. There are significant differences between SETI and this ridiculous NDE study, the most important of which is that SETI research is based on real science; the NDE study is apparently driven mostly by wishful religious beliefs.

    The probability of finding an alien signal among nearby stars may be one in a million or worse — agreeably lottery-type odds — but unlike the task of finding human souls in hospital rooms, we didn’t even know a ballpark probability of finding ET until we started looking for him.

    Also, when we do real scientific research, like SETI does, new technologies and useful inventions often come out of the process. What new technologies are Dr. Parnia and the other NDE guys going to invent? Can’t wait to see.

    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

  3. cuervo says:

    “the brain is necessary for mind but not the source of it, meaning that maybe it is the conduit for the mind. But this hypothesis (favored by some dualists) can be rejected by other lines of evidence.”

    Steve, I get this idea of ‘brain as conduit” a lot in conversations with the credulous…most recently from an aficionado of Graham Hancock’s hallucination-realism ridiculism. Can you expand on those other lines of evidence? Apologies if I’m showing my petticoats.

  4. Jim – I completely agree with you. I did not mean to compare SETI with NDE research in general. That is what I meant when I wrote that lotto research is justified with regard to SETI – because SETI is legit science.

    Cuervo – check out my many blog entries on dualism ( and if you don’t find what you are looking for let me know.

  5. pec says:

    You sound worried that this study might suggest that mind can operate without a physical body. Of course, as you say, it can still be discounted as fraud or error. The idea of mind without a body can be rejected until this is replicated dozens or hundreds, even thousands of times. Maybe millions.

    Mind operating without a physical body is the simplest explanation for NDEs, but completely implausible according to materialist ideology. So every good materialist must reject it, not matter what the evidence says. Better yet, prevent the research from happening.

    By the way, I will probably get banned again for saying this, but I managed to get a copy of that energy healing article by Gronowicz. It turns out that, as I suspected, Dr. N was wrong in saying there was no overall effect in the predicted direction. Why, I wonder, did he try to mislead us?

    I have also continued my search for other successful energy healing research, and will post what I have so far if anyone is interested.

  6. TheBlackCat says:

    @ pec: whether it is simpler is irrelevant. It requires more unfounded assumptions but does not do any better job of explaining the data or predicting future data, therefore it is an inferior explanation.

  7. droach says:


    I’d like to second the ‘motion’ for cuervo’s request. I realize that it’s effort enough just posting on a topic let alone providing citations throughout, however, this would be very helpful to many of us who are not as well versed on the matter and interested in doing further research.

    Many thanks,

  8. eiskrystal says:

    -Mind operating without a physical body is the simplest explanation for NDEs-

    No…it’s not. We can replicate the effects practically on demand without ever bothering with souls and the like.

    A “no soul” theory is one item less complicated than a soul theory…

    We call this… “counting”.

  9. cuervo says:

    Thanks Steve, I did re-read those articles and while I find it straightforward to argue that brain causes mind, it seems that the judo move of “brain as receiver” can dodge the evidence of correlation, causality, damage to brain etc. Obviously Ockham’s Razor should come into play here, but logic and reason aren’t always effective with arguing with credulants 🙂
    I suppose I was looking for a silver bullet.

  10. Cuervo – you hit the answer, Ockham’s razor. There are an infinite number of hypothesis compatible with existing evidence. The brain as receiver is just one – but this hypothesis makes not unique predictions and there is no evidence for it. Any predictions that it could make have not been validated.

    So you cannot “prove” it is wrong, just like you can’t prove the universe was not created 5 minutes ago – it is worse than wrong, it’s worthless.

  11. cuervo says:

    Ahh, of course…it’s “not even wrong”. Gotcha.


  12. pec says:

    “There are an infinite number of hypothesis compatible with existing evidence.”

    Well some are more plausible than others.

    “The brain as receiver is just one – but this hypothesis makes not unique predictions and there is no evidence for it. ”

    Actually it makes some very definite predictions and there is a tremendous amount of evidence for it.

  13. John says:

    (to be read with tongue firmly in cheek)

    I have beaten your system, sir.

    Whereas pec supposes a “mind” for each of us, I think that there is but one mind controlling us all and that our world is basically a giant version of the Sims. This is a single explanation for absolutely anything (example: bigfoot sightings are due to the Cryptozoology expansion pack) and is therefore the simplest. According to Occam’s Razor, I win!

  14. Steve Page says:

    Oh no, pec’s back – lock up your billy goats!

  15. John,

    To be clear, Occam would not favor your hypothesis. Occam’s razor favors the hypothesis with the fewest new assumptions, not the simplest. (

    You are introducing a huge new assumption.

  16. Fifi says:

    I suspect John meant to say that according to Occam’s shaving brush he wins! He’s presented a lovely light, foamy and nicely slippery theory that appears bigger than it is and, with a bit of agitation to create resistance and some frothing at the mouth, SEEMs meaningful. I think it’s highly unfair that medicine, science and doctors totally ignore the ALTERNATIVE to Occam’s razor when his shaving brush has existed just as long – sure it doesn’t “cut it” like his razor does but you’re just prejudiced in thinking that razors should be for cutting things.

  17. John says:


    I was aware of that, but hijacking “simplest” is a tactic beloved of woo-pushers and I was feeling particularly snarky. I think you covered the misappropriation of the razor in a recent podcast, actually.

    Besides, my theory is easily proved by the presence of those funny green polygons that hover over people’s heads as they make decisions.

  18. John – I figured, but I try not to leave erroneous information in the comments of my blog. Not all readers will have listened to the podcast or will get the humor.

  19. pec says:

    “Occam’s razor favors the hypothesis with the fewest new assumptions”

    That is not true. You would like to think it means we should favor whichever hypothesis does not force us to modify our assumptions, because you don’t like modifying yours.

    So if the evidence suggests the mind can separate from its body, you can reject the evidence on the grounds that mind separating from body is a new assumption. But it isn’t new at all — it might be new from your perspective, because you don’t currently believe it. But it might be, and actually is, a very old assumption from someone else’s perspective.

    Occam’s razor is not about preferring older assumptions anyway. it is about preferring the least complex hypothesis that agrees with the evidence.

    You like clinging to your old materialist assumptions, and that’s why you are re-writing Occam’s razor.

  20. John says:

    Occam’s razor is not about preferring older assumptions anyway. it is about preferring the least complex hypothesis that agrees with the evidence.

    Here’s the kicker though – no evidence has been brought up to invalidate the “no soul” argument, which is one item less complex than the “soul” argument. If and when it does turn up, we’ll be listening, but until then the razor finds a “soul” to be unnecessary and excises it.

    Not that any of it matters – thanks to your interpretation of the razor, I’ve been able to contract my theory down to a single word. It’s pretty much the simplest possible hypothesis ever and it agrees with any and all known and unknown evidence:


    Now, where’s my Nobel?

  21. eiskrystal says:

    Pec, actually a mind as a receiver is extremely complex and awkward. You have to have an almost perfect interface between the soul and the body that marries the two plains of existence and all that that entails. Not to mention you have to have an entire spirit world as well to flit about in after death.

    You then have to answer the rather awkward quetions such as do animals have souls, and if not, why do they have shadowy reflections of our own intelligence. When does the soul form in the body. What is it made of? Why are these things quite culture dependent? Do spirit worlds have their own fauna ? and a million other questions.

    We have answered our questions. You haven’t even started…

  22. sonic says:

    I have performed CPR on flat-lined individuals. Some of them lived to talk about the experience. I can say that I have seen and heard a good deal of evidence that indicates that the mind (or the observer might be more accurate) is separable from the body.
    This could mean that life after death is the truth.
    I guess we will all know the actual truth about this eventually, but it is a fascinating prospect to me.
    For those who can’t imagine the evidence I would suggest saving a few lives and asking the person- what happened after your heart stopped?
    You might be amazed at what the person saw and heard…

  23. pec managed to completely misunderstand Occam’s Razor-even after having it explained.

    Here is a translation of Occam’s actual principle: “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity.”

    It is not about simplicity – it is about adding new assumptions without need. By “new” I meant additional. This is not about new assumptions vs old assumptions. The point is to prefer explanations that require the fewest assumptions.

    This is because if you are free to add ad hoc assumptions without limit, you can rig any hypothesis to work.

    The neuroscience model can explain NDEs without adding any assumptions. The “brain as transmitter” hypothesis “multiplies”assumptions without need.

  24. John says:

    sonic – how about some specifics instead of vague references to “evidence”? Is there anything that these people heard / saw that could not be a hallucination brought on by oh, I don’t know, their brain being deprived of oxygen?

  25. Fifi says:

    sonic – No one is disputing that people have near death experiences, what’s being discussed is the source of these experiences.

    The feeling of floating, detached above one’s body is not uncommon. You can reach that state during meditation (I’ve done so, it’s not nearly as cool as feeling limitless and one with everything) or with drugs and people often have this experience when in a crisis situation. It’s a coping mechanism. Some of us are more prone to these kinds of experiences (I’ve also experienced sleep paralysis, also stress related).

    What you have is anecdotes and personal stories about what people think happened to them – their experience – not evidence. People see all kinds of things when they’re high on drugs, meditating or having a hallucination. Hell, people experience all kinds of things that aren’t real when they aren’t high or dying simply because they’re neurotic and misinterpret the world around them! As another poster noted, many kids play choking games because it creates the experience people report when near death (in the process of dying due to lack of oxygen to the brain). People get into for autoerotic (or erotic) asphyxiation for the same reason – the euphoric high and neato hallucinations. It’s not surprising that people report similar experiences (overlaid with the narrative of their expectations) when they’re near death.

  26. Fifi says:

    The imagination is a wonderful thing, people often underestimate just how creative our minds are in our relationship with the world both in the most mundane and dramatic of circumstances. They also tend to forget that humans are meaning machines and that telling ourselves stories is part of our process and means of locating ourselves in time and space, not to mention our communities and societies.

  27. daedalus2u says:

    What is interesting to me about the reports of seeing bright lights is how that could involve nitric oxide physiology. The retina generates signals from light by light activating a phosphodiesterase that hydrolyzes cGMP. The retina is exquisitely sensitive, with single photons sometimes being able to cause sufficient activation. The way that is done is quite complicated (and not fully understood), but it involves tuning the background signal of cGMP. One of the ways that is done is with nitric oxide (which also activates guanylyl cyclase and generates cGMP.

    There are reports that acute application of NO does cause an acute increase in retinal sensitivity to light. If you turn up the gain enough, you can get a response even if there is no signal. The retina can make signals that the brain tries to make sense out of.

    It turns out that hypoxia causes brisk production of NO from nitrite. There are many enzymes that reduce nitrite to NO that are inhibited by O2. When that O2 is removed, NO levels go up. Exactly what the NO is doing is not fully understood either, but it has been shown to be quite protective against damage from reperfusion injury. There is some thought that the NO binds to heme and other O2 utilizing enzymes and blocks them from generating superoxide when O2 levels come back up following reperfusion (which is actually when most of the damage from hypoxia actually occurs).

    The reports of euphoria during NDEs is consistent with euphoria under extreme metabolic stress as being an adaptive aspect of physiology, something that would allow an organism to escape from a predator. If all resources are diverted to “running from a bear”, that is analogous to the brain metabolic state caused by insufficient blood flow, or insufficient oxygen. The state has to be euphoric, because that euphoria is the only thing that keeps the organism running from the predator. If the organism felt fatigue and stopped, the organism would be caught and eaten. The euphoria needs to be sufficient to allow the organism to run itself to death. Running itself to death and being caught by the predator are exactly equivalent from an evolutionary sense. I think this is the same euphoria that occurs during the manic state, and also the euphoria induced by stimulant drugs of abuse, amphetamine and PCP and also by autoerotic hypoxia. I think this is also the source of the “runner’s high”.

    I suspect that each instance of euphoria produced via severe metabolic stress does cause some damage, or at the very least greatly accelerated aging (due to reduce repair of normal wear-and-tear). I think this is why many of the neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s have as a risk factor prior metabolic or traumatic insults to the brain.

  28. Kimball Atwood says:

    Anesthesiologist G. M. Woerlee offered this to explain NDE on the basis of physiology:

  29. sonic says:

    John, Fifi, et al.
    I have had people describe places and events that were remote to our location. It turned out that these descriptions were accurate.
    (I believe these are called ‘vertigal’ NDEs and that there are many examples)
    This is not proof. It is not possible to replicate these events.
    I have read many ‘explanations’ by many people.
    None of those explanations had much to do with what I witnessed.

  30. cuervo says:

    Sonic –
    With all due respect, what you ‘witnessed’ appears to be anecdote.

  31. Steve Page says:

    Cuervo – that’s several anecdotes, and as we all know, the plural of anecdote is data. 🙂

  32. John says:

    sonic – are these remote locations somewhere that the patient could have seen before, even briefly? How do you know that the patient saw that particular location? Did they describe it to you, or when shown the location did they say “that’s where I was”? Both ways carry an enormous risk of reporting bias, which is why controls on any kind of study like this need to be extraordinarily tight.

  33. sonic says:

    John- in one case the person described a place and activities that were on going. Because the person had never been in our hospital I assumed they couldn’t have seen the room they were describing.
    The description included details that wouldn’t always be true- where people were standing…
    As to the conversations going on in that room- what they told me and what I determined was being said- there is a lot of possible bias on my part that enters into that.
    I realize that this is not ‘scientific’ evidence and if that is all you care about, then my comments should be ignored.
    But reports of this type are not all that unusual.
    None of these reports are part of a repeatable experiment, the conditions are never controled and they are not part of any study.
    Nor will they ever be. (nobody I know is contemplating killing people (or putting them in a condition where they would be pronounced dead), trying to revive them and seeing what they have to say. That is what the experiment would entail)
    This is part of the fun and frustration of it all.

  34. Larry says:


    Since you have already completed your study of the paranormal, I am somewhat surprised to keep seeing it as a recurring theme on your blog. Why is this?

    Given the emotion which seems to accompany your writing on this subject, I can not help but wonder if within you there is doubt. Oftentimes, we see people speak most vehemently against those issues for which they harbor doubt. As a neurologist, perhaps you could explain this in more detail.

    My fundamental point of doubt is the placebo effect. By “believing in” or at least having “some confidence in” a sugar pill, people have undergone numerous physiological changes consistent with the effect of drugs and medications. At the extreme end of the placebo effect (with a few twists added), you have “faith healers” that have been certified to be no more effective than the placebo effect.

    People can clearly be helped using faith. If people believe in NDE, it is only because they do not believe in the finality of death. The majority of the world does not believe in the finality of death, therefore the majority of the world is interested in unbaiased NDE research.

    Since you profess that death will bring a finality to your conciousness, anything that might raise doubt in you must clearly be destroyed or your doubts may overcome your reasoning.

    Good luck with your position, but I would argue that a skeptic is by definition someone who harbors doubts. If you have no doubts, then how can you be a skeptic?

    Blessed Be,

  35. Larry,

    Accusing me of being emotional is an ad hominem logical fallacy – and also happens to be wrong. I find it odd that you can read this entry and find it to be highly emotional. Perhaps you are just projecting.

    You make many false assumptions in your comment – all designed as an attempt to undercut my position, but they are demonstrably false. First, it is my stated position that scientific inquiry is never “completed.” It is always a work in progress. I am open to another interpretation of NDEs if the evidence warrants – at the present time, it just doesn’t.

    Second, frequent readers of this blog are aware that I use such claims as teaching tools to explore logic, epistemology, and scientific methodology. Even if I consider the topic itself to not have much scientific merit, it can make an excellent topic of skeptical discussion.

    I strongly disagree with your interpretation of the placebo effect and therefore its implications. I discuss it thoroughly here:

    Your premise that I am hostile to anything which contradicts my current scientific conclusions is also without evidence and contrary to my stated position. It is also absurd on its face – you are saying that those with a strongly held religious belief are more objective in their reasoning than someone who is just trying to consistently apply logic and science to a question.

    Also – I make no claims about death, my stated position is agnostic toward any unfalsifiable position outside the realm of science. The NDE researchers are claiming to do science, and some NDE proponents interpret such experiences as evidence for consciousness being separate from the physical body. Those are scientific claims and I am just examining them as such.

  36. Larry says:


    Thank you for your balanced response. Although I maintain a very different opinion on a number of matters (where I see the glass half full and you apparently see the glass half empty), I do enjoy reading your posts.

    A mere 200 years ago, mankind had no real understanding of electricity. Without the scientific tools we have today, man could not measure it and properly discern its characteristics.

    A mere 100 years ago, doctors were still prescribing “blood letting” as a method to get the bad humors out of the body, even as over 100 years of research culminating with Louis Pasteur’s work, made it clear that such a practice was not as effective as simply having the doctor wash his hands.

    Today, we lack the scientific background and methods to address numerous observed phenonomena that permeates the fringes of science today.

    As a proclaimed skeptic, you play a very important role in science, with your intent (as I perceive it) being to debunk those who introduce scientific theory without conclusive scientific evidence.

    I see things from a different perspective. If a questionable resultant is repeatedly produced, there must be some basis for this resultant.

    When we lack proper tools, we may come to completely incorrect conclusions as to why a resultant occurs. Thunder and lightening comes from the Gods, for example. We may defend this position because we see no reason to change our minds. A primitive person can still argue today that thunder and lightning comes from the Gods because he does not see any scientific proof that this is not what is really happening.

    During the mid 20th century, science became a God to many people. Everything could be explained by science. There was nothing that we did not know (or at least did not have some scientific explanation for).

    A skeptic in the early 1800’s would find themselves defending blood letting based upon the belief that medical doctors knew it was an effective technique, or defending thunder and ligthning coming from the Gods based upon confidence in theological beliefs.

    Emergent technologies today undergo the same riducle. The “Big Bang” theory is considered sacro-sanct by numerous astronomers while others such as Arp are ridiculed for their alternative theories which are being repeatedly proven by scientific evidence that is pain-staking gleaned from radio telemetry.

    We now see alternatively powered vehicles on the roadways which have been the subject of riducle by this very blog. As clearly shown within this blog, many people had the science wrong (myself among them), but the overall principal and direction was correct.

    NDE experiences happen. I had a NDE myself (nothing so elaborate as floating above my body, just a voice in my head that helped me react in a manner that saved my life).

    NDE experimentation offers us opportunities to evaluate both the neurological changes in the mind during an NDE and the opportunity to document unexplainable resultants. Through such processes, we may be able to establish trends in these unexplainable resultants which may eventually led us to new discoveries.

    Life gives us opportunities to be eagles and ostriches. An ostrich sticks his head in the sand when something doesn’t fit into his established models. An eagle finds was to soar above it.

    Bright Blessings,

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