Near Death Experiences: Transcendental Apprehension or Cognitive Mayhem?

Kathleen Myers's picture

  Near-Death-Experiences: Transcendental Apprehension or Cognitive Mayhem? 

“I will not however tell you a story of Alcinous, but rather of a strong man, Er, son of Armenius, by race a Pamphylian. Once upon a time he died in war; and on the tenth day, when the corpses, already decayed, were picked up, he was picked up in a good state of preservation. Having been brought home, he was about to be buried on the twelfth day; as he was lying on the pyre, he came back to life, and, come back to life, he told what he saw in the other world…”   -Plato, The Republic, Book X, 614b

 In December of 2001, the research findings of  Dutch cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel were published in the international medical journal The Lancet. Controversy immediately ensued. The problem? Based on the information gleaned from his 13-year study, Dr. van Lommel had concluded that Near Death Experiences (or NDEs) could not be sufficiently explained by any of the standardly expounded theories. He writes

Our results show that medical factors cannot account for occurrences of NDE; although all patients had been clinically dead, most did not have NDE. Furthermore, seriousness of the crisis was not related to occurrence or depth of experience. If purely physiological factors resulting from cerebral anoxia caused NDE, most of our patient should have had this experience. Patients’ medication was also unrelated to frequency of NDE. Psychological factors are unlikely to be important as fear was not associated with NDE.

At the time, Van Lommel’s research method was unique among those studying NDEs in that it was prospective, instead of retrospective. Rather than evaluating those who self-reported NDEs, Van Lommel reviewed the case files of and conducted interviews with 344 resuscitated cardiac arrest patients at 10 Dutch hospitals. Follow-up interviews were conducted both 2 and 8 years later to assess what, if any, life changes the cardiac arrest sufferers has had as a result of their experience. Van Lommel found that 18% of  the cardiac patients had experienced an NDE,  and further, that those who reported having an NDE underwent a substantively different “process of transformation” in the years following the their arrest than those who did not experience an NDE.      Those who had NDEs reported a considerable increase in their interest in both spirituality and in involvement with their families, an enhanced appreciation of ordinary things, a greater understanding of themselves and an acceptance of others, and a growing sense of the inner meaning of life, among many other things. Most notably (to me, anyhow), their fear of death was considerably lower than those who had not had NDEs,  while their belief in an afterlife was significantly higher. [2]    

Just what is an NDE? NDEs typically occur when a person is gravely sick or experiences a close brush with death, such as a car accident, and are characterized by the following features: feeling very comfortable and free of pain; a sensation of leaving the body, sometimes being able to see the physical body while floating above it; the mind functioning more clearly and more rapidly than usual; a sensation of being drawn into a tunnel or darkness; a brilliant light, sometimes at the end of the tunnel; a sense of overwhelming peace, well-being, or absolute, unconditional love; a sense of having access to unlimited knowledge; a “life review”, or recall of important events in the past; a preview of important events yet to come; encounters with deceased loved ones, or with other beings that may be identified as religious figures [3] (Interestingly, people in different cultures report slightly dissimilar NDE experiences. For example, rather than through a tunnel, a Japanese person may “enter” the transcendent realm of NDE via a cave or river watercraft. [4] ) The term “near death experience” was coined by psychologist Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 bestseller Life After Life, which  first brought NDEs to popular consciousness. However, as my paper’s opening quote from Plato’s Republic indicates, stories of NDEs have been with us for a very long time, indeed. The 16th century Hieronymus Bosch painting Ascent to the Empyrean shows a passage to a tunnel, at the end of which a brilliant white light emanates. In 1892 Albert Heim, a 19th century Swiss geologist who himself underwent an NDE during a mountaineering mishap, wrote a book which assembled reports from 30 fellow survivors of such accidents. [5]  

Many neurologists who investigate NDE phenomena seek to account for these anomalous experiences by way of naturalistic, physiological explanations. Dr. Susan Blackmore attributes the feeling of euphoria typical of many NDEs to the release of  neurotransmitters, endorphins common to any highly stressful experience and which cause activity in the limbic lobe. [6] She also argues that the ringing sound and tunnel  vision often perceived by NDEers is due to cerebral anoxia (oxygen deprivation to the brain). [7]Dr. Karl Jansen has “reproduced” some of the characteristics of NDEs via the administration of ketamine, a drug typically used as anesthetic for animals (also used for recreational purposes by many human beings). Jansen writes that dissociative state created by ketamine is “wholly different from the ‘unconsciousness’ produced by conventional anesthetics”. [8] The features shared by ketamine-induced hallucinations and NDEs include the passage through a dark tunnel into light, the experience of morbidity, oneness with a god figure and the apprehension of one’s self as being outside of the body.[9] Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a biological psychologist, seems to speak for many of those skeptical about the possibility of NDEs providing evidence for an afterlife or transcendental knowledge (and perhaps he speaks for you Paul!) when he statesI am willing to grant that [transcendent experiences] feel real, but that comes back to the question: Why does anything feel real? It is because your brain creates a model for what feels real. Our brain combines all available information, including incoming sensory input and previously stored memories, and creates an internal cognitive model of reality. This model is usually based largely on external sensory information, but occasionally it is built entirely from input from inside the head. Regardless of what it is constructed from, it will feel real, and under some circumstances it can feel more real than real.[10]     

However, one of the most well documented NDE cases of seems to resist the sorts of explanations offered above. Pam Reynolds underwent clinically supervised hypothermic cardiac arrest before having an operation to remove  a basilar artery aneurysm. Also called “standstill”, in this procedure the patient’s body temperature is lowered to 60 degrees, pulse and respiration cease, brain waves flatten, and the blood is drained from the head. [11] Neurosurgeons are then able to the safely remove the aneurysm, and, ideally, bring the patient back to life after the procedure. By every measure, the patient is clinically dead throughout the operation: a flat EEG shows the inactivity of the cerebral cortex, there is no brain-stem response to auditory signals, and no blood flows through the brain. While clinically dead, Pam Reynolds had an NDE of astonishing richness. Besides having the usual aforementioned features of an NDE, Pam had an unusually vivid veridical experience. She was able to describe with perfect accuracy the unfamiliar tools used throughout the procedure, the procedure itself and the music playing in the OR. Again, there is no question that Pam was clinically dead for several hours and had no brain activity. [12] I find this case to be strong evidence against the idea that mind=brain=self. Without an active nervous system and sensory apparatus, how was Pam able to take in all that was happening around her (dead) body?     

Dr. Neal Grossman, a professor at the University of Illinois with a PhD in the history and philosophy of science, came up with the term “fundamaterialist” to describe those who hold to materialism as an ideology, or fundamental paradigm, about “how things ‘must’ be”, despite any empirical evidence to the contrary. Fundamaterialists (as well as many religious fundamentalists) are unable (or perhaps unwilling) to take reports of NDEs seriously, because, in part, such reports offer a serious threat to their worldview and life’s work. With respect to fundamaterialism and NDEs, Grossman writesTo my knowledge, no one who has had an NDE feels any need for an explanation in the reductionist sense that researchers are seeking. For the experiencer, the NDE does not need to be explained because it is exactly what it purports to be, which is at a minimum, the direct experience of consciousness- or minds, or selves, or personal identity- existing independently of the physical body. It is only with respect to out deeply entrenched materialist paradigm that the NDE needs to be explained, or more accurately, explained away. [13] I concur with Dr. Grossman’s assertion that it is only within a (blinkered) materialist paradigm that is becomes necessary to explain NDEs by way of physiological accounts. Further, I share his feeling that we it is incumbent upon us to take seriously the stories of  those who have had NDEs, and to attempt to understand them on their own, transcendent terms.

[1] The Lancet, December 15, 2001-

[2]  Ibid.

[3] from Dr. I an Stevenson’s Perceptual Studies Research Institute-


[5] Historical NDE Cases-

[6] The Role of Lack of Oxygen- Ibid.


[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Neurology of the Weird: Brain Mechanisms and Anomalous Experiences-


[12] Ibid.



Gerry's picture

Innacurate discussion

I read your well written discussion with interest. Unfortunately, your description of the results of cardiologist Pim van Lommel and his studies was innacurate. Pim van Lommel claimed his results could not be explained by medical science, but his article in "The Lancet" embarassingly totally ignored the reality of cardiac resuscitation. His results are in fact readily explained by the changes in body function undergone by people undergoing cardiac resuscitation for cardiac arrest. Furthermore, the experiences reported by these people, as well as the percentage people undergoing these near death experiences were also exactly as predicted by the changes in the bodies of people undergoing cardiac resuscitation.
See this website for a full explanation of these facts:

Then there is the matter of the Pam Reynolds story. The short account presented here is very innacurate, and does not correspond to the first true account published in the book calle "Light & Death" written by Michael Sabom. As a result, the resulting innacurate "wonder-story" recounted above is the result. Actually the story of Pam Reynolds is readily explained by reference to the original and very accurate account of her story, together with the medical facts of the operation and anesthetic procedure. When these are taken into account, the story is no less wondrous, but is fully explained by the changes in the functioning of her body at the time.
See the website:


Steve's picture


I agree with your ideas. Too often scientists are entrenched in a static, materialist way of viewing things, and ignore all evidence for NDE's as pseudoscience simply because they want to hold a stable and absolute worldview. This is all too similar to the religious fundamentalists who ignore all evidence to the contrary of what they believe. Science is a means and not an end. Materialism is a theory, but is believed as a dogma by much of the scientific community and unfortunately all other ideas are labeled as "fringe" science or "pseudoscience", which then qualifies those theories to be discarded by most scientists. "Model Agnosticism" seems to be the most honest, tolerant, and modest way of looking at things, and unfortunately the scientific community does no think about it this way.

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