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Is there Proof of Life after Death? The Brain and Near Death Experiences

Article ID: DD282-1 | By: Michael Sabom
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The following is an excerpt from article DD282-1 from the Christian Research Journal. The full article can be read by following the link below the article.

Proof of Life after Death- BRAIN FUNCTION AND THE NDE

Psychological, physiological, and pharmacological explanations of the NDE have been reviewed in this journal35 and elsewhere.36 The conditions described by each of these explanations may stimulate the brain in such a way that bears some resemblance to part of the NDE, yet none affords an adequate overall explanation.

Can a physical brain mechanism ever be shown with certainty to cause an NDE? Radiologist Andrew Newberg has extensively studied brain function during spiritual experiences using nuclear imaging techniques. He has concluded: “It’s no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations are caused by brain activity than it is to say that the neurological changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist.…There is no way to determine whether the neurological changes associated with spiritual experiences mean that the brain is causing those experiences…or is instead perceiving a spiritual reality.”37

Despite this uncertainty, something can be said about brain function and the NDE. Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick has noted:

Messages about the outside world come from the sense organs and are relayed to the brain. The brain uses this information to create a model of the world…[F]or a sensory experience to come into con-sciousness it has to make its way to the appropriate analysis system in the [brain] cortex.…Each brain area contributes part of the picture of our experienced world.…To bring a complete model of the world into consciousness the brain has to be working as a whole in an integrated way. If one area is damaged then its particular function will be absent or distorted, and so too will that part of the “world model.”38

Model building, moreover, ceases altogether with unconsciousness.

Following a cardiac arrest, consciousness is lost, and the EEG becomes isoelectric (i.e., flat) within nine to twenty-one seconds.39 In-hospital CPR (especially in the 1970s) begins within minutes, not seconds, after a cardiac arrest; thus, it is safe to assume that brain modeling was not occurring while the autoscopically viewed CPR procedures were in progress. If the NDE is yet another “model” built by the physical brain, however, then the same rules should apply as to other forms of cognitive experience — that is, it must be “modeled” when brain function is intact.

Perhaps such modeling of an NDE occurs immediately before consciousness is lost. Prior to loss of consciousness, experimental subjects who underwent cardiac arrest felt “distant, dazed, and as if they were fading out.”40 Other subjects, rendered unconscious during medical experimentation (extreme head-to-foot acceleration in a human centrifuge), experienced tunnel vision with contraction of the visual field from the periphery inward followed by blackout.41 Short dream interludes were reported by some centrifuge subjects, but these “dreamlets” were confused, fragmented, and often incorporated ongoing physical sensations into dream content.

These loss-of-consciousness experiences appear to result from a progressive loss of brain modeling. They are unlike an autoscopic NDE, which one NDEr described as “an immediate transition” from being semiconscious, in physical pain, and watching “from where my head is on the pillow,” to feeling physically unconscious, without pain, and “up in the air looking down at all this commotion going on around my bed.”42 It seems unlikely, moreover, that the autoscopic NDE is modeled immediately after consciousness is regained, since “time-to-awakening after CPR ranges from 5 minutes to 72 hours with a median time of 6 hours,”43 which is long after the autoscopically reported events had occurred.

Psychologist Susan Blackmore has proposed that during unconsciousness, “the normal model of reality breaks down and the system [i.e., the brain] tries to get back to normal by building a new model from memory and imagination. If this model is from a bird’s eye view, then an out-of-body experience takes place.” NDErs reporting an OBE, therefore, “should be those who use bird’s-eye views more in imagination and dreaming” than nonautoscopic NDErs.44

Psychologist William Serdahely refuted Blackmore’s hypothesis. He noted that memory and imagination are constructed from everyday experience and that everyday experience is most commonly registered in a “field memory” (i.e., perception of oneself looking out from inside the body) and not an “observer memory” (i.e., perception of observing oneself from outside the body) mode. The autoscopic NDE, therefore, should frequently be “nonautoscopic” — that is, an in-the-body or “field memory” experience.45 My finding that autoscopic NDErs were no more likely to dream in the observer memory mode than NDErs without an autoscopic experience further discounted Blackmore’s hypothesis.46

Fenwick concludes that the major question remains unanswered: “How is it that this coherent, highly structured experience sometimes occurs during unconsciousness, when it is impossible to postulate an organized sequence of events in a disordered brain? One is forced to the conclusion that either science is missing a fundamental link which would explain how organized experiences can arise in a disorganized brain, or that some forms of experience are transpersonal — that is, they depend on a mind which is not inextricably bound up with the brain.”47