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Near Death Experiences: Perspective from neuroscience

Near Death Experiences: Perspectives from neuroscience

                                                                                        Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch, painted in the early years of the 16th Century. It bears some similarities to a near-death experience.

Near-Death Experiences- Messages from the great beyond or hallucinations generated by the anoxic brain?

Five myths about consciousness by Christof Koch, Washington Post, July 26, 2019

Myth #5: Near-death ‘visions’ are evidence of life after death.
Patients revived after heart failure or other close-to-fatal episodes sometimes report having felt detached from their body, seeing a bright light or sensing that they are in the presence of the numinous. Many consider these experiences to be proof of a divine realm. Eben Alexander, in the bestseller “Proof of heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife,” reported, while deep in a coma, entering “the strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.” Pondering the implications, he wrote: “So I was communicating directly with God? Absolutely.”

Once dismissed by scientists as idiosyncratic hallucinations or derided as occult experiences, these episodes are now drawing close attention. Epidemiological surveys find that significant near-death visions are not that rare, occurring in roughly a 10th of patients who have undergone cardiac arrest. It appears that they are related to neurological events that occur when particular cortical regions are starved of oxygen critical to their function, though the precise cause is unknown. Similar intensely felt experiences occur during temporal-lobe epileptic seizures or during direct stimulation of certain regions of the exposed cortex during neurosurgery, further evidence of their biological, not spiritual, origins.

Visions that people experience when near death — often devoid of religious content — appear to be attempts by the brain to continue to do its job of comprehending the world even when its own function is hampered, and when some of its perceptual and memory circuits are offline or generating spurious activity. Though we don’t need to turn to supernatural explanations, it is important to study why these events leave many patients with a long-lasting sense of calm, serenity and acceptance of their eventual demise. Understanding that could lead to therapeutic breakthroughs.

Here are four testimonials of NDEs offered by Dr. Christof Koch

British Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (after whom the Beaufort Wind Scale is named) during a near-drowning in 1791
… a calm feeling of the most perfect tranquility succeeded the most tumultuous sensation. … nor was I in any bodily pain. On the contrary, my sensations were now of rather a pleasurable cast, … Though the senses were thus deadened, not so the mind; its activity seemed to be invigorated in a ratio which defies all description; for thought rose after thought with a rapidity of succession that is not only indescribably, but probably inconceivable, by anyone who has been himself in a similar situation. The course of these thoughts I can even now in a great measure retrace: the event that had just taken place … Thus, traveling backwards, every incident of my past life seemed to me to glance across my recollection in retrograde procession; … the whole period of my existence seemed to be placed before me in a kind of panoramic view, and each act of it seemed to be accompanied by a consciousness of right or wrong, or by some reflection on its cause of consequence…

The Scottish surgeon Alexander Ogston (discoverer of Staphylococcus) during typhoid fever in 1900
I lay, as it seemed, in a constant stupor which excluded the existence of any hopes or fears. Mind and body seemed to be dual, and to some extent separate I was conscious of the body as an inert tumbled mass near a door; it belonged to me, but it was not I. I was conscious that my mental self used regularly to leave the body…I was then drawn rapidly back to it, joined it with disgust, and it became I, and was fed, spoken to, and cared for. …and though I knew that death was hovering about, having no thought of religion nor dread of the end, and roamed on beneath the murky skies apathetic and contented until something again disturbed the body where it lay, when I was drawn back to it afresh…

A contemporary account during a cardiac arrest
I knew I was dying because the pain was so bad … it was like a bullet hitting my heart … I called the nurse and by then she couldn’t find no respiration or nothing … And you could see yourself just floating up in the air and you could see your own body and them working on it while you’re just floating. And you see people who have been dead for years and you talk to them…….the sun was so bright and shiny…

Another contemporary report following emergency gastrectomy
On the 4th day following that operation I went into shock and became unconscious for several hours. . . Although thought to be unconscious, I remembered, for years afterwards, the entire, detailed conversation that passed between the surgeon and anesthetist present…. I was lying above my own body, totally free of pain, and looking down at my own self with compassion for the agony I could see on the face; I was floating peacefully Then . . . I was going elsewhere, floating towards a dark, but not frightening, curtain-like area…. Then I felt total peace. Suddenly it all changed—I was slammed back into my body again, very much aware of the agony again.