Why it Makes Sense to Explain Near-Death Experiences by the Survival of Consciousnessby Titus Rivas
This paper is based on a somewhat more technical article in the Journal of Religion and Psychical Research (January 2003).
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Recently, several medical doctors such as Dr. Pim van Lommel (The Netherlands), Dr. Sam Parnia (UK) and Dr. Michael B. Sabom (USA) have carried out studies to determine if patients who have officially been declared clinically dead really can get Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). All of them conclude that NDEs do indeed take place among at least some of these patients.
The researchers accept that consciousness is not destroyed when our brain stops functioning. They also accept that consciousness will probably continue exist after death, as in this sense, there isn’t any relevant difference between a flat EEG and brain death.
Mainstream materialist scientists generally see consciousness as a byproduct of the activity of the brain. For the question of survival, it is therefore sufficient to show that the mind does not need the brain for its very existence.
Near-death experiences and materialist theories of the mind
If we can prove that consciousness is present after the brain has stopped functioning, we have shown that materialism must be wrong.
There are three strategies of people who want to avoid the ‘survivalist’ conclusion of recent NDE-studies.
1. Scepticism about the methods used in the studies: This is the usual response by skeptics whenever they are confronted by results that go against their world view. However, the scientific reputation of the researchers involved in the recent studies certainly seems spotless and their work has been accepted as worthy of publication in prestigious journals such as The Lancet. So it may be safely assumed that the standard skeptic objection is simply baseless in this case. Research into NDEs cannot be dismissed anymore as being unscientific.
2. Flaws in the specific interpretation of the results: Some critics think that the findings of these studies should not be interpreted by the survival of consciousness. Memories of an NDE during clinical death would just be false memories. At a subconscious level of their mind, patients are simply fooling themselves. They never experienced anything like it, but they just believe they did. Without being aware of it, they have simply constructed a rich fantasy and they falsely assume that they had a real NDE.
Another version of this counter-theory wants us to believe that NDEs do exist, but that they don’t occur during clinical death. In other words, the experiences happen during the seconds or minutes before patients lose consciousness or a few moments before they awake. Patients are simply confused about the exact moment they experienced their NDE.
However, researchers point to the fact patients have accurate (’veridical’) impressions of events that took place while their brains showed a flat EEG. Therefore, any hypothesis that claims that these people simply deceive themselves must account for these experiences. It is very convenient for skeptics that such experiences, which seem clearly related to Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), are still quite controversial for many mainstream scientists. However, the evidence for such accurate impressions during clinical death is growing and its quality is also increasing (Ring, 1998; Sabom, 1998; Rivas, 2000; Abdalla, 2002). So unless we wish to remain hard line skeptics at any cost, it seems wise to take them very seriously.
What kind of ESP might in principle accout for events that happened during a flat EEG? In parapsychology,we know two categories of ESP that are related to a time factor. First, there is precognition which in this context would boil down to an experience of an event which took place during the stage of flat EEG before that experience occurred. According to the false-memory theory the patient will not eventually experience the event while it is taking place. During the stage of flat EEG there wouldn’t be any awareness whatsoever. More importantly, the visions of events to come should take place before the patient loses consciousness or at least before he enters the stage of flat EEG. And he should lose all memory of having had such a precognitive vision after he has come to. Therefore, I personally cannot take this very far-fetched possibility seriously and I really think we should dismiss the precognition-version of the false memory theory.
The other time-related form of ESP is called retrocognition, which means: knowledge acquired through ESP of past events. The retrocognition-version of the false memory hypothesis interprets memories of veridical experiences during the stage of flat EEG as follows. At a subconscious level of their minds, patients with an NDE may use ESP to get knowledge of past events which happened during their coma. They project that knowledge into their false memories during the last moments before they regain consciousness. The theory needs to hold that all patients with veridical experiences during their flat EEG were somehow motivated to create a fantasy. In that fantasy they would include false memories of real events by retrocognition. Some patients would be subconsciously motivated to use retrocognition to deceive themselves about their lack of consciousness during their flat EEG.
Retrocognition is a very strange hypothesis for NDEs, because it suggests that a patient would not use ESP to perceive events that happen between the stage of flat EEG and complete awakening. Instead, he would focus on events that have already taken place. The theory cannot explain cases of NDEs in which there are paranormal (accurate) impressions also of events which occurred during the awakening process itself. Retrocognition would not be able to explain cases in which patient experience such impressions as part of a coherent and continuous stream of consciousness.
An even more fatal weakness of this theory is that it uses a very unmaterialistic concept -retrocognition- to uphold a materialistic theory. Even if it were true, it simply could not be defended by a materialist, at least not by a conventional materialist. By its very nature, the retrocognitive false memory theory needs to be part of a broader radical dualistic theory about the mind-brain relation. It might be defended by the so called "animistic" school of thought within the parapsychological tradition. This is a current which promotes the explanation of possible evidence for survival after death in terms of ESP (or psychokinesis). However, it is very ironic that even a hard line animist like Hans Bender (1983, page 148) concluded that the ESP needed to explain accurate ‘veridical’ experiences during NDEs is in itself suggestive of survival after death.
In any case, if veridical memories of events during flat EEG are taken seriously, we must leave the plane of (conventional) materialist theorizing about mind-brain relations. After that, we have to ask ourselves which theory is simpler: a dualist theory which holds that the memories of events during flat EEG are false memories, constructed via retrocognition. Or rather a dualist theory which holds that such memories simply are real memories based on real experiences. After we have accepted a dualistic framework, we can no longer consider the real memory theory as more complicated just because it would imply survival. Even animistic champion Hans Bender acknowledges that at least some form of survival is implied by any serious ‘radical’ dualist theory. Therefore, I conclude that the false memory-theory is more complicated than necessary. In order to avoid the conclusion that consciousness survives death, it needs to postulate a process which is only plausible within a theory which ultimately implies at least some form of survival of the mind after death. So it really is a theory which is more complicated than a straightforward survivalist theory. It implies both survival and a strange, unknown kind of retrospective distortion of memory through retrocognition.
Therefore, in my opinion, we should only adopt the ‘false memory through retrocognition’ory after it would be shown that memories of NDEs must generally be false. It's the animists who have to show the (radical) survivalists wrong in this case. Certainly not the other way round. The radical survivalist theory is the simplest interpretation of NDEs that can explain every aspect of them. The theory can be refuted by evidence for a more complex theory such as the “false memory through retrocognition”-theory.
3. Adaptation of mainstream materialistic neuropsychological theory
The last materialist response is defended for example by Karl Jansen, a psychiatrist known for his attempts of artificially producing experiences which resemble NDEs. It states that memories of NDEs are indeed real memories, but that there would still be some unmeasurable level of brain activity which can still account for them (Abdalla, 2002). Accurate impressions of events during flat EEG are usually ignored by this theory.
The problem with this theory is that there is (by definition) absolutely no evidence for it. Theorists seem to be quite content with pointing at unsuitable parallels such as certain types of sleep EEG. But no acceptable close empirical analogues have been presented so far. For instance, during most vivid dreams there is rapid eye movement (REM).
As Pim van Lommel points out, if we accept NDEs as real experiences during flat EEG, we also have to accept that patients experience normal, full-blown and even heightened conscious mental activity in them. If critics want to explain this away by a still unknown type of unmeasurable neural activity, they have to present parallels which involve normal (lucid) or heightened conscious mental activity. And which can at the same time be satisfactorily explained by known neural activity. Otherwise, we must conclude that the theory is based on nothing more than unfounded speculation! It is not forbidden to defend a cherished, well-founded theory against new evidence, but such a defence should of course be plausible and based on acceptable data. As far as I know, there is no serious evidence for this theory as a counter theory for survival. That is precisely the reason that Pim van Lommel simply rejects it as having no scientific basis.
- Abdalla, M. (2002). Cardioloog Pim van Lommel haalt bijna-dood ervaringen uit het donker. Paravisie, 17, 13-27.
- Bender, H. (1983). Zukunftsvisionen, Kriegsprophezeiungen, Sterbeerlebnisse. Munich: R. Piper Verlag.
- French, C.C. (2001). Dying to know the truth: visions of a dying brain, or false memories? The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2010.
- Lommel, P. van, Wees, R. van, Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2039-2044.
- Parnia, S., Waller, D.G., Yeates, R., & Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation, 48, 149-156.
- Ring, K. (1998). Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the Near-Death Experience. New York: Insight Books.
- Rivas, T. (2000). Herinneringen aan een periode tussen twee levens. Prana, 120, 33-38.
- Sabom, M. (1998). Light and Death. Zondervan Publishers.
I’m grateful to Dr. Pim van Lommel, Anny Stevens-Dirven,Pieter van Wezel, MA, and Dr. Donald R. Morse for their useful comments. I also thank Victor Zammit for his help in making the original article more accessible for a general public.