Saturday, September 1, 2007

Hanging on For Dear Life: Why "Near Death Experiences" are, First and Foremost, "During-Life Experiences"

Category: Religion and Philosophy

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A Near-Death-Experience is, by Definition, a During-Life-Experience

Last year I had a long conversation with a coworker about Near-Death-Experiences. At the time I wrote up the following notes about this discussion.
He said that based on the anecdotal evidence that shows a large number of people from a large number of cultures have a very similar experience called a life review, he believes there is strong evidence for consciousness surviving physical death. These life-reviews may consist of the following characteristics:

  • A "reviewer" who takes you through your life and shows you the good and bad things you have done and how you affected people in your life.
  • Making things known that seem like they could not possibly be known during the state of "near death".

You can read more about this all over the web. A good place for the anectodal evidence and cited research is:

For the skeptical side, see the Skeptic's Dictionary, starting at the following URL which has many links to further reading at the bottom:

Anecdotal Evidence About Near-Death-Experiences

My coworker wanted to argue that it is more probable, based on the anecdotes, that there is some external entity interacting with these people during these near-death-experiences. I want to make a couple of observations about this chain of thought, also using probability.

Some General Observations on Living Objects' Tendency Toward Persistence

A first distinction to make is that a near-death-experience is, before anything else, more properly dubbed a during-life-experience. To restate it: everything a person who has undergone a "near-death-experience" is experienced during life. Therefore, we must first exhaust all possibilities that the causal explanation of the experience came from something biological and physical prior to attempting to explain it supernaturally.

Looking now at probabilities, let's look at some other "near death" experiences that still must be classified as "during life". To generalize the experience, first let's lay out a common pattern that we will observe:

1. A living object is nearing perceived death
2. Living objects nearing perceived death struggle to achieve continued persistence of existence through any means possible.

Now, let's look at other cases of what happens when a living object suspects onciming death.
1. Cells attempt to repair themselves if they are harmed.
2. Tissues attempt to repair themselves if they are harmed.
3. Organs attempt to repair themselves if they are harmed.
4. Therefore, bodies attempt to repair themselves if they are harmed.

In each case of living object, the object makes use of its immediate surroundings to try to continue its existence. This principle is well-founded and well-observed in both our everyday experiences and in scientific analysis.

Even when human beings starve themselves of carbohydrates, the body systems struggle to produce ketones from existing immediate resources to struggle toward continued existence. We don't even have to consciously decide to do it. We may decide to do the Atkins diet, but our bodily tissues decide to preserve themselves of their own volition!

The Human Brain During NDEs

Now let's look at the case of the human brain, imagination, perception, consciousness, or whatever you'd like to call it. Given that the brain is, first and foremost, a physical entity composed of other physical entities, I believe we must first look at its resources to apply this general principle that every single other living object demonstrates.

What resources does the brain have? It is composed of neurons. The human brain has over 100,000,000,000 neurons. That is 100 billion. Each of these are linked to as many as 10,000 other neurons.[1] In the context of our perception, these neurons serve to provide us with memory banks and imagination.

Given that, in general, living objects tend toward using all possible resources to persist their existence, which is more logically justifiable to conclude from the following two scenarios about near-death/during-life experiences?

1. That some external being is directing a "life review", or
2. That the brain is attempting to use whatever its immediate resources are to continue its existence, including memory and imagination?

It is well-admitted that such "life reviews", while they may be generally similar, are widely differing as well. This is natural to expect given that each human brain has different memories encoded into its neurons. Even near-death researchers admit that the culture in which a person grows up strongly influences what the person will "see" during a near-death-experience.[2] For example, Christians may see Jesus, but Hindus may see Krishna.

Am I saying that it's impossible that an external being is directing these experiences? No. What I am saying is that we must first look at the general principle of living objects to tend toward persistence, and then apply that to the human brain and imagination before attempting to explain the experiences as something other than natural.

This idea is not original with me. I've read about it in various formulations on different sites. You can find out more about NDE accounts and find links to people both supportive of a supernatural explanation and to people who believe in a physiological explanation at the following WikiPedia topic:


1. The Human Brain:

2. Gary Habermas, author, speaks about Near Death Experiences in a variety of cultures:

Penn & Teller's Take on NDEs

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