The truth about NDEs

Near-Death Experiences Explained – Truth About NDEs

What’s really going on during a near death experience (NDE)? When someone claims they died and were brought back to life – that they “returned from the other side” – what’s really happening? Can science tell us the truth behind NDEs? Every day, we learn new things in the exciting realm of neuroscience, but here’s what we know so far:

You’re surrounded by darkness, floating through the air. Suddenly a bright light approaches! You enter a great hall and are greeted by the Hindu god of death Yama who rests beside his two ferocious hellhounds, doted on by servants. His accountant Chitragupta is there flipping through a book to check your karma before realizing that: whoops! They messed up! There’s been a mistake! And now they have to send you back. You wake up in a hospital bed, surrounded by doctors, and very confused. The Hindus were right all along? What the hell just happened?

You’ve just had a near-death experience (NDE). But does this mean there’s a heaven or a hell? At first glance, near death experiences seem to be convincing proof of an afterlife. Except for a couple major problems. First off, in the largest study of NDEs ever conducted, only 9 percent of cardiac arrest survivors who were able to complete a detailed interview had a near death experience. If people have souls and everyone who dies goes to heaven or hell, then what’s up with the other 91% who flat-line but never have an NDE?

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But even with such a small percentage, there are still thousands of anecdotes from people who claim to have returned from the other side. In his 1975 book Life After Life, Raymond Moody’s interviewed 150 people about their near death experiences, and Dr. Jeffrey Long has accumulated over 4,000 near death experience accounts online. Both are convinced these stories are proof of an afterlife. But in both of these cases they’re all anecdotes.

I’m not saying these people didn’t experience something odd. But I am saying we should take these stories with a grain of salt, because if anecdotes meet your standard for what qualifies as evidence, then you should probably start buying tin foil and food buckets, because there are just as many people who report seeing reptilians and who have been abducted by aliens. To prove just how useless anecdotes are, I successfully submitted a fictitious near death experience account to Dr. Long’s website that’s been up for over two weeks now, in which my leg was amputated and my heart stopped. I floated off the operating table before explosive diarrhea launched me at light speed to a beautiful rainforest paradise where I was greeted by my dead grandpa and the golden robot-god C3PO who was floating through the air on a chair and speaking in Spanish.

You would expect, that if any particular religious account of the afterlife were true, every NDE would be pretty much the same. But these accounts are so varied and are all based on cultural exposure. In India, people see Hindu gods; in Saudi Arabia, it’s Mohamad, Allah, and a bunch of virgins; and the kid from the book/movie Heaven is for Real saw a Jesus with bright blue eyes. One little girl went to heaven and was greeted by a portly man with a white beard and a red cap a.k.a. Santa Clause.

But what about veridical NDEs – near-death experiences in which the person sees something they couldn’t otherwise know, while “flat-lining,” and others verify that what they saw was indeed correct.

The most notorious example is “Maria’s shoe.” A lady named Maria reportedly left her body floated around and saw a shoe on a ledge, outside her hospital window, that she “couldn’t have possibly seen.” Her critical care provider, Kimberly Clark looked outside and saw the shoe as described. But when researchers tried to track down Maria to confirm Clark’s story they weren’t able to find any such person or anyone else to corroborate the account. And when they placed a shoe on the ledge, it was clearly visible from the hospital room, proving Clark had exaggerated at least that part of the story.

In another case, according to spiritual healing advocate (bullshit artist), Larry Dossey, a woman named Sarah who was blind from birth had an NDE in which she saw scribbles on the whiteboard in the emergency room and that her anesthesiologist was wearing mismatching socks. But when investigators pressed Dossey for more details, he admitted it was a total fabrication. Not one case of veridical NDEs has ever been confirmed under a scientifically controlled setting. To quote physicist Dr. Vic Stenger:

“To scientifically prove life after death is going to require carefully controlled experiments, not just a lot of stories. The plural of anecdote is not ‘data.’”Dr. Vic Stenger

Some people reported gaining supernatural powers after an NDE. The great thing about this is we can test it. But none have ever proven it under a controlled setting. Although, I hear the James Randy foundation has been offering a million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove they have supernatural powers.

Note: The James Randi prize was discontinued after 50 years. Over 1000 people applied to prove they had supernatural powers, but none succeeded.

One example of post NDE supernatural claims is Dannion Brinkley who wrote a book in 1994 called saved by the light in which he described his prophetic powers and claimed to have prophesied about things in 1975 that later came true. One of Dannion’s 1975 prophecies was that China would invade the Soviet Union, fight over a railroad, and proceed to march deep into the heart of the USSR. Yep. That “totally happened.”

Oh, and Alex Malarkey, the kid from the book “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven.” admitted the entire story was a hoax… after the book sold over a million copies. I point this out not to ridicule a child, but rather to call attention to the countless adults who credulously gobbled up this kid’s story without a healthy dose of skepticism.

While parapsychologists, pastors, and religious gurus are all quick to speculate and jump to conflicting conclusions that near death experiences are proof of their god, scientists have consistently stated for decades now that we don’t know exactly what’s going on during an NDE, but they continue to do research. And here’s what we’ve found:

There’s no indication whatsoever that anything supernatural is going on. Dr. Sam Parnia took 4 years to conduct a study of 2060 cardiac arrest patients. Of the 330 who survived, 140 were able to be interviewed, and only 9 had a near death experience. Nine people is an absolutely tiny sample size by any stretch of the imagination, but in this and several other studies, cards bearing numbers and images were placed just above the bed, but out of site of the doctors and patients. If the patients truly had an out of body experience (OBE), they would have seen the images. While many of the patients in these studies described having an out of body experience and floating above the operating table, not one in any of the studies described seeing the cards.

But it gets even better. Every aspect of Near Death Experiences can be artificially induced in a lab. When the brain experiences hypoxia (a decrease in oxygen), as happens to jet fighter pilots in centrifuges, feelings of euphoria, tunnel vision, hyper-vividness, clarity, and hallucinations can result. You can eliminate the tunnel vision experience by wearing goggles that apply pressure, counteracting the depressurizing effects of hypoxia on the eyes.

Drugs such as Ketamine which interact with your NMDA receptors can induce NDE-like experiences. This is relevant because your brain contains naturally occurring neuroprotective agents that bind to same receptors and could potentially create these experiences naturally during an NDE.

There’s growing evidence that the temporal lobe plays a huge role in the creating NDEs. When patients had their brains scanned after an NDE, it was discovered that they had increased levels of temporal lobe activity compared with those in a control group. That could help explain why only a small percentage of people who flat line have NDEs.

When Dr. Olaf Blank implanted electrodes into the brains of patients, he was able to trigger supernatural and out of body experiences by stimulating the temporal parietal junction (TPJ). To take this a step further, Dr. Michael Persinger created what he calls the God Helmet – a helmet that uses electro-magnetic waves to induce supernatural experiences. Over 1000 people have worn it and over 80% have had an artificially induced supernatural or out of body experience. Once supernatural experiences can be packaged up and commercialized, will people finally start to realize that it’s all in their heads? Or are they going to start worshipping the god-plumber Mario?

Finally, a near death experience does not mean the person died. It means they came close. In fact, it’s a common misconception that a flat EEG indicates complete and total brain death. An EEG only measures electrical activity on the outer layers of the brain, and not activity deep inside.

Our brains do weird things – like hallucinate and have odd dreams. I’m not saying an NDE is the same as a dream, but both are arbitrary, unpredictable, and only occur a small percentage of the time. And neither one is proof of anything other than that our brains work in strange ways. Hell, if near death experiences are evidence of lord Shiva, then dreams are evidence that I’m a super saiyan, a time lord, and Batman.

If near death experiences were evidence of life after death. The evidence would be undeniable and all around us. 100% of people who flat-line would have an NDE, and would return with the same vision of heaven. They would know things they couldn’t possibly otherwise know, and we’d have a lot more than just anecdotes. Instead only a fraction of people who are resuscitated have NDEs, their experiences are cultural and all over the place, and the feelings they experience are replicable in the lab by messing with very specific brain regions. We have no valid evidence that NDEs are proof of life after death – evidence that should be there if that was indeed the case.

Now I know some of you are bummed by this, hoping for some type of eternal life after death. If that’s the case, check out my video “Why is heaven bad?” But disregarding wishful thinking, there’s still a bright side. If this life is all there is, then there’s no hell afterwards. If there’s no hell, there are no demons. Also, if there’s no afterlife, then there’s no angry spirits or ghosts lingering on, long after they’re dead, haunting houses and old buildings. That’s a good thing because that’s one less thing you have to be afraid of.

Near-death experiences aren’t meaningless. They show us the value and brevity of life. Life is short. Which is what makes it so precious. You don’t have to live a life in fear of hell, but do live it with fervor, love, and curiosity because it’s probably all you’ve got. And that’s ok. Because while we’re here, we’ve got each other. Make the most of this short but oh so beautiful life, and don’t Drink the Koolaid.

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Near-Death Experiences Explained - Truth About NDEs
Near-Death Experiences Explained - Truth About NDEs

Can near-death experiences be explained by science? What's the truth about NDEs? Fear not: there's no evidence of the supernatural...

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