Explaining near-death experiences – Or, why Occam’s razor cuts both ways

Scientific explanations for near-death experiences are sometimes a lot less believable than the experiences themselves.

There is a very rare medical condition known as congenital analgesia, or insensitivity to pain. People with it have a certain genetic mutation which means that they live their entire lives without ever once feeling pain.

That might sound great — it certainly does to me, being no stranger to physical pain. But there is a catch. Because these people cannot feel pain, they cannot tell when they are badly injured or even doing themselves harm. For example, they might repeatedly burn their mouths eating extremely hot food, or accidentally bite off the tip of their tongue, or not notice a bone being broken.

This condition is very rare … but imagine if it was the other way around. Imagine what it would be like if we were living in a world in which total insensitivity to pain were the norm. A world in which, say, 99% of people lived out their entire lives without ever once experiencing pain.

For them, the vast majority, pain simply would not exist. The very idea would be incomprehensible to them. They would have no way of understanding what it is like, nothing to relate it to. They might well conclude that pain is actually a myth, and that the awful sensations occasionally reported by the other 1% are just weird delusions or crazy fantasies.

(You can see where I’m going with this now.)

Imagine what it would be like to be one of the very few people in such a world with the ability to feel pain. Having felt it, even if only once in your life, now you know what it is like, and you know that it is real. But how can you possibly describe what that feeling is like to the 99% with lifelong analgesia, the non-feelers? How could you possibly even convince them that what you have experienced is real?

Even if you are in pain right now, with toothache for example, you cannot possibly prove it. After all, what you are claiming is a private, subjective experience — something that cannot be observed or measured objectively. You can writhe about and scream and grimace all you like, but it doesn’t prove anything.

The scientific community, on the whole, would no doubt dismiss your accounts as nonsense and offer various rational explanations. Either your brain tricked you into imagining pain, or you are just making this whole thing up to grab attention. They might even put you in a brain scanner and show that whenever you claim to be experiencing this ethereal thing called “pain”, some part of your brain lights up. So there you have it — your so-called pain feeling is nothing but a trick of the brain.

“But I really am feeling pain!” you cry.

“No, you aren’t,” they reply with confidence and authority. Because even if they don’t have the explanation right now, they are damn sure that one day they will.

The transcendent minority

I think people who report near-death experiences (NDEs) are very often in this position. They describe having have had an incredible transcendent experience, but one that is completely private and subjective, and therefore impossible to verify.

The vast majority of us have never had such an experience — at least, not to our conscious knowledge. But thanks to improvements in patient resuscitation techniques and medical technology, more and more people are.

Yet despite (or because of) the ever-growing number of NDE accounts, many in the scientific community have a vested interest in explaining them away in terms of normal, physical processes.

To some extent, the motivation behind this is perfectly understandable. Science is a very conservative endeavour, because scientists are obliged to make sure that our scientific knowledge base is built on absolutely solid ground. They don’t want to rebuild an entire worldview just because a few experiences, taken at face value, don’t seem to fit.

And so, when it comes to near-death and similar experiences, scientists tend to fall into two camps. First, there is the conservative majority for whom the experiences are too unusual — too inconsistent with current knowledge — to be real. And so, they must be explained away.

Second, there is a minority who are willing to take the experiences seriously, either because they have had their own experiences of some sort, or because they have been persuaded by the reality of the reports they have encountered, or because they simply have a deeper understanding of reality.

“There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences”

Trends in Cognitive Science coverHere we have a perfect illustration of the first camp at work. A scientific journal, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, recently published an article entitled, with less than total objectivity:

There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them.”

(Click here to download PDF)

The authors are psychologists Dean Mobbs (Medical Research Council, Cambridge) and Caroline Watt (University of Edinburgh). They begin by declaring that the “paranormal” interpretation of NDEs is unscientific and derives from popular books such as Raymond Moody’s Life After Life.

In contrast, they say, scientific research has successfully explained NDEs without any such interpretation. So:

“Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that there is nothing paranormal about these experiences. Instead, near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry, during a traumatic, and sometimes harmless, event.”

Now that’s what I call a false dichotomy. The idea that the majority of books about NDEs are just paranormal stories for the gullible masses, while books that are based on actual scientific research prove that NDEs have simple, physical explanations, is absolute nonsense.

Many, perhaps most, of the “paranormal” books about NDEs are either based on scientific NDE research or are written by scientists and medics who, through their own professional experience, have come to believe in the transcendent nature of NDEs. (See, for example, The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, 2009.)

Moving on, how do the authors back up their conclusion that NDEs have been scientifically explained already? Many of the classic features of NDEs, they argue, have been reported by patients who are not actually dying. To summarise:

1. Awareness of being dead.

  • This, they say, is also a feature of a strange neurological condition known as Cotard syndrome, in which delusional patients (usually psychotics) believe themselves to be dead, or rather “walking corpses”.
  • The awareness of being dead during an NDE can therefore be explained as some kind of psychotic delusion.

2. Out-of-body experience.

  • If we find ourselves semi-awake during the normal state of sleep paralysis that occurs as we dream, we have no sensation of our own body.
  • Similar loss of body awareness can be artificially induced by stimulating a certain part of the brain (the right temporoparietal junction).
  • The out-of-body experience during an NDE can therefore be explained as a loss or disruption of body awareness, causing people to imagine that they must be floating outside their body.

3. Moving down a dark tunnel towards a bright light.

  • When our peripheral vision shuts down, as when we are spun at high G in a centrifuge, it creates a visual effect a bit like looking through a tunnel.
  • When the visual cortex cells of the brain are randomly excited, it creates a visual effect a bit like looking at a bright light.
  • The experience of moving down a dark tunnel towards a bright light is therefore explained as a loss of peripheral vision followed by random excitation of the visual cortex.

4. Meeting deceased relatives.

  • Electrical stimulation of specific part of the brain (the angular gyrus) can result in a mysterious sense of presence, of someone standing behind us.
  • Damage to the centre of the visual field (macular degeneration) can result in vivid visual hallucinations of ghosts and fairytale characters.
  • Patients with Alzheimer’s or progressive Parkinson’s disease have also been known to have vivid hallucinations of ghosts and monsters.
  • The dead people encountered during an NDE are therefore hallucinations caused either by stimulation of the angular gurus or macular degeneration or possibly some other neurological impairment.

5. Bliss, euphoria, peace.

  • Dopamine systems in the brain (associated with pleasure/reward) become active when an animal is under predatory attack.
  • The ecstatic feelings that often occur during an NDE can be explained as the rewarding properties of a dopamine rush which, due to some disruption of its prefrontal cortex, the brain wrongly attributes to “being dead”.

So, the classic features of a NDE can all be easily explained if we just assume that after a person’s vital signs have stopped they undergo a psychotic episode involving a combination of Cotard syndrome, semi-awake sleep paralysis and/or stimulation of the right temporoparietal junction, loss of peripheral vision, random excitation of the visual cortex, stimulation of the angular gyrus, disruption of the prefrontal cortex, and a pleasant dopamine surge associated with being under attack by a predator. For reasons as yet unexplained, this wide range of unrelated and contradictory phenomena must all come into play at the point of death.

Far from being a valid explanation, or even a credible theory, the authors are simply alluding to superficially similar phenomena as if that were good enough. The same logic applied to a well-known event in recent history might go like this:

  • The 9-11 attacks were a bit like the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • The Japanese carried out the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
  • Therefore, the 9-11 attacks must have been carried out by the Japanese, not al-Qaeda.

I won’t even bother going through why each of those “similar” phenomena bears little relation to the features of an actual near-death experience. (But just to give one example – hallucinating a scary monster is hardly the same as being lovingly greeted by a deceased relative.)

I will, however, point out that most of the classic features of an NDE are conveniently missing from the list, such as −

  • heightened state of awareness (while unconscious)
  • veridical perception of physical surroundings (while unconscious)
  • encounters with divine beings
  • panoramic in-detail review of the life just lived and an understanding of its purpose
  • immediate access to universal wisdom and spiritual insight
  • the choice to return or remain.

Finally, the authors tell us: “The near-death experience is a complex set of phenomena and a single account will not capture all its components.”

Actually, a single account does capture all its components — the one given by the experiencers themselves.

Occam’s razor

You know the principle of Occam’s razor? This is a rule of thumb for philosophers, scientists and other thinkers. It says, in essence: given two or more competing theories, the best choice is the simplest — the one that makes the fewest unnecessary assumptions. In other words, you should opt for the most parsimonious and straightforward explanation.

The thing is, Occam’s razor cuts both ways. It depends upon who is wielding it.

occams razor

How is it, for example, that I have come to believe in near-death experiences as something more than just hallucinations? After all, I am a trained scientist. I know all about hypothesis testing, the experimental method, statistical significance, Occam’s razor, yada yada. I am a rational human being with critical thinking skills, and I am pretty sure that I am not prone to believing in nonsense.

Here are my reasons:

First, I have had more than my fair share of transpersonal and spiritual experiences. Most scientists that I know of, have not had any. Many of them are attracted to science in the first place because they despise unscientific ways of seeing the world. They enjoy seeing daft old superstitions and irrational beliefs being torn down by the might of logic and hard data, to be replaced with proper explanations. Fair enough. Count me in. But many such scientists also operate from a very limited view of reality, one that equates transcendent insight with medieval superstition.

Science is an excellent way to get at reliable conclusions by anchoring them to physical observations. But reality itself, I know from experience, is far from being limited to that which is physically observable. That’s just one of those things you cannot know until you get it.

Second, having had my own transcendent experiences, I am compelled to respect others who say that they have had such experiences too.

It is, I feel, grossly disrespectful to dismiss such accounts out of hand, treating the individuals concerned as publicity-seeking fantasists. When a patient who says that they have been fundamentally transformed by the love and peace they experienced in the realm of Light is then dismissed as irrational and unreliable, I really feel for them.

Third, the accounts that I have read about and heard of are both consistent within themselves and consistent with other spiritual or transpersonal accounts from numerous sources, including meditation, hypnotic regression, spiritual channelling, psychedelic therapy, holotropic breathwork. They reveal a map of existence that is much broader than the one developed so far by traditional science — one in which consciousness is not just a by-product of the brain but a fundamental constituent of reality.

So here is the thing. What does Occam’s razor have to say about how we explain transcendent experiences?

If you’re a “normal” scientist, philosopher, or whatever, from the conservative majority, then Occam’s razor tells you that transcendent experiences shouldn’t need transcendent explanations. The way the experiences are described must be wrong. The physical explanation must be there, somewhere, just waiting to be discovered sooner or later.

But once you’ve opened up experientially to spiritual reality, Occam’s razor cuts the other way. Why try to fake a coherent “explanation” out of an unlikely hotch-potch of irrelevant neurological phenomena when the simplest explanation is staring you in the face? Consciousness transcends reality.

For a significant minority, a transcendent explanation is the most parsimonious and straightforward. And science is the better for it.

Further reading

The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation

Edited by Janice Miner Holden*, EdD, Bruce Greyson, MD, Debbie James, RN/MSN. Foreword by Kenneth Ring, PhD. Published June 2009, Praeger.

Amazon →

Life After Life

Life After Life

by Raymond Moody, MD, PhD. Forword by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Published by HarperOne, 2001.

Amazon →

*Dr. Holden, editor of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, was recently interviewed about the Mobbs & Watt article on Skeptiko.com.

12 thoughts on “Explaining near-death experiences – Or, why Occam’s razor cuts both ways

  1. “They might even put you in a brain scanner and show that whenever you claim to be experiencing this ethereal thing called “pain”, some part of your brain lights up. So there you have it — your so-called pain feeling is nothing but a trick of the brain.”

    I’ve long questioned the idea that “it’s all in your head” means it isn’t real. After all, all stimuli cause areas of the brain to be active. Parts of my brain are active as I type this response and read this article, yet they are definitely real. Therefore, I don’t understand how brain activity could mean that a transcendental experience is not real. I don’t know for sure if such experiences are definitely real, but I agree that detection of brain activity during them hardly makes them unreal.

    • Yes, it’s interesting that when neuroscience identifies which parts of the brain underlie mystical experiences or belief in God, it “explains” those as “nothing but” brain phenomena. What if we were to also identify which parts of the brain underlie rational thinking, atheism, logical positivism, and scepticism?

  2. One thing that is very obvious, is the fact that the scientific community is largely made up of Atheists. Therefore, the idea that there is “LIFE AFTER LIFE” is not acceptable and cannot be real and therefore should not be studied. What they don’t understand is that this attitude is in fact bad science.

  3. So it is simpler to posit an entire realm of “spiritual” beings, that consciousness transcends reality, that there is some immaterial part of humans that cannot be detected which turns completely off during anesthesia yet fully “wakes up” near death, than to posit that the brain (which we know so little of how it functions yet already has instances which can create similar experiences in living people) has erratic and chaotic functionality when death approaches??

    I think you misunderstand Occam’s Razor.

    • This is my point. To you, I presume, it is more parsimonious to go with neural materialism because the spiritual/transcendental explanations seem so complex and unnecessary in comparison to assuming it’s all down to a lump of tissue. To me, the spiritual/transcendental nature of things has become a very simple and self-evident fact.

    • It’s not just people positing this–it’s what increasing evidence shows, and has shown for a while. This evidence is just shunned, ignored, and tried to be made to go away by mainstream scientists and the vocal public “skeptic” crowd.

  4. But i experienced nothing like this, but some bliss or peace after 2012 and for extra information as i undergone with a surgery before 2012 for more than one hour for hormones dis-balance. So it must be like that but i sensed nothing again and rarely i scared by night or something like that. What i understood further that, i got much interested on other worlds and ancients so on, and at that time i believed about re-incarnation and that night i felt the same as told by one blogger about ringing bells and high vibrations in middle of one night. From that night on-wards, i understood how thought become things or our own beliefs and i started visualizing my-self as healed and healthy. I checked my-self to near hospital and my hemoglobin value improved. This is just a sample example. I even tested on feelings or emotions and it happened. This realization actually made me more strong and stopped even making doubts or fear of something. Being positive, my life changed. And your blog helped me lot.
    Thank-you 🙂 Same time being priest, i have problem of being zeolotry, even in blog, i mean in many things, specially google. Finally little meditation is helping me to overcome this situation. Hoping you understood me, if any help to me from your-side, you are most welcome.

    • Hi awaken. I’m not sure what you need help with exactly (the zealotry?).
      You do sound like a Priest to me, and the Priest can be filled with enthusiasm for anything that seems good and worth everyone’s attention. The danger is over-enthusiasm, where you blindly insist that others must try this “good thing”, whether they want to or not. The challenge, then, is to be sensitive to each individual and their own needs. In other words, be compassionate rather than a steam-roller!

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