Why it Makes Sense to Explain Near-Death
Experiences by the Survival of Consciousness
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
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
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
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,
- 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.
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