Monday, May 14, 2012

An Answer for Near-Death Experiences

What happens when you die?

The answer depends on who you ask. A pious religious person is sure heaven awaits.  There, the sainted soul will see relatives and friends who proceeded them. In essence, the soul survives.  For religious Hindus and Buddhists, they simply return to Earth en route to eventually exiting the wheel of life.  Some achieve nirvana, a oneness with the universe, while others get to make up for the things they did in a previous existence.

Some Tibet Buddhist sects are so sure in reincarnation that they seek a new leader from young children thought to contain the spirit of a late leader.  In some documented cases, children born into the Hindu faith have correctly described previous lives.  That’s not unique to India.  I had a Ohio friend, Robert, who moved to Cincinnati to live near his mother from a previous life.  I think he was trying to escape some debts, but he certainly seemed serious.

Previous lives have shown up under hypnosis.  I once interview a woman under hypnosis who went back into a previous life as a English woman of the mid-1800s.  I was able to ask her questions, and she failed to use proper English terms on several occasions.  

On the other hand, several documented regressions have found astonishing accuracy as well as complete failures. In one famous case, a nun from the late 20th century recalled being a wild cowboy in Sacramento (right) in the mid-1800s.  Since newspapers exist from that era, her facts were checked.  They were completely wrong.  In another case, a woman described a massacre in Kent, England and accurately detailed the site, a church that, unbeknownst to everyone, had been remodeled in the 1700s.  Her description matched the old version perfectly.

Those beliefs are countered by others who are sure there is nothing awaiting the dearly departed.
The question has been debated as long as man has existed.  Early humans buried their dead with implements and food, items necessary in an afterlife.  The Egyptians did the same thing.  Ancient Chinese sometimes killed retainers so a late emperor could still have servants in the next world.

Paul wrestled with the question.  Would an aged, sickly person stay in that condition when resurrected or get a new, young, healthy body? He lived in an era when Romans and Greeks thought the dead wandered as shadows, looking as when they died.

These days the focus is on near-death experiences (NDE) where individuals who are revived describe what happened while unconscious.  The experiences vary.

That’s the problem.  For everyone who sees a bright light and are greeted by a loved one, many more recall nothing.  Some NDE survivors describe floating above their inert body.  Others do not.

There’s no correlation to piety.  Religious people aren’t granted a view of heaven any more than atheists are.  It seems random.

It may be.

A professor of neurology and the University of Kentucky believes he’s come up with a scientific explanation.  Kevin Nelson has been studying NDE’s for three decades and has developed a logical explanation for the experiences and why they are not consistent.

Some people, he noted, undergo rapid eye movement (REM) while awake although the condition typically occurs while sleeping.  We all dream during the REM phase of sleep.  If awake, then we would have hallucinations.  In his study of 55 people claiming to have had a NDE, Nelson found that 60 percent previously had episodes of REM intrusion.

“Instead of passing directly between the REM state and wakefulness, the brains of those with a near- death experience are more likely to blend the two states into one another,” he explained in an on-line story.  “In the borderland, paralysis, lights, hallucinations and dreaming can come to us. During a crisis such as a cardiac arrest, the borderland could explain much of what we know as the near-death experience.”

The other aspects of NDEs, such as bright lights and dead relatives, occur when blood flow to the brain is reduced in a crisis.  That doesn’t affect the brain as much as the retina, the membrane in the back of the eye.  “When the retina fails, darkness ensues, and it fails from the outside inwards, producing the characteristic tunnel vision,” Nelson said.

That also explains the sense of floating.  “The area of the brain associated with out-of-body experiences, the temporoparietal region, is right next to the area that is responsible for our sensation of motion,” Nelson noted.

The euphoric feelings many NDE survivors describe is built into our system.  During moments of extreme crisis, the body releases endorphins that provide a sense of relaxation and well-being.  That’s why trauma victims usually feel no pain at first.

Scientific investigation only goes so far.  One NDE survivor commented that “you can put a rational explanation for the experiences of people like me, but that would be missing the point. To us, they are real and they have a profound effect on you and the way you live your life afterwards. It took away any fear I might have had of dying, and I think it made me a better person. You can call them hallucinations if you want, but they are our reality.”

Nelson accepted that.  “I was determined that someone based in neuroscience should try to explain the nature of spiritual experience, not explain it away,” he said.  “I would argue that isn’t incompatible with people believing in God if they want to.  After all, who’s to say that these mechanisms weren’t created by God in the first place precisely to provide comfort just when we might need it most — as we approach death?”

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

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