Near death experiences

Recent scientific evidence suggests that what are popularly called “near death experiences” are not anything of the kind, but rather a product of high carbon dioxide levels in the blood.

 Personally, I’ve always been sceptical about the religious interpretation of these experiences, for two reasons. One is that my mother had several “near death experiences” as a child – every time she had an anaesthetic at the dentist’s surgery. The other is that people who have these experiences always explain them in terms of their pre-existing beliefs: Protestants for example will say they have met Jesus, while Catholics seem more likely to meet Mary. Presumably this is because the brain tries to “make sense” of what it perceives, and it does so by drawing on its previous “knowledge”. But nobody ever changes their beliefs as a result: atheists remain atheists, even after what would appear to be a pretty close encounter with the Almighty. Which suggests to me that they haven’t actually come anywhere near Him at all.

(this post has also been published on MyT)

44 thoughts on “Near death experiences”

  1. Morning Gwenyen
    Most incidences where people had “nde” is when they were put into a medical induced coma. None of them will ever admit the fact that they were doped up to the eyeballs and had dreams.
    Mine is not to question what happens to us when we die, I prefer the idea of an energy transformation, but all this religious experience rubbish is nothing but your brain playing silly-buggers with you.
    But then, each to their own.

  2. There was a report on Sky News this week about a three year old boy being clinically dead for over three hours (here’s their report), his Oma (gran) told him to ‘go back quickly’

    Now I suspect that a three year old would tell it like it is, I have to assume that if the report is true that something certainly did happen.

    Whatever the scientific reason (theory?) is for his experience it appears that he survived and has lived to tell the tale.

  3. Hmmm. I don’t know if the story of Pharaoh and Moses is told in bible too. Pharaoh builds a tower to see the God.
    This kind of “proof” among muslim world gets attention occasionally. The name Allah appears on the bee hive, on a mountain, on the heart etc. Everytime I see such a thing, I think of Pharaoh’s tower.
    Did he need to build one where there are plenty of messages/hints from Him around?

  4. Soutie
    That’s an interesting story – and more convincing than many others that I’ve read about.

  5. Levent
    The Bible says nothing about Pharaoh building a tower; far from wanting to see Moses’ God, he has no interest in Him at all.

    If Muslims report “seeing” the name of Allah on various objects, is that not similar to Catholics “seeing” the face of Jesus (or Mary)? Our brains like to recognise patterns – but they are very much “in the eye of the beholder”.

  6. Good on ya’, Gwenynen!
    I’ll go with the high CO2 concentrations and leave the “religious” experiences for the challenged and deluded.
    If my comment offends anyone, just pray for me. It won’t affect me, but it might calm you down. 😆

  7. I nearly died at seventeen. The doctors who spoke to me immediately after I ‘came to’ said that they were extremely surprised that I was still alive. My very clear recollection was that I had been given a choice of living or dying and that if I chose the latter I would have to repeat what I’d already learnt.

    High Carbon Dioxide? High level of Drugs? I don’t know…

  8. I don’t understand why people are so eager to offer their own dogmatic take on such matters. One would think that we knew everything.

  9. Don’t get me wrong, Bearsy. I’m not decrying all religious experiences, just this particular genre.

  10. It’s noted that these expereinces only occur when high levels of stress, compounded by various physiological effects, drugs, high CO2 levels, various levels of systemic trauma, are present.

    I saw a vision of a woman, once – three days into my first ever migraine attack.

  11. I’m not taking you wrongly, Gwenynen … I’m decrying all of them!
    … and I suspect Bravo might, just possibly, agree with me.

    Now come on, Brendano, ‘eager’ and ‘dogmatic’? ‘Enthusiastic’ and ‘catmatic’, please. 🙄

  12. High levels of stress may cause us to perceive rubbish a lot of the time but it is also possible that, by jogging us out of our everyday frame of mind (which predisposes us to perceive what we expect to perceive), they sometimes allow us to perceive something more ‘real’ than our ‘reality’.

  13. Bravo, there is more to life than ‘data’. Insistence on ‘verifiable data’ etc. is a kind of prison of the mind … but of course it’s your mind and your call.

  14. Brendano, have you not read A E Van Vogt, Gilbert Gossein (‘go sane’), the cortico-thalamic pause … ? Verifiable data is the salvation of the mind. 🙂

    But back to the last dregs of an excellent Pinot Noir, and thence to the arms of Morpheus. Catch you tomorrow.

  15. No, Bearsy, but I work on neuroscience journals and tend to be aware of the latest findings before anyone bar the finders . 🙂

    Bravo, with all due respect, to divide the world into ‘verifiable data’ and ‘the purple flying spaghetti monster’ is as superstitious as counting magpies.

  16. I commented on this already, but I once had one too – half way through Beethoven’s 5th at uni, after far too many inebriating ‘influences’, let’s just say! But not everything is quantifiable or justifiable; I think this is the age old debate of logic, versus emotion, or head against heart.
    You could put it in religious terms, as in St Mark’s Gospel where doubting Thomas is told that faith is a matter of what you feel rather than what you see. But you could say this is merely an excuse for irrationalism and blind credulity – perhaps it is.
    Personally, I prefer to fall back on the lyricism/ mysticism of Shakespeare;
    ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'(Hamlet)

  17. Logic v emotion… head v heart… they don’t have to be contradictory. Both aspects of the human mind have value; surely the best thing to do is to combine them.

  18. My view is that it’s erroneous to confuse sense-making with reality, and the height of vanity for humans of any belief system to say ‘it is thus; it cannot be otherwise’ (based on a book, anthropocentric ‘verifiable data’, etc.).

    The universe is kind of big, and we’re kind of small. We don’t know it all. Claire’s Hamlet quote is true.

  19. Thanks, Soutie. I have my moments. 🙂

    Thanks to gwenynen for an interesting post.

  20. Brendano, it is true that we don’t know it all. Yet.

    And there is nothing superstitious at all in counting on verifiable data and verifiable experience. What is superstitious is that which is exemplified by the flying spaghetti monster and other mythical things. It leads only to charlatanry, ignorance and the fleecing of the gullible. Anyone can make things up as is amply demonstrated by the organised superstions, the global warming scams and the failure of education in this country, amongst other things. Beware of the ‘must,’ the ‘of course’ and the ‘obviouslies’ of this world, for none of them are.

    If you work on neuro-science journals then you must be aware that what can be repeatably and verifiebly demonstrated is that consciousness can be overriden by magnetic interference. Wires in a box after all.

  21. I am very happy that we don’t have a load of (pseudo) priests and evangelists here, I am also delighted that so far we haven’t had a flurry of posts from the anti-religionists, when people understand that just as some may support a particular rugby / football team no matter how much is written on here nothing is going to sway the ‘believers.’

    I’m happy to live with that.

  22. Bravo, I am not arguing in favour of the flying spaghetti monster or charlatanism etc. Again, there is not a straight choice between them and the enthronement of ‘verifiable data’. These are small islands in a big sea, and I believe that you are confusing the contents of our minds with reality. The rest of life gets on perfectly fine without any notion of ‘data’.

    I would say that we can never ‘know it all’ because our minds are not equipped to. Our minds (or rather the parts of them that we use) are equipped to allow us to function in our social world, and are very good at what they do, but what they do should not be overstated. They are a tool. They are socialized, shaped and conditioned and may in fact be a barrier to the apprehension of reality … which is why a Buddhist monk who can put his thinking mind to one side may have a better notion of reality than you or me.

    Writing in haste, must dash.

  23. I’ve seen the light!
    I suspect the truth of the matter is when you don’t see the light but you have an unlit cigarette!
    Can one ‘arrive’ with glass and fag in hand? Otherwise I think I’ll skip it.
    One could end up like tigerbrite seeing the light every other moment of the day and that’s a salutary thought for you, isn’t it?

  24. What a wonderful idea, arriving glass in hand Christina! But Bravo – seeking logical and rational answers stems from a sane perspective, in my view; without this instinct, there would be no science, and we would still be living in the dark ages.
    THat said, I do believe that there are places in the human psyche where the light will never shine because they cannot be explained by intellect alone. Or to paraphrase a close relative who has spent a life working in nuclear physics, ‘there are black holes in the universe. We have measured their dimensions; we know they exist. But they could actually be hell, purgatory or even heaven – who’s to say?’
    Then again, I may have just substituted crystal gazing for navel gazing 😉

  25. I’m not actually sure that sane perspectives are very good for you any more.
    I rather think that the world is more insane now than it has ever been in my lifetime.
    Perhaps personal insanity is the only survival instinct?
    Lets face it if Yellowstone or any other serious hazard kicks off we are all fucked, world wide! I think I’ll stick to my glass, I rather fancy Armageddon through the bottom of a good claret bottle and a pack of Balkan Sobranie than without and I’ll skip the light fantastic!

  26. Brendano, when you say, ‘I believe,’ you cannot omit ‘because….’ I believe means nothing, as in, I believe in the flying purple spaghetti monster. As for putting aside reality, it cannot be done.

    Claire, the same for you, why do you believe that? There are areas of the human psyche of which that vould have been said 100 years ago, which are now fully in the spotlight. Beceaus we do not understand something now does not meant that we never can. That sort of thinking confines people, as you say, to a dark age, I think that either your friend was joshing with you, or waxing lightly philosophical, since quite a lot of people ‘are to say’ what black holes are.

  27. I had a near death experience… of a different kind, when I inadvertently drove through a crossing where I should’ve stopped (bad weather, poor lighting etc) and only knew I had when a flash of lights and a whoosh of car passing mine made me jump – (actually ‘jump’ is too mild a word here. Every muscle in my body contracted to the extent that my stomach muscles ached the next day.)

    But not the other kind of near death experience.

    But I have had an out of body experience.

  28. Bravo; I believe as opposed to I think…? I do favour I believe – there’s only a slight semantic shift, but it is in the direction of emotion, as opposed to rational response.
    Of course science continues to shed light on our understanding of the brain. But personally speaking, I do not believe that it will ever fully illuminate everything we know about the capacities of human psyche and the universe.
    The relative I spoke of is normally utterly obsessed with his work, and highly cynical and dismissive about anything to do with religion and all things spirital. But he does have doubts about the power of science to explain all that we know about human experience and the universe.

  29. Bravo, I did not suggest that we put aside reality. I suggested that your conception of reality is unduly narrow and possibly misleading … which is fine as long as you don’t try to impose it on other people. A fly buzzing in a jamjar may conceive of the jamjar as the limits of reality … the world will pay no attention.

    Unlike you, I am not advocating any system of belief or conception of reality.

    The only place I can see where I said ‘I believe’ is ‘I believe that you are confusing the contents of our minds with reality’. That is not to be confused with ‘belief’ though the word is the same.

    All I really believe in is the unfolding of human potential. I have no verifiable data to support that belief, and I don’t feel that I require any.

  30. Brendano, you suggested that my conception of reality is unduly narrow… without providing any evidence to support that satement. There is none. You say, a common trick, that I am advocating a system of belief and argue against that when I am saying nothing of the sort, indeed, I am saying exactly the opposite – ‘Question question, question,’ remember?

    Belief without evidence leads to superstition, blind dogma and belief in spite of evidence – to ghoulies and ghosties and gods and global warming of the anthropogenic flavour. It leads to ignorance of the many and enrichment of the few who exploit them.

    Any advance in the human condition is always preceded by a simple question, ‘how if…’ If that question is answered not with demonstrable fact, but with unsupported speculation, then the result is always the same, eventually, failure.

  31. I think that science will eventually be able to explain every nuance of the way the brain works and therefore why human societies have always needed some sort of religion on which to hang its way of life and philosophy. And I think that currently we are at a tipping point with regard to this: with huge numbers not having a religious faith, though not all of these are prepared to admit it yet.

    I do not have a religious faith, but respect those who do, except those who do and then try to force feed me with what I should believe in.

  32. Bearsy – what happened to you comment? You didn’t offend, by the way. Rational, civilised debate is what is so great about this site. 😉

  33. Bravo, I am not employing any trick. I am saying that it makes no sense to dismiss everything in life that is outside the realm of ‘verifiable data’, as you seem to do. There is far more to humanity and to the world. Humans existed before the ancient Greeks invented logic. There is an infinite array of experience and conceptions.

    If all of this is not self-evident to you, there is little I can say. In any case, I never try to convince anybody of anything … I am not a proselytizer. All I ask, as usual, is that people (of all persuasions) live and let live, and do not insist that everyone else wear the same blinkers as them.

    In any case, the fact that we are having this conversation would seem to indicate that you believe I exist, or certainly proceed on the assumption that I exist, in the absence of any verifiable data.

  34. Can you prove that human logic/science is capable of revealing and explaining everything about life and the world (as implied by your ‘Yet’ above), or is this merely an unsupported assumption?

  35. Hi Claire –

    I decided that the opinions of a past his sell-by-date old buffer were really not worth posting. I belong to a different era, which has become irrelevant.

  36. Brendano :

    Bravo, I am not employing any trick. I am saying that it makes no sense to dismiss everything in life that is outside the realm of ‘verifiable data’,

    And I am saying that I am dismissing nothing, because there is no data to suggest that there is anything.

    Brendano :

    Can you prove that human logic/science is capable of revealing and explaining everything about life and the world (as implied by your ‘Yet’ above), or is this merely an unsupported assumption?

    The history of human development shows a steady increase in understanding. This is the support. There is as yet nothing to support the idea that our understanding will not continue to increase as each generation gives a leg-up to the next.

  37. Bravo, incremental increases in understanding do not imply that everything can be understood. That is an unsupported (and unsupportable) assumption on your part, because you don’t know the nature of the extent of the unknown, or whether the tool is fit for purpose.

    You are not ‘dismissing nothing’. You are dismissing religion and everything else that falls outside your perspective.

    You have made an arbitrary pronouncement – ‘data rule’. You try to support your valorization of ‘data’ in terms of ‘data’, i.e. in a circular and self-contained manner. This proves nothing and can’t prove anything.

    All we know is that ‘verifiable data’ can be useful. This does not and cannot prove that all other human interpretations of reality are false and useless.

  38. One example of an area where we have “no data” is after death. We know what happens to the body, but our soul/spirit/consciousness (whatever you want to call it)? Does anything “happen” at all? What we believe on this subject is inevitably based on assumptions, because so far science can tell us nothing. The “near death experience” doesn’t shed any light on it either, if it’s actually a “carbon dioxide experience”.

  39. Bearsy; shame, because I enjoyed your comment and although it was too late to formulate a rational response, was going to try!
    To sum up, however; it will come as no surprise that I am with Brendano here; I doubt that we will ever be able to define what it is that forms us, or fully explain what is meant by ‘reality’. I don’t mean to deny the power of science, nor to advocate superstition, but merely to observe our limits in the vastness of what we know to be the universe. Seeking answers as to what it is that defines us is rational and logical but a bit like chasing shadows, or the will o the wisp, in my view.
    I suppose this comment is all style but no substance, again! Or all fur coat and no drawers, as my mum would put it 😉

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