Saturday, September 24, 2011

A Reply to Scientific American

On September 12th, Scientific American Magazine carried an article by Charles Q. Choi, entitled “Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations by New Research on Abnormal Functioning of Dopamine and Oxygen Flow.” I would like to reply to Choi’s assertions.

Scientific explanations for some of the common aspects of near-death states have relevance, but not as causal to the phenomenon. In keeping with Choi’s assertions, let’s discuss what he mentioned.

There has been no recent survey of experiencer percentages done by the Gallup Poll, but research in the field of near-death studies now estimates that between 4 to 5% of the general population worldwide has had a near-death experience. In crisis and hospital settings, the number hovers between 12 to 21%. Not all experiencers who undergo the phenomenon are actually at the edge of death or are clinically considered dead, although some revive in the morgue, even hours later. There are near-death-like experiencers: those who thought they were going to die but didn’t (a fear death), those who it seemed as if they would die but revived, those who were in a crisis situation but were never harmed, and those who were in good health and had no reason to suddenly experience the phenomenon.

Most of the biological “explanations” for various aspects of the scenario itself have been overturned in clinical studies. Extensive work to this end has been done. To examine these studies and their authors, access the website of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, (IANDS) at, and by referring to the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies.

The idea of a “walking corpse” (a delusional belief that one has died) does not apply, even remotely. Only a few experiencers ever thought they were dead. Most had no idea they had died and frankly rejected any such notion. It was only after they were resuscitated or revived, that medical personnel or relatives indicated that vital signs had been lost and that the individual had either been near death or had actually died, much to the experiencer’s surprise.

The notion of the out-of-body component to near-death states is indeed common, most child and adult experiencers speak of it. There is no sense of paralysis. In fact, during episodes like this, the individual has the sense of full movement with vivid, often startling scenes observed, and with details the experiencer could never have known or been able to see. Most of these, at least those I am familiar with, have been verified by third-party testimonials afterward. The experiment conducted August 24, 2007, written up in an article entitled “Out-of-Body Experiences are All in the Brain” and published by Science Journal, described a lab experiment where the illusion of being in a virtual body outside one’s own was created by disturbing the visual input of volunteers wearing virtual-reality goggles connected to video cameras. What these experimenters produced was the “doppelganger” affect and not a real out-of-body experience. The making of “phantom” bodies is a regular part of shamanistic practice, both in ritual work and to increase the spread of information coming to them through the phantom (about their environment). This image supposedly confuses enemies or “signals” that a shaman is present. Superficial at best, doppelgangers have no relation to genuine out-of-body states or to near-death experiences.

A variety of explanations were given for seeing the deceased in a near-death experience, especially as related to what may cause patients who have Parkinson’s disease to report visions of ghosts - that may apply to what causes near-death experiencers to do the same thing. No attempt by the author was made, however, to explain how, during a near-death episode, one can be met by a deceased friend or relative, revive, laugh at what just occurred as that person was known to be quite alive and healthy; and then, upon later investigation, find out that the individual in question did indeed die at time and in the manner revealed. Again and again, the deceased recount information, stories, details that the individual could not have possibly known, that later check out as accurate. This happens so often, it is considered a “signature feature” of a near-death state.

The euphoria experienced in near-death states seems to mirror what can be gleaned through drug highs, ketamine experiences, and even through taking DMT in supervised trials. Yet in case after case when an individual who took drugs compared the highs once obtained with drugs to the euphoria of a near-death state, their reply in essence said “no contest.” What they felt during a near-death state could not be compared to any other experience. In my book, Beyond the Light (Avon Books, NYC, 1994 - in both Chapter 4 and on page 128), I discuss the case of Steven B. Ridenhour who spent 20 years trying to re-create his near-death episode through drug use, and was unsuccessful. His is not the only such case. Adult experiencers sometimes describe the experience as “more powerful than a million suns.”

As concerns the infamous “tunnel” effect, this is more myth than reality. Not that many people report tunnels, and never did. In the Gallup Poll survey conducted in 1982 about people who may have had a near-death experience, only 9% even mentioned a tunnel. It was not until the media sensationalized Raymond Moody’s first book Life after Life (Mockingbird Books, Covington, GA 1975) that reports of tunnels became more comonplace. Were people lying? No, I don’t think so. These experiences are ineffable. How do you describe something you do not have language for? For those who encountered darkness and lights, all of a sudden there was now a word they could use and that word was “tunnels.” Whether I’m right about that or not, the fact is only a few report or describe tunnels. Certainly not enough to account for the exaggerated claim by scientists that oxygen flow explains tunnels which explains near-death states. Not hardly. Yes, the “classical model” of near-death states still includes the tunnel feature as a basic component of scenarios, yet it is only one of many aspects that can occur during the phenomenon. In this regard, I suggest to you that the classical model isn’t always that classical.

Near-death states as a self-fulfilling prophecy about life after death? The public does indeed listen carefully to these stories with the hope that they might illustrate what happens after we die. A check of the various religions and clerics shows that each will endorse only those episodes that apply to their own belief system or dogma, rejecting anything that varies. It’s as if only the “proof” they want to hear is declared “genuine.” If you really study these accounts as I have, you begin to notice that “across the board,” the near-death phenomenon faithfully reveals the core wisdom common to all spiritual and religious traditions - as if these traditions may have sprung from the telling of such stories farther back in time than can be recounted. No research can be certain. What we know is that the phenomenon puts names and faces on life’s “mysteries” in ways no dogma or tradition can.

What is glaringly missing from the article by Charles Q. Choi is the fact that the scientific community he speaks for, investigates only in piece meal fashion some of the various aspects of near-death states without viewing the phenomenon as a whole, and completely devoid of the pattern of physiological and psychological aftereffects which follow. No skeptic that I know of, and none of the scientists Choi uses as references, has ever done a full study of all aspects of the experience and its aftereffects and in numbers acceptable as a valid study. I am quite certain that Choi would lose no time trying to invalid my voice. However, 33 years of mostly fieldwork with nearly 4,000 adult and child experiencers and their significant others, gives me at least a unique lens in which to observe, cross-compare, and analyze.
If the scientific community wants to make a point and inform the public in a credible fashion, I suggest that they know more about their subject before they try to explain it away.

Thank you, P. M. H. Atwater, L.H.D., author of
10 books on near-death findings, among them
The Big Book of Near-Death Experiences and
Near-Death Experiences: The Rest of The Story.

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At 12:04 AM, Blogger Artaxerxes said...

There is also a connection between NDE's and quantum physics and the holographic universe that has never been adequately explained away. Near death experiencers routinely describe their experiences in terms that can only be called "holographic" and they also say things that seem to parallel things I've read about quantum physics. I find that very evidential. There is no way that a housewife from Kansas or an uneducated truck driver from South Georgia would know or understand anything about quantum physics or the holographic nature of the universe yet they routinely come back after their experiences and describe them in terms that can only be called "holographic."

People who have NDE's routinely talk about overwhelming feelings of oneness and connectedness, feeling like they are everywhere in the universe at once, time and space not existing, buildings that are "made out of knowledge", 360 degree vision, seeing colors they've never seen before, hearing sounds that they haven't heard in this physical universe, and during the life review seeing their whole lives flash by in an instant (bolus of information)and feeling the emotions and feelings of the people they interacted with (the life review is a holographic experience par excellence), and how the other side will feel even more real to us than this side does, and feeling the feelings and hearing the thoughts of the people they interacted with. I find these things to be very evidential because it parallels things I've read about in popular physics books.

This explains why it is that so many near death experiencers say that the other side will feel even more real to us than this side does, and how it could be "realer than real" or "more consciousness than normal." Near death experiencers also say that it will feel even more real to us than this side does. The quote below explains why or how this is possible.

"Or, to put it another way, a holographic universe is blurry," says Hogan. This is good news for anyone trying to probe the smallest unit of space-time. ...

At 12:46 PM, Blogger PMH said...

A number of researchers have indeed made that connection, especially Pim van Lommel. Perhaps you have yet to read my latest and last book on my findings….Near-Death Experiences: The Rest of The Story. It contains quite an indepth discussion about what else is involved with near-death experiences and how that might be considered. I did not mention these types of things in my reply to the magazine article, because the author, Cho, did not mention them. My reply was geared to the inaccuracies of his article, nothing else. Thanks, PMH

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Artaxerxes said...

For years I was baffled by near death experiencers saying their experiences were "more real" than this side. How was that possible? Then last year in the January issue of New Scientist Craig Hogan made the comment that in a holographic projection there is a certain inherent blurriness. It suddenly dawned on me what was happening. That blurriness wouldn't exist in the original holographic film - so what I believe happens is that the "soul" upon the death of the body merges back into the original holographic film. This side, our universe is the projection, and the "other side" or Heaven, is the original holographic film. It's as simple as that. It means that whatever is here is also there and we don't really lose anything. Everything that we love still exists in that film and simply by focusing our attention on it, we get it back. Love is the key because it's how we are able to find what we have lost in this life. This side is the place of separation and "heaven" is the place of connectedness and oneness.

At 8:53 PM, Blogger PMH said...

That a clever way of putting it, but I believe you’re right. No matter the experience, the response is always the same. . . how much brighter, clearer, more incredible the Other Side is to this one – that it is our true home and this side the illusion, the stage on which we play out our many parts so we can go back, smarter, more mature, having learned what we need to know. Blessings, PMH

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Artaxerxes said...

The "more colors than normal" is also interesting to me because what they seem to be saying is that they are seeing the entire light spectrum instead of just a small part of it. When the "soul" leaves the physical body it is no longer limited by the physical body so it is able to "see" the entire spectrum of light, and thus "more colors than normal!"
I find all these kinds of things "evidential". Most near death experiencers are not scientists and so don't understand what they really experienced, but since I have spent my entire life as a scientist the connections seem obvious to me.

At 4:50 PM, Blogger PMH said...

Agreed. Blessings, PMH


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