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 www.iands.org, 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.