Science on Religion

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Examining near-death experiences

NDENear-death experiences (NDEs), as their name suggests, sometimes occur when a person nears death. The person experiences an array of sensations, including, a light at the end of a tunnel, feelings of peace, meeting deceased loved ones, and having an out of body experience. Researchers have found these same symptoms across cultures, suggesting a biological root. Fascinated by NDEs, neuroscientist Enrico Facco and psychologist Christian Agrillo (both University of Padova, Italy) argue that the current neurological and psychological explanations for NDEs are far from adequate.

Neurological explanations for NDEs typically assume that NDEs indicate some sort of brain disorder. That is, some chemical must be out of whack. Psychological explanations rest on the “expectation” hypothesis: people will see what they expect to see. Thus, if they expect an afterlife when they die, then as they’re dying they will experience their own preconceptions of that afterlife.

Facco and Agrillo find these explanations inadequate. Against the neurological explanation, people without any signs of neurological problems have had NDEs. Against the psychological explanation, the signs of an NDE are found across cultures (yet people in different cultures have different expectations of an afterlife); NDEs occur in people who are not in a life-threatening situation; and, finally, even those in a life-threatening situation may not know it (and thus their brain wouldn’t know to simulate an afterlife experience for them).

To further their critique of the neurological and psychological explanations, Facco and Agrillo present the following true case study of an agnostic electrotechnician:

I was spending my summer holidays in the mountains with my four-year-old child. I had recently separated from my wife; it was a difficult time. One evening, while I was in the room where we were staying, I suddenly saw a great white light. It was not dazzling, but its whiteness was unnatural, I mean it did not seem to be like the white light from natural or artificial sources we know, nor did it come in from outside. Then, some balls of light appeared; I did not count them, but there were perhaps five or six, and they could have been about 1.5 meters in diameter. These balls were translucent with the same color as the light, but less transparent and thicker, though I noticed that they did not cast any shadow. At the time, I had a profound feeling as if all the beings of the world were within me and, at the same, I felt as if I were within them. The source of light was ellipsoid. It was Love and Joy, and I felt a sort of stream through me. I use the term ‘stream’, but it was not so clearly definable. I cannot use the term ‘wind’, because wind comes from outside, while I felt this stream inside me. I was so enraptured that I had stopped breathing. I was fully lucid, however, and realized that I was not breathing, so I started breathing again, but my breathing disturbed the vision and, after a few breaths, it vanished.

This gentleman had no cerebral or psychological disorder, did not believe in an afterlife (at least not until after his NDE), and clearly was not in a life-threatening situation. Facco and Agrillo describe his experience not as an NDE but as NDE-like. If NDE-like sensations can occur without actually being near death, the question again arises as to the real cause or causes of NDEs and their NDE-like cousins.

While certainly not advocating for supernatural explanations, Facco and Agrillo do note that in pre-modern times, such visionary experiences would have been welcomed and seen as normal, but since modern times, people assume strange experiences must be false and related to some type of disorder (be it neurological or psychological). NDEs remain a challenge because they combine the bizarre with normal and healthy biological functioning. And if the ancients considered visions normal and modern science concludes that some people who have such visions are neurologically and psychologically normal, then perhaps Facco and Agrillo are right to suggest that it is we who are the strange ones.

For more, see “Near-death-like experiences without life-threatening conditions or brain disorders: a hypothesis from a case report” in the journal Frontiers of Psychology.


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