Trying to Cross Off a Couple of NDE Explanations

Question from Mirek:
Here are some arguments against current scientific ideas about Near Death Experiences:

First, Lack of Oxygen to the brain:
Hogan: Lack of oxygen causes stupor without memories of the experience. People experiencing NDEs report enhanced consciousness not stupor and they remember their NDE. “Dr. Fred Schoonmaker, a cardiologist from Denver, had by 1979 carried out investigations of over 2,000 patients who had suffered cardiac arrests, many of whom reported NDEs. His findings showed that NDEs occurred when there was no deprivation of oxygen.” The primary features of acceleration-induced hypoxia, however, are myoclonic convulsions (rhythmic jerking of the limbs), impaired memory for events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling in the extremities and around the mouth, confusion and disorientation upon awakening, and paralysis, symptoms that do not occur in association with NDEs. Moreover, contrary to NDEs, the visual images Whinnery reported frequently included living people, but never deceased people; and no life review or accurate out-of-body perceptions have been reported in acceleration-induced loss of consciousness.

Parnia raises another problem: When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning.

Next: Brain activity
NDEs cannot be caused by brain activity during CPR because CPR patients report confusion and amnesia while NDErs report lucid experiences. NDEs often begin before CPR is administered and the quality of consciousness and the pattern of events in NDEs does not change once CPR is started. Also, if consciousness in NDEs is caused by CPR, the patients should remember the pain of compressions and cracked ribs that sometimes occur during CPR, but NDErs do not feel the pain from CPR.

Finally, according to a Neurosurgeon named Greenfield: “”It’s very unlikely that a hypoperfused brain (someone with no blood flow to the brain), with no evidence of electrical activity could generate NDEs. Human studies as well as animal studies have typically shown very little brain perfusion (blood flow) or glucose utilization when the EEG is flat. There are deep brain areas involved in generating memories that might still operate at some very reduced level during cardiac arrest, but of course any subcortically generated activity can’t be brought to consciousness without at least one functioning cerebral hemisphere. So even if there were some way that NDEs were generated during the hypoxic state (while the brain is shut off from oxygen), you would not experience them until reperfusion (blood flow) allowed you to dream them or wake up and talk about them.”

What do atheists have to say about these arguments for an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
The main problem with both of these arguments has been mentioned several times before in previous ATA pieces.

The dream or other experience interpreted as the NDE does not need to occur during the time when the subject is literally near death. If there is a period during which the brain is incapable of synthesising and retaining such an experience – and the person survives to tell the tale – then there is a period of descent from consciousness through normal unconsciousness to the disabled state beforehand, and afterwards a recovery “up” through the same levels. If a dream occurs either side of the interval wherein it’s impossible, there’s no way for the subject to know that it didn’t happen right in the middle. If the event is traumatic enough, the experience could even occur as a dream in a period of sleep after consciousness is regained, and be confused as one that occurred before then.

Arguments based on the clarity and lucidity of an NDE are not very strong, incidentally. As soon as someone begins to think they’ve had one, they start telling the story over and over, to themselves and to anyone else who will listen. Doing that to any experience will soon solidify the memory of it into a repeatable narrative which seems clearer every time you tell it, because you’re reinforcing it (and probably subconsciously altering it) after the fact.

Take a step back, Mirek, and look at what you’re actually trying to do with this latest attempt. You’re regurgitating supposed rebuttals to two – of many – natural explanations for NDE claims. Even if they shut down these explanations, all the rest would still be left. Even if these were presently the only explanations available, that would leave NDEs unexplained, not proven. To think that your belief is certain truth in the absence of known alternatives, as opposed to possible alternatives, is an argument from ignorance, which is an official logical fallacy and invalid in the eyes of anyone who knows about logical fallacies. That’s most atheists of the activist, apostate, academic or “New” variety, and pretty much everyone who reads this site. So your ideal outcome for this argument won’t convince anybody and, thanks to reality, it’s miles away from that anyway. Try to think about what you can actually achieve with the next one.

The Problems With NDE Claims – Comprehensive

Question from Miguel:
Often times, NDEs [near death experiences] sound quite compelling, and some OBEs [out of body experiences] sound very compelling. The thing is that they are anecdotes, and so far, no one has fully demonstrated that they are real. An objective measure would be to place targets in hospital rooms and see if patients during their OBEs can have them. People who believe in OBEs will always say, “well the brain was dead, it couldn’t have picked up information, and it sure as hell couldn’t have generated a whole classic realer than real NDE”. A few things that don’t make sense though about NDEs are:
1) How does a soul which is not supposed to be physical pick up light and sound, but also go through walls and ceilings? What would be the point of a creator giving us ears or eyes if we could see and hear with souls? There has also been an inconsistency in OBEs. For example, the vast majority of people say they float through objects, while Howard Storm (atheist who became a reverend after his NDE) claimed he was walking, and could feel the cold floor during his OBE, which is inconsistent.
2) NDEs can happen when a person is nowhere near death, there are cases of them occurring when someone jumped off of a bridge or when someone got into a near car accident.
3) Rarely, but sometimes, there are documented inconsistencies during the NDE. For example, very rarely, but once in a while, people will have NDEs with live relatives, or they will have NDEs telling them things about the future that don’t end up taking place.
4) Evidence of the brain when it gets damaged seems to suggest that souls don’t exist.

Now here is my question. In recent years and even months, many people who research NDEs will take cases like a person having an NDE when they aren’t anywhere near death and say “well, the fact that this person who jumped off a bridge had an NDE when they weren’t near death proves that hypoxia or lack of oxygen cannot be the cause for NDEs. Then they say that the recent rat experiment where a doctor took rats near death and saw their brain activity spike is not relevant because when someone who is not near death has these, their brain would not have these spikes, yet they have NDEs. They also interview NDErs who also tried ketamine and DMT and claim that the drugs are no where near as “real” as the near death experiences were. Then they claim there is no evidence that the brain releases DMT. Then finally, we have neurosurgeons like Eben Alexander and Peter Fenwick who criticize neurosurgeons against NDEs and will always use the “but the brain can’t create that kind of imagery in those situations” argument, and that studies show that most cardiac arrest patients who had NDEs didn’t in fact have less oxygen in their brains than normal. Would you say that even if it was true that the oxygen, hypoxia, anoxia, and ketamine/DMT explanations were not true, that it would mean NDEs are? It seems like they don’t make sense if you look at them on their own, but there doesn’t seem to be a sufficient scientific explanation for them at the moment. Would you still think they were not real, even if all the current science explanations failed?

Answer by SmartLX:
We’re talking about an argument from ignorance here, Miguel. Even the best case is still a logical fallacy.

The reason you’re supposed to accept these claims that peoples’ souls left their bodies and had independent experiences is that there is supposedly no other way that what happened could have happened. This is flatly contradicted as long there are other potential explanations, because there are other ways it could have happened. Even if all these other explanations are eliminated (and as you say, many try their hardest to do just this), the most they can honestly say is there there is no other known way it could have happened. This does not complete a proof by elimination because it leaves room for explanations that haven’t occurred to us yet.

To summarise all this very simply, there is a BIG difference between an event being unexplained and an event being proven supernatural.

Near Death Experiences – An Opposite Angle

Question from Mirek:
I looked at more cultural differences between NDEs. Much of these differences are in contrast with current research, which claims that all NDEs are the same with the same features, the only differences that exist are interpretation. Ex: Person A may see a light and interpret that light as Jesus while person B may see a light and interpret it is Allah.

Earlier research from the 80s and 90s was taken from countries like Thailand, India, Japan, China, Zambia, etc. What I find curious is that in these non-Western NDEs with the exception of China and Japan, there seem to be little to no Out of body experiences reported, and no light at the end of a tunnel. Judgement takes place, and seeing deceased relatives are common among Eastern and Western NDEs. Why though, if NDEs are biological in origin, do we not see OBEs and lights in India to the same extent. In a study of 55 in India, only 1 had an OBE, and in the west, we always hear of OBEs. Shouldn’t a dying brain also produce OBEs in India, or shouldn’t deprivation of oxygen to the eye also cause a bright light in India?

Does this give the soul idea a stronger case?

Answer by SmartLX:
In an earlier question you imply that the similarities between NDEs makes them more likely to be real, and now (after throwing the extended contents of an NDE-friendly website at the wall in the interim) you imply that the differences between NDEs make them more likely to be real. You seem like you’ll try anything. Why so dogged?

Regardless, I’ll take the new question at face value, and start by referring to my answer to another earlier question not by you. Different religions have different ideas of what an NDE should be, and even whether they should happen. In places where the bright light and other elements of an apparent NDE we would see as typical do not fit the majority religion’s narrative of what a soul might experience, even if they happen they won’t generally be interpreted as an NDE at all and thus they won’t be reported as such. Other experiences, for example dreams or hallucinations of one’s ancestors, will be interpreted as NDEs instead while any bright lights are dismissed as irrelevant physical effects. So the prevailing mythology not only changes what is experienced by influencing the subconscious, but it changes the filter of what existing experiences will be taken as part of the supposed phenomenon. Thus, look far enough afield and you’ll find variety.

A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:

http://www.near-death.com/experiences/rich-and-famous.html#a23

Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.

Package Deal: NDE (claim) + Miracle Cure (claim)

Question from Halil:
Do you think this proves miracles?
http://orthodoxinfo.com/death/miracle_russia.aspx

Answer by SmartLX:
If you’re going to give me nothing but a link, Halil, I will respond in kind with a nice in-depth thread on the Skeptics Society forum dedicated to this particular claim. Many, many problems with it. Respond to the criticisms from the other page if you want to advocate this as a miracle.

A Dump From Skeptiko

Question from Mirek:
for a long time, people have thought that Near Death Experiences are just a result of the brain, I have found some recent cold hard facts which may prove it is in fact a soul at work:
http://skeptiko.com/94-jeffrey-long-near-death-experience-research/
http://skeptiko.com/jeffrey_long_takes_on_critics_of_evidence_of_the_afterlife/
http://skeptiko.com/118-jeffrey-long-responds-to-parnia/

Here is a really good one which totally debunks the oxygen theory:
http://skeptiko.com/critique-of-skeptics-guide-249/

Dr. Long has done so much research which shows that a lack of oxygen only causes confused hallucinations, while NDEs make sense, and are not only fragments of memory. There are also tons of verified out of body experiences, which took place while a person’s brain had no measurable activity. People have been able to travel far distances, hear conversations, and explain exactly what happened while they were out, only later to be verified. Skeptics, how would you respond to all these lines of proof that it cannot be a brain?
1) doctors have debunked oxygen/hypoxia theory
2) drugs also cause weird hallucinations
3) Dr. Long’s recorded out of body experiences which took place in operating rooms came back with 97.5% accuracy
4) Dr. Penny Sartori has tested people who have never been in a hospital setting, asking them to guess what procedures may go on, and they all fail, yet these NDErs can report everything with close to 100% accuracy
5) There are no cultural differences, and all NDEs are very very similar

How could anyone think they are not the spirit leaving the body? So many have been verified, some people even report floating to other rooms and hearing exact conversations.

Skeptics, enlighten me.

Answer by SmartLX:
The conversation on Jeffrey Long, and the NDE material on Skeptiko in general, is already in progress here and here. The hypoxia issue is specifically addressed in the latter so it’s worth checking out what’s already here.

The crux of the issue is that these experiences have not been verified, only supported by their claimants with assertions and occasionally circumstantial evidence. If they had been verified, there would be no serious doubt that they were really NDEs. The evidence presented is good enough for the faithful, and they think this constitutes verification, but it can’t be that subjective.

Breaking Down NDEs by Cause

Question from Marcus:
Does this disprove the hypoxia theory for NDEs?
http://skeptiko.com/critique-of-skeptics-guide-249/

Answer by SmartLX:
A quick search on this topic makes it apparent we’ve wandered into a battlefield. The hypoxia hypothesis has been viciously attacked elsewhere as well, always with the express purpose of legitimising claims of near death experiences.

The core issue is that the link has four separate lists of the effects of hypoxia (lack of oxygen), and “hallucinations” isn’t in any of them. This contradicts (for example) the common trope of mountain climbers hallucinating at high altitudes, which has been properly researched but remains largely an anecdotal claim. More widely accepted is that hallucinations, especially auditory, can be an after-effect of brain damage as a result of hypoxia, so potentially it could trigger as soon as the life-threatening event has caused enough damage.

So no, hypoxia is not eliminated as a cause of the kind of hallucinations that can be mistaken for NDEs, but it’s only one of many possible causes anyway. The link attempts to cover some of these but not with nearly as much rigor; one point is dismissed solely on the basis of Occam’s Razor for instance. The other major problem is that it considers each potential cause individually, taking as counter-examples instances of patients only experiencing one (e.g. hypoxia or a seizure). People near death are often experiencing several of these at once: reduced oxygen, harmful CO2 levels, minor seizures or similar convulsions, powerful drugs administered by medical staff, high levels of various hormones and all kinds of issues with blood flow. The consistent cause of the “classic” NDE may lie in a combination.

Eben Alexander’s Adventures In Bed

Question from Halil:
Hello guys,

Recently I read about the Eben Alexander case, a neurosurgeon, who went to Harvard. He claims that he was in a coma, that his brain was 100 percent shut off due to meningitis. I’m sure many have heard of this. There was an article published by Luke Dittrich in 2013 which many atheists took at face value, as they believed that Dittrich proved many flaws in the Alexander story. However, now Alexander himself has come up with a rebuttal, and many of the people Dittrich interviewed said that they were misled by him, and that he changed actual quotes by Alexander.

If this is true, do you believe that Alexander went to heaven? He is a neurosurgeon, and says it could not have occurred as his brain was coming back online. He says that he has had hundreds of patients who have terrible, painful hallucinations when they come back online. Then he says when he was coming back, he hallucinated that his doctor and his wife were trying to kill him. What do you guys think, is Alexander proof of afterlife, or is it possible that even a neurosurgeon is incorrect?

Answer by SmartLX:
Of course it’s possible that a neurosurgeon is incorrect, because neurosurgeons disagree about things all the time (the most common example is how best to treat a given patient) and they can’t all be right.

Anyway, Alexander’s response to Dittrich would constitute proof of an afterlife if Alexander’s response were perfect and Dittrich’s points were the only things keeping it from being a certainty, which isn’t the case. Dittrich’s isn’t even the only major response to Alexander’s claims, because Sam Harris, Michael Shermer and Oliver Sacks chimed in too.

To address your one specific point on the details, Alexander says his patients have told him about having horrible hallucinations while coming “back online” but that doesn’t mean all hallucinations in that state are unpleasant, especially when the few pleasant ones are likely to be characterised by believers as NDEs. That’s a convenient way to explain away any experience that doesn’t fit his claim, including his own experience. And none of this says anything about what dreams may come as the brain is going “offline” before the inactive period.

Touring the Hospital the Hard Way

Question from Marcus:
Here is an interesting case from Laurin Belgg’s book, Near Death in the ICU. I do not know how any skeptic could potentially debunk this, as this experience pretty much proves that the soul exists in my eyes. What do you think?

It involves a man who suffered cardiac arrest and had to be resuscitated. After he had recovered sufficiently to talk, he described an NDE that took place while he was unconscious:

“I felt myself rising up through the ceiling and it was like I was going through the structure of the building. I could feel the different densities of passing through insulation. I saw wiring, some pipes and then I was in this other room.

It looked like a hospital but it was different.… It was very quiet and it seemed like no one was there. There were individual rooms all around the edge and on some of the beds were these people, except they were not people, exactly. They looked like mannequins and they had IVs hooked up to them but they didn’t look real. In the center was an open area that looked like a collection of work stations with computers.

Dr Bellg, a critical care physician, says her jaw dropped when she heard this. She writes:

I stole a look at the nurse who looked equally surprised. What we knew that Howard didn’t, is that right above the ICU is a nurse-training center where new hires spend a few days rotating through different scenarios. There are simulated hospital rooms around the perimeter with medical mannequins on some of the beds. In the center there is indeed a collection of workspaces with computers.”

The patient also repeated statements made by Bellg during the resuscitation effort, when he was being defibrillated, and accurately reported who was present during the event.

How could a man under Cardiac arrest get this information?

Answer by SmartLX:
He could get it from anywhere beforehand, and we wouldn’t know.

The man’s name is changed to “Howard” in Bellg’s book from something else entirely, which gives you an idea of how much information about him is actually available. We don’t know who this person was outside of his alcoholism, how many times he’d been in the same hospital or one with a similar setup (documented chronic alcoholism and having just had some intestines removed suggests several), who he knew in the hospital or the local medical community, what he saw on the way in this time around, what leading questions he was given by the staff (and particularly Bellg, who was in retrospect collecting NDE stories at the time) and so on. Use your imagination.

As for what he supposedly heard during the resuscitation, it’s been established that the resuscitation itself can push enough blood through the brain to briefly restore consciousness. He didn’t necessarily need to go all Doctor Strange, he could have heard it with his own ears. Otherwise, verbal communication between medical staff is highly standardised to prevent ambiguity and confusion. If you’ve heard one “code blue” procedure, you’ve heard them all, complications notwithstanding.

Jumping to a conclusion based on an anecdote while knowing almost nothing about the surrounding circumstances is one’s own prerogative, but trying to convince others based on the same information you’ve got is right back to an argument from ignorance. We don’t know how or when he got the information, so the most likely explanation is that his soul left his body and picked it all up? Literally anything else seems more likely – unless you already believe in independent souls and want to hear that they exist. Then it’s marvelously reassuring, which is why these books sell well.

Was Blind, But Now I See

Question from Halil:
Does this experience prove the existence of souls? It is of a woman who was born blind, had a visual NDE, and saw things, including Jesus. There have been studies done which say that the people born blind cannot see in their dreams, but this woman could see in her NDE. What is your opinion about that?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbtoX3Q5OI

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s true, if people are born blind then their dreams are auditory, tactile and olfactory but not visual. Thing is, if people are born blind then they have no basis on which to recognise sight. This woman has been around sighted people all her life and knows the language of visual imagery, and has chosen to use that language to describe what she experienced, but we have no way of knowing whether what she was actually experiencing was sight regardless of what she says.

One very important thing to remember is that we have documented cases of people who have gained sight for the first time as adults, when lifelong conditions like congenital cataracts are discovered and treated. It’s a downright traumatic experience for many, and universally they spend a long time with no idea what they’re looking at. (There’s a good account by an opthalmologist here.) By contrast the woman in your video immediately knew what she was seeing, ws completely comfortable with processing the visual signals and enjoyed the whole thing. It doesn’t sound like anything we’ve seen in real life, because it’s as if her brain was rewired in an instant to process the new signal perfectly. Sounds miraculous indeed.