Breaking Down NDEs by Cause

Question from Marcus:
Does this disprove the hypoxia theory for NDEs?

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?

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.