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21
Do Near-Death Experiences Provide
Evidence of an Afterlife?
Mark Fox
Life after Life
It is generally agreed that the term ‘Near-Death Experience’ (NDE) was
coined by Raymond Moody in a study of unusual phenomena experienced at
or near the point of death which he entitled Life after Life, and which was
published in 1975. According to his own account, Moody began to hear
reports of such episodes in 1969 whilst teaching philosophy at the University
of Virginia and afterwards at the University of Virginia Medical Centre
where he had taken up a residency in psychiatry in the early 1970s. Life
After Life effectively launched what has come to be known as ‘Near-Death
Studies’ and its most striking – and influential – feature is the ‘model’ or
composite NDE that Moody presented in it and which was based on
approximately 150 cases he collected whilst researching this groundbreaking
book. At the outset of this chapter, it is worth reproducing it in full:
A man is dying and, as he reaches the point of greatest physical distress, he
hears himself pronounced dead by his doctor. He begins to hear an uncomfortable noise, a loud ringing or buzzing, and at the same time feels himself
M. Fox (*)
Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, King Edward VI College,
Stourbridge, UK
e-mail: mistermandolin@gmail.com
© The Author(s) 2017
Y. Nagasawa, B. Matheson (eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of the Afterlife,
Palgrave Frontiers in Philosophy of Religion,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-48609-7_21
415
416
M. Fox
moving very rapidly through a long, dark tunnel. After this, he suddenly finds
himself outside of his own physical environment, but still in the immediate
physical environment, and he sees his own body from a distance, as though he
is a spectator. He watches the resuscitation attempt from this unusual vantage
point and is in a state of emotional upheaval.
After a while he collects himself and becomes more accustomed to his odd
condition. He notices that he still has a ‘body’, but one of a very different
nature and with very different powers from the physical body he has left
behind. Soon other things begin to happen. Others come to meet and to
help him. He glimpses the spirits of relatives and friends who have already died,
and a loving, warm spirit of a kind he has never encountered before – a being of
light – appears before him. This being asks him to evaluate his life and helps
him along by showing him a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major
events of his life. At some point he finds himself approaching some sort of
barrier or border, apparently representing the limit between earthly life and the
next life. Yet, he finds that he must go back to the earth, that the time for his
death has not yet come. At this point he resists, for by now he is taken up with
his experiences in the afterlife and does not want to return. He is overwhelmed
by intense feelings of joy, love, and peace. Despite his attitude, though, he
somehow reunites with his physical body and lives.
Later he tries to tell others, but he has trouble doing so. In the first place, he can
find no human words adequate to describe these unearthly episodes. He also
finds that others scoff, so he stops telling other people. Still, the experience
affects his life profoundly, especially his views on death and its relationship to
life. (Moody 1975: 21–3)
Near-Death Studies
In the 40 years since the publication of Life after Life the ‘Moody model’ has
become a kind of agreed ‘narrative template’ that has defined what an NDE,
essentially, is. To be sure, there have been variations on it, and even Moody
‘streamlined’ it in subsequent books: omitting details such as the uncomfortable noise from future ‘models’. Researchers following Moody’s initial
model streamlined it still further, either in search of confirmation of his
earlier work or in attempts to take his research in other directions. A small
but significant number of studies have drawn attention to the fact that not all
NDEs are pleasant, for example, and there have been a variety of separate
research undertakings that have sought to explore such experiences in childhood and within a myriad other contexts (Morse and Perry 1991; Sutherland
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
417
1995; Bush 2012). All of this material, whilst interesting and important for
any attempt to understand the history, nature, and current status of study
into NDEs, stands well outside of the scope of this chapter, however, as does
any attempt to locate the burgeoning interest in NDEs within a social and
cultural context that might explain why Moody’s initial book sparked such
interest and why NDEs continue to exert a broad, popular, fascination. In
what follows and in keeping with the theme of this collection overall I will
confine myself merely to addressing the issue of whether or not NDEs give
any grounds for belief in life after physical death. It might be expected that
such issues have been much discussed within academic circles, and particularly those to do with theology and religious studies; involved, as they are,
with much material that pertains to this very subject. That this has not been
the case might also be considered an area with rich possibilities for research
and investigation. In what follows, I attempt to tackle some of the issues
surrounding NDEs and the afterlife by considering (1) what evidence exists
for supposing that NDEs are revealing that physical death does not entail the
cessation of awareness, (2) how convincing this evidence is, and (3) what
problems such evidence might present for philosophy and any philosophically-informed theology. Whilst these are potentially very large areas which
merit far more treatment and analysis than a single chapter can provide, I
nonetheless intend to highlight some of the key areas of existing research
which might allow them to be considered.
Out of the Body?
A glance at the Moody model, above, reveals that it seems to assume – or to
present – a view of human beings as consisting of bodies and something
apparently non-bodily: whether that is called a ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ or something
else. Moody seems to resist calling it anything, but his use of language within
his model seems to imply some kind of distinction between the subject of the
experience and his (or her) body. A glance at the testimonies that he presents
in his book reveals some of the case material that appears to lead him to this.
One respondent whose testimony Moody recounts describes his experience
thus:
I became very weak, and I fell down. I began to feel a sort of drifting, a
movement of my real being in and out of my body, and to hear beautiful
music. I floated on down the hall and out the door onto the screened-in porch.
There, it almost seemed that clouds, a pink mist really, began to gather around
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M. Fox
me, and then I floated right straight on through the screen, just as though it
weren’t there, and up into this pure crystal clear light, an illuminating white
light. It was so beautiful and so bright, so radiant, but it didn’t hurt my eyes.
It’s not any kind of light you can describe on earth. I didn’t actually see a
person in this light, and yet it has a special identity, it definitely does. It is a
light of perfect understanding and perfect peace. (Moody 1975: 62)
This seems to have been a constant throughout the 40 years of study of
NDEs: the inclusion of an out-of-body episode within the definition of NDE
overall. To be sure, not every NDE recorded in the studies that have
appeared during that time has included such a ‘component’, but testimonies
containing some sort of out-of-body ‘journey’ are found in a great many
NDEs and this has continued up to the present day. In this regard, for
example, consider the following brief extracts from two NDE testimonies
that have appeared in two recent studies of NDEs. The first, recorded in a
British study by researcher Penny Sartori, was sent to her by a 43-year-old
female who described how:
I was in a very bad way, in the Accident and Emergency unit, it was summer
1987. I was slipping in and out of consciousness. Anyway, I remember the
doctor’s voice, saying, ‘there’s nothing else we can do’ to someone, at the same
moment I realized I had somehow floated upwards, out of my own body, and
was floating upwards towards the ceiling of the hospital room. I could actually
feel my back physically pressing against the ceiling of the hospital room. I was
watching the doctor and two nurses moving around my own body, lying on the
bed below. They were talking, I could clearly hear what they were saying…it
wasn’t very positive! I felt that I was floating there, against the ceiling, for about
a minute. I felt strangely calm, deeply calm and incredibly peaceful, just
observing, quietly. (Sartori 2014: 10–11)
This is a very odd account. The subject appears to be observing events
apart from her own body and seems able to hear a conversation between
doctors and nurses. Yet it is notable that she still seems to have some bodily
sensations – ‘I could actually feel my back physically pressing against the
ceiling of the hospital room’ – whilst at the same time being, apparently, able
to observe her physical body ‘lying on the bed below.’ A second – equally
odd – account, appears to include a detail in which the subject’s ability to
view events while apparently out of her body extends to events not in the
immediate proximity of the body at all. Reproduced in a prospective study of
NDEs carried out in ten Dutch hospitals by researcher Pim van Lommel,
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
419
it contains another striking description of an apparently out-of-body episode
within a more detailed NDE:
All of a sudden I knew that I was dead. This realization struck me as odd. I
hovered about twenty feet above my body, which was still on the operating
table. I was surrounded by doctors who were talking to one another, but I
didn’t hear their voices. I also saw my husband waiting on a bench in a darkish
room somewhere in the hospital. He was nervous. He was rolling a cigarette.
From one moment to the next I found myself flying through a tunnel. It was
extremely long, and I flew through it head-first. The tunnel was virtually
horizontal, but at a slight upward angle. It was about 10 feet in diameter. I
heard a whizzing sound, like wind blowing past my ear, and in the distance I
saw a bright light, which I was being sucked toward, but which still seemed a
long way off. And all this time I felt scared, powerless, and lonely, because
nobody knew that I was aware that I was dead. I wanted to either return or not
be aware of my death. But clearly I had no choice in the matter.… (Van
Lommel 2010: 29)
It seems clear that if persons might be said to survive their deaths to the
extent that they can continue into some sort of post-mortem existence then
this would require some kind of non-bodily continuity of their existing sense
of selfhood, with all its attendant thoughts, memories, feelings, personality
dispositions and mental processes. Those who would wish to assert that
mind is simply the same as brain would, of course, at once object to any
such possibility. For them, any such ontological reduction of mind to brain
would simply preclude such a possibility: for if mind and brain are one, then
once the brain has ceased to function any kind of mental processes required
to produce a sense of self would cease also. It seems clear, then, that for any
kind of continued life after death to be possible the ‘I’ must be in some sense
separate from – and be capable of functioning independently of – the body.
Near-Death Experiences
As will have become clear from a reading of the accounts reproduced above,
such a possibility has been given some apparent support over the last 40 years
both by the very large number of NDE testimonies that have emerged and by
the large number of studies devoted to them. NDE research has consistently
revealed that such experiences are widely reported within all cultures and
seem to happen whether the experient has any kind of existing religious
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M. Fox
belief-system or not. Occurring during episodes of apparent clinical death
when all vital signs indicative of life are apparently absent, NDEs appear to
lend support to the view that persons are more than their bodies, and that
aspects of personhood can survive bodily death and continue into some form
of afterlife.
For if all mental processes are ultimately reducible to brain processes and
the subjects whose testimonies are reproduced above were genuinely clinically dead then such experiences should not occur: for clinical death would
include brain death and with this all mental processes would stop. Yet a
second glance at the accounts that we have looked at shows that mental
processes are very much in evidence: there is a realization that death has
occurred, together with continuing perceptions and a variety of feelings
ranging from those of calm and peace to those of fear, loneliness and
powerlessness. Perhaps most oddly of all, however, there are specific observations being made by persons that include the location of their own bodies,
events surrounding their bodies, and even observations taking place at a
distance from their bodies: and all, apparently, viewed from a remote location somewhere ‘above’ the seemingly lifeless corpse. That the experiences
have been remembered at all is also highly odd: for it is now generally
accepted that memories are ‘laid down’ in the brain and this should not be
possible in a brain that has ceased to function.
Philosophy and Substance Dualism
Perhaps, then, accounts such as these are revealing that mind and brain are
not the same, and that at death the mind simply ‘escapes’ the body and
continues to exist, allowing the continuation of a range of mental contents
including thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and memories. As is well-known,
such a position is widely supported by many of the world’s religions but what
is perhaps less widely known is that it has a rich philosophical history also.
Moody’s Life after Life and the studies that followed it represent a continuation of interest in and study of out-of-body phenomena extending backwards
from the twentieth century and including the late nineteenth century’s
preoccupation with deathbed visions and spiritualistic phenomena, medieval
vision literature, and beyond. As Moody himself knew, having taught philosophy before he took up his medical career, in Book Ten of The Republic
Plato talks about a warrior, Er, who was thought to have been killed on the
battlefield and was mistakenly thrown on a funeral pyre to be burned. Er was
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
421
not dead, however, and upon regaining consciousness was able to describe in
detail a ‘journey’ to another world in which he encountered other souls who
were either dying or waiting to be reborn. Moody discusses this experience in
Life after Life as a very early historical antecedent to the experiences he
himself presents (Moody 1975).
Philosophy and Near-Death Experiences
Probably the most famous Western philosophical proponent of the view that
minds and bodies are not the same was Rene Descartes, who lived between
1596 and 1650. Philosophically, his position is referred to as ‘Cartesian
Dualism’ and it is a variant on the more general position known as
‘Substance Dualism’: the notion that minds and bodies are ontologically
distinct and not the same thing at all. There is no evidence at all that
Descartes was familiar with what we today call NDEs and the position he
took with regard to the distinction between body and soul needs to be viewed
in its historical context, and yet the issues raised by his treatment of some of
the issues involved reveal problems as regards taking NDE testimonies at face
value that have not always been acknowledged, let alone resolved.
In his sixth Meditation, Descartes provides a series of ‘thought experiments’ designed to demonstrate purely via reason that the mind and the body
(including the brain) are not the same. These are complex and have attracted
detailed philosophical critique. In essence he invites the reader to reflect on
properties and processes that minds have but which bodies do not and
cannot have. In this way he seeks to show that they are not, therefore, the
same. For example: he argues that it is impossible to doubt that you are a
thinking thing, for in the act of doubting this you are actually thinking and
so affirming the very thing you are trying to doubt. By contrast, he asserts
that you can very easily doubt that you have a body. In a similar way he
argues that it is impossible to imagine away your essence as a being that
thinks, but it very possible to imagine your body away. In these and other
ways Descartes thinks he has discovered mental properties and operations
that are not shared by the body, and therefore that minds and bodies cannot
be said to be the same. Further, Descartes defines the body as possessing
extension: that is, occupying space. By contrast, he asserts that minds lack
extension: their essence is thought and whilst you can destroy anything that
possesses extension you cannot destroy something that doesn’t. So in addition to proving that minds are distinct from bodies, Descartes also thinks
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M. Fox
that he has proved that whilst bodies are mortal and can be destroyed, minds
are immortal and hence cannot be.
It is clear that, if accepted, these arguments would lend powerful support
to the notion that whilst death may mark the end of the body, it cannot and
does not signal the end of the mind. If this or any other form of Substance
Dualism could be shown to be the case, then we are offered hope that death
is merely an event in the ongoing life of the mind. It would also lend
powerful support to the view that NDEs should be taken at face value as
providing experiential confirmation of what can also be proved philosophically and, moreover, as providing evidence that life continues when the body
ceases to function.
Questions for Substance Dualism
But how strong are the arguments for Substance Dualism? Descartes’ own
arguments attracted powerful criticism even during his own lifetime, and his
position has few if any supporters within contemporary philosophy and the
philosophy of religion. One main problem with his position – and that of
Substance Dualism generally – is known as the ‘problem of interaction’, and
this problem remains relevant and pressing within the contemporary context of
the study of NDEs. Simply stated: if, as Substance Dualists assert, the body and
mind/soul are completely different things, how do they interact? Surely, if they
are as radically different as Descartes supposed, with one possessing extension
and the other not, how might the soul ‘act on’ the body in such a way as to
make the body do its bidding? And how might what the body perceives through
the senses be ‘relayed’ to the mind if they are completely different things? These
rather basic objections to Descartes’ assertions might usefully be directed at
supporters of the position that claimed out-of-body experiences during NDEs
prove that souls and bodies are distinct, for they raise questions concerning how,
exactly, the soul and body were joined prior to the NDE, where they were
joined, what ‘mechanism’ allows for the temporary separation during the outof-body phase of the NDE, and how they become re-joined after the episode is
over. Even if one were to refuse to accept Descartes’ other notions regarding
extension and non-extension, it still appears to be the case that within NearDeath testimonies something non-physical is claimed to temporarily separate
from something bodily, and hence physical. Descartes could never satisfactorily
solve the problem of interaction, and offered more than one solution before
effectively giving up. At first he proposed that mind and body interacted at the
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
423
pineal gland in the brain, asserting that its particular ‘lightness’ and location
made it an ideal meeting point of mind and body. When it was pointed out
that, light as it as, the pineal gland was still extended and that his proposed
‘solution’ did not do justice to the sense that bodies do not just interact with
minds at one single point but throughout he proposed a second position in
which the mind and body were intermingled not at one point but throughout.
Finally - and apparently despairing at finding a solution to the problem of
interaction - Descartes declared that it was a mystery known only to God.
Whilst this may be true, it hardly qualifies as a solution to the problem. It
may very well be the case that Descartes failed to find an adequate solution
because his whole division of mind and body was flawed. Interestingly, the
question does not seem to have attracted much attention within the context
of the study of NDEs, and yet it presents challenges to those prepared to take
the out-of-body element of NDEs at face value.
Equally problematic for Substance Dualism is the empirical objection that
might be raised against it. Simply stated: we do not reasonably doubt that we
have bodies, but the same cannot be said of non-bodily minds. We can simply
and easily detect our bodies via any of our senses. But we cannot do this with
‘disembodied minds’. Being effectively invisible – or undetectable via any of our
other senses – we might reasonably doubt whether such things exist at all. Of
course, it could be countered that even if minds are ‘nothing but’ brains their
actual mental contents are equally invisible. However supporters of the view
that minds and brains are in some sense one might point to the known
correlations that exist between mental states and corresponding brain-based
processes. To do full justice to these additional issues would take us beyond the
boundaries of this chapter but a suspicion remains that the invisible, nondetectable mind or soul of substance dualists stands in need of some sort of
empirical support and is based on weak philosophical foundations. And it
certainly remains the case that whilst NDE literature is replete with descriptions
of apparently disembodied souls making observations of events surrounding
their apparently newly-vacated bodies, no observations of such disembodied
observers have ever been made by those still occupying this physical realm.
Near Death Experiences and Substance Dualism
These problems and issues notwithstanding, supporters of the view that
NDEs are enabling us to ‘prove’ the existence of the soul may well view
their position as one which promises to breathe life into age-old philosophical and theological disputes. After all, there exists an exceptionally
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M. Fox
large – and growing – body of testimonies that has to be explained
somehow. Perhaps – and especially with the advent of ever more sophisticated techniques and technologies for resuscitation – we are now being
given glimpses beyond death’s door that earlier generations simply were
not privileged enough to have: or at least not on anything like the same
scale. Might, then, NDEs be giving some sort of empirical support –
albeit anecdote-driven – for views which by the second half of the
twentieth century had become deeply unfashionable but which are,
themselves, now being revived? What might decide the issue one way
or the other?
Unsurprisingly, given the volume and nature of both NDEs themselves
and the research they have provoked, the last 40 years have produced three
main areas of research and enquiry that might help settle the issue once and
for all. Firstly, there have been a number of celebrated cases where persons –
sometimes named – have reported details of resuscitation procedures which
(a) it is alleged that they could not possibly have seen unless they were
temporarily apart from their bodies and which (b) subsequent checking has
shown to be correct. Secondly, there have been a small but potentially earthshattering number of cases where blind persons have temporarily regained –
or in the case of congenitally-blind persons, temporarily gained – their sight
during NDEs. And thirdly, there have in recent years been a small number of
experiments conducted in Intensive Care Units in which objects have been
placed in locations which would, it is alleged, only be visible to persons
outside of their bodies and looking down on them. Placed there as part of
wider prospective studies into the incidence and detail of NDEs, these
studies have appeared as part of the most recent ‘wave’ of research into the
phenomenon and have provoked much discussion.
Taken together, these three areas of research contain direct and obvious
relevance to the question of whether or not NDEs represent ‘proof’ that the
cessation of the functioning of the physical body is not the end of awareness.
Each, in their own way, may enable us to determine whether human beings
are ‘more than’ their physical bodies, and hence may enable us to determine
whether it is likely that any part of us might survive bodily death. We will
therefore consider each area individually in what follows.
There is certainly no shortage of anecdotal data suggesting that persons
make sometimes strikingly accurate observations of persons, events, and
situations surrounding their deaths. The last 40 years of research into
NDEs have revealed many thousands of such cases. Rather less numerous
are cases where, it is alleged, such details have later been checked and found
to be correct and in which the information gleaned could only have been
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
425
acquired if the subject was, somehow, disembodied at the time it was
acquired.
Early on, cardiologist Michael Sabom recognised the importance of
attempting to check the details reported by NDErs during the out-ofbody ‘phases’ of their NDEs and he first presented his findings in his
1982 study Recollections of Death. Here, he described and analysed a small
but potentially highly significant number of cases in which observations
made by NDErs whilst apparently apart from their bodies were checked
with actual recorded surgical procedures that were carried out upon them.
He found impressive correlations, such as when one patient’s description
of how ‘my head was covered and the rest of my body was draped with
more than one sheet, separate sheets laid in layers’ was compared with the
surgeon’s description that the body was ‘draped in the customary sterile
fashion.’ Such correlations became even more impressive when he asked a
control group of patients who had not had NDEs during their operations
to imagine what their operations might have looked like. According to
Sabom, these invariably contained mistakes such as the incorrect supposition that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation would be applied to patients to
clear airways and incorrect estimates of how far their bodies ‘jumped’
from their beds during CPR. By contrast, claimed Sabom, NDErs’
descriptions of their procedures, allegedly garnered from out-of-body
observations, contained no such errors (Sabom 1982: 34–5).
Several years later in a second major study of NDEs it was Sabom again
who provided details of a case which continues to provoke much discussion
and debate. The subject, a thirty-five year old musician named Pam
Reynolds, was undergoing a then-new surgical technique nicknamed ‘standstill’ in which her body temperature was lowered to 60 degrees, her heartbeat
and respiration deliberately stopped, and all blood drained from her head.
Thus rendered apparently clinically dead, she was then to have a life-threatening basilar artery aneurism removed from her brain. Following the successful procedure, Reynolds claimed that during her operation, at a point
subsequently confirmed to be when the surgeon was about to drill through
her head with a Midas Rex bone saw, she suddenly heard a sound:
It was a natural D. As I listened to the sound, I felt it was pulling me out of the
top of my head. The further out of my body I got, the more clear the tone
became. I had the impression it was like a road, a frequency that you go on…I
remember seeing several things in the operating room when I was looking
down. It was the most aware that I think that I have ever been in my entire
life…I was metaphorically sitting on [the lead surgeon’s] shoulder. It was not
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M. Fox
like normal vision. It was brighter and more focussed than normal vision…
There was so much in the operating room that I didn’t recognize, and so many
people. (Sabom 1998: 41)
What was particularly striking about this case was the description of the
actual saw that the surgeon used to cut into her skull, a device that Reynolds
claimed to have had no knowledge of before she identified it during her
NDE:
The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and
it had a dent in it, a groove at the top where the saw appeared to go into the
handle, but it didn’t…And the saw had interchangeable blades, too, but these
blades were in what looked like a socket wrench case…I heard the saw crank
up. I didn’t see them use it on my head, but I think I heard it being used on
something. It was humming at a relatively high pitch and then all of a sudden it
went Brrrrrrr! like that. (Sabom 1998: 41)
At first Sabom was baffled by this account and particularly by the description of the surgical implement described in such detail by Reynolds. By his
own admission he had to send away for a picture of the saw that was used
during the procedure to check if it matched the description given. To his
surprise, it did. But how to account for the accuracy of the description
provided by a person apparently clinically dead when she claimed to have
made her observations? The debate surrounding this case rumbles on, but it
is clear that it stands amongst the most remarkable pieces of evidence
suggestive of post-mortem survival that the last 40 years have produced.
Mindsight?
Even more remarkable was a book published by researchers Kenneth Ring
and Sharon Cooper at around the same time as Michael Sabom was presenting details of the Pam Reynolds case. Called Mindsight, it contained the even
more striking claims that during the out-of-body phase of their NDEs blind
and congenitally blind persons temporarily gained the ability to see, an
ability which left them again when they ‘re-entered’ their bodies at the end
of their NDEs (Ring and Cooper 1999).
Kenneth Ring had already drawn attention in his earlier research to the
intriguing possibility that sensation was heightened during NDEs, but the
collection of cases discussed in the MIndsight study took these assertions to
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
427
fresh new levels, with its claims of blind persons seeing – some for the first
time – during NDEs. And as with the Pam Reynolds case, the claims were at
first sight impressive. Ring and Cooper collected thirty-one cases for their
study, of which fourteen involved congenitally blind persons, eleven adventitiously blind persons(that is, they had lost their sight at the age of 5 years),
with the remaining six cases involving persons with severe visual impairments
which did not seem to affect them during their NDEs. Particularly striking
was the case of Vicki Umipeg, a congenitally blind nightclub singer who had
two NDEs at ages 20 and 22. During the second of these – occasioned by a
car crash – she described how she suddenly saw herself in the hospital, lying
on a metal table:
I knew it was me…I was pretty thin then. I was quite tall and thin at that point.
And I recognized at first that it was a body, but I didn’t even know that it was
mine initially. Then I perceived that I was up on the ceiling, and I thought,
‘Well, that’s kind of weird. What am I doing up here?’ I thought, ‘Well, this
must be me. Am I dead?…’ I just briefly saw this body, and…I knew that it was
mine because I wasn’t in mine. Then I was just away from it. It was that quick.
(Ring and Cooper 1999: 110)
Combining Umipeg’s testimony with interview material, Ring and
Cooper considered a range of naturalistic explanations for her experiences,
before concluding that her NDE conveyed upon her a set of temporary
abilities to see in ways that bettered the visual abilities of normally-sighted
persons. On the basis of this and other cases they investigated they concluded
that ‘our scrutiny of these transcripts frequently revealed a multifaceted
synesthetic aspect to the experiencer’s perception that seemed to transcend
normal sight’ (Ring and Cooper 1999: 134).
As with the Pam Reynolds case, the cases of Umipeg and others as
presented in Mindsight sparked debate which is still ongoing. Some critics
drew attention, for example, to the problems involved in supposing that
congenitally blind persons suddenly given sight could identify what they
were seeing. Studies of persons given their sight through conventional
operative means have revealed post-operative difficulties that persisted for
several years, with subjects simply unable to process the newly-restored
impressions that they were suddenly receiving via their eyes. For Ring and
Cooper, ‘new theories and a new kind of science’ are needed to explain their
findings as regards temporary restoration of sight to the blind, but not all
critics have been so convinced (Fox 2003: 234).
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M. Fox
In Search of Experimental Confirmation
What might convince critics of such claims? One possible avenue of research
that has promised to counter the claims of critics of NDE research in the
blind and sighted alike has recently taken place in various hospitals: an
avenue that is ongoing. This has involved the locating of objects inside
Intensive Care Units visible only from certain vantage points and especially
if persons were apart from their bodies and looking down. Located as part of
prospective studies – which means, in effect, that everyone admitted to the
ICU is interviewed to ascertain if anything happened to them, and not
simply those subsequently claiming NDEs – these research endeavours
have attracted widespread attention in recent years, although comparable
studies go back to the 1980s.
In essence, an experiment is performed. Permission is granted from a
hospital, distinctive signs or symbols are prepared, rigorous steps are taken
to ensure that only the experimenter knows what and where they are and
they are then located in ICUs in places likely to be seen by anybody
‘hovering’ above their beds and bodies. Everybody treated in the Unit is
subsequently interviewed, where part of the questioning involves enquiries
into what, if anything, was seen during an episode of apparent clinical death,
should one have occurred. As a result of such studies, even if one respondent
correctly identifies the sign or symbol, we are moved beyond reliance on
mere anecdote and given, instead, firmer grounds upon which to draw the
conclusion that at the point of death – or in a situation of life-threatening
illness or trauma – something leaves the body with concomitant awareness
and subsequent memory of the event.
Between 1998 and 2002 a large-scale prospective study of NDEs was
conducted at ten Dutch hospitals by a team of researchers led by cardiologist
Pim van Lommel. At one hospital – in Arnhem – the top cover of the surgical
lamp in the ICU was decorated with a hidden sign, invisible from ground
level but clearly visible to anybody hovering near the ceiling. The sign – a
cross, circle or square on a red, yellow, or blue background – was known by
none of the attendant doctors or nurses. Despite the four year study producing some very startling NDEs, including one that provided strong anecdotal
evidence of a veridical observation on a par with that of Pam Reynolds
discussed above, not one patient correctly identified a hidden symbol. Van
Lommel was forced to admit:
Unfortunately, no patients who were resuscitated in this room ever reported an
out-of-body experience with perception. Because people are resuscitated
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Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
429
everywhere – on the street, in the ambulance, in a CCU room, on the ward –
we had estimated the chances of a hit to be relatively low. Still, one verified outof-body experience would have been sufficient. (Van Lommel 2010: 139)
A few years after Van Lommel’s attempt, a British ICU nurse, Penny
Sartori, received permission to undertake a five-year project to investigate the
incidence and detail of NDEs in the unit where she worked. Like Van
Lommel, Sartori wanted to determine if any component of any claimed
NDE reported during the research was veridical, and she attempted to do
this by mounting symbols onto Day-Glo paper which were then laminated
and placed on top of the cardiac monitor at each patient’s bedside. As the
monitors were approximately seven feet off the ground it would only be
possible to identify the distinctive symbols from above, in an out-of-body
state, and to ensure they were invisible from the ground Sartori constructed
‘ridges’ to be placed around each one. Initially, she encountered unexpected
difficulties with the research, with nursing colleagues climbing up to view the
symbols out of curiosity. Having overcome these initial hurdles, Sartori was
then faced with the additional problem of a lack of NDEs. After the first year
of the study she had interviewed a total of 243 patients with only two
reporting an NDE and two reporting an OBE. There was, however, a
much higher incidence of NDEs in her much smaller sample of cardiac
arrest survivors (39) and putting these together with claims of NDEs from
persons with different medical conditions she ended up with 15 NDEs and
eight OBEs after five years.
As with Van Lommel, however, no patient correctly identified a symbol.
Attempting to account for this, Sartori remarked:
Some of the patients did not rise high enough out of their body, some moved
to positions in the room opposite to where the symbols were situated and two
of the patients were so concerned with what was going on around their body
that they were not looking on top of cardiac monitors for hidden symbols! One
patient was so convinced of his experience that he remarked that if he knew
there was a hidden symbol he would have looked at it and told me what it was.
(Sartori 2014: 133)
The recent studies of Sartori and Van Lommel take their place alongside
other, similar, studies, in which experimental attempts to derive veridical
NDE observations have similarly failed to provide the evidence that would
settle the matter of whether anything leaves the body during an NDE once
and for all. These have failed either because nobody during the study was
430
M. Fox
able to correctly identify the hidden symbols, or because nobody within the
course of the study reported an NDE with the out-of-body component. As
things currently stand, therefore, not a single correct observation of a hidden
sign or symbol has been reported by anybody during an NDE within any
experiment conducted as part of any prospective study. We are left, therefore,
with the anecdotal evidence as provided by Sabom, Ring, and others as our
best evidence for supposing that something really does leave the body during
these experiences.
All in the Mind?
One remark made by Penny Sartori is of particular note at this point.
Writing of her experiment to find veridical evidence of out-of-body
perceptions during NDEs, she notes that one patient who reported an
NDE in which she accurately described events that occurred in the
operating theatre – but not any of the symbols – made incorrect observations also: specifically, of a piece of jewellery pinned to her hospital
gown. This was simply incorrect, Sartori asserts, as no jewellery is
allowed into any operating room and strict checks are undertaken to
ensure that this instruction is complied with. She suggests that the drugs
given to this patient might have led to this misperception, which might
therefore have simply been hallucinated by the patient (Sartori 2014:
133–4). Readers generally unfamiliar with the literature on NDEs might
be forgiven for not realising that this incorrect description of events
given within NDEs’ testimonies is actually rather common. In focussing
on what they get right, discussion often omits to include what they get
wrong.
This mixture of ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ within NDE testimony is rather
reminiscent of the curious mixture of ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ that is frequently
reported in spiritualistic literature, where mediums often combine remarkably correct information in sittings with basic errors. Whilst sceptics simply
explain this away in terms of ‘cold readings’ of individuals by the mediums it
is hard to invoke this explanation in the case of NDEs. Indeed, perhaps the
errors encountered here might lead us to suspect that the whole experience,
far from being evidence of the possibility of something leaving the body
during near-death episodes, is simply a complex – but explainable –
hallucination.
As might be expected after 40 years, the literature concerned with putting
forward purely brain-based ‘explanations’ of NDEs is massive and would take
21
Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
431
us well beyond the scope of this chapter. But even a cursory glance at the
number of naturalistic interpretations of NDE testimonies reveals a very
large list of factors – taken singly or combined – that might ‘explain’ the
NDE without recourse to hypotheses involving disembodied observers and
which includes the effect of anaesthetics (specifically ketamine) and other
drugs, the release of beta-endorphins during life-threatening crises, dreams
mistaken for ‘reality’, anoxia, hypoxia, hypercarbia, temporal lobe seizures,
changes to the functioning of the visual cortex brought about by the onset of
death, sensory deprivation, and many more.1 Susan Blackmore has combined
many of these factors into a single model, suggesting that a combination of
events might be expected to occur within a dying brain and that the NDE
should be seen as a composite of these events, rather than as one, single,
experience (Blackmore 1993).
In addition to these neurological possibilities we might also consider
the ways in which NDE narratives themselves are formed. According to
this scenario an original series of purely brain-based phenomena is given
order and plot when being recalled by the NDEr when he or she is safely
out of danger. The narrative becomes further shaped in the telling of the
tale; perhaps initially to friends and family, then to nurses, then perhaps
to doctors. Finally we have the NDE researchers themselves, who have
often failed to grasp that all questions convey information and that the
very questions they put to NDErs in teasing out their narratives might
further shape them. Finally the testimony appears in a researcher’s book,
although even here it is notable that many are not presented in their
entirety but are ‘cut up’ and provided under a number of headings: ‘The
Tunnel’, ‘The Light’, ‘The Barrier or Border’, and so on. In these and
other ways, what might have been originally experienced as a confused
chaos of jumbled images and impressions becomes gradually redacted
into a final testimony. As a result of these processes underlying the
composition of NDErs testimonies, we might expect that there was
actually more diversity than commonality in what they actually experienced during their near-death crisis events, adding weight to the thesis
that NDEs are all simply hallucinations. The fact that NDEs may turn
out simply to be hallucinations might then explain why details are
recalled often incorrectly, although this would still leave a curious residue
of – entirely anecdotal – accounts which contain some spectacularly
correct observations. Problematic also for the NDE-as-hallucination
hypothesis is the fact that such experiences are remembered at all. For
as leading British researcher Peter Fenwick has remarked, memory is
fragile and memories are easily damaged or lost.
432
M. Fox
The fact that NDErs recall their experiences so vividly – and sometimes, accurately – puzzles him, for this is not at all what we would
expect to be occurring within a dying brain (Fenwick and Fenwick
1995). And looming over every attempt to explain NDEs reductively
and in terms of ‘mere’ brain processes is the so-called ‘hard problem’ of
consciousness: the current impossibility of explaining how chemical and
electrical reactions in a brain – healthy or dying – can give rise to the
rich and qualitatively different world of conscious experiencing with all
of its qualia, intentionality and subjectivity. Seen in this context, perhaps
the thesis that consciousness is not to be equated with brain function
emerges as the most parsimonious one: a thesis that might lend encouragement to those who view minds and bodies as ontologically different –
and perhaps, therefore, separable – things after all.
Conclusion
And this is where things currently stand as regards NDEs and the afterlife, 40
years after the coining of the term ‘NDE’ and the concomitant birth of neardeath studies. We simply do not know whether they strengthen the case for an
afterlife or whether they are best interpreted in more cautious, more reductive,
ways. It is to be hoped that the next decades of research into NDEs might
bring closure to some of the questions that currently remain open. William
James once remarked in his search for a genuine medium that ‘If you wish to
upset the law that all crows are black, you must not seek to show that no crows
are; it is enough if you can prove one single crow to be white’ (Wilson 1987:
169). Whether or not James ever found the mediumistic equivalent of a white
crow is a matter of some conjecture. It remains the case, however, 40 years after
the term ‘NDE’ was coined, that the quest to find the NDE equivalent of a
white crow – a case that proves beyond doubt that at the point of death
something leaves the body – has so far drawn a blank. Perhaps it is time for the
adoption of a whole new way of thinking about these very curious cases, given
that they clearly occur and remain needful of adequate explanation.
Note
1. For a recent and comprehensive overview of the latest neurophysiological
interpretations of NDEs, see Michael Marsh: Out-of-Body and NDEs: BrainState Phenomena or Glimpses of Immortality? (Oxford, OUP, 2010)
21
Do Near-Death Experiences Provide Evidence of an Afterlife?
433
References
Blackmore, S. (1993) Dying to Live: Science and the Near-Death Experience, London:
Grafton.
Bush, N. (2012) Dancing Past the Dark: Distressing Near-Death Experiences,
Cleveland: Parson’s Porch Books.
Fenwick, P and E. Fenwick (1995) The Truth in the Light, London, Headline.
Fox, M. (2003) Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience, London: Routledge.
Marsh, M. (2010) Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences: Brain-State Phenomena
or Glimpses of Immortality?, Oxford, OUP.
Moody, R. (1975) Life after Life, Atlanta: Mockingbird.
Morse, M. and Perry, P. (1991) Closer to the Light: Learning from the Near-Death
Experiences of Children, London: Transworld.
Ring, K. and Cooper, S. (1999) Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences
in the Blind, California: William James Center for Consciousness Studies.
Sabom, M. (1982) Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation, London: Corgi.
Sabom, M. (1998) Light and Death: One Doctor’s Fascinating Account of Near-Death
Experiences, Michigan: Zondervan.
Sartori, P. (2014) The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How Understanding NDEs
Can Help Us Live More Fully, London: Watkins.
Sutherland, C. (1995) Children of the Light: The Near-Death Experiences of Children,
New South Wales: Transworld.
Van Lommel, P. (2010) Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death
Experience, New York: HarperCollins.
Wilson, I. (1987) The After Death Experience, London: Sidgwick and Jackson.
Dr. Mark Fox has lectured and written widely on the themes of religious and
paranormal experience and he currently teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at
King Edward VI College, Stourbridge. His past publications include Religion,
Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience, London: Routledge, 2003 and Spiritual
Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena: Lightforms, Cardiff: University of Wales,
2008. His most recent book, The Fifth Love: Exploring Accounts of the Extraordinary,
was published by Spirit and Sage in 2014.
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