Near-death experiences have gotten a lot of attention lately. The 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real, about a young boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery, grossed a respectable $91 million in the United States. The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, who writes about a near-death experience he had while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, who had her NDE while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident—have spent 94 and 36 weeks, respectively, on the list. (The subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, published in 2010, recently admitted that he made it all up.)
Their stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of
books and in thousands of interviews with "NDErs,” or "experiencers,” as
they call themselves, in the past few decades. Though details and
descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience
is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most
studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and
viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a
beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them
angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost
relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense
of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming,
transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the
magical realm and back into one’s own body. Many NDErs report that their
experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as
they often describe it, "more real than real life.” They are profoundly
changed afterward, and tend to have trouble fitting back into everyday
life. Some embark on radical career shifts or leave their spouses.
Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as
the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also,
commensurately, grown. The causes posited include an oxygen shortage,
imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma.
NDErs dismiss these explanations as inadequate. The medical conditions
under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a
phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.
Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians,
describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin
down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions.
Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study,
involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October. And the
recent books by Mary Neal and Eben Alexander recounting their own NDEs
have lent the spiritual view of them a new outward respectability. Mary
Neal was, a few years before her NDE, the director of spinal surgery at
the University of Southern California (she is now in private practice).
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who taught and practiced at several
prestigious hospitals and medical schools, including Brigham and Women’s
It was Alexander who really upped the scientific stakes. He studied
his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a
deep coma during his NDE, and his brain was so completely shut down,
that the only way to explain what he felt and saw was that his soul had
indeed detached from his body and gone on a trip to another world, and
that angels, God, and the afterlife are all as real as can be.
Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any
peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquire
questioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim
that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any
activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are
just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien
abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans
looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.
Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their
stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be
fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling,
they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether.
It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with
professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real,
the sensations of having been there certainly are.
There is something about NDEs that makes them scientifically
intriguing. While you can’t rely on an alien abduction or a spiritual
visitation taking place just when you’ve got recording instruments
handy, many NDEs happen when a person is surrounded by an arsenal of
devices designed to measure every single thing about the body that human
ingenuity has made us capable of measuring.
more, as medical technology continues to improve, it’s bringing people
back from ever closer to the brink of death. A small, lucky handful of
people have made full or nearly full recoveries after spending hours
with no breath or pulse, buried in snow or submerged in very cold water.
Surgeons sometimes create these conditions intentionally, chilling
patients’ bodies or stopping their hearts in order to perform complex,
dangerous operations; recently they have begun trying out such
techniques on severely injured trauma victims, keeping them between life
and death until their wounds can be repaired.
All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we
have a chance of investigating in a truly thorough, scientific way. It
makes them a vehicle for exploring the ancient human belief that we are
more than meat. And it makes them a lens through which to peer at the
workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence,
even for the most resolute materialist.
Which is how I found myself last summer in Newport Beach, California,
at the annual conference of the International Association for
Near-Death Studies (IANDS), which has
been a formal organization since 1981. I wanted to know: What makes a
person start believing that he has truly seen the other side? Why does
one person’s other side look so similar to so many other people’s? And
is there a way for science to get at what’s really going on?
The conference had the
joyous, clubby atmosphere of a reunion; many of the people had clearly
known one another for years. Attendees wore strips of ribbon in
different colors bearing legends such as SPEAKER, PANELIST,VOLUNTEER, and, for those who have had a near-death experience, EXPERIENCER.
The program included panels and workshops on everything from "What
Medical Neuroscience Can Learn From NDEs” to "Sacred Geometry Dance:
Creating a Vortex to Open to the Divine” and "Group Past-Life
The opening talk, by Diane Corcoran, the association’s president, was
clearly for newbies; the main ballroom, which seats about 300 people,
was almost empty. She began by outlining the wide variety of
circumstances in which people have NDEs—"heart attack, near-drowning,
electrocution, terminal illness, combat fatigue”—then moved on to the
typical characteristics of the experience. She referred to Bruce
Greyson, one of the first doctors to study NDEs seriously, who developed
a scale that rates the intensity of an experience on 16 separate
counts, such as feelings of joy, encountering spiritual beings, and a
sense of being separated from one’s body. The scale assigns a score of 0
to 2 for each count, allowing for a maximum possible score of 32. A 7
or higher is classified as an NDE, and according to one study, the
average score among people who report such an experience is about 15.
However, Corcoran emphasized, the
long-term effects of an NDE are as important an indicator of whether
you’ve had one as the experience itself. Many people, she said, don’t
realize for years that they’ve had an NDE, and piece it together only
after they notice the effects. These include heightened sensitivity to
light, sound, and certain chemicals; becoming more caring and generous,
sometimes to a fault; having trouble with timekeeping and finances;
feeling unconditional love for everyone, which can be taxing on
relatives and friends; and having a strange influence on electrical
equipment. At one conference of NDErs, Corcoran recounted, the hotel’s
computer system went down. "You put 400 experiencers in a hotel
together, something’s gonna happen,” she said. The scattered audience chuckled approvingly.
Corcoran herself wore two name badges. One said her name and trailed a
multicolored strip of ribbons like an unrolled window blind reading 35 YEARS, LEGACY SOCIETY, ASK ME, and HERE TO SERVE. ("It started as a joke,” she told me of adding ribbons at each conference, "and it became a tradition.”) The other badge said The Colonel:
her long career includes a series of senior nursing posts in the Army
Nurse Corps (she has a doctorate in nursing management). She first
encountered NDEs when, as a junior nurse, she served at Long Binh, the
largest army base in Vietnam, in 1969.
"Nobody was talking about them,” Corcoran said when we met over
breakfast. "A young man told me about [an NDE] and I had no idea what he
was talking about, but I could see the emotion and intensity of it for
him.” Since then, she has been trying to get the medical profession to
take NDEs more seriously. "Death and dying is not something most
physicians deal with very well to begin with,” she noted drily. "So when
you start to talk about phenomena where you leave your body and see and
hear things, you’re way out of their ballpark.”
More recently, she had been trying, with difficulty, to find veterans
of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who were willing to talk about any
NDEs they might have had. "I was always adamant in the Army that this is
a medical issue. I tell [doctors] they have to make up their own minds,
but there are lots of patients who’ve had this experience, and if
you’re going to take care of them, you have to have this information.”
Written accounts of near-death
experiences—or things that sound like them—date back at least to the
Middle Ages, and some researchers say to ancient times. The medical
journal Resuscitation recently published a brief account of the
oldest known medical description of an NDE, written by an 18th-century
French military doctor. But the modern era of research into near-death
experiences is generally said to have begun in 1975. That was the year
Raymond A. Moody Jr., a philosopher turned psychiatrist, published Life After Life, a book based on interviews with some 50 experiencers.
Moody’s book set off a steady stream of memoirs, TV shows, and
articles. Since then, a small community has emerged of psychiatrists,
psychologists, cardiologists, and other specialists. They share Moody’s
belief that consciousness—the mind, the soul, call it what you will—may
exist in some nonmaterial form, independent of but closely connected to
the brain, and that NDEs may be able to provide evidence of it. The
leading members of this coterie have distinguished careers at
respectable universities and hospitals. They blurb one another’s books
and give talks on spirituality and the nature of consciousness.
Of those books, probably the single best overview is The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation, an anthology published in 2009. As TheHandbook
outlines, by 2005 dozens of studies involving nearly 3,500 subjects who
reported having had NDEs had become material for some 600 scholarly
articles. Many of these articles are in the Journal of Near-Death Studies, the IANDS
house journal—which, the association proudly notes, is peer-reviewed.
But many others are in mainstream medical publications. A search in
February on PubMed, a database that is maintained by the National
Library of Medicine (and that doesn’t include the IANDS journal in its index), turned up 240 papers mentioning near-death experiences.
Most of the NDE studies have been retrospective, meaning the
researchers looked for people who’d had such an experience to come
forward and be interviewed. That poses a couple of problems,
scientifically speaking. It means the subjects were self-selecting, so
they might not be representative. For instance, people who’d had scary
NDEs might have been less eager to tell their stories than people who’d
had uplifting ones. (One of the arguments you hear for why NDEs are not
hallucinations of the dying brain is that so many of the stories contain
similar features; but it’s notable that, while some studies indeed
report only the well-known positive experiences, unpleasant NDEs account
for a combined 23 percent of reports across a dozen different studies.
They get far less attention, and certainly don’t seem to sell nearly as
many books.) Most of the interviews took place years after the fact, so
memories might have been faulty. And most important, retrospective
studies make it pretty much impossible to obtain reliable data on what
was actually happening to the subjects’ bodies and brains while they
felt their souls were elsewhere.
About a dozen prospective studies have been published, several of
them in recent years. In these, researchers typically arrange for every
consenting patient who survives a specific medical emergency (such as a
cardiac arrest) at a hospital to be interviewed as soon as possible
thereafter. The patients are asked open-ended questions about what, if
anything, they experienced while doctors were trying to revive them. If
they report anything unusual, the researchers check their medical
records and the accounts of people who treated them, looking for things
that might explain the experience or show that their brain was shut down
at the relevant time. All told, these studies have collected the
near-death experiences of just under 300 people.
The goal for those who believe the mind really does leave the body is
to find a verified case of what one prominent researcher has termed
"apparently nonphysical veridical perception”—in other words, having an
experience during which you see or hear things you otherwise couldn’t
have perceived that are later confirmed to have actually happened. (Veridical
means "not illusory.”) An out-of-body experience is only one of the 16
possible elements of a near-death experience on the Greyson scale, and
the proportion of experiencers who report having had one varies widely
from one study to another.
As the only stage in an NDE that involves perceiving the physical
rather than the spiritual world, an out-of-body experience has the most
potential to convince skeptics. If you could prove that someone saw or
heard things that brain science says they could not have seen or heard,
you would have, at the very least, evidence that our understanding of
the brain is even more incomplete than we thought, and at most, a sign
that a conscious mind can exist apart from a living body.
As a result, reports of veridical perception have a totemic
significance among NDErs. One of the most celebrated is the story of
"Maria,” a migrant worker who had an NDE during a cardiac arrest at a
hospital in Seattle in 1977. She later told her social worker that while
doctors were resuscitating her, she found herself floating outside the
hospital building and saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor window ledge,
which she described in some detail. The social worker went to the window
Maria had indicated, and not only found the shoe but said that the way
it was placed meant there was no way Maria could have seen all the
details she described from inside her hospital room.
That social worker, Kimberly Clark Sharp, is now a bubbly
60-something with a shock of frizzy hair who acted as my informal press
officer during the conference. She and her story are an IANDS institution; I heard several people refer to "the case of Maria’s shoe” or just "the tennis-shoe case.”
But while Maria’s shoe certainly makes for a compelling story, it’s
thin on the evidential side. A few years after being treated, Maria
disappeared, and nobody was able to track her down to further confirm
A case with a lot more evidence is that of Pam Reynolds, a
singer-songwriter. In 1991 Reynolds, then 35, underwent surgery to
remove a huge aneurysm at the base of her brain. Worried that the
aneurysm might burst and kill her during the operation, her surgeon
opted for the radical move of "hypothermic cardiac arrest”—chilling her
body to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, stopping her heart, and draining the
blood from her head. The cooling would prevent her cells from dying
while deprived of oxygen. When the doctors restarted her heart and
warmed her body back up, she would, in effect, be rebooted.
Whether you saw a divine being or your brain was
merely pumping out chemicals, the experience is so intense that it
forces you to rethink your place on Earth.
To make absolutely sure that Reynolds’s brain was completely inactive
during the operation, the medical team put small speakers into her ears
that played rapid, continuous clicks at 100 decibels—a sound level
described as equivalent to that produced by a lawn mower or a
jackhammer. If any part of her mind was working, that insistent clicking
would show up as electrical signals in the brain stem, which the
surgeons were monitoring on an electroencephalogram.
The machine confirmed that for a number of minutes Reynolds was
effectively dead in both brain and body. Yet after the surgery she
reported having had a powerful NDE, including an out-of-body experience,
and accurately recalled several details about what was going on in the
operating room, such as the shape of the bone saw used on her skull,
snatches of conversations between the medical staff, and the staff
listening—rather inappropriately, she remembered thinking—to "Hotel
California” ("You can check out any time you like, but you can never
leave”). For the near-death-experience community, Reynolds is Exhibit A.
But none of Reynolds’s reported veridical perceptions happened while
her EEG recorded a flat line. They all took place before or after, when
she was under anesthetic but very much alive. "Anesthesia awareness” is
generally estimated to affect roughly one in 1,000 patients. (See
"Awakening,” by Joshua Lang, in the January/February 2013 Atlantic.)
Therefore, the skeptical argument goes, Reynolds could have heard
snatches of conversation; she might have deduced some things about the
bone saw from the noise it made or the vibration of it against her
skull; and she might have reconstructed some false memories out of
details she’d noticed before or after the operation.
In 2011, a year after Reynolds died (of heart failure), the Journal of Near-Death Studies devoted
an entire issue to a debate about her case, in which a skeptic and two
believers argued over such minutiae as the duration of the noise played
by the speakers in her ears, the way bone conducts sound, and esoteric
theories of how exactly a nonphysical mind might be able to perceive
physical stimuli. Summing it up, Janice Miner Holden, the journal’s
editor, concluded that cases like Reynolds’s "provide imperfect data
that probably can never result in definitive evidence.”
Other cases of apparent veridical perception are, at the very least,
intriguing—but there are surprisingly few. For a chapter she wrote in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences,
Holden scoured the literature in search of such accounts. Leaving out
sources like the personal memoirs published after Raymond Moody’s 1975
book and focusing mostly on books published before 1975 and systematic
studies by researchers and medics, she collected about 100 reports of
veridical perception during a near-death experience. Only 35 included
accounts of details that the authors were able to verify as fully
accurate with a source other than the experiencer. There was not a
single clincher—an absolutely inarguable case of someone seeing
something that only a disembodied spirit could have seen.
Which is why a few studies have tried to take advantage of the unique
circumstances under which NDEs tend to happen, to create a foolproof
method for testing veridical perception.
To get the kind of evidence
for a disembodied consciousness that would satisfy a scientist, you
need a good study protocol. Turns out, it’s not hard to devise one. In The Handbook, Janice Holden outlines it:
In a place where NDEs are likely to occur, plant some
perceptual stimulus and then interview everyone who survives a
near-death episode in the vicinity of that stimulus to determine whether
they perceived it … Place the stimulus so that it is perceivable by an
NDEr but not by other people in the area; in fact, to rule out the
possibility that an interviewer or others might intentionally or
unintentionally convey the content of the stimulus to the NDEr through
normal—or even paranormal—means, arrange it so that the stimulus is not known even to the research team or associates.
To date, six studies have tried some form of this method, mostly on
cardiac-arrest patients, and all have failed to find an ironclad case of
veridical perception. All involved placing some stimulus—a picture or a
symbol on, say, a piece of paper or an electronic display—in a high
location, visible only if you were floating near the ceiling. The
research designers did their best to make sure that nobody—not the
doctors or nurses, not the patient, and not whoever interviewed the
patient afterward—would know what the stimulus was until after the
interviews were over. (Getting the hospital staff to respect this
protocol, Holden reports, wasn’t always easy.)
The latest and largest such attempt was the so-called Aware study,
led by Sam Parnia of the State University of New York at Stony Brook,
published in Resuscitation last October. In it, 15 participating
hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria
installed shelves bearing a variety of images in rooms where
cardiac-arrest patients were likely to need reviving.
The results of the Aware study immediately highlight the key problem
with this kind of research: it’s very hard to get enough data. Over four
years, the study recorded a total of 2,060 cardiac arrests. (There were
more than that, but the researchers weren’t able to record them all.)
Of those patients, 330 survived, 140 of whom were judged well enough to
be interviewed and agreed to participate. Of those 140, 101 made it past
a screening interview; the others were unable to continue,
"predominantly due to fatigue.” Of those 101, nine remembered
experiences that counted as an NDE on the Greyson scale, and two
remembered an out-of-body experience. Of those two, one became too ill
to interview further. That left just one subject who could recount what
he’d seen in detail.
That one case is tantalizing. The patient, a 57-year-old man,
described floating up to a corner of the room, seeing medical staff work
on him, and watching himself be defibrillated. According to Parnia’s
paper, several of the details he described checked out. What’s more,
after triangulating the patient’s description with the workings of the
defibrillator, the researchers think he may have seen things that
happened for as long as three minutes after his heart stopped.
If true, that would be remarkable. On an EEG, the brain typically
flatlines within about 20 seconds of the heart stopping. Cardiopulmonary
resuscitation gets enough blood flowing to slow cell death, but not
enough to fire up the brain. Unlike the brain of someone under
anesthetic or in a coma, this patient’s brain should have completely
switched off until his heart started beating on its own again.
Still, the clinching evidence remains elusive. Even though the Aware
study’s hospitals collectively installed about 1,000 shelves with the
special images at various locations, only 22 percent of the cardiac
arrests happened somewhere with a shelf nearby. The star patient’s
wasn’t one of them.
It’s little wonder that,
next to transcendent NDE stories, experiencers find the explanations
that science has to offer unsatisfying. There is no shortage of
scientific theories about what causes near-death experiences—or at
least, what might—but they are cold, unappealing, and incomplete by
comparison with what NDErs say happened to them.
It’s well established, for instance, that an oxygen shortage
(hypoxia), which is a common result of a cardiac arrest, can lead to
disorientation, confusion, or hallucinations. A glitch at the
temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain that acts as a kind of
integrator of data from all your senses and organs and plays an
important role in assembling them into your overall perception of your
body, can produce an out-of-body experience. It’s been suggested that
too much carbon dioxide (hypercarbia) may give people a feeling of
separation from their body or of being in a tunnel (though there’s not
much evidence of this). Neurochemicals might play a part in triggering
hallucinations or creating a sense of peace. And so on.
Doctors who are sympathetic to experiencers’ claims have no shortage
of rebuttals to these materialist explanations. Sam Parnia, Pim van
Lommel, and others devote lengthy sections in their books to them.
Ultimately, what the rebuttals boil down to is that while these
explanations may look plausible, there’s no evidence that they actually
do explain what’s going on. Many NDEs happen without one or another of
the above scientifically measurable conditions. And those conditions
often happen without an NDE. Enough data simply haven’t been recorded to
establish correlation, let alone causation.
What’s more, it’s hard to see how there can be enough data, at
least when the experimental method is to look at records of
cardiac-arrest cases. Parnia’s Aware study turned up just nine patients
with NDEs at 15 hospitals in four years. A Slovenian prospective study
published in 2010, which did find a correlation between NDEs and
hypercarbia in heart-attack patients—though no correlation with
hypoxia—had only 52 patients in the sample, and only 11 of them reported
There is one newish bit of research that the materialist camp has
seized on. A study at the University of Michigan, published in 2013,
took anesthetized rats and stopped their hearts. Within 30 seconds, the
rats’ EEG brain signals flatlined—but first they spiked, with an
intensity that suggested that different parts of the brain were
communicating with one another even more actively than when the rats
This sort of communication is thought to be a key step in perception;
effectively, the brain’s various areas are comparing notes on the
stimuli they’re getting. If humans experience the same death spike as
rats, it may mean that the brain goes into a final, hyperactive spasm
when its oxygen supply is cut as it tries to figure out what is
happening. If so, that heightened activity might explain why people who
say they had an NDE report that what they experienced seemed more real
than the physical world.
But once again, the fact that the explanation is plausible doesn’t
make it true. If researchers like Parnia can convincingly show that a
patient like the man in the Aware study can have flashes of conscious
awareness minutes or more after the heart stops, the whole debate will
flare up again. For now, the death spike remains just one more
disjointed piece of the NDE puzzle, which we have not yet figured out
how to assemble.
So where next for the science of near-death experiences?, I asked
Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist who is perhaps the best-known
scientific skeptic of the spiritualist explanations for NDEs. After
having her own powerful out-of-body experience as a young woman, she
started investigating paranormal claims, and devoted much of her career
to scientifically explaining them.
As far as Blackmore is concerned, the mystery has mostly been solved.
We already know, she says, that a hyperactive brain under the stress of
approaching death can trigger any or all of the above phenomena. The big remaining question, she wrote in an e-mail, is this:
We see all of these aspects in isolation—spontaneously, with
various drugs, in illness and so on—but in the NDE they tend to unfold
in a specific order. Why is this? We might guess that it has something
to do with a cascade of neurotransmitters or possibly the way
hyperactivity spreads or … ? I do not know the answer here but I guess
we will soon find out.
I think that a scientific answer to Blackmore’s question—why so many
NDEs follow a similar sequence—would do more than merely complete the
puzzle of how they happen. It would also help us understand why NDEs
have such a profound effect on those who experience them. One of the
speakers at the conference, Alana Karran, an executive coach who led a
guided meditation that retraced the steps of a typical NDE, helped me
understand the significance of that sequence. It is, she pointed out,
similar to the hero’s journey, or quest narrative, the structure that
the American writer and mythologist Joseph Campbell identified and named
the "monomyth” in 1949. The quest underlies just about every form of
storytelling, from religious myth to Greek epic to Hollywood blockbuster
to personal memoir. In this structure, a protagonist is shaken out of
his normal way of life by some disturbance and—often reluctantly at
first, but at the urging of some kind of mentor or wise figure—strikes
out on a journey to an unfamiliar realm. There he faces tests, battles
enemies, questions the loyalty of friends and allies, withstands a
climactic ordeal, teeters on the brink of failure or death, and
ultimately returns to where he began, victorious but in some way
Many of the NDEs people relate follow some version of this structure. In Proof of Heaven,
Eben Alexander describes his experience as beginning with him trapped
in a dark place, a kind of semitransparent mud or "dirty Jell-O,” filled
with "grotesque animal faces,” that comes to feel progressively more
claustrophobic and frightening. Eventually, something pulls him up into
"the strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen”—an idyllic
countryside. There he encounters a beautiful girl riding on a
butterfly’s wing, who tells him he is "loved and cherished, dearly,
forever,” and accompanies him on a trip to a light-filled void where he
meets a divine being who unlocks for him many secrets about the
universe. After spending some time going back and forth between the two
realms, he descends one last time into the dark place where he began,
only this time the grotesque creatures have been replaced by the faces
of people praying for him.
journey is so pervasive in storytelling (indeed, some would say
Campbell ruined modern entertainment by identifying it) because it is so
aspirational. It offers the possibility of an escape from something
that holds you back, and a transformation into something better.
Nobody at the conference better personified the hope for redemption
and transformation than Jeff Olsen, one of the two keynote speakers.
Olsen’s story, which he has told in two books and in various videos on
YouTube, is gut-wrenching: His car crashed after he fell asleep at the
wheel while driving his family back from vacation. Lying in the wreckage
with his back broken, one arm nearly torn off, and one leg destroyed,
he was for a while conscious enough to register that his 7-year-old son
was crying but his wife and infant son were silent. In I Knew Their Hearts, one of his books, he writes, "What do you say to a man who feels responsible for the death of half his family?”
The answer—at least if you are a spiritual being—is "You are perfect;
you are my son as much as anyone ever was; and you are divine.” That is
what Olsen recounts hearing—or feeling, or having somehow transmitted
to him—as part of a "brain dump” during his near-death experience. He
seemed to find himself in a room with a crib, holding the son who had
been killed. When he picked him up, he in turn felt himself being
enveloped by a loving presence that he understood to be his "divine
This is key to what makes near-death experiences so powerful, and why
people cling so strongly to them regardless of the scientific evidence.
Whether you actually saw a divine being or your brain was merely
pumping out chemicals like never before, the experience is so intense
and new that it forces you to rethink your place on Earth. If the NDE
happened during a tragedy, it provides a way to make sense of that
tragedy and rebuild your life. If your life has been a struggle with
illness or doubt, an NDE sets you in a different direction: you nearly
died, so something has to change.
And that brings us back to Susan Blackmore’s question: If NDEs are
only the result of your brain going haywire, why do so many of them
follow a sequence that just happens to track our most basic narrative
structure of transformation and renewal?
There appeared to be
nobody at the conference who thought that near-death experiences are
just a product of physical processes in the brain. But there were
several people whose talks promised to address the science of NDEs.
Alan Hugenot is a middle-aged mechanical engineer who walks and talks
with a kinetic intensity, as if he can barely keep himself from
ricocheting off the walls. His session was called "Leading-Edge Science
of the Afterlife.” Taking the audience through a hodgepodge of advanced
physics and mysticism, he concluded that the entire universe is
conscious and that this explains both near-death experiences and certain
paradoxes of quantum theory.
As someone with a physics degree, I know that Hugenot’s theory is
full of holes, but I also know that the basic idea of a conscious
universe is neither crazy nor new. Erwin Schrödinger, one of the fathers
of quantum physics, was an avid student of Hindu philosophy, and
believed something similar. There’s a long tradition of leading
scientists holding religious and mystical beliefs.
Near-death experiences are perhaps the only
spiritual moments that we have a chance of investigating in a thorough,
But what makes them scientists is that they know and maintain the
distinction between scientific theories, which must be testable against
observable evidence, and mysticism or speculation. So at the end of
Hugenot’s talk, I asked him to tell me how his theory is testable. He
didn’t answer the question at first, but eventually said that there are
experiments that could be designed.
Had he designed them?, I asked.
"No, I haven’t had the chance to do that yet.”
More sedate was Robert Mays, a professorial figure with a Sigmund
Freud beard who outlined a detailed theory he’d developed with his wife,
Suzanne. Mays proposed that a nonmaterial consciousness—a "mind
entity”—could direct the physical brain, like the Wizard of Oz pulling
levers behind a curtain. This, Mays said, is the explanation that
resolves both the problem of how a series of electrical impulses in the
brain becomes the sensation of consciousness and the mystery of
Mays, at least, was extremely specific about which brain cells he
thinks the mind entity interacts with in order to control the brain. He
even has some ideas about what the mind entity might be in physical
terms: "a finely differentiated structure of minute oscillating electric
or magnetic dipoles,” he and Suzanne have written. When I asked him how
his theory might be tested, he said that one could measure the
influence of a person’s "energetic field” on "living neurons in vitro.”
Which would be fine, except that his idea of the energetic field is
something no physicist has ever seen.
For all their differences in style and subject matter, Mays, Hugenot,
and others are offering similar visions: large, all-encompassing
explanations that link things people know to be true with things they
would like to be true and that bring a sense of order to the universe.
It makes sense that NDErs would find such stuff compelling.
But why was there so much resistance at the conference to real, solid
science? At my breakfast with Diane Corcoran, I asked her why nobody at
the conference seemed to be discussing the materialist position.
"Over the years, and with the research that’s been done, we’ve moved
past that,” she said. "There’s always a skeptic or two, but we don’t
bring them into this environment, because this is meant to be a
supportive environment, not a questioning one.” She added, "We put out a
call for papers, but we’ve never had a skeptic put in a paper.”
"They probably feel that they wouldn’t be welcomed,” I said.
"That’s probably true!” she replied. "But we’re trying to expand the
field, and there’s a lot of work in consciousness existing outside the
brain.” One prominent researcher, she said, argues that "when someone
publishes a paper saying ‘This is the explanation,’ it’s not even worth responding to. Most people who do that have not investigated the field in any serious way.”
At some level, I find this reasonable. A lot of writing about NDEs
does not merely question experiencers but ridicules them. And it’s true
that the scientific explanations, while plausible, aren’t conclusive.
Nonetheless, at the conference I encountered not just resistance to
but a great many misconceptions about science. In the hotel corridors, I
ran into Hugenot. The whole point of scientific theories, I said, is
that they have to be testable. Testable means falsifiable: you have to
be able in principle to do an experiment that might show a theory to be
wrong. If I were to drop the cup of coffee I was holding, for instance,
and it didn’t go all over the floor but instead floated off down the
corridor, that would falsify the theory of gravity. Every time the
theory survives such a test, our confidence in it increases. But our
belief in the theory always remains provisional: we’re constantly on the
lookout for situations in which it might not hold true. So how, I
asked, is a conscious universe testable?
He parried the question with sophistry: If you let the coffee cup go,
you say it’ll fall down. But which way is down? If you change
perspective and imagine the ground above us, maybe down is up. I moved
to hold the cup up over his head and offered to test that theory. He
laughed loudly and nervously.
By the third day of the conference, I was starting to despair of
finding a voice of reason. Everyone seemed to be on a spectrum ranging
from pseudoscience to full-blown mysticism, with a lot of sheer
ignorance in the middle. That’s when I encountered Mitch Liester.
Liester, a tall, craggily handsome psychiatrist who trained at the
University of Colorado and the University of California at Irvine, has a
gentle, accepting manner that makes you want to tell him everything.
His medical training made him skeptical about near-death experiences, he
told me. But while he was in school his grandfather had one, and then
he kept on meeting other experiencers—not always patients. "People just
began talking to me.”
Liester also allowed that he himself had had a "near-death-like
experience”—something with the features of an NDE, though he wasn’t near
death or on any hallucinogens when it happened. So, I asked him, where
does he himself stand on the idea that mind and body are separate?
"Many people who’ve had near-death experiences aren’t that interested in the science.”
"My rational brain doesn’t quite believe it but, having experienced
it, I know it’s true. So it’s an ongoing discussion I’m having with
Is there a middle ground, I asked, between the spiritualists and the
materialists? It’s hard to find one, he conceded. "A lot of materialist
scientists don’t seem to think it’s a serious field of scientific
inquiry … Meanwhile, many people who’ve had near-death experiences
aren’t that interested in the science.”
Every Monday, Liester has breakfast with a small, eclectic group. It
includes a physicist, a materials scientist, an artist, a chaplain with a
philosophy degree, and a hospice counselor who is also a Native
American sun dancer. They talk about how to take NDE research forward
with a rigorous scientific attitude but an open mind. "I think there is a
way to bridge the gap,” he said.
In our conversation and in a subsequent e-mail, Liester outlined a
few areas that researchers might pursue more deeply. They could image
the brains of people while they’re in trances or other "transcendental”
states. They could study people who claim special spiritual powers, such
as shamans. They could try to probe the nature of the memories formed
during NDEs, and how they differ from ordinary memories (Liester is
working on this). They could devise experimentally sound ways to test
the claims of people who say they have become sensitive to
electromagnetic fields or can interfere with electronic devices. They
could do more research into the death spike that the University of
Michigan researchers found in rats, and perhaps even attempt to isolate
it in human patients. And so on.
Above all, he said, no matter how you explain them, near-death
experiences are pivotal events in people’s lives. "It’s a catalyst for
growth on many different levels—psychologically, emotionally, maybe even
Even if research ultimately shows—as
most scientists assume it will—that NDEs are nothing more than the
product of spasms in a dying brain, there is a good reason to pursue the
investigation, which is that they pose a challenge to our understanding
of one of the most mysterious issues in science: consciousness.
The boundary between life and death, which used to be thought sharp,
has grown ever fuzzier. In a recent overview paper titled "Death and
Consciousness,” Sam Parnia acknowledged research confirming that,
contrary to popular belief, what causes brain damage when you stop
breathing for more than a few minutes isn’t only the lack of oxygen per
se. Brain cells deprived of oxygen can take many hours to decay to the
point of no return, especially if kept cold—hence the cases of people
reviving after being buried in snowdrifts or falling into freezing
lakes. What causes much of the damage, rather, is the sudden return of
oxygen to brain cells in a rush of blood and chemicals, known as
"post-resuscitation syndrome.” New medical techniques are making it
increasingly possible to prevent such damage and reanimate people who
would once have been declared unequivocally dead.
To some people, this is simply further evidence that the mind must be
able to exist independently of the body—or else where does it go when
the brain is dead? To materialists, it is evidence of the opposite: the
mind doesn’t "go” anywhere, any more than the image from a slide
projector goes somewhere when you switch the projector off. Rather, it
shows that the mind and consciousness are emergent properties of the
brain, knitted together somehow by all the physical and chemical
processes in our nervous system.
But if so, then how does that knitting occur? This is the crucial
question for consciousness studies. George A. Mashour, one of the
co-authors of the University of Michigan study on rats, is firmly in the
materialist camp. He notes that if it’s hard to explain how a healthy
brain produces consciousness, it’s even harder to explain how an
impaired brain near death produces such vivid, "hyper-real” sensations.
"Whether there can be a scientific explanation for NDEs is a critical
flash point for the science of consciousness,” he told me.
If we could establish that spikes in neural activity occur in a dying
human brain like the ones Mashour and his colleagues saw in rats, that
could both help explain near-death experiences and give us some clues
about the neurobiological nature of consciousness. Humans aren’t rats,
though. Mashour says it’s unlikely that we can collect enough useful
data on people who’ve had NDEs in the midst of a cardiac arrest and
lived to tell the tale. But his study on rats, he says, at least
"illuminated the possibility” that to explain near-death experiences you
need not "abandon the connection between the brain and consciousness.”
The question of how consciousness emerges is in fact likely to be one
of the defining problems of the 21st century, when we might first be
able to create machines as complex as the human brain. Will those
machines be conscious? How will we be able to tell? Will consciousness
be for them anything like it is for us? And what will the implications
be for us as their creators? These are questions we will be able to
answer only by understanding intimately what our own consciousness
Finally, it’s worth doing rigorous research on near-death experiences
if for no other reason than to rule out at least some of the spiritual
explanations. Those who believe fervently in an afterlife may never be
swayed. There are, after all, plenty of beliefs that people hold despite
overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary (think vaccines, or
global warming). But science advances only by acknowledging the limits
of what it knows and slowly pushing them back. There are no grounds for
sneering at people’s beliefs about NDEs until the work has been done to
Let’s say experiments are done, and there is finally a comprehensive,
scientifically rigorous, and materialist account of what causes an NDE.
What then? Does it mean that all the stories people tell of seeing
angels and meeting their deceased relatives are just fairy tales to be
I would say no. What I saw at the conference—even at its most
bizarre—showed me that even a hard-core materialist can learn a great
deal from NDEs about how people make sense of the things that happen to
them—and above all, about the central role that the stories we tell play
in shaping our sense of who we are.
On this, Susan Blackmore, the arch-skeptic, feels similarly. She concluded her e-mail to me by scolding those who persist in
the false and unhelpful black and white comparison between
NDEs as "true, wonderful, spiritual etc. etc.” [versus] NDEs as "JUST a
hallucination of no importance.” The truth, it seems to me, is that NDEs
can be wonderful, life-changing experiences that shed light on the
human condition and on questions of life and death.