Neuroscience Can’t Dismiss Near Death ExperiencesIt’s sobering to note that neuroscience has utterly failed to explain how the brain and mind relate
Neuroscientist Christof Koch has just published an interesting article in Scientific American on near-death experiences:
Near-death experiences, or NDEs, are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes when the body is injured by blunt trauma, a heart attack, asphyxia, shock, and so on. About one in 10 patients with cardiac arrest in a hospital setting undergoes such an episode. Thousands of survivors of these harrowing touch-and-go situations tell of leaving their damaged bodies behind and encountering a realm beyond everyday existence, unconstrained by the usual boundaries of space and time. These powerful, mystical experiences can lead to permanent transformation of their lives.Christof Koch, “What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain” at Evolution News and Science Today: (June 2020)
Koch points out that NDEs share common characteristics across individuals, cultures, and historical eras—freedom from pain, traveling down a tunnel to a light, an intense sense of peace, seeing loved ones, experiencing a life review, and having an unusual sense of time and space. These experiences are also remembered with unusual intensity. To the person who experiences them, they seem “realer than real”—and they often fundamentally change the person’s outlook on life.
It is when Koch addresses some of the neuroscience attempts to explain NDEs that his discussion goes off the rails. The number and variety of the materialist theories he describes counts against their veracity—it conveys more of a sense of groping for any plausible materialist explanation than of sober scientific investigation.
For example, he points out that NDEs are no more likely to occur in people with religious beliefs and beliefs in the afterlife than in people who lack those beliefs. But, far from undermining the significance of NDEs, that finding supports the view that they are not mere confirmation bias toward existing beliefs during a traumatic experience.
He also notes that the historical record is full of similar experiences dating back to antiquity. Indeed. On that topic, I recommend Carol Zaleski’s excellent book Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, a fascinating review of historical correlates to NDEs.
In an attempt to account for NDEs in a fully materialist way, Koch ascribes many of them to “power outages” in the cerebral cortex during the dying process. This is an implausible account for two reasons. First, a sizeable portion (around 20% in many studies) of NDEs are correlated with perceptions and knowledge that could not have been obtained via conventional means. A famous example in the neurosurgical community is that of Pamela Reynolds, who had an out-of-body NDE during cardiac arrest associated with aneurysm surgery. Afterwards, she remembered watching her own operation while her heart was stopped and she could recount precise details of events during her surgery that she could not possibly have known unless she had actually seen them.
Hers is not the only example of an out-of-body experience that is inexplicable in materialist terms. One of my colleagues encountered a young child who had complex skull surgery who described his own operation in meticulous visual detail, despite being under general anesthesia and having his eyes and face covered during the procedure.
The technical details of the surgical procedure were idiosyncratic to that neurosurgeon; information was not publicly available and was not described to the family or the child in the kind of detail that the child reported seeing. The family was so shocked by their child’s awareness of the details that they asked why my colleague hadn’t used anesthesia for the surgery! There are many such examples of NDEs where details of accounts could be correlated, which of course cannot be explained by the “power outage” theory.
The second reason that Koch’s “power outage” theory fails is more mundane. The usual consequences of brain hypoxia and hypoperfusion are very well understood and they invariably entail confusion, diminished sensations, loss of memory, etc.. All of these experiences are antithetical to NDEs, which are characterized by stunning clarity, inexplicable knowledge, and lifelong memory of the events. NDEs improve awareness and understanding, which is utterly unlike brain hypoxia and brain damage.
Other materialist explanations for NDEs fail in much the same way. While drug intoxication, seizures, uncontrolled release of neurotransmitters, and the like may have some superficial resemblances to NDEs, all of them utterly fail to capture the whole phenomenon. NDEs are radically different from any mental experience caused by brain impairment.
As you might imagine, this lack of evidence for materialist theories presents a problem to neuroscientists with a materialist bias. Koch explains:
I accept the reality of these intensely felt experiences. They are as authentic as any other subjective feeling or perception. As a scientist, however, I operate under the hypothesis that all our thoughts, memories, percepts and experiences are an ineluctable consequence of the natural causal powers of our brain rather than of any supernatural ones. That premise has served science and its handmaiden, technology, extremely well over the past few centuries. Unless there is extraordinary, compelling, objective evidence to the contrary, I see no reason to abandon this assumption… The challenge, then, is to explain NDEs within a natural framework.Christof Koch, “What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about the Brain” at Evolution News and Science Today: (June 2020)
Koch is mistaken. The scientific challenge is to explain NDEs, full stop. Groping for an explanation of NDEs “… within a natural framework” is a metaphysical project, not a scientific project. It may indeed be a stimulating intellectual exercise to account for NDEs within the narrow confines of materialist metaphysics. Many neuroscientists have been trying very hard to do so. But such science-by-confirmation-bias isn’t really science. It’s philosophy—an effort to cram scientific data into a materialist straitjacket, rather than to use all the evidence on NDEs to reach an inference to the best explanation, regardless of the metaphysical boundaries crossed.
Koch’s argument that “[materialism] has served science and its handmaiden, technology, extremely well over the past few centuries” is simply not true. After amassing an extraordinary body of data about the brain over the past two centuries, we still have no clue as to how three pounds of brain meat gives rise to the mind. The Hard Problem of the mind-brain relationship—the problem of explaining mental phenomena as wholly the consequence of the brain—remains completely unsolved, despite the fact that mental phenomena are the salient characteristics of consciousness.
It’s sobering to note that neuroscience has utterly failed to explain how the brain and mind relate. It is as if cosmology had failed to tell us anything meaningful about the universe; or medical science failed to tell us anything about health and disease; or geology failed to tell us anything about rocks. Neuroscience has told us nothing— nothing—about how the brain gives rise to the mind. The Hard Problem, after two centuries of neuroscience and a vast trove of data, remains utterly unsolved.
Philosopher Roger Scruton (1944–2020) famously described neuroscience as “a vast collection of answers with no memory of the questions.” It seems reasonable to attribute this abject failure of neuroscience—and neuroscience is a failure (how many other scientific disciplines have utterly failed to explain the salient phenomenon of the system they study?)—to the rigid materialist bias of its practitioners. If you’ve been digging in the same spot for centuries and haven’t found the treasure, maybe you’ve been digging in the wrong spot.
The scientific challenge is to explain NDE’s, not to explain them away. As Koch makes clear, materialist neuroscience is busy proffering materialist explanations that deny the ontological reality of NDEs. That is a philosophical project, not inherently a scientific one. And, as both philosophy and science, the materialist project fails.
One is reminded of the story of the man looking for his keys at night under a street lamp, not because that’s where he dropped them, but because that’s the only place where he can see. In neuroscience, the darkness where the keys might be lying is a self-imposed darkness—the intellectual darkness of materialism.
The best scientific explanation—the explanation that best fits the evidence—is that some NDE’s represent genuine experiences of life after death and this scientific inference transcends materialist metaphysics.
Further reading on near-death experiences:
Do near-death experiences defy science? NDEs do not defy science. They sometimes challenge human senses, which are based on our biology. For example, if the human eye’s usual limitations were not a factor, previously unknown colors—which we KNOW from science to exist—might be perceived.
Why medical scientists take near-death experiences seriously now. Today, we know much more about what happens to people when they die—and what we are learning does not support materialism. Near-death experiences are generally seen as real, even among hardcore skeptics and research focuses on how to account for them.