As a philosopher, Dr. Evan Thompson thinks neuroscience model of near-death experience is fine, but what do NDE researchers say?
Debate over the science of NDEs.
Interview with Evan Thompson, author of Waking, Dreaming, Being on whether near-death experience evidence falsifies the neuroscience model of consciousness.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Ken Jordan about the consciousness revolution and the shifting paradigm in science and our culture:
Alex Tsakiris: I do have to take exception… you’re overthrowing 50 years of neuroscience that claims to understand the correlation between, for example, EEG or FMRI and consciousness. Are we just going to throw that out the window and say, “Well, it’s all just a mystery, folks. All that stuff we thought we knew, we now don’t know.” All because we need to step over this near-death experience evidence.
Evan Thompson: There’s a sense in which I agree part of your point, which is, we have no neurological model for [NDEs]. However, It doesn’t follow that we have good reason to think that these (NDE) experiences transcend the brain… for reasons that we’ve just been reviewing… mainly that all of the inferences along the way from the cardiac arrest shut down, the EEG flat line, the subjective sense of when the experience occurs in relation to the objective timing of what’s going on in the brain – our knowledge of what’s going on in the brain based on an inference of a flat line EEG that all of that is so fragile that we can’t say, “Well, these experiences transcend the brain.” We just don’t have that evidence.
Alex Tsakiris: It kind of depends on how you slice and dice the data. I mean I just gave you verifiable empirical data. So, I think we have to talk about these two competing theories and which one best fits the data. And whether the neuroscience model of brain-based consciousness really holds up [against the near-death experience data], or whether if it’s been falsified. It feels like we’re kind of propping up [the neuroscience model] here and trying to make it fit. I mean, if we’re going to throw all the [neuroscience evidence] out, and say, “You know we no longer have this understanding of correlation between EEG and FMRI and consciousness [for these NDE cases].” Then, I think all bets are off for the neuroscience model in general.
Read Excerpts From The Interview:
Alex: Now one thing you do seem to be moving past in the book, and in your other writings is this neuro-reductionist materialism. Often times, associated with the Daniel Dennett, “consciousness is an illusion” stuff. Now, I take it that’s out for you?
Evan: Yes. Stated that way, I wouldn’t subscribe to it. I know Dennett quite well. I actually did a post doc with Dennett, and I have great admiration for his work. He was very generous with me. However, the view that consciousness is an illusion and that basically what neural science tells us about how the brain works today that that’s enough to understand consciousness, I think it’s fair to say that that’s Dennett’s view. That’s not my view. I think there is really a fundamental gap in our understanding. We have an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the brain, but we really don’t understand how the brain could be the basis where the source or the kind of contingent platform, however you want to put it, for consciousness. So there’s a big question for us there. I think that the materialist solution is just much too quick with that question. So I don’t find it satisfying. I think the idea of saying that consciousness is an illusion doesn’t really work because the very notion of an illusion presupposes consciousness. There are no illusions unless there is a conscious experience or for whom there is an illusion. So that doesn’t really work for me either. At the same time however, I wouldn’t want to go to the other extreme and say, “Well, consciousness is intrinsically mysterious. We’ll never be able to understand it.” So that’s a position of say someone like Collin McGinn, or maybe Thomas Nagel. So that’s doesn’t seem to me to follow necessarily either, and then I don’t want to go to let’s say a different kind of extreme, which would be a traditional Indo-Tibetan Buddhist view, which says that consciousness is non-physical that it’s immaterial and that it’s nature is radically different from the brain or let’s say from living biology, more generally. So I try to thread my way through those difficult places to remain true to what I think is really a touchstone in the end, which is the phenomenology of consciousness. That is in some sense whatever we’re going to say about consciousness is in at the end of the day going to come back to our understanding of it through our own lived experience. That’s very much a principle of phenomenal logical philosophy in the sense coming from say Husserl in western thought. This idea that phenomenology, the logic of consciousness of our experience as we live it in the first person perspective that that’s really in a way a source. Indeed, it’s a source for all of science because science depends on observation, and observation depends on consciousness.
Alex: Okay, but as you’re threading your way through here, I wonder where you’re really landing. Are you talking about consciousness as an emergent property [of the brain]? We have some sense in biology of this idea of emergence, and a lot of people have likened consciousness to being an emergent property of the brain without really ever identifying what the constituent elements of that emergence would be. I your book you likened it to dancing, but we can model dancing. I can tell you what makes up a dance. I can even predict how a dance will turn out. I can’t do that with consciousness. Does this emergent property thing really fit here?
Evan: Yes. So there’s two things there. One, I used the dancing metaphor really when I’m talking about the self. So they’re the ideas that the self isn’t an entity or a thing. It’s a process in the way that we’re now obviously to the way that dance isn’t a thing or an entity. It’s a process. So a dance is the dancing, and the self is something that’s enacted in the process of awareness. There are different ways of experiencing this self depending on whether we’re awake, or asleep, or dreaming, or lucid dreaming, and so on. So the dance metaphor is really meant to capture that, not so much mean to capture consciousness. Now with regard to emergence, there’s a sense in which my view is an emergentist view, and a sense in which maybe it’s not. So the sense in which it isn’t an emergentist view is that I think we have very good reason to believe that the cognitive complexity of consciousness, by which I mean the differentiation of different modes of consciousness in terms of different sensory systems or the ability to think consciously and grasp something in thought, that the complexity of that increases as a function, you could say, of biological complexity. So that the repertoire of possible conscious states for a human being is much, much greater in terms of its cognitive abilities than say the consciousness of a rat or an insect. So in that sense, I’m an emergentist. I think consciousness is contingent on our biological make up. The cognitive complexity of it is contingent on the cognitive complexity of our biological structure. That emerges over the course of evolution and development. Now, the sense in which I’m not an emergentist is exactly the sense in which I was talking about before that there is a kind of gap in our knowledge of how it is possible that there is consciousness in the natural world at all. It’s one thing to say, “Look. We can see that it increases in its complexity according to evolution and development.” It’s another thing when we step back and say, “Yes, but why is if the case that there is consciousness at all.” That’s the so-called hard problem. That’s the so-called explanatory gap. My view about that is that we’re not really able to deal with that problem adequately, given our present conceptual framework. So what I mean by that is our present conceptual framework is one in which we think that what it is for something to be physical, fundamentally, at the end of the day is not mind involving in any way. That we can say what it is for something to be inherently physical without mentioning anything about consciousness or the mind. Then, when we talk about consciousness, we can do the same thing. We can talk about the intrinsic qualitative feel of something. When we’re talking that way, it doesn’t seem we’re talking about anything physical. I think that’s just a conceptual structure that we happen to have inherited from the way that science and philosophy have evolved over the past five, 600 years, even older maybe depending on how you want to date it. So I think in order to really understand consciousness, we would need a kind of revolution in our understanding of nature, so that we wouldn’t set the physical and the mental apart from each other in that oppositional way. So we would really need a kind of deep revolution in our understanding of what it is for something to be physical or what it is for something to be natural in a way that didn’t take those concepts as just from the start inherently opposed to mind and consciousness. It’s one thing to say what I just said. It’s another thing actually to work that out in the context of say, Science. I don’t think we’re near to doing that. Though, we might be able to do that in a hundred years, 200 years. I don’t know. Certainly, some scientists and philosophers have tried to do that with varying degrees of success. So that’s my view at the end of the day about emergence is that, well, it definitely is an important notion in the context of biology and cognitive science. But if we step back and ask this much bigger question about how is it possible for there to be consciousness in a biological one and a physical world, then we are going to need some deep transformation of our thinking and our concepts. At least, that’s what I believe.
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Later Dr. Thompson discusses near-death experience science and why he remains unconvinced that they falsify neuroscience’s model of consciousness:
Alex: … So to recap, [noted NDE research Dr. Pim] Van Lommel sends you this letter, and he [explians his NDE research and why he believes it defies our understanding of consciousness]. He’s a cardiologist. He’s studied these things for 20 years. He’s worked on thousands of patients, hundreds of them with these NDEs. He tells you that during the time his patients are reporting these NDES that their brain is so severely compromised that it’s impossible to generate these near-death experiences.
Maybe I should mention, one of the things about near-death experiences is that there are hyper-lucid experiences that many people report as being the most significant experience of their life. It’s very vivid. Often people remember this more than anything else in their life. They often report like it happened yesterday.
So, back to Van Lommel correspondence with you, he’s saying, “Hey, this is happening at a time when the brain is severely compromised. It can’t possibly any kind of neuroscience model.” And you say, “Not so fast. I looked at the research, and we don’t know when those NDE’s are occurring. Maybe, they’re occurring at a time when the brain isn’t compromised.” As you said, “When it’s going into the shutting down process, or when it’s coming out, or much later in their recalling of it.”
So, since this is a question, I’ve spent at least 50 shows addressing, with some of the leading researchers and scholars. I wanted to bounce some things off you, and see where we wind up, because I’ve come to a completely different conclusion [than you have]. And I have to tell you, a lot of the points you’re making seem to me like things that have been handled over and over again by near-death experience researchers over the years.
I mean first, let’s start with regard to the flat-lining of the EEG and whether we have any measurement of that with people who have undergone a near-death experience. So again, this is something that skeptics have floated out there for years. They’ve said, “Oh, sure, the person had cardiac arrest, and they were out for two minutes, and then they were resuscitated, but we don’t know whether they really had a flat EEG during that time. What I did is ask an EEG expert [about this]. I found one at the University of Toledo, Dr. John Greenfield because he’s written one of most often quoted books on understanding EEG’s. I asked him directly, “What’s going on before, during, and after the flat lining of an EEG?” I’ll tell you what he told me. That through years and years of study, because the EEG has been around for such a long time as a tool… it’s just a tool for measuring brain activity, right? There’s nothing magic about EEG. It’s just a tool, and now we have some better tools… but, we’ve studied it extensively on both humans and animals. We know that right before, certainly during, and right after the heart stops, there is very little going on in the brain that we would associate with a conscious experience. When you ask these folks directly, not the kind of debunking question like “Is it possible that there’s something here, or there, or deep down that we haven’t discovered?” But you just ask them that based on the decades of work we have compiled with EEG’s, is there any chance that these hyper-lucid, vivid experiences could be happening at this time when this brain is so severely compromised like after cardiac arrest? They just tell you there’s no way.
So really, what gets me about it, the skeptical position, is that the notion that Pim Van Lommel, again is this cardiologist. I mean works with these people all the time. He understands what it’s like for people to have cardiac arrest, what it’s like for people after they’re resuscitated, how they don’t recall anything, how they’re extremely amnesiac usually for weeks. To think that this guy has just kind of fumbled through and made this huge glaring mistake in terms of evaluating the medical condition of these patients, I just can’t buy that for a second.
Evan: Yes. Well, I certainly wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say that people are bumbling, or making huge medical mistakes. I would say rather that there are cardiologists whose knowledge is specialized for a certain kind of domain – namely heart function and the treatment of that. They’re dealing with patients in life-threatening situations. These are not neuroscientists or cognitive neuroscientists who are familiar with the complexities of investigating reports of experience and brain activity in a relationship to those reports. It’s not to say that there’s any bumbling; it’s just that this is not an area where it’s been investigated. Now with regard to the point you made about EEG, there are two things: one, is that it takes time for the EEG to go to flat line, and that’s variable – depending on the person, and depending on the conditions. When it goes flat line, it’s a recording made at the surface of the scalp. We have very few recordings of what actually is the course of the EEG during these traumatic events for obvious reasons. That’s not the prime concern, but it takes some time. It’s variable, and then just because you have inactivity of the brain recorded at the surface of the scalp, that does not tell you about much, much deeper brain structure. Some of which we know are crucial to memory and the ability to form mental images. It doesn’t tell you about what is going on at that level. Biologically, when an organism dies, things decay at very, very different rates depending on what they are, the kinds of cells they are, the kind of connections they have, all sorts of metabolic factors. So we can’t just infer from a flat line EEG that the brain is somehow turned off. The brain is …
Alex: But that’s exactly what the EEG experts tell you. They say — we have decades of work with EEG and consciousness and the correlation between the two. We have no evidence that any one ever has a conscious experience, let alone this kind of hyper-lucid, super-duper conscious experience, when the EEG is flat. As to your other point, we understand pretty darn well, just like Van Lommel told John the stage there when the two were presenting together that medical science, we understand pretty darn well what happens to your EEG during cardiac arrest. Just because we don’t have every person who suffers cardiac arrest hooked up to an EEG doesn’t mean that we can’t infer based on that huge body of knowledge what is probably going on with their EEG. I think the only question is — is the near-death experience happening during this period of like for example, when they’re being resuscitated?
Evan: Well, my point about the EEG is that there’s a variable window for the EEG going flat, and so the person is descending into the crisis as it were. That window of time leaves plenty of time for all sorts of subjective experiential things to happen. Then, there’s the time in which the person is reemerging into consciousness. Of course, that’s a time in which all sorts of subjective experiential things can happen. Then, there’s the zone that we don’t really know much about in terms of deep brain function, which is again that just because the EEG is flat, you can have a flat EEG, and it’s still maybe possible. This is something we don’t know. Any scientist who says that we do know, I would take issue with. We don’t know in terms of much deeper structures exactly what their time course have shut down is in relationship to the moment at which an EEG goes flat. Now there was just a study, for example, albeit in rats that was published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Science just a couple of years ago where … and this is not a very nice experiment. They basically induced cardiac arrest in rats, and they see a huge surge of brain activity – very complex pattern involving multiple frequencies and shifting patterns of coherence that happens in the 30 to 40 seconds after the cardiac arrest. Then, you see prolonged activity in the brain for up to 30 minutes after the cardiac arrest. Now, that’s a startling finding in relationship to the classical medical view that just basically says you have a heart attack and your brain shuts down. No. The brain is an extremely complicated system made up of many different kinds of cells with incredible connectivity. It doesn’t just turn off when blood flow and oxygen are no longer being delivered. It goes into a kind of huge phase change of activity that can actually be kind of protracted.
The bottom of the line here is that we don’t actually know the answer to these questions.
Alex: Well, we can always say that. Let’s talk about the Borjigin and the University of Michigan study in a minute because I want to go back and touch on the other question, you raised, which I think is a legitimate question. But to a certain extent, it’s been answered. That is “Are these near-death experiences happening during the time when this brain is really severely compromised or are they semi-conscious and just kind of going in and out of consciousness, and is that one that is being formed?” I do have to just kind of jump in there and take exception. We don’t know the brain is so complex thing. I mean sure we can advance that, but then you’re just overthrowing like 50 years of neural science that says, “We understand the correlates between, for example, EEG or FMRI in consciousness.” We’re just going to throw that out in the wind and say, “Well, it’s all just a mystery, folks. All that stuff we thought we knew, we now don’t know.” This is a way of stepping over this in the e-Data, but I digress because here is the research. We have some good empirical data that suggests that these people really are out when they’re having a near-death experience. I’ve talked to Dr. Penny Sartori, also Dr. Jan Holden at the University of North Texas who you reference in your book, and is one of the editors along with Dr. Bruce Greyson of the Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. What they did, which was and ingeniously experiment, they went on the Cardiac Arrest Board and they had two groups of people. One was the control group – people who had a cardiac arrest and were resuscitated and didn’t have a near-death experience, didn’t report that. The other group had a cardiac arrest and had a near-death experience, and were resuscitated and obviously came back alive. They just went, and they asked them in a very systematic scientific way to recall their resuscitation experience. Then, they evaluated whether or not they were as they claimed above their body, outside of their body recalling the resuscitation. So they kind of scored it and saw who was more accurate – the control group that didn’t have a near-death experience, or the group that did have a near-death experience. In both these independent studies, they find a highly significant evidence in favor of the idea that these people really did see the resuscitation, and that they reported that in a way that it was totally different from the control group. The control group that people that didn’t have an NDE, when you ask them, they were like, “I don’t know. I was dead. I was out. I was unconscious.” They just kind of give a Hollywood version of it. The other version from the near-death experiencers is really precise. Now, if you go and talk to cardiologists, when you talk to people who are in this emergency medical condition, they’ll tell you a couple of things that I’ve learned. One, they’ll tell you that this resuscitation process, despite what you see on TV, doesn’t begin instantly. When a person has a cardiac arrest, the doctors I’ve talked to told me that it’s very unusual in a large hospital for that person to be resuscitated within a minute. It’s usually after a minute or even two minutes after they are gone before they are able to resuscitate them. So when we talk about people recalling their resuscitation, we can be pretty darn confident that their brain state was in this or very, very close to this flat line state. What I just say, it’s just severely compromised to the extent that we have no neurological model for how that kind of brain could generate a consciousness experience. It totally blows that away, and then I want you to go ahead and respond to that, and let’s talk about the University of Michigan rat study.
Evan: Well, so I mean there’s a sense in which I agree with where you ended your point, which is that we have no neurological model for this. I think that that’s right in the following sense. That is these experiences that people report have distinctive phenomenological features that make them let’s say belong to a different phenomenological class than dream experiences or waking hallucinatory experiences. So there’s no question that they are unique as a class of reported experiences – reported now on the basis of memory, and that we don’t really have a good neurological model for those kinds of experiences. I agree with that. However, it doesn’t follow from that that we know definitively or even in a sort of … leaving out definitively that we have good reason to think that these experiences transcend what’s going on in the brain for reasons that we’ve just been reviewing. Namely, that all of the inferences along the way from this cardiac arrest shutdown, the EEG flat line, the subjective sense of when the experience occurs in relation to the objective timing of what’s going on in the brain, our knowledge of what’s going on in the brain based on an inference of a flat line EEG that all of that is so fragile that we can’t say, “Well, these experiences transcend the brain.” If you look at reports about verifiable out-of-body perception, for example, in the near-death experience handbook, there’s a chapter by the researchers you just mentioned on verifiable out of body perception. If you actually look at that chapter carefully, there is extremely little, if any evidence at all, of verifiable out-of-body perception. There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence of people reporting out-of-body experiences. Those can be subjectively very compelling. I mean in my own book, I describe some of my own out-of-body experiences. They weren’t near-death experiences. You know I was perfectly fine and healthy, but they were experiences I had of being out of body. They are very, very vivid and compelling. However, in terms of evidence of verifiable perception, that’s a whole other situation in which we just don’t have that evidence.
Alex: It depends on how you slice and dice the data. I mean I just gave you verifiable empirical data because what they did was very smart. They didn’t try and go line by line and say, “Okay. You said that you saw the sneaker on the ledge. Let’s go see it.” They did it in a well-understood scientific way of saying, “Okay. Let’s go over your evaluation of your resuscitation process, and compare it to a control group.” That’s the kind of work that I find compelling because it’s outlet science. The other point that I made, which I think is the main point in this that we started with. I think we have to get away from this idea of proof and convincing and this and that, and talk about these two competing theories we have and which one provides us parsimony – which one fits the data and whether the neural science model of brain-based consciousness really holds up and whether it’s been falsified. So I feel like we’re kind of keep propping it up here and there to try and make it fit when we say like I think I’m taking what you’re just saying, and I take that as a total movement away from the existing neural science model. I mean if we’re gong to throw that out and say, “We no longer have this understood correlation between EEG and FMRI and consciousness, then I think we have to say kind of all bets are off for the neural science model.” That’s where I’m at.
Evan: I don’t think that’s our situation where we’re throwing out the EEG and the FMRI. In point of fact, what the EEG and the FMRI in the context of neural science of consciousness indicates that it’s a way more complicated story than just consciousness present or absent with regard to awaking EEG versus a flat line EEG with one electrode or two or three on the scalp, and that’s not the state of the neural science. So the kind of neural science evidence that we have, for example, about what happens when you dream where we have very sophisticated high-denser EEG, where we have FMRI, where we have PET, where we have very careful and precise ways of collecting dream reports and scoring them. So this is fantastic science that has evolved over the past 50, 60 years. Well, we don’t have that kind of comparable, cognitive neural science for near-death experiences. Now, for obvious reasons because people in many of these experiences are in situations that are life-threatening, I think it would be much, much better if we did have that kind of scientific evidence through a kind of sustained investigation to the extent that we can do it in these cases. So I think we just need to be clear about the state of investigation here, and the state of the science. We’re not talking about throwing out anything. We’re actually talking about taking a very well-established and progressive research program for investigating the brain in relationship to consciousness, and noting that it’s actually more or less absent in the case of investigating near-death experience that most of what’s said is said by people who are cardiologists who are very familiar with the patient situation, the crises, and who are doing important work, but who aren’t trained psychologists and cognitive scientists in dealing with consciousness with some exceptions. But in general, that’s the situation. I think we need that kind of investigation. It’s got to obviously be collaborative between the clinicians who really know what they’re dealing with as a lived reality, and then the neuroscientists and psychologists who have some built up experience in the complexities of investigating consciousness, especially with regard to retrospective reports about experiences that are some time later in relationship to when the experience seems a memory to have happened.
Alex: We’ll touch on that in a minute, but I want circle back and talk about the University of Michigan study because I think it hits on a point that you just made, which is that you’re saying, “Hey, let’s not be so sure about what these cardiologists are saying in their experience with their patients.” I’m much more skeptical of the neuroscientist that dabble into this. You have the University of Michigan study that you described with the brain surge in dying rats. They got a lot of play in the mainstream science media, especially among in the skeptics. I looked into this as well. I did do it a few years ago actually with George Washington University Medical Center professor, Dr. Lakhmir Chawla, who found a similar result in humans. It’s the same kind of thing brain surge. I also looked at the University of Michigan thing. You know, a few things to say about it. First, it’s not an NDE study. Neither one of them are, right? They didn’t study NDEs. They didn’t study NDE experiencers. They didn’t even review the NDE literature as part of their published work. Both of them just made this little kind of comment at the end like, “Hey, man. Maybe this has something to do with NDEs.” So there when you talk about clinicians, cardiologists like Van Lommel, really coordinating with neural science. I think it’s much, much worse on the other way around, but here is the real problem with all that research. It’s just so obviously flawed. I have to tell you. Before I talked to Chawla about the brain surge thing, I talked to a couple of near-death experience researchers. Privately, they said, “Alex, this is the dumbest explanation yet from the NDE skeptics.” They said so because of a couple of reasons. One is this whole idea of this surge in the electrical activity is part of this last gasp of the dying brain theory that you described quite nicely in your dying book that folks can get on Amazon. It’s this idea that the brain goes through these kind of unique physical changes right before it dies, and then the speculation is that kind of physical shutdown is somehow related to the NDE thing. But, one of the biggest problems with that is that not all NDEs occur during cardiac arrest. You know this, but obviously the reason that there’s so much work in NDEs with cardiac arrest is because we can know and predict exactly what’s going on in the brain without really looking at the brain. So these guys said, “Okay. We have all these NDE accounts. We’re not sure what’s going on. Oh, here’s a great idea. Let’s go into cardiac arrest work because now we know after you’ve had a cardiac arrest, the brain is shutdown.” But if you look beyond that, we have people who have near-death experiences that have no physical trauma. That should’ve raised a huge red flag for these folks that want to say the brain surge in this dying rat is somehow connected to near-death experience. It certainly wouldn’t fit any of those cases where someone doesn’t have a dying brain. But the other way that this fails, this surge in activity of a dying brain, is that there’s a continuity of experience to these near-death experiences. Not all the time, but a lot of times there are. I mean you’ll hear folks say, “Okay. I was stabbed, and I was laying there dying on the street. I was barely conscious, and then I went out. Then, I kind of regained consciousness, and they put me in the ambulance. Then, I was floating above my body as the ambulance was driving to the hospital, and I saw all these NDE things. Then, I regained consciousness, and I saw the lights inside the hospital. Then, I lost consciousness.” So there’s this continuity of experience that they’re reporting. It isn’t like this what the University of Michigan and Chawla are talking in terms of a dying brain. It’s not that it can’t be, but it certainly doesn’t fit. So again, here are some folks that are just not really deeply looking at the near-death experience data. There’s no other way around it. They’re taking a debunking position. It’s apologetics. It’s working backwards from the answer we want, which is, “Hey, our existing neurological model holds up fine. We just need to shore it up here, and shore it up here, and change this.” Because then an objective look at the data, I think it just doesn’t fit.
Evan: Yes. So there are a lot of points there that I think are worth going at maybe one by one. So with regard to the study on the dying rat brain, I agree that linking that specifically to near-death experience in humans doesn’t work. All I would want to claim on the basis of that study is that the idea that the brain shuts down when you have a cardiac arrest is just way too simplistic. That rather, the brain is this complex system with different kinds of rhythms of activity, and that those in the case of cardiac arrest, they have a certain profile. That profile kind of actually lasts for a certain amount of time. So the only thing that study tells us is that in animals who are like us in some ways, and not like us in other ways, when cardiac arrest happens, it’s not for the case that the brain just shuts down. There’s a huge cascade of all sorts of different complicated things going on. So the only link that that provides to near-death experiences is to just caution us if we were to say, “Well, cardiac arrest, the brain is shutdown.” We can’t say that. That study does actually suffice to make that point. It doesn’t suffice to provide us with a model of near-death experiences. I agree that the remarks made in that paper linking the study to near-death experiences are let’s say made with some leaps and bounds. A definitely more cautious link would’ve been better to see, but nonetheless, there is this important point about what happens to the brain when cardiac arrest occurs. That study is informative with regard to that. Now, with regard to near-death experiences happening in situations other than cardiac arrest, well, if we’re using the term near-death experience to mean experiences with certain features that are scored in a certain way based on the reports that individuals give after the experience, of course that’s true. That’s an important fact. Two things to say there, one way is that …
Alex: Just to be clear. I mean I’m talking about white lights, seeing God, the whole shebang from jumping off a bridge or from being frightened that my plane is going to crash.
Evan: So hold one. It’s important for listeners to know that there are different elements that are scored or weighted in order to make out which is something that’s ultimately a construct to make up a near-death experience. Individuals don’t all have the same things happening when they have an experience that someone scores a near-death experience. Different things can happen according to what is reported. Some elements are weighted in certain ways, and the researcher will say, “Okay. That fits what we mean by near-death experience.” Now, that can happen in different situations. Most of which involve trauma, not necessarily cardiac arrest. So the two things to say there are – well, nevertheless, people want to point to the cardiac arrest case as a special case because they think that case provides a basis for saying consciousness transcends the brain. That’s what I am not convinced by. Then, we’re generally in the case of trauma. Well, that tells us something important about what can happen in situations of trauma that there can be these kinds of experiences that have these different dissociative elements like out-of-body experiences. I mean out-of-body experiences for that matter can happen in sometimes in non-traumatic situations as well, so just that one element alone. In those cases, no one wants to make any inference about consciousness transcending the brain because the brain is still there and working, and the body is still there and functioning. It’s only in the case of cardiac arrest that people want to say that. So it depends …
Alex: I don’t think that’s true, Evan. I mean I think what people are saying is that we have completely different physiological situations, and that therefore you guys that are peddling this brain shutting down or it’s all about the brain thing, it falls apart. It doesn’t fit because this person over there had a well-functioning brain. This person over here had a brain that was severely compromised. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “This person experienced a near-death experience because their brain was in the last gasp of the dying brain. This person over here had a near-death experience that we can score it any way we want, and it’s identical to the other one. Their brain wasn’t compromised at all. So I think what people are saying is kind of the opposite of what you’re saying, is that this suggests that we have to look past the current neural science mind-equals-brain model, and look at all the other data that points this way, and look at consciousness as being something more – perhaps consciousness being fundamental, and perhaps being the real construct of reality, and that the brain is interacting with that kind of consciousness. We don’t have to advance that theory. Also, we have to do is falsify the existing neural science model that suggest, as you’ve advanced, that the brain is the biological basis for consciousness.
Evan: Well, in the case of the near-death experiences happening in cardiac arrest and non-cardiac arrest situations, the common factor that people point to is trauma. Then, they try to determine from a neural science perspective, “Okay. What’s the situation with regard to the brain in relation to that kind of trauma?” Then, people say, “But look in cardiac arrest, the brain is shut down.” So that’s where the Michigan study is relevant. It’s to say, “Well, no. You can’t infer that the brain is shut down.” Now that does not provide us with a neurological model of these experiences. I agree with you that that’s way too quick, but that’s the logic as I see it. Now in terms of consciousness being fundamental to the nature of reality … I mean that could very well be the case, but I see that as a huge step – inferential leap that these experiences don’t provide us. So the models that people, let’s call them the anti-materialist models that people … for example, like Pim Van Lommel, want to provide for these experiences, strike me as extremely unconvincing and weak. People want to jump from the difficulties we have with explaining these experiences in terms of current neural science to all sorts of alternative models in which quantum mechanics is usually invoked because quantum mechanics is very weird and hard to understand. So consciousness is weird and hard to understand. So it seems like there’s a link there. These are not compelling to me at all. I think if it turns out that near-death experiences really do definitively falsify a current neural science model of consciousness, if that turns out to the be the case, then what’s likely to be proposed is a new model that’s going to be well-tied to science in some way. These alternative models that we’re being presented with don’t seem to me to meet that standard at all. They seem wildly speculative to me. So I find those very unconvincing.
Photo by David Bruce Jr.
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