Near death experience - Why they fear the light

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It isn't often that a locally published opinion comes across my plate like a hanging curve ball that didn't curve. Such is the case with Dr. David Whitlock's subtly dismissive summation of the near-death experience published on April 28.

I have spent the better part of two years absorbing everything I can read, watch, or listen to that sheds light on the current theories of neurobiology of the brain, consciousness and matters commonly grouped and labeled as spiritual. These are pivotal matters for a book project I am submitting to editors next month entitled "The Next Awakening - How Religion and Science are Both Wrong."

Whitlock's view of this phenomenon as a theologian, and the reference he cites from a scientist, create an exquisite illustration of my thesis. It is too obvious to pass up.

I will begin with the neurologist. The article cites at length Dr. Kevin Nelson's book "The God Impulse, Is Religion Hardwired into the Brain?" Incidentally, it is curious that Whitlock, a theologian, quotes approvingly from this work. Does he not realize the deeper implications? Or does he see them and chooses to select only the one? I speak of the implication that God is all in our heads. As other neurologists have put it, "We are only a bundle of neurons." No more soul, no free will; nobody is responsible for anything.

Nelson's conclusions not only conflict with his evidence, they are impossible. His main point is that NDE can be attributed to the natural phenomenon of REM intrusion.

The REM stage of sleep involves vivid dreams, and occasionally this stage intrudes into wakefulness, while falling asleep or waking up. The subject then hallucinates, seeing events that are not real, but perceiving them as real. While in a near-death state, the theory goes, the subject hallucinates, bringing up memories of dead relatives. One other component of the experience, the "bright light," is just coincidental, according to Nelson.

It is similar to tunnel vision related to diminished blood flow to the eyes. Further evidence, to him, that this is a brain function is the culturally divergent nature of some NDEs, and the fact that the out-of-body experience can be produced by electrical stimulation of the temporal parietal portion of the brain.

The theory is provably false. First, REM intrusion hallucinations are without structure and irrational. The subject sees pictures on the wall moving, the walls moving and hears strange noises. The NDE is rational, making good sense to the experiencer. Second, the REM hallucinations elicit fear. The typical experience is of being trapped in your body and unable to move. NDEs elicit deep structure and profound peace. There is order and sequence to events. Seeing your own body is reported with REM intrusion, but it is reported as seeing a body-double, while inside the body. There has never been a report of an NDE in the associated literature where the person feels trapped inside the body.

Third, upon waking, the REM subject instantly realizes the experience was not real, whereas the NDE experience seems real, and remains so for the subject's entire life. Fourth, NDEs result in life-altering perspective, whereas the REM hallucination is quickly dismissed. Fifth, NDEs occur when patients have overdosed on drugs, such as barbiturates, that totally eliminates the REM. Sixth, they occur while under general anesthesia when REMs are likely impossible. Seventh, a collection of NDEs have been studied among blind people who report accurately the visual scene in the room, and sometimes, the parking lot. These people also dream, but not with sight; only with sound, smell and touch and have no rapid eye movement when they sleep. (Ring and Cooper, 1998, 1999) Lastly, Nelson grossly overstates his cultural conclusion. He bases it on one single study where another team asked questions to 16 people in India about NDEs. Of these, half were second-hand reports by people who heard of another person's experience.

Also, no temporal parietal lobe stimulation has ever reproduced a NDE. Not one, not ever. Some also claim the experience can be elicited with certain drugs, or oxygen deprivation. Such out-of-body sensations can be elicited, but they are profoundly different than the NDE, (Holden, Long, and MacLurge, 2006). There is more consistency to reported NDEs than any other human experience involving a state of altered consciousness. (Wilbur, 2000).

This attempt at explaining away the near-death-experience is related to the general bias in neuroscience today. They diagram brain activity with EEG mapping, and by locating regions of the brain responsible for certain conscious events, they claim to have proven that the activity is limited to the brain. They have not. As David Chahners points out, this is the easy problem. The hard problem of consciousness study is explaining how the strictly material neurons can produce the strictly non-material subjective conscious experience.

By attempting to solve the easy problem, they are pretending to have solved the hard one. This is a result of the failed paradigm of material science - reduction of causation to elements. The idea of our consciousness having a component existing outside the brain threatens them to their materialist core. It's more important to them than evidence.

The near-death-experience also frightens the theologian. You see, non-believers are not supposed to go to heaven. The experience happens to believers and non-believers alike. Not only that, but of the believers who experience the phenomenon, roughly 75 percent of them report that the experience did not correspond to their previously held belief. Generally, there is no court-like judgment for sins, and no risk of being thrown into a lake of fire.

Like the scientist, the theologian likes reduction, too. They like to keep things all in front of them so they can manage them, including God. Invisible things are difficult to understand, so they must be weighted down and labeled, so they may be possessed and parceled out in proper fashion.

I need a better reason for facing the fear of an abandoned self. If we know anything about Jesus, and I suspect we know a bit, the reason he gives for abandoning the self is the peace, unity and humility not unlike that reported by most of the people who experience the mysterious phenomenon of the near-death-experience. I also suspect that the consciousness of our mind is the channel for such a transcendent spirit while we are here on earth. It is a channel of grace. The only thing on earth we can do with this immortal wonder is to give grace or withhold it.

Ricky L. Cox, D.M.D.