International Association for Near-Death Studies
On the reality of near-death experiences
Here’s the latest thing to think about:
Are near-death experiences real? A recent study at the University of Liège (Belgium) compared the characteristics of memories of near-death experience with those of memories after coma without NDE, and after both actual and imagined events. Although the samples were small, the findings are surprisingly strong. The memories of NDEs included significantly more detail, a greater sense of personal involvement, and far higher emotional content than any of the other memories, including those of actual events.
The researchers observe that NDEs have too many vivid characteristics to be considered imagined events; they acknowledge the NDEs as real perceptions. However, the research conclusion is that as the NDEs did not occur in reality, they probably result from a physiological dysfunction and are actually hallucinatory.
An article at the website (IANDS.org) of the International Association for Near-Death Studies is entitled, “Study finds NDE memories are not of imagined events.” The author, who is not credited, describes the Liege study briefly and clearly, and responds:
The researchers’ conclusions are based on two assumptions that are inconsistent with other evidence from NDEs: (1) that the perceived events do not occur in reality and (2) that NDE phenomena are determined neurophysiologically. Therefore, other interpretations are possible.
The first assumption, that perceived events in an NDE do not occur in reality, is not consistent with the veridical [truthful] perceptions that are reported by NDErs. In fact, nearly all “apparently nonphysical veridical perceptions” (AVPs) are verified when checked. Janice Holden (2009) reported that of 93 veridical perception cases in the NDE literature, 92% were completely accurate, 6% were accurate with some errors and only one case was completely erroneous.
Furthermore, previously unknown veridical information received during the “transcendent” part of the NDE (e.g. meeting deceased relatives) is frequently later verified. For example, a man saw and interacted with an apparently deceased person and later found out the man was his biological father who had died in the holocaust (van Lommel, 2010, pp. 32-33).
You can read the entire IANDS article (it’s not long) here.
Regular readers of this blog will probably have guessed the direction my comments will take: We need some new vocabulary.
To believe that “NDE phenomena are determined neurophysiologically” is a logical assumption from within the prevailing materialistic view of most academic researchers and their audience. For anyone who has grown up surrounded only by the materialist worldview, that is a foregone conclusion. The only “real” there is, is physical.
Say that an NDE is occurring for an individual who is lying unconscious directly in front of us. The person is obviously, physically present, in the real world; we can see her. But whatever is going on with her is invisible; we cannot see what she is seeing, or measure or authenticate its events as observers. We are not part of what will later be reported; any landscapes or deceased family members are with her, not with us. Remember, “It’s all in your mind” means, “It isn’t real.” From the logical, materialist perspective, that NDE is by its nature unreal.
Ironically, something of the same thought process creeps into the arguments put forward by NDE experiencers and apologists who continue to report elements of near-death experience as if they were physically real. And so we get statements like, “a man saw and interacted with an apparently deceased person and later found out the man was his biological father.” This is how NDEs are reported, and how sympathetic researchers talk about them, as if they were physical events.
Leaving aside the curious question of how one identifies a person as being “apparently deceased,” other than his looking like a zombie, the problem is simple: In common speech, a person/“a man” is a creature, a personality encased in a physical body. We can know an individual’s personality, but we cannot see it, for without a body it is invisible. We may intuit the existence of an individual’s spirit, untied to a body; but that is generally also invisible. A body, being physical, must inhabit some location in the time/space universe, where the only place currently known to be inhabited by bodies is either Earth or in a space capsule. And obviously, despite the movies, there is no known place on Earth populated by resurrected bodies.
It is my belief that the experiencer did not see a person; he did not interact with a man. What he saw was a meaningful image, a perception of a person. What he saw was not the physicality of his biological father but an image, a perception, a message–like a dream image but moreso, from a related neighborhood where symbol carries the weight of being.
That much is simple. What is not simple is the cry of the experiencer, “It was so real! It was realer than real!” And that is the way the experience registers. The far deeper problem is that we have no specialized vocabulary in which to express the reality of the non-physical “something” which he saw and with which he interacted in such a vividly memorable way that even materialist researchers recognize that it was clearly not imagined. Make no mistake: the “something” is phenomenologically real, though it has no corporal existence.
So researchers must logically reject the physicality of NDEs; yet we continue to contribute to the confusion by speaking of NDEs as if they were occurring on some physical plane, as if they relied on a kind of planetary travel. Until we can find a way to make the distinction, researchers will continue to believe, in all good faith, that NDEs must be hallucinatory, and family members and health care professionals will continue to believe that experiencers have suffered some physiological dysfunction. The least we can do, it seems to me, is to be meticulous about referring to the visual objects in NDEs as perceptions rather than as physical entities.
I am convinced that we do experiencers, the research, and the entire field of near-death studies a great disservice by speaking the language of materialism to discuss non-physical reality. Until we can do otherwise, we will continue to mislead ourselves and our hearers about how veridicality works, and where it is these experiences take place, and what they actually mean.