Interpretation of Recent Studies into the NDE
The Journal of
Religion and Psychical Research, 26, 1,
27-31. January 2003.
There is serious
evidence for veridical perceptions during
the stage of flat electroencephalogram (EEG)
in so-called near-death experiences (NDEs).
This paper addresses common counter-hypotheses
for a survivalist interpretation of these
experiences. The only possible alternative
which would account for veridical NDEs is
the false memory through retrocognition-hypothesis.
It is shown why this alternative is less
parsimonious than a straightforward survivalist
interpretation of NDEs.
The near-death experience recently
gained an increased scientific respectability by the publication
an article in The Lancet authored
by Dr. Pim van Lommel
of the Rijnstaate Hospital at Arnhem (the Netherlands) and his
collaborators (Lommel, et al. 2001). Their prospective work
with cardiac patients who were successfully resuscitated after
cardiac arrest, resembles similar research by Dr. Sam Parnia
at the University of Southampton and his colleagues (Parnia
et al., 1998).
Lommel and Parnia have concluded that NDEs are real and that
they cannot be explained by physiological or psychological causes
(alone). Moreover, they have both accepted the implication that
consciousness is not destroyed when our brain activity ceases,
but that there is a continuity beyond brain coma and therefore
probably after brain death as well. Consciousness does not ultimately
depend on brain activity for its very existence, which makes
it downright irrational to take for granted the idea that it
would be obliterated after the brain ceases to exist as a physical
(I mean the non-reductive ones who accept the reality of consciousness
during physical life) generally see consciousness as an epiphenomenon
or correlate of brain activity. For the question of survival,
it is therefore sufficient to show that there is no ultimate
existential dependence of the mind on such brain processing.
The theory of ultimate mental dependence on cerebral functioning
is refuted by the survival of consciousness after the cessation
of (cortical) brain processes, regardless of whether that cessation
is temporary or final.
Return to Top
Experiences and Materialist Theories of the Mind
If it can be shown that consciousness
is present even though the brain processes which following materialist
theories are supposedly known to be responsible for it have
ceased, those materialist theories can safely be considered
as inadequate. Now, apriori there can be several responses to
the challenge that is posed to materialism and epiphenomenalism
by the recent NDE-findings:
This is the usual response by skeptics whenever they are confronted
by results that go against their (unquestionably closed-minded)
world view. However, as the scientific reputation of the researchers
involved in the recent studies certainly seems impeccable, and
as their work has been accepted as worthy of publication in
prestigious journals such as The Lancet, it may be safely assumed
that the standard skeptic objection is simply baseless in this
case. Research into NDEs cannot be dismissed anymore as being
Flaws in the specific interpretation
of the results: Some critics, such as C.C. French think
that the findings of these studies should not be interpreted
in a survivalist manner. It certainly seems to be the case that
some individual patients are fully conscious during a flat EEG,
but they really are not. The memories of the NDE they claim
to have had are simply false memories (French, 2001). This can
be further elaborated in two ways:
(1) Patients who claim they have had a NDE simply suffer
from some kind of self-deception. They never experienced anything
like it, but they just believe they did. At a subconscious level,
they have constructed a fantasy accompanied by images and feelings,
and they project this fantasy into their memory as if it concerned
a real experience of the (imaginary) event while it occurred.
Claimants of NDEs did indeed have a real experience before they
came to, but not during their flat EEG. It happened during the
seconds or minutes before they lost consciousness or during
the last few moments before they fully awoke from their coma,
and it was temporally distorted in their memory as if it really
took place during the flat EEG.
Against both these criticisms researchers
stress that patients are reported to have had veridical impressions
of events that took place inside but also outside the room that
contained their physical bodies and during the stage in which
their brains showed a flat EEG. Therefore, any hypothesis that
claims that these people simply deceive themselves must account
for these experiences. It is very convenient for skeptics that
such experiences, which seem clearly related to extrasensory
perception (ESP) as studied by parapsychologists, are still
quite controversial for many scientists, so that they are obviously
tempted to dismiss them out of hand. However, the evidence for
such veridical experiences (or memories of experiences) is growing
and its quality is also increasing (Ring, 1998; Rivas, 2000;
Abdalla, 2002). So unless we wish to remain hard line skeptics
at any cost, it seems wise to take them very seriously.
What are the implications of real
veridical experiences related to events that happened during
a flat EEG? In psychical research we know two categories of
ESP that relate to a time factor. First, there is precognition
which in this context would boil down to an experience of an
event which took place during the stage of flat EEG before that
experience took place. In this case it would mean that a patient
does not precognitively experience an event which - according
to the false-memory theory - (unlike, say, the case of a Dunne-effect
type of dream) he will eventually experience through ESP while
it is taking place, because the theory holds that there would
be no awareness of any events whatsoever during the stage of
flat EEG. More importantly, the precognitive experiences should
occur before the patient loses consciousness or at least before
he enters the stage of flat EEG, whereas he should lose all
memory of having had such a precognitive vision after he has
I personally cannot take this very far-fetched possibility seriously
and I think we should be confident in dismissing the precognitive
variant of the false memory theory.
The other time-related form of ESP
is called retrocognition, i.e. knowledge acquired through ESP
of past events. The retrocognitive variant of the false memory
hypothesis interprets memories of veridical experiences during
the stage of flat EEG as follows. Patients with a NDE subconsciously
use ESP to get knowledge of past events which happened during
their coma, and project that knowledge into their false memories
during the last moments before they regain consciousness. The
theory needs to hold that all patients with veridical experiences
during their flat EEG were somehow motivated to create a fantasy
and include in that fantasy false memories of real events through
the aid of retrocognition. This means that during the moments
between their flat EEG and their awakening from it, some patients
are subconsciously motivated to use retrocognition to deceive
themselves about their lack of consciousness during their flat
is a very strange hypothesis for NDEs, because it implies that
a patient would not use ESP to perceive events that happen between
the stage of flat EEG and complete awakening, but would instead
focus on events that have already taken place. It cannot explain
cases of NDEs in which there is paranormal perception of events
that took place during flat EEG but also of events which occurred
during the awakening process itself and in which such a perception
is experienced by the patient as part of a coherent and continuous
stream of consciousness.
more fatal weakness of this theory is that it uses a very unmaterialistic
concept - retrocognition - to uphold a materialistic theory.
Even if it were true, it simply could not be defended by a (reductive
or non-reductive) materialist, at least not in the mainstream
sense of this term. By its very nature, the retrocognitive false
memory theory needs to be part of a broader radical dualistic
theory about the mind-brain relation. It might be defended by
the so called "animistic" school of thought within
the parapsychological tradition, which promotes the explanation
of possible evidence for survival after death in terms of ESP
(or psychokinesis). However, it is very ironic that even a hard
line animist like Hans Bender (1983, page 148) concluded that
the ESP needed to explain veridical experiences during NDEs
is in itself suggestive of survival after death.
In any case, if veridical memories
of events during flat EEG are taken seriously, we must leave
the realm of (conventional) materialist theorizing about mind-brain
relations. After that, we have to ask ourselves which theory
is simpler or more parsimonious: a dualist theory which holds
that the memories of events during flat EEG are false memories,
constructed via retrocognition, or a dualist theory which holds
that such memories simply are real memories based on real experiences.
As dualists, we can no longer consider the real memory theory
as less parsimonious just because it would imply survival, because
- as even animistic champion Hans Bender acknowledges- at least
some form of survival is implied by any serious radical dualist
(and therefore also any animistic) theory. Therefore, I conclude
that the false memory-theory is simply more complicated (i.e.
less parsimonious) than necessary. In order to avoid the conclusion
that consciousness survives death, it needs to postulate a mechanism
which is only plausible within a parapsychological theory which
ultimately implies at least some form of postmortem survival
of the mind. So it really is a theory which is more complicated
than a straightforward survivalist theory. It implies both survival
and a strange, unknown kind of retrospective falsification of
memory through retrocognition.
Therefore, in my opinion, we should
only adopt the “false memory through retrocognition”-theory
after it has been empirically shown that memories of NDEs must
generally be false. It's the animists (or moderate survivalists)
who have to show the (radical) survivalists wrong in this case,
certainly not the other way round. It's just a question of parsimony.
The radical survivalist theory is the most parsimonious exhaustive
interpretation of NDEs and it can be falsified by evidence for
a more complex theory such as the “false memory through
Adaptation of mainstream materialistic
neuropsychological theory concerning the present-day registrability
of neural activity needed for consciousness
materialist response (defended for example by Karl Jansen, a
psychiatrist known for his attempts of artificially producing
experiences which resemble NDEs) to the recent evidence for
NDEs is that the memories are indeed real memories, but that
a hypothetical residual and as yet non-measurable level of brain
activity can still account for them (Abdalla, 2002). Of course,
the veridical memories of events that took place in or outside
the patient's room during his flat EEG, are usually ignored
by this theory. If they are not, they should be seen as mental
activities which can be “embodied” in unusually
low-leveled brain activity.
with this theory is that there is (by definition) absolutely
no evidence for it. Theorists seem to be quite content with
pointing at unsuitable analogies such as certain types of sleep
EEG, but no acceptable close empirical parallels have been presented
so far. For instance, during most vivid dreams there is rapid
eye movement (REM). As Pim van Lommel points out, if we accept
NDEs as real experiences during flat EEG, we also have to accept
that patients experience normal, full-blown and even heightened
conscious mental activity in them. If critics want to explain
this away by a still unknown type of residual neural activity,
they have to present parallels which involve normal (lucid)
or heightened conscious mental activity and which can at the
same time be satisfactorily explained by known residual neural
activity. Otherwise, we must conclude that the theory is based
on nothing more than unfounded speculation! It is not forbidden
to look for immunizations of a cherished, well-founded theory
against apparently falsifying results, but such immunizations
should of course be plausible and based on acceptable data.
As far as I know, there is no serious evidence for the residual
cerebral activity-theory as a counter theory for survival. That
is precisely the reason that Pim van Lommel (personal communication)
simply rejects it as having no scientific basis.
Return to Top
Abdalla, M. (2002). Cardioloog Pim van Lommel
haalt bijna-dood ervaringen uit het donker.
Paravisie, 17, 13-27.
Bender, H. (1983). Zukunftsvisionen, Kriegsprophezeiungen,
Sterbeerlebnisse. Munich: R. Piper Verlag.
French, C.C. (2001). Dying to know the truth:
visions of a dying brain, or false memories?
The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2010.
Lommel, P. van, Wees, R. van, Meyers, V., &
Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience
in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective
study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358, 9298,
Parnia, S., Waller, D.G., Yeates, R., &
Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative
study of the incidence, features and aetiology
of near death experiences in cardiac arrest
survivors. Resuscitation, 48, 149-156.
Ring, K. (1998). Lessons From The Light: What
We Can Learn From the Near-Death Experience.
New York: Insight Books.
Rivas, T. (2000). Herinneringen aan een periode
tussen twee levens. Prana, 120, 33-38.
I'm grateful to Dr.
Pim van Lommel, Anny Stevens-Dirven and Pieter van Wezel, MA,
and Dr. Donald R. Morse for their useful comments.
Reprint requests to:
Titus Rivas, "Athanasia", Darrenhof 9, 6533 RT,
Nijmegen, The Netherlands firstname.lastname@example.org