Home > Science Are NDEs of the Brain or Mind or Both?

Are NDEs of the Brain or Mind or Both?

The following is an interesting email discussion that I, Kevin Williams, had with an anesthesiologist named Gerald Woerlee who is the author of the book Mortal Minds: A Biology of the Soul and the Dying Experience which is profiled on his website. Woerlee’s book is a scientific explanation for how human physiology has generated paranormal ideas and senses such as the notion of a “soul” and life after death. His reasoning is along the same line as other materialists who dispel parapsychological explanations behind the near-death experience phenomenon. You can read the preface and first chapter of his book online at his website. Titus Rivas has written an outstanding review of Woerlee’s book.

Kevin Williams

Of course I disagree with his conclusion of a purely materialist view, but because I am not a doctor, it is important to read whatever physiological evidence you can from those who are – even those who take the non-supernatural viewpoint which is the prevailing viewpoint in science today. The true skeptic is not a “believer” but a person who keeps an open mind to all reasonable viewpoints until they are proven false. And because neither the survivalist nor the materialist viewpoint has been proven to be undeniably true or false, despite the recently scientific studies, it is important to keep an open mind and examine all the evidence. I believe Gerald Woerlee’s book provides an excellent case and valuable insight into the brain’s physiology and how it relates to consciousness and paranormal phenomena. And it is this reason I recommend his book for which I first learned of when he emailed me and we had an interesting email discussion about the Dutch NDE study by Pim van Lommel in 2001 and Lommel’s conclusion that it is evidence of a transcendental consciousness. The following is that discussion.

From: “Gerald Woerlee” mortalminds@hotmail.com

Dear Mr. Williams,

Nice, thorough, and even exhaustive. A good website on the subject of NDEs. Yet, as an anesthesiologist fascinated by human physiology, I do find that commonsense is sadly missing in some of the so-called “medical explanations” of NDEs.

For example, the occurrence of conscious experiences in 18% of the resuscitated patients in the otherwise excellent research of Pim van Lommel is readily predicted with a simple flow model of the effects of heart massage. Furthermore, the experience of Pam Reynolds as described by Dr. Michael Sabom is also explained by physiological facts, as well as the practical realities of anesthesiological practice. These physiological explanations of the NDEs described by Van Lommel, as well as that of the experience of Pam Reynolds can be found on my website.

The fact that I can explain these things with physiological explanations does not mean I consider NDEs as mere trivial byproducts of body function under certain conditions. Quite the contrary – I consider them to be amazing experiences giving profound insights into the deepest reaches of the mind of the individuals who undergo them, as well as giving insights into the effects of socio-cultural influences on the individual. Indeed, for many people they are a source of great strength and comfort.

But I do think that more reference to the physiological alternatives to purely spiritual explanations would provide visitors to your website with a more balanced view of the fascinating phenomenon of the NDE. Perhaps reference to my website would help.

Should you wish to discuss this matter further, I am always available for discussion at the address: mortalminds@hotmail.com.

Yours, G. M. Woerlee

From: “Kevin Williams”


Thanks for your email and your input. I checked out your website and found it to certainly be worth promoting on my website. So, if you don’t mind, I would like to put a link in my next newsletter to your website. I am constantly trying to find new websites concerning the NDE – especially from researchers such as yourself.

So far, I have made it a point to stay away from the mechanics of death and the mechanics of other non-ordinary states of consciousness for several reasons. First, I am not a doctor, so I can only profile the opinions of those who are doctors and their opinions concerning this mysterious thing called consciousness. Second, a biological cause of NDEs does not negate the possibility that NDEs are real afterlife experiences. Thirdly, recent studies have ruled out brain anomalies as triggers of NDEs.

So I try to keep my website focused mostly on the experience itself. And although anecdotal testimony is practically useless unless it is veridical, there are aspects to the NDE which are of great interest to quantum physicists and consciousness researchers toward understanding the new paradigm that is developing concerning the nature of the universe and how it relates to consciousness.

Give me some time to look over your website and I may have some questions for you. One thing I would be interested in reading your comment about is this quote by Peter Fenwick which I find fascinating:

“In the NDE, you are unconscious. One of the things we know about brain function in unconsciousness, is that you cannot create images and if you do, you cannot remember them … The brain isn’t functioning. It’s not there. It’s destroyed. It’s abnormal. But, yet, it can produce these very clear experiences [NDEs] … an unconscious state is when the brain ceases to function. For example, if you faint, you fall to the floor, you don’t know what’s happening and the brain isn’t working. The memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness. So, you won’t remember anything. But, yet, after one of these experiences [NDEs], you come out with clear, lucid memories … This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact.” (Peter Fenwick)

Thanks a bunch for your correspondence.

Peace and Light,
Kevin Williams

From: “Gerald Woerlee” mortalminds@hotmail.com

Dear Mr. Williams,

Thank you for your rapid reaction.

Just as you, I also regard the NDE as a real experience undergone by people in any number of situations. However, as a physician fascinated by human body function, I do try and find if these experiences can be generated by the functioning of the body. And my book is a physiological study of just this.

You gave me a citation of Peter Fenwick to which you asked for my reaction, and thoughts. This citation of Dr. Fenwick puzzles and amazes me. Dr. Fenwick is a neurologist and as such should be familiar with the phenomenon of “coma vigil“, a horrible neurological syndrome whereby a person is fully awake and aware, but because they are paralyzed, they appear unconscious. Unlike Dr. Fenwick, my work as an anesthesiologist means my thoughts are very clear – an unconscious person is just that – unconscious – no thoughts, no experiences, no memories – nothing. So a person who reports undergoing an NDE is reporting a remembered conscious experience. And they undergo this experience at a time they appear unconscious, even though they are conscious.

This phenomenon of people who appear unconscious or even dead, yet are fully conscious, seems to be a difficult concept for many people. Yet it is the daily reality for anesthesiologists such as me. During general anesthesia, powerful painkilling drugs are administered to eliminate pain, and curare-like muscle paralyzing drugs are also administered which means people cannot breathe, move, or speak. If the anesthesiologist does not administer drugs to keep such a person asleep, then a person rendered immobile, pain free and totally paralyzed will appear unconscious, even though they are fully awake and able to hear, see, and observe everything in their surroundings.

The same is also true of people undergoing resuscitation from cardiac arrest. About 20% of cardiac arrest patients undergo very efficient resuscitation, and are fully or partially conscious, even though they have no heartbeat, are paralyzed by residual effects of brain oxygen starvation, and appear rather dead. Yet they are able to hear, sense, and visualize what occurs in their vicinity.

These are situations undergone by NDE-ers, and these situations explain why seemingly dead or apparently unconscious people can actually undergo conscious experiences such as NDEs. And these are my thoughts on this citation of Dr. Fenwick.

Kind regards,
Gerry Woerlee

From: “Kevin Williams”


Thanks for your reply. I should have mentioned the context for that quote by Peter Fenwick. He is talking about unconscious patients who are clinically dead including those who meet the criteria for brain death where they are in “standstill” and “flatlined” with absolutely no sign of life. The famous case in point is that of Pam Reynolds whom you are probably already aware. 

There is also a large amount of veridical perception evidence found in NDEs which suggests a transcendental consciousness.

The bottom line is that this and other NDE cases show that there certainly is a biological component involved; but that at some point, when the biological component has ceased to function, consciousness appears to transcend the body. NDE research is only one scientific source where a transcendental consciousness is a theory.

Here is the way I see it. I believe that all these theories about the brain concerning the NDE, while interesting and important, are only attempts to, using an analogy, try to prove that the “music” coming from the “radio” is coming from the radio – which we all know is true. But the evidence also shows that the “music” coming from the “radio” does not originate in the “radio” and that, in fact, from quantum physics and consciousness studies, the “music” is coming from the “airwaves” and not just the “radio”. This suggests the brain acts more like a “receiver” and to say that the “music” is simply a product of the “radio” is just not true given the body of evidence from various scientific research. I have two pages [1] [2] which gives a large amount of this evidence.

So, until I read the medical evidence which explains how a dead or dying brain causes a person to see veridical events from great distances from their dead or clinically dead body, physiology does not interest me very much. There is too much disinformation from magician-skeptics and pseudo-skeptics who are only interested in dismissing the transcendental evidence to support their “religion” of scientism.

So you see where I am coming from. I would be interested to hear from you on this matter. You may be feeling the same way as I do about these things. Thanks.

Peace and Light,
Kevin Williams

From: “Gerald Woerlee” mortalminds@hotmail.com

Dear Mr. Williams,

I have worked through the various pages of your website as suggested. Indeed, when looked at superficially, there does seem to be an enormous amount of veridical information coming from NDEs that does not immediately seem capable of any other than a “paranormal,” “quantum mechanical,” there are “things we do not know about,” type of explanation.

Even so, when confronted with such a mass of information, I revert to die-hard reductionism otherwise it is impossible get a general overview. You cite the case of Pam Reynolds, as well as the outstanding research of Pim van Lommel. My comments on these can be short.

As an anesthesiologist, I consider the case of Pam Reynolds to be one readily explained by the physiology of people under anesthesia. I have dealt with this case in my website. Her OOBE is also explained by physiology, and her “veridical” information explained by alternative explanations. Her “NDE” is also capable of other explanations. All this does not mean I belittle her personally wonderful experience, merely that I explain it differently.

The research of Pim van Lommel is top-notch, but his conclusions are very dubious. I recently attended a lecture given by him in the town of Wassenaar near to The Hague and found him to be a very serious man who has conducted excellent research, as well as a man who really believes in his conclusions. The results of his research were outstanding, but predictable, as were the types of NDE he described. The veridical content of some of these NDEs is also explicable with purely physical phenomena.

I could continue – but I find physiological and physical explanations are possible for each NDE report. Even so, you do raise a fascinating problem, one that has puzzled and intrigued people for countless millennia – is the brain the generator of the radio signal or only the receiver?

I have devoted many chapters in my book “Mortal Minds” to an exhaustive step by step analysis of the evidence for either of these two viewpoints. The weight of the evidence for physiology was such that I could only conclude that the brain is the generator of the radio signal – there is no solid evidence to the contrary.

Hope that this helps answering your question.

Yours, Gerry Woerlee

From: “Kevin Williams”


Thanks for your reply. I agree that veridical evidence from autoscopy does not always meet the higher standard of the strict scientific controls that the scientific method requires. And there is now the theory of “Super-Psi” which explains how a dying brain might observe veridical events at great distances away from it. But despite the relatively small amount of quality scientific and veridical evidence supporting the survival of consciousness after brain death (including the scientific proof of the existence of “God”), there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence that does support it.

But my point is that (1) reductionism does not disprove survival, and (2) understanding how the brain causes NDEs to occur is not relevant to whether consciousness survives bodily death. Using the analogy, we may someday perfectly understand how the “radio” plays the “music.” The question is does the “music” continue to exist without the “radio”? The answer is: Studies say “Yes.” And so does the circumstantial evidence. Here are some interesting links you may want to look at:

Woman Reads 5-digit Number While Out of Her Body

Evidence from Out-of-Body Experiences

— Quantum Physics Supports Survival [1] [2] [3]

Evidence for Extra-Dimensional Universe

U.S. Government Acknowledges Remote Viewing

The Scientific Evidence for Reincarnation

Prayer Works as a Cure

Particles Communicate with Each Other Over Long Distances Suggesting a Transcendental Reality

The “Dying Brain Theory” of Skeptics has Severe Problems

These facts and others must be included in the equation and no amount of reductionism can explain this entire body of evidence away as of yet. So, the ball remains in the materialist’s and the reductionist’s court.

Peace and Light,

Kevin Williams

Ian Lawton (www.ianlawton.com) of Supersoul Spirituality sent me an interesting critique of Woerlee’s theory by a psychiatrist:

As a psychiatrist, I read with interest Gerald Woerlee’s critique of Pam Reynolds’ NDE documented by Michael Sabom, and found some inconsistencies with it.

Woerlee contends that anesthesia can be incomplete and a patient may still be conscious during surgery, and therefore, the patient will be able to perceive what’s going on. He gives an example of where a patient might be inadequately anesthetized and be awake, yet appear to be unconscious and unable to move due to muscle-paralyzing drugs. He mentioned that such a patient would not feel pain due to pain-killer drugs. From this, he infers that NDEs occur while a patient is still conscious and that the effects of various drugs can cause an abnormal interpretation of bodily sensations to account for the OBE. From this, it follows that one cannot experience an NDE while unconscious.

I find this interesting, because if NDEs are due to patients being conscious from inadequate anesthesia, then it appears that a significant number of patients undergoing surgery are conscious and not fully anesthetized. This, as Woerlee stated, “is an event that all anesthesiologists try to prevent.” It seems to me that they aren’t doing a very good job if that premise is true. Now, if patients are awake during major surgery and don’t feel pain due to pain-killer drugs, then I might ask, why bother with general anesthesia? But then, if such patients are given good doses of pain medications, from my experience with patients receiving these medications, they are likely to be groggy and not in a state of clear consciousness. This is not consistent with the state of clear consciousness reported in many NDEs.

Furthermore, Woerlee cites an example of a woman who was administered general anesthesia for a varicose vein operation, and was evidently awake during her operation, but remembered absolutely nothing of her period of awareness after awakening. This is in contrast to those who vividly recall their NDE during an operation, afterward.

In the case of Pam Reynolds, he states that she must have had her NDE just before going into hypothermic cardiac arrest or just after restoration of normal body temperature, but not during when her brain was flatline. If that’s the case, then we would have expected Reynolds’ NDE to be cut off when she went flatline, but according to her account it was continuous all the way through.

Woerlee states that the VEP monitor and EEG machine are not 100% reliable, implying that they could have been wrong during Reynolds’ surgery and thus, she may not have been fully unconscious, even though they indicated no brain activity. That in the face of no heartbeat and her brain being drained of blood. If so, then she was conscious without a functioning brain, which would refute Woerlee’s position!

Also, if Reynolds had an abnormal interpretation of bodily sensations due to anesthetics, that does not explain her accurately perceiving what went on in the operating room. We would also expect an abnormal interpretation of her sensations of the surroundings.

Woerlee claims that even though Reynolds had ear plugs, she would still be able to hear. But such sounds would be muffled and less clear. During her NDE she could see and hear more clearly as she pulled away from her body. I might add that her eyes were taped shut. Actual separation from her body would provide a better explanation.

In view of this, I find Woerlee’s point of view to be flawed and that the afterlife hypothesis provides a better explanation. Of course, physiological changes are involved, but as I see it, they are the manifestations rather than the origin of the NDE, sort of like the electrical activity of a radio’s components representing the manifestations of an outside radio broadcast.