A number of theories have been offered to account for the occurrence of near-death experiences (NDEs). The large majority of them suffer from a common problem which is a narrow focus on a single physiological condition. A second problem is that there are good arguments against each of them. For example, a widely quoted theory is that NDEs result from an insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain. However, Sherwin Nuland (1994), a surgeon, pointed out that: “When the brain has been starved of oxygen for longer than the critical two to four minutes, its injury becomes irreversible.” (p. 40)
There have been many NDEs during which the brain was starved of oxygen for a much longer time than the critical two to four minutes without the near-death experiencers (NDErs) suffering any noticeable brain damage. Another serious short-coming of that theory is that it fails to account for the many NDEs that have occurred when the brain was not being starved of oxygen.
Concerning theories that NDEs are produced by hallucinogenic drugs, Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist, was quoted as saying:
“The difficulty with those theories is that when you create these wonderful states by taking drugs, you’re conscious. In the near-death experience, 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 … But, yet, after one of these experiences (an NDE), 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.” (6)
One could advance the theory that whenever any one of the many physiological conditions that have been associated with NDEs is present, the body sends signals to the brain that are perceived in the brain as the body being in great danger, and an NDE occurs. While such a theory includes a wide variety of conditions that are often associated with NDEs, it does not account for NDEs that occur under circumstances in which the body is obviously not in any danger. P.M.H. Atwater (1994), in quoting the results of a survey by the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS), reported that 37 percent of 229 responders to an IANDS questionnaire had their NDEs:
“… in a setting unrelated to anything that could be construed as life threatening.” (p. 90)
The current afterlife theory is based mainly on the belief that NDEs are real. Those who accept that theory are much less concerned about the causes of NDEs than they are about what happens during the NDE and how the lives of many NDErs are transformed in the years following their NDE. A major problem with the afterlife theory is difficulty in providing hard evidence to support it. Critics of the afterlife theory say supporters provide little evidence to support it other than thousands of anecdotal reports of NDEs, which are often referred to as “pseudoscientific” evidence.
Probably the most unusual of all people who have ever had one or more NDEs was Edgar Cayce (1877-1945), a celebrated psychic during most of his adulthood, and who was said to have had about 14,000 NDEs through self-hypnosis. (3) A plausible theory should account for Cayce’s multitude of NDEs, which evidently occurred on demand. A few people have reported having multiple spontaneous NDEs, or perhaps more appropriately, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), seemingly without an underlying cause, and they believed at an early age that everybody had such experiences. Jerry Gross reported that he had multiple spontaneous NDEs as a child and learned to confide only in his grandmother, who also had multiple spontaneous NDEs. (8) Charles Tart was asked by an unidentified young woman to be studied in his sleep lab in order to learn more about her frequent spontaneous NDEs. (13) I’m not aware of a current theory that includes an explanation of the causes of multiple NDEs that occur while the experiencer is undergoing self-hypnosis and frequent spontaneous NDEs, or OBEs, that seemingly occur without a cause.
2. The Theory That Accounts For the Occurrence of All NDEs
A plausible NDE theory should not only include an explanation of what leads to an NDE in some people, it should also include an explanation of why the majority of people do not have an NDE when they are in the same circumstances as those who do have an NDE. An example of such a theory, which is an afterlife theory, is what I call the “Free Will of The Spirit” theory. It is based on the ideas that each of us has a spirit form (soul) with a spirit mind that had free will prior to entering our physical body, it has free will during its stay in our physical body, and it has free will after it departs the body during an NDE, and at some point near death.
In a critique of Susan Blackmore’s “dying brain” theory, i.e., NDEs result from dying brain cells, the unidentified critic stated that:
“What requires an explanation is HOW the spirit interfaces with the body and WHAT causes an interruption or severance of this connection.” (14)
With respect to what causes a severance of the connection between the physical body and the spirit, the free will of the spirit theory leads to the obvious conclusion that the severance is caused by the spirit – it has free will and it can depart the physical body whenever it deems it advisable to do so, for a wide variety of reason, or simply because it chooses to do so.
It is important to note that spirits’ free will does not enable them to choose early in the NDE the type of NDE (heavenly, hellish, combination hellish/heavenly, or neither heavenly nor hellish) that they will have. Certainly, if spirits had such a choice, very few, or none, would choose to have a hellish NDE. Neither can spirits choose such things as whether or not they will go through a tunnel toward a bright light, meet certain beings, have a life review, hear beautiful music, see sparkling cities, and visit beautiful meadows during the NDE. How, or by whom, aspects of the NDE such as these are determined is another missing piece of the NDE puzzle.
With respect to how the spirit interfaces with the body, the physical brain and the spirit mind evidently interface in such a way that whatever the physical brain experiences, learns, and feels, the spirit mind also does those things because once the spirit separates from the physical body, NDErs report that the spirit mind functions much as the physical brain functioned prior to the NDE. The reports of NDErs indicate the spirit mind possesses the same knowledge the physical brain possesses (but it sometimes gains much new knowledge during the NDE), the same personality – including a sense of humor, feelings of anger, fear, and love, an inclination to argue, and a desire for adventure. Tom Sawyer stated that during his NDE, he had all of his five senses, which were heightened, and all of his personality characteristics. (12) Other NDErs have concurred on these points.
3. The Spirit Mind “Takes Charge”
Most people believe that spirits never go OBE while the body is living and then depart exactly at the right moment prior to actual death. While the majority of spirits evidently do that, the reports of thousands of NDErs indicate that isn’t the case with many others. As indicated above, some spirits choose to go OBE only once prior to actual death–resulting in only one NDE. A few others choose to go OBE a few times before death – resulting in an equal number of NDEs. Very few choose to depart dozens, hundreds, or thousands of times prior to actual death — as did Jerry Gross‘, the unidentified student’s, and Edgar Cayce’s, all of whom were mentioned above.
A spirit may choose to depart the body for various reasons and under a wide variety of circumstances, such as, when the physical brain is experiencing extreme fear, when the spirit mind senses the physical body is in a life-threatening situation from an impending accident, or immediately after the accident and severe injuries have occurred to the physical body, when drugs such as ketamine and LSD are being used, whenever the brain is being starved of oxygen under any circumstance (such as loss of blood, smoke inhalation, and near drowning), when the brain is undergoing electrical stimulation, preceding seizures, during moments of sexual and religious ecstasy, when it is being coaxed in some way (as it might be during self-hypnosis and meditation), or for other reasons.
As their OBE is getting underway, many NDErs reported they were very surprised upon realizing they were OBE and the body below them was their own. Some also reported they were very surprised when they realized the severe pain they had been feeling prior to the NDE was gone and had been replaced with a feeling of well-being, peace, and contentment. Some reported they couldn’t understand why they were unable to communicate with medical personnel who were working frantically on their body to save their life. Many reported they were also surprised when they realized their concept of time no longer existed. Surprises such as these are good indications the spirit mind had assumed control, or had superseded the consciousness of the physical brain, prior to or at the beginning of the NDE.
Probably the most convincing evidence that the spirit mind has superseded the physical brain can be found in the unexpected movements of NDErs during the early part of their NDE. Many NDErs have reported movements such as these:
“Suddenly, and without warning, I found myself floating above the light fixture near the ceiling.”
“I found myself out in the waiting room and my parents were there.”
“Then I found myself outside the building.”
“I felt myself moving toward a small white light in the distance and I somehow knew that was my destination.”
If we don’t accept realistic reports of unexpected movements such as these as evidence there is a spirit mind, and it has superseded the conscious mind (but the conscious mind is a willing partner), then we find ourselves in the position of needing to explain how the large majority of NDErs are in almost total agreement in relating such movements and thoughts during the early stages of their NDE.
Although the physical brain and the spirit mind interface in such a way that they almost work as one, the memory of the physical brain occasionally comes to the forefront. For example, many NDErs reported that upon first seeing a light being they identified as God, the light emanating from Him was brighter than one can imagine, or describe, and they had concern that such a bright light would severely damage their eyes. They either soon realized that, in their spirit form, they didn’t have physical eyes, or they quickly found that the extremely bright light did not cause “eye” problems. Thoughts such as these are indications that the memory of the physical brain is present during the NDE.
Soon after reaching heaven, many NDErs think:
“I’m home! I know I’ve been here before. This is where I belong, and I never want to leave!”
4. Support For the Free Will of the Spirit Theory
Edgar Cayce, through one or more of his thousands of NDEs, learned that:
“Souls were given the power of free will so that they would not remain simply a part of the individuality of God.” (3)
Some NDErs offered support for Cayce’s belief in telling about their sojourn to heaven. While there they learned that spirits they met in heaven had free will, and one way the spirits exercised their free will was by choosing the parents of the child whose embryo, or fetus, they would enter. (Williams, p. 112) The NDErs also found out they had free will while engaging in instantaneous telepathic communication with beings they met in heaven. Some reported they were given the choice of staying in heaven or returning to their physical body. David Oakford was strongly encouraged to return to his body but he wanted to stay in heaven. He was finally allowed to choose, and he said it:
“… was really the hardest decision I would ever have to make … Without the free will to return, I would not be here doing what I am doing.” (11)
There are many other NDE reports that indicate the spirits of NDErs had free will and they exercised it. Most of those reports involved heavenly NDEs. Cecil, age 10, said:
“I had the feeling that if I went with them (three beings) there would be no coming back ….”
He exercised his free will and chose not to accompany them. Another being then asked him:
“Why do you hesitate?”
Cecil replied, “Well, there’s some things I want to know first.” (4)
David Goines, at age 13, reported:
“… [the light being’s] hands stretched out to me and a voice said, ‘Will you come unto me?’ I said, ‘No, I still have many things I must do.'” (7)
Jeanie Dicus reported:
“He (Jesus) kind of grinned, I guess I was amusing him, and he answered, ‘You want to be reincarnated?’ ‘Hey, give me a break,’ I yelled (only I made no sound). ‘I just died. Don’t I get a chance to rest?’ [Jesus said], ‘Take it easy, hold on, it’s alright. You can change your mind at any time.'” (5)
Rene Turner was told that her time to die had come, but she was so concerned about who would care for her seven-month-old child that she resisted the beings who gave her that news. She expressed her strong desire to return to her body, but the beings persisted. She reported that:
“Finally, my hysteria (caused by her dilemma) was calmed by a higher spirit who seemed to envelop me in love. My guides were instructed to allow me to return.” (Williams, p. 43)
Reports such as these reflect the spirits of NDErs did have free will in that they had many opportunities to make choices. They not only felt free in making choices, when they met with resistance, they sometimes argued to get their way, and sometimes they got it.
Melvin Morse (1990) stated that he:
“… reexamined a generation of scientific research into higher brain function and … found that the soul (spirit) hypothesis explains many “unexplained” events. It explains out-of-body experiences, the sensation of leaving the body and accurately describing details outside of the body’s field of view. Events … (that) are virtually impossible to explain if we do not believe in a consciousness separate from our bodies that could be called a soul.” (p. 258)
For those who accept “pseudoscientific” evidence, such as the above, the free will of the spirit theory enables us to answer questions such as these:
(1) Why do some people have one or more NDEs and others have none?
(2) Why do some things “trigger” an NDE in some people and not in others?
(3) Why do a few people have many spontaneous NDEs?
(4) Why do NDEs occur under such a wide variety of conditions?
(5) How can NDErs claim to have traveled to nearby and far away places and telepathically communicated with other beings in some of those places?
(6) How can NDErs gain information during an NDE (that later turns out to be true) that they could not have gained any other way?
5. Questions For Skeptics
It is easy for those who reject thousands of anecdotal reports, such as those above, to assert that NDEs aren’t real and then feel their belief relieves them of the responsibility of having to consider pertinent questions related to NDEs. However, the descriptions of NDEs, by both adults and children, are now so numerous, so consistent in so many respects, and so compelling that they can no longer be casually dismissed. Those who embrace a physiological, or other non-afterlife theory, need to explain how their favorite theory helps to answer questions such as these:
(1) How can NDErs form much more vivid images during an NDE when the physical brain is believed to be unconscious than are formed during consciousness?
(2) During the early stages of an NDE, most NDErs see their physical body in the exact position and circumstances in which it actually is during their NDE: lying in a bed, under water, in a wrecked vehicle, being loaded into and transported in an ambulance, undergoing surgery, etc.? What is the explanation for that?
(3) Why do many NDErs report that, upon reaching what they believe to be heaven, they have the feeling they have been there before and have come back home?
(4) One would expect many adults and children NDErs to be either in great awe or fear upon meeting beings that they are certain are God and Jesus (or other major religious figures). Very few adults and children have reported that to be the case. Instead of being in awe or fear, the large majority of NDErs reported they felt overwhelming love in the presence of those beings. Furthermore, an examination of their NDE reports showed their telepathic communications with those awesome beings to be very normal or ordinary. How can these things be explained?
(5) Why is it that a large majority of NDEs, including those of atheists and other non-believers, involve common afterlife beings, places, and events, such as God, Jesus, deceased relatives, heaven, hell, and reincarnation?
(6) Decades after having an NDE, many NDErs remember it as clearly as if it “happened yesterday.” How can that be explained?
Those who believe the growing mountain of “pseudoscientific” evidence is not convincing, and believe NDEs are not real, are also asked to provide an answer to this question:
What kind of consciousness has a motive and the ability to create in the spirit mind extremely vivid but phony images that are so realistic that the human brain later perceives the phony images to be so real that major life-changes are made by NDErs because of those images?
Surely, neither the physical brain nor the spirit mind has anything to gain from creating such realistic, very vivid and long-lasting phony images. Neither does the devil – if there is such a being.
(1) Atwater, P.M.H. (1994), Beyond the Light, New York, Avon
(3) Cayce, Edgar
(4) Cecil’s NDE
(5) Dicus, Jeanie
(6) Fenwick, Peter
(7) Goines, David
(8) Gross, Jerry
(9) Morse, Melvin (1990). Closer to the Light, Boston, G.K. Hall.
(10) Nuland, Sherwin (1994) How We Die, New York, Knopf.
(11) Oakford, David
(12) Sawyer, Tom
(13) Tart, Charles
(14) Unidentified Critic
(15) Williams, Kevin (2002), Nothing Better Than Death, Xlibris.