the trouble with tales from the clinical deathbed

October 18, 2012


Skeptics and vocal atheists across the web fumed when Newsweek published a cover story that proclaimed the afterlife to be real based on a firsthand account of a neurosurgeon who nearly lost his bout with meningitis. His tale is hardly atypical from ones we’ve heard many times before across a wide variety of patients who had one foot in the grave and were revived; lush greenery and white fluffy clouds leading to a wonderful and peaceful place, a companion of some sort for what looked like a guided tour of Heaven, all the pieces are there. Such consistency is used by the faithful to say that there must be an afterlife. How else could the stories be so consistent and feature the same elements? If the patients were simply hallucinating as their brains were slowly but surely shutting down, wouldn’t their experiences be radically different? And aren’t a number of them extremely difficult to explain with what we know about how the brain functions?

It’s not as if people could sense when they’re about to die and are constantly bombarded with a description of how they should ascend to Heaven for eternal peace and rest. Wait a minute, wait a minute… They can and they are. So wouldn’t it make sense that so many near death accounts of an ascension to an afterlife follow the same pattern because the patients who remember their alleged journey to the great beyond are told day in, day out how this pattern should go? Most of the tales we get come from the Western world and have a very heavy Judeo-Christian influence coloring them. There’s also a rather odd prevalence of ascending to Heaven in these accounts and cases of people describing torment or something like Hell, while certainly not unheard of in the literature, are exceedingly rare. This either means that much of humanity is good and could look forward to a blissful afterlife, or that most people experience a natural high before death so they feel peaceful and at ease, dreaming of Heaven, while others still feel pain and see Hell.

And this is when Occam’s Razor has to come into play. The second assumption, while not very comforting or marketable to believers who still doubt the idea of an afterlife, makes the fewest, and the most probable assumptions, and if therefore more likely to be true in the absence of a stronger case for a genuine Heaven. We tend to choose the afterlife version of the story since we’re all fundamentally scared of death and no amount of arguing why death is natural or how it just has to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it makes this fear any less. The stories give us hope that we won’t simply cease to exist one day. But whereas believers are satisfied by anecdotal tales, the skeptics feel that we deserve more than just hope being spoon-fed to us. If an afterlife exists, we want to know for sure. We want empirical data. And that’s why trying to sell a story that tickles those who already believe or want to believe in the worst of ways is so rage-inducing to so many skeptics. We need truth and facts to deal with the real world, not truths that people want to hear and facts they can discard at will when they don’t match their fantasy.

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  • Eric

    It only stands to reason that Hindu’s, Muslim’s and other non-Judeo-Christians have had a “near death experience”. What do they see? Do Hindu’s get a glimpse of Nirvana? Are there distinguishing characteristics to Nirvana so that they know they’re not seeing Christian heaven instead? Maybe they get to see what its like as a cow or fly or some other creature to be reincarnated into before popping back into reality. Have any near death Muslims got to see their 80 virgins? I’ve never heard any stories of people seeing hell but there are certainly tons of stories of the other place. There is always a bright, light sometimes they see dead relatives and other times its and out of body experience seeing themselves on the operating table. At least its fairly consistent. It would be nice to believe that there is an afterlife. I hope that I’m pleasantly surprised. I would probably end up in Limbo but at least I’d be in good company.

  • Dan

    You could easily get the same results by injesting DMT. All the pleasantries of a near-death experience without actually having to be that close to dying.

  • Paul451

    Except the visions aren’t the same. The tunnel of light is common, but it easily explained by oxygen deprivation. Some people experience a dissociative state, such as an out of body experience, then return to their body. Others have the out of body experience, followed by the tunnel. Others jump straight to the tunnel. Some feel leaving their body, others feel like they’re in their body. Some of those who experience the tunnel will be “pulled back”, others will be “sent back” sometimes by a voice (sometimes the voice comes from other end of the tunnel, identified as god, sometimes as an angel, sometimes as a favourite deceased relative; and sometimes the voice is someone calling them back to Earth.) Other people pass all the way through the tunnel and on the other side some see relatives, sometimes angels, sometimes god. The environment also varies, being “in the clouds”, or a green field and blue sky, or a grand marble hall, or some combination…

    And yes, some have the nightmarish version, and see hell. And even that varies, sometimes literal fire’n’brimstone (triggered by the smell of burning, which is a classic stroke symptom), something straight into torture (from being in real-world pain), sometimes first being confronted with their past. Other people see a shadowy (and terrifying) figure projected onto an out of body experience, ie, first you have an out of body experience, then you see a shadowy figure coming for you, (a combination of dissociation and the old hag hallucination.)

    However, the same argument is also used to justify UFO abduction stories. “It’s consistent, therefore it’s real”, but inconsistencies are not seen as evidence that it’s not real.

  • Eric

    @Paul – I’m not sure if you were addressing me or the article but it seems like you’ve done a little research or at least read some accounts of this phenomena. You say that the visions aren’t the same but from your description they seem to fall into similar categories and subcategories. Tunnel of light with or without voices, out of body with or without voices possible dark figure, some sort of hell with or without pain or other sensory input (I smell toast!). Some of this could probably be explained scientifically, where or who the voice is coming from is subjective. I mean their brain might be dying, a surge of hormones, etc. I’m not going to split hairs though. All of these examples you pointed out seem to be a more Judeo-Christian experience. I was wondering if people of differing beliefs have stories of the afterlife that fit their belief system. Do Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, etc have different near death stories or do they to have the light tunnel, voices, heaven/hell experience that seem to dominate this sort of thing.

    Since you brought up UFO abductions I have a similar question. Are UFO abduction stories limited to relatively intelligent people of developed countries that have sci-fi as part of their culture? Is their a goat herder in some 3rd world country that’s become the village wacko with stories of Pie-eyed grey skinned bald men and anal probes, or is it only American and European wacko’s that get abducted?

  • Greg Fish

    Are UFO abduction stories limited to relatively intelligent people of developed countries that have sci-fi as part of their culture?

    Yes. The vast majority of abduction reports come from the United States, so much so that if to fully account for the discrepancy, every other country in the world would have to be almost silent about abductions, or the aliens have a tendency to primarily kidnap Americans.

  • Paul451

    My original message was directed at the claim in the Newsweek article that consistency = validity.

    Re: “Research”
    Nothing so formal. Just various reading over the last 20+ years.

    Re: Common elements.
    The tunnel is likely caused by oxygen deprivation. (If you’re conscious, oxygen deprivation can cause tunnel vision before you pass out.) Likewise the dissociative state that causes OBE’s. You’ll also get a peaceful floaty feeling from endorphins and/or morphine. And there’s likely to be a mingling of near death experience with any subsequent dreams that occur after you are brought “back”, but before you recover consciousness in hospital.

    But the combination of elements, and the interpretation of elements are highly individual. There really is no common near death experience.

    Re: Other religion/cultures and NDEs.
    I’m also curious about that. I haven’t read much work that’s been done by researchers that weren’t already believers. (Ie, no work by someone interesting in just documenting the phenomena, rather that “proving” it.)

    Re: UFO’s in 3rd world.
    Many of the detailed UFO abduction scenarios stem from “therapists” who believe in UFO abductions. Hypnosis leads to whatever story the therapist believes in. Seriously, it’s entirely dependent on what therapist you see. Go to one that believes in UFO abductions, and you were abducted by UFOs. Go to one who believes in satanic ritual abuse, and you were/are the victim of a satanic cult, usually involving everyone you’ve ever met, and a bunch of celebrities.) Go to a therapist who believes in repressed memories of childhood abuse, and you’ll come out “remembering” being repeatedly raped by your family (which caused many innocent people to be imprisoned until the courts stopped accepting it, and still tears families apart.)

    So in that sense it’s an entirely western, largely American phenomenon. But there are other common human elements that are the reasons why people in the west go to see those UFO-believing therapists in the first place. Such as extremely common hypnogogic hallucinations (white flashes, missing time, dropping-awake, the “old hag” sleep paralysis hallucination) and, more rarely, parasomnia in general. And those elements are likely to occur in every population, just reinterpreted through different cultural eyes. Demons, witches, possession, etc.