Philosophy of the Conscious Mind and Near-Death Experience
This essay is a research study of why we have so many documented cases of people with out-of-body experiences.
The accepted hypothesis among scientists is that consciousness originates in the brain. Therefore, if one is dead and detectable brain activity ceases, they can no longer be aware of their surroundings.
If this is the case, why do we hear of so many reports of out-of-body experiences (OBE) that people have during a near-death experience (NDE)?
Does our consciousness survive our death so that we continue in another realm, what many would call Heaven?
We'll examine the mystery of the documented evidence available in the medical field, but I won’t offer any confirmation since I haven't found any conclusive evidence.
Let's begin with the definition of both terms I'll be referring to in this discussion.
Commonly accepted acronyms used in this article:
OBE – Out of Body Experience
NDE – Near Death Experience
What Is a Near-Death Experience and an Out-of-Body Experience?
A Near-Death Experience (NDE) usually happens when one has a cardiac arrest or injury so severe that the brain’s functional ability is compromised.
It causes an out-of-body experience (OBE), a sensation of having left one's body and seeing things from elsewhere. Sometimes floating up and being able to view one’s unconscious body while witnessing a journey to Heaven, a beautiful place with spiritual beings, meeting previously deceased friends and relatives, and feeling a loving presence that could be considered God.
This phenomenon is so widespread with consistent descriptions that there must be a reasonable explanation for it. Why does one person’s NDE look so similar to so many others?
How Religious Beliefs Affect Near-Death Experience
Religious beliefs and expectations could influence the experience. People from various cultural backgrounds, do have slightly different near-death experiences.
There is no reason why Heaven must be a single homogeneous environment. After all, everyone should be comfortable with having an experience conducive to his or her well-being. Right?
Anyway, I've found in my research other examples of NDE where people experienced something totally unexpected and contrary to their cultural beliefs. But even in those cases, there was always a common theme of serenity and peace.1
Can Consciousness Exist Beyond the Body?
I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the out-of-body journeys to an afterlife described by so many people who had a near-death experience. However, I never let my beliefs stand in the way of research. It was interesting to examine the documented cases.
I found numerous examples of out-of-body experiences where the experiencer (as they are called) describes in detail what went on around them during the time they were clinically dead, and the medical personnel confirmed these descriptions to be accurate.
Is that evidence of the survival of consciousness after death? Or are there other explanations for this phenomenon?
I just referred to the term “clinically dead” a moment ago. Before I continue talking about the possibility of consciousness after death, let's review how doctors consider a person dead.
What Is Death?
In the old days, doctors would declare a patient dead if they didn't detect any breath.
That was not very accurate and caused a lot of burials of live people. Do you know where the term "saved by the bell" originated?
A bell would be placed above coffins in graveyards, with a string passing through to the coffin. If the buried person wakes up, he or she can pull the string and ring the bell. A guard would hear the ringing during his "graveyard shift" and order personnel to quickly dig up the coffin.
Modern medicine has expressed different definitions of death, but still without any agreement to accuracy. For that matter, the definition of death is different in various countries.2
The following three criteria are the most common that is the best acceptable method practiced to determine death.3
- No cardiac output,
- No spontaneous respiratory effort,
- And fixed dilated pupils.
That is, however, all based on theory. One may still be alive when thought to be dead, and we are just using the wrong definition.
Modern medicine has reached the stage, in some cases, where people are brought back after all hope has been lost. Does this mean that doctors can bring a dead person back to life? Or does it mean that we’re still getting it wrong, and our criteria for determining death are still not correct?
Is Death The End of Consciousness?
It's possible that those patients who are resuscitated and live to tell about their OBE were never really dead at all.
One theory that satisfies many scientists is that an OBE is simply a hallucination. The problem with this theory is that it doesn't take into account the accurate observations patients had during a Near-Death Experience (NDE), documented in hospitals all over the world.4
Can we say without a doubt that our brain controls our consciousness? And if so, does our awareness end when our body dies? Or does it continue in some form, such as our soul or our spirit?
I have studied many reported cases of NDE where people in a coma, or cardiac arrest, knew what was going on, not only around them but also with other people in their lives, not in their immediate presence while in a coma.
Maybe we are confused about all this because we don’t understand what consciousness is. We think we are conscious, but we can also program computers to simulate perception and make decisions. If our awareness is also merely a simulation, that might change our entire concept of consciousness.
The dictionary definition of consciousness includes:
- The state of being awake and aware of one's surroundings.
- The awareness or perception of something.
- Awareness by the mind of itself and the world.
These are all clear explanations that satisfy our need for a definition. But they are all theories. Here's what I found in Wikipedia:
"Consciousness is the state or quality of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself. It has been defined as: sentience, awareness, subjectivity, the ability to experience or to feel, wakefulness, having a sense of selfhood, and the executive control system of the mind."— Wikipedia
Can Consciousness Be Transferred to Another Realm?
I mentioned above about reported cases of people in a coma, or cardiac arrest, knowing what was going on around them, and they were able to describe the perceptions accurately. Does this mean that their consciousness could leave their body and exist somewhere else in the universe?
Modern neuroscience proves that the brain cannot function without oxygen. That is obvious from the data of cardiac arrest patients. Monitoring equipment detects the absence of brain activity after blood is no longer entering the brain for too long. However, we have three criteria for death.
Without all three criteria to consider one dead that I mentioned earlier, it's incorrect to assume a patient has had an out-of-body experience while in a coma if he or she is not officially dead.
"The issue is not whether there is any immeasurable brain activity of any kind whatsoever, but whether there is any brain activity of the specific form regarded by contemporary neuroscience as essential for the experience of consciousness. And there is no sign whatsoever of those specific forms of cerebral activity in the EEGs of cardiac arrest patients."— Dr. Pim van Lommel, “Endless Consciousness: A Scientific Approach to the Near-Death Experience”
What Dr. Pim van Lommel is referring to is that an electroencephalogram (EEG) only monitors brain activity from the cerebral cortex, the outermost section of the brain.
It's possible that consciousness is still possible by being sustained by the more primitive sections of the brain that are not recorded by an EEG.5
It is well-documented, using electrodes implanted deep in the brain, that during prolonged cardiac arrest, with a lack of oxygen-rich blood to those parts of the brain, there is a reduction (or absence of) brain activity in those deep structures as well. Therefore one cannot expect to sustain consciousness.6
So, where is it? Where has it been hiding?
Flash Brain Function (Author’s Idea)
It's hard to say if consciousness requires a properly functioning brain. There is so much evidence that consciousness exists while in a coma.
Since I have a computer background, I am fully aware of how flash memory (as in USB memory sticks) can retain data without having a power source. So I thought it should be possible that our brain can continue to function at some primitive level without the required power source—namely oxygen-rich blood.
I would suppose that is possible only up to the point when the brain begins to decompose. That, of course, would be the mortal ending.
However, that conclusion is still only the case if consciousness is indeed a function of our brain. But what if it’s not?
Is Death Reversible? Reinstating Memories
The question that comes up now is this: is death reversible? If it's not, that means the words “resuscitate” and “death” are mutually exclusive. We can't use both in the same sentence.
A person is either permanently dead or has been resuscitated. If a patient was resuscitated, then he or she was never dead.
If this is taken as fact, then all the reports of people describing life after death, the light at the end of the tunnel, and similar descriptions of the afterlife, must have been hallucinations.
However, we still can't say that this is "a fact" at all. It remains a theory that consciousness requires an active brain. Therefore the only other theoretical explanation is that consciousness exists somewhere else.
Final Question: Does Consciousness Reside Outside the Brain?
We can all agree that the brain cannot maintain consciousness without oxygen-rich blood, based on the explanation I mentioned earlier.
Under these conditions, the brain is not functioning, and there is no recorded brain activity. The EEG is flat-lined. The person is considered clinically dead.
So what is Near-Death Experience? Are they conscious experiences of real events in another realm, or are they just imagined?
We still have to provide other reasonable explanations for Near-Death Experience, such as the following arguments7 by Dr. Neal Grossman:
- Lack of oxygen can cause hallucinations.
- It's the last gasp of a dying brain.
- People see what they want to see.
- Their vision of what was going on was simply a coincidence.
Yet, we still have to consider the evidence of all the Near-Death Experiences that are on record, which leaves us with the conclusion that consciousness must live outside the brain. But remember, that’s only a theoretical hypothesis.
A well-known neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, experienced NDE where his brain was completely shut down. That was confirmed during his coma with brain activity monitoring equipment. He lived to tell about it, and you can read about it in my other article, “Can Our Consciousness Continue After Death?” based on my reading his book.
"It’s unlikely we’ll know the answer in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean we won’t keep asking."— Dr. Eben Alexander, M.D. Neurosurgeon
1. Karlis Osis Ph.D and Erlendur Haraldsson Ph.D, (Oct 8, 2012). "At the Hour of Death: A New Look at Evidence for Life After Death." White Crow Books, pg 191
2. Peter McCullagh, (March 3, 1993). "Brain Dead, Brain Absent, Brain Donors." Wiley, pg 11
3. Sam Parnia, D. G. Walker, R. Yeates, Peter Fenwick, et al., "A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of the Incidence, Features and Aetiology of Near Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest Survivors." pg 150.
4. Near Death Experience Research Foundation (www.nderf.org).
5. Pim van Lommel, (August 9, 2011). “Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience.” HarperOne. Chapter 8.
6. Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick, (January 2002). “Near Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest: Visions of a Dying Brain or Visions of a New Science of Consciousness.” Elsevier Science, pg 8.
7. Neal Grossman. "Who's Afraid of Life After Death?" Journal of Near-Death Studies, (Fall of 2002 edition), pg 8, Human Sciences Press, Inc.
© 2017 Glenn Stok