Consciousness and the Near Death Experience
The acceptable hypothesis among scientists is that consciousness is produced in the brain, so if one is dead, and detectable brain activity ceases, they can no longer have any consciousness.
If this is the case, then why do we hear 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?
I discuss my research in this article, but I don’t offer any conclusive confirmation. However, I will explain the mystery of the documented evidence available in the medical field.
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 their body and able to see 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 may be considered to be 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 actually 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
Does Consciousness Exist Beyond the Body?
I had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the out-of-body journeys to an after-life described by so many people who had a near death experience. However, I never let my beliefs stand in the way of research. I found it interesting to examine the documented cases of NDE.
I found numerous documented cases of out-of-body experiences where the experiencer (as they are called) describe in detail what went on around them during the time they were clinically dead. In addition, those medical personnel and others who know them confirm these descriptions to be accurate.
Is this evidence of the survival of consciousness after death? Or are there other explanations for this phenomenon?
I just referred to a term “clinically dead.” Before I continue talking about the possibility of consciousness after death, I owe you an explanation of 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.
This was really not very accurate and caused a lot of burials of live people. Do you know where the term "saved by the bell" came from?
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 bell during his "graveyard shift" and order the coffin to be immediately dug up.
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 is the most common criteria that is the best acceptable method practiced to determine death.3
- No cardiac output.
- No spontaneous respiratory effort.
- Fixed dilated pupils.
This is still 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 already reached the stage, in some cases, where people are brought back after all hope has been lost. Does this mean that doctors can actually bring a dead person back to life? Or does it mean that we’re still getting it wrong and our criteria for determining death is still not correct.
This adds more confusion to the issue, which could explain why we are having this discussion about having an out of body experience during a near death experience.
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, that are documented in hospitals all over the world.4
I have studied many reported cases of Near Death Experience (NDE) where people in a coma, or in cardiac arrest, knew exactly what was going on, not only around them, but also with other people in their lives who were not in their immediate presence while in a coma.
Can we say without a doubt that our brain controls our consciousness? And if so, does our consciousness die when our body dies? Or does it continue in some form, such as our soul or our spirit?
Maybe we are confused about all this because we don’t understanding what consciousness is. We think we are conscious, but we can also program computers to simulate awareness and make decisions.
"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
The dictionary definition 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.
Can Consciousness Be Transferred to Another Realm?
I mentioned above about reported cases of people in a coma, or in cardiac arrest, knowing exactly what was going on around them, and they were able to accurately describe the perceptions. Does this mean that their consciousness was able to leave their body and exist somewhere else in the universe?
Modern neuroscience clearly proves that the brain cannot function without oxygen. This is obvious from data of cardiac arrest patients. Monitoring equipment detects the absence of brain activity after blood is no longer entering the brain for too long a period of time. 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.
Being that 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 was thinking that it should be possible that our brain can also continue to function at some primitive level without the required power source—namely oxygen-rich blood.
I would suppose this is possible only up to the point when he brain begins to decompose. That, of course, would be the mortal ending.
However, that terminal conclusion is still only the case if our consciousness is truly a function of our brain—and in our brain. 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, then this 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 he or she 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 Controversial 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 gave you in this article. 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 reasoning for Near Death Experience, such as the following arguments7 by Dr. Neal Grossman:
- Lack of oxygen can cause hallucinations.
- It's a last gasp of a dying brain.
- People see what they want to see.
- Their vision of what was going on was simply 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. This was confirmed with brain activity monitoring equipment during his coma. He lived to tell about it, and it’s the subject of my other article: “Where Is Our Consciousness? Will It Survive Our Death?” that I wrote after 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 and Erlendur Haraldsson, "At the Hour of Death", pg 191
2. McCullagh, "Brain Dead, Brain Absent, Brain Donors", 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, “Endless Consciousness: A Scientific Approach to the Near-Death Experience”, Chapter 8.
6. Parnia and Fenwick, "Near Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest: Visions of a Dying Brain or Visions of a New Science of Consciousness," pg 8.
7. Neal Grossman, "Who's Afraid of Life After Death?", pg 8
Questions & Answers
© 2017 Glenn Stok