Can Science Explain Near-Death Experiences? [Video]

Steve Paulson reports on the faith and science behind near-death experiences

November 23, 2014

The stories are remarkable, and remarkably similar: tunnels with a light at the end, dead family members waiting, angelic beings. Scientists used to wonder if people just made up stories of near-death experiences. Now scientists believe they're real, but they still don’t understand what triggers them. Are they just the hallucinations of a brain in crisis? Or are they actually evidence of another dimension of reality, like so many people who've had near-death experiences contend?

Allan Kellehear, a sociologist at Middlesex University in London, discusses the difficulty in explaining near-death experiences:


…I’m not sure what it is. I can tell you that the hallucination explanation is a bad one; it’s got lots of holes in it. They may be a special type of hallucination. Maybe. Or they may be a window to the afterlife. But I can tell you that the evidence at this stage does not answer it for us.

A few years ago, I got curious about the NDE controversy when I attended a conference with some of the field’s big names, including Raymond Moody, Eben Alexander and Pim van Lommel. My interest grew out of my book on the charged relationship between science and religion. I came to believe that questions about consciousness - specifically, the mysterious relationship between mind and brain - pose extremely challenging questions for both science and spirituality. The effort to explain NDEs strikes me as a nearly perfect test case for examining these issues.

So here’s quick primer on various sides of the NDE debate:

Neurologist Kevin Nelson says there’s a purely physiological explanation for the whole experience - the tunnel and white light, the other-worldly images, out-of-body experiences. You can read his Salon interview to get a sense of his perspective.

Pim van Lommel is a Dutch cardiolotist who’s convinced that materialist science can’t explain out-of-body experiences. You can listen to our interview with him for more information about how people are changed by near-death experiences.

In our interview with Raymond Moody - the man who first coined the term "near-death experience" - he talks about death bed visions, which can be experienced not just by the person who's dying, but by visiting relatives as well.

Sam Harris is the most outspoken critic of Eben Alexander, especially Alexander’s claim that his brain was offline during his NDE. You can read one of his blog posts on the issue here.

One point of confusion is how “near-death experience” has become a catchphrase to describe experiences resulting from different kinds of medical traumas, such as cardiac arrest, meningitis, hemorrhage or stroke. That’s why researchers such as Sam Parnia focus specifically on NDEs during cardiac arrest, when science knows the brain has shut down. Here’s a Telegraph article about Parnia’s recently-published AWARE study, which is the biggest medical study ever conducted on NDEs and out-of-body experiences.

Finally, below you can watch to the webcast of the panel discussion about NDEs that I moderated at the New York Academy of Sciences. Our panelists were Sam Parnia, Kevin Nelson, Peter Fenwick and Mary Neal. You can also download an audio version of the panel, if you prefer.