You know... “near death” still isn't death. Even if all your body functions stop for a little while. Dead is dead. And so far no one has come back with any definitive proof of an afterlife, no matter what religious nutters or paid narrators want to call “facts.” The only facts in play about anything related to death and what may or may not come after is that we simply don't know and that no religion holds a definitive answer.
In this episode we're taking a look at the subject of near death experiences and for the atheists out there, you already know where this is going. For anyone else who might have the slightest inclination to use reports of NDEs as evidence of an afterlife, grab yourself a cup of Earl Grey and get comfy in your seat. We need to talk.
But before we get into that, Shelle has a CBB News segment that is full to the brim with Bakkery goodness and other tantalizing treats from the world of evangelical fuckery...
So, once again, something came out of my mouth during our last episode and my brain said, “there's an episode in there,” so, like I almost always do in these situations, I listened to myself and set out to research the subject of near death experiences, pretty much knowing what I was going to uncover. We talk about this in the three episode arc we did on mortality and the afterlife but I wanted to get into more specific terms this time and show how science may be zeroing in on at least one major cause for NDEs and, spoiler alert, the explanation is 100% Jesus-free.
There are a number of similarities among people who have experienced NDEs and I'm pretty sure even I have experienced one even though the circumstances surrounding mine were radically different from the norm. I think I “saw” what I did because I was convinced that I was about to die. I've talked about this in our episode on dealing with your own mortality, so just to give a quick recap, Shelle and I were in a bad accident in October of 1993. We were in a 1993 Ford Escort and we were ploughed into by a drunk driver in a white Chevy pickup. We were struck fro behind, shot 500 feet down the road, spun out 3 times, and flipped over twice. We came to a rest upright in a ditch.
To this day, I have no idea why we weren't more badly injured but we walked away with a few scrapes and awful cases of whiplash. For a week, the body aches felt about the same as having the flu. But that was it. The effect on my belief in the spiritual side of NDEs? That went on a bit longer.
In most of the stories I read and the clinical accounts I researched for this episode, people's brains are usually in shutdown mode when they experience NDEs. They are legitimately dying when it happens. In my case, I don't think I ever lost consciousness but you can put me down for one key thing that is common to NDEs in those moments: the Life Review. I experienced this. I think I've mentioned this once before, but if you're new...
I literally lived 22 years in a matter of seconds. I mean I saw everything. I experienced moving out of Brooklyn. I experienced Kindergarten. I remembered the first time I got my bike to stay upright. I remembered sledding down the hill behind my grandmother's house. I experienced all my surgeries and recoveries, high school, falling in love for the first time, college (I could have done without that one), getting married... and it took just a few seconds. If I passed out I had no idea but I don't think I did.
So I happen to have some experience in this area and for years I really thought the whole experience “meant something.” Well, it did. It meant I thought on my feet, made sure my wheels were straight and that the car was aimed away from traffic. It also meant that they're right about seatbelts and how they save lives. But that's all I really want to get into about that. As for the life review... fuck if I know how that happened, but I do know it's happened before to other people so that means there HAS TO be a natural explanation for it.
Beyond and Back
IMDB politely lists this title as a documentary. It isn't. It's a docu-drama at best. No real people, just actors re-enacting other people's stories and doing it badly. The acting is on the same level as the Mark IV movies (Thief in the Night, etc...)
The GAMcast guys made fleeting mention of something I found interesting that also shows up in the Wikipedia for this cinematic trash fire. “The movie was filmed by cinematographer Henning Schellerup, a veteran of late '60s and early '70s porn films such as Come One, Come All (1970) and Heterosexualis (1973). It's also been speculated that he brought a few of his actors along for the ride and... looking at some of these people I would have to say, 'yeah, that fits...'
I also learned why this whole thing looked so familiar watching it more than 40 years later. Turns out, the guy who directed Beyond and Back, James L. Conway, also directed one episode of In Search Of... (Noah's Ark) as well as several episodes of Hunter, MacGyver, ST:TNG and Star Trek: Voyager. Yes, he kept getting work after this despite... everything about it. This movie was pretty much a drawn-out episode of In Search Of... all that was missing here was Leonard Nimoy (but there WAS still a narrator).
I bring this up because, at the ripe old age of seven years old, my mother and I had gone to the drive-in for a second-run screening of the movie Grease. The same night, the B-movie, for reasons I still can't wrap my brain around, was this one: Beyond and Back. They had pretty aggressively promoted this movie on TV, too. Apparently the studio thought a lot of it....
[Ad-lib with details – mom's first major trip down the evangelical rabbit hole? Impact on me as a 7-year-old, etc]
*ALL religions teach that there's a heaven and a hell – um, no, they really don't...
*We've presented the facts – “facts” based on stories told by people who can't prove anything they claim to have seen. Those are some shaky facts. At least In Search Of... made the disclaimer that the information they were presenting was “based in part on theory and conjecture.” This drivel? Nah, fam, this is the real shit here. Whatever...
*They have the nerve to bring reincarnation into the equation *ESP is a thing (why this is relevant is beyond me) *Souls have mass – they weigh just around an ounce
*The movie ends by speaking in very definitive terms about what WILL happen to us when we die, as if they actually know...
You will float down a long narrow tunnel
You will see yourself floating above your own body
Departed friends and relatives will appear before you
You will experience a divine presence
There will be the sensation of actually getting up and leaving the room
A doorway will appear before you and you will know that you're at a point of no return
You will squeeze back through the tunnel
An intense, warm white light will appear and you'll be back in your body
“One thing is CERTAIN – something awaits us!”
*The closing music sounds vaguely like “Jesus Loves Me” in a minor key.
And, on a personal note, every time they cut to a narrator segment I kept thinking, “It's just a jump to the left...”
So that movie was the first exposure I really had to the concept of life after death and there's one story toward the end that had me terrified of Hell for literally years after.
After watching Beyond and Back, I came down with a bad case of blue car syndrome and started seeing this concept popping up everywhere. In popular media (shows like Real People and That's Incredible both took a shot at covering the topics in it). I want to say there was a Time/Life books series on this too but I couldn't find it in a google search. This could be one of those cases where my brain is manufacturing a false memory... and we'll get to THAT during this episode too. But I do know there were various TV evangelists and charlatans that bought daytime air time to scare people about this subject, too and after seeing this movie, I noticed lots of instances of this being covered on TV.
If you want to learn more about this movie, don't do what I did and waste 90 minutes of your life TWICE watching it – just listen to God Awful Movies episode 203. They covered this sophomoric, badly-acted pile of wasted celluloid in July of 2019.
For now, I want to look at some of the other common reports that people have of their experiences and take a look at what science has to say about them. Spoiler alert: not a whole lot of questions surrounding this have been answered but most medical and neuroscience professionals agree: there are natural explanations for all of them and the likelihood of there being an afterlife is slim.
So what is it that people are actually experiencing? What probable explanations exist? Well, let's take a look at some of them.
Drugs and NDEs
Drugs play a big role in NDEs – those the body manufactures, those that can cause someone to flatline, and those used to revive people when they flatline. There are also some patterns with NDEs that are too common to ignore in terms of circumstance and experience.
I found a great article on Scientific American that at least corroborates some of what I believe about this (this is one of those uncomfortable instances where I have to use the word 'belief' because while many, if not all, of the theories around what NDEs actually are are plausible, none of this has actually been proven as of yet).
According to the article, there have been numerous studies centered on the accounts of people who experience NDEs and the language of those accounts. The way people describe what they experienced has many common threads, and it's those common threads that theists point to as “proof” that the afterlife is a thing. In reality, all it proves is the similar genetic makeup of most members of our species and some of the common chemical processes that take place in the body, particularly the brain, when the body is in distress and likely to shut down.
The Reader's Digest version of this account is that most NDEs are the result of drug-induced hallucinations or other reactions to the release of chemicals at key points in the shutdown process of the brain. What I find particularly interesting is how they arrived at that conclusion. They used two sets of data: a large collection of descriptions of NDEs and the descriptions of experiences by people under the controlled influence of some specific types of drugs.
“The researchers drew on a large collection of NDE stories they had collected over many years. To compare NDEs with drug experiences, the researchers took advantage of a large collection of drug experience anecdotes found in the Erowid Experience Vaults, an open-source collection of accounts describing firsthand experiences with drugs and various substances.”
They analyzed the effects of a number of classes of drugs looking for similarities between observable drug interactions and the descriptions of NDEs.
“Each of the drugs included in these comparisons could be categorized by their ability to interact with a specific neurochemical system in the brain, and each drug fell into a specific category (antipsychotic, stimulant, psychedelic, depressant or sedative, deliriant, or hallucinogen).”
But when they set out looking for parallels, they came up short in all but one specific class of drug: hallucinogens.
LSD and DMT were major players in the study. They found that, “The famous hallucinogen LSD was as similar as ketamine to NDEs when the near-death event was caused by cardiac arrest.”
That's another significant part of this: A huge number of NDE accounts originate with the patient going into cardiac arrest. This is the common thread I mentioned earlier. It's one area with lots of shared experiences and parallels and, in a huge number of occasions, involves the influence of ketamine. More on that in a minute.
Not all people who flatline or find themselves at death's door go through this and not only cardiac arrest patients go through it. In fact, I know many people who have suffered life-threatening heart attacks who experienced absolutely nothing while they were flatline, my grandfather included. He reported having lost time. That's it. It was as if he slept through it and he had been clinically dead for over two minutes. But people do respond differently to various drugs and some have very mild reactions where other people might have ones that are much more profound and detailed.
The article also says that, “The study compared the stories of 625 individuals who reported NDEs with the stories of more than 15,000 individuals who had taken one of 165 different psychoactive drugs. When those stories were linguistically analyzed, similarities were found between recollections of near-death and drug experiences for those who had taken a specific class of drug. One drug in particular, ketamine, led to experiences very similar to NDE. This may mean that the near-death experience may reflect changes in the same chemical system in the brain that is targeted by drugs like ketamine.
Ketamine is a major component of surgical anesthetics (and also a hallucinogen) which can have adverse effects on people with heart conditions, particularly unknown heart conditions, and it can easily send someone with specific risk factors into cardiac arrest, along with a plethora of NDE-like effects during the resuscitative process.
Out of Body Experiences
“Some NDE phenomena cannot be easily explained with our current knowledge of human physiology and psychology. For instance, at a time when they were unconscious patients could accurately describe events as well as report being able to view their bodies "from an out-of-body spatial perspective". In two different studies of patients who had survived a cardiac arrest, those who had reported leaving their bodies could describe accurately their resuscitation procedures or unexpected events, whereas others "described incorrect equipment and procedures."
I think that the accuracy aspect of this has to do directly with how alert and observant the patient is when procedures begin. Do they arrive at the ER already arresting or do they have time to take in the sights and sounds around them? Are they paying close attention to what's happening? Are they memorizing faces and voices and sounds without realizing it? It doesn't seem that far-fetched to me that the brain can draw on short term and working memory to construct reasonable facsimiles of details when acted upon by a strong hallucinogen like DMT (which our brains do produce). In cases where accuracy is a little bit lacking, I would assume that the circumstances were much different for the patient just before. They might still have “out of body experiences” but their brains lack the auditory and visual data to construct an accurate picture, so the brain does what it does best:: it makes shit up.
Either that or they're just looking for attention and parroting things they've heard about NDEs.
But let's look at that first explanation: our brains make shit up all the time. They remember things with details that are way off from the way things really are. Things like the Mandela Effect are viable examples of this. Commonly misquoted movie lines and song lyrics fit into this category, and even different perspectives of things and events (physical as well as mental) paint different pictures in people's minds. Interview five witnesses to an auto accident and you'll usually get five different accounts with a few common details. See? Our brains do this all the time: they make up things to fill in the blanks in our experiences and understandings.
So when someone is wheeled into the ER unconscious, it's possible they experience some of the things that are common to NDEs but they don't have all the data. They may feel a separation from their bodies. They may feel that sense of painlessness that comes with the release of endorphins. They may have that peaceful, easy feeling that comes with a massive release of serotonin, but ask them to describe their surroundings and their brains start picking images and events from movies, medical shows, and yes, even those things they've heard about NDEs to fill in details. It's probably less about lying and more about brain trickery when it comes to those less-accurate accounts. Our brains are wired to have a need for explanation and understanding so they use fiction to fill in when fact is unavailable.
Kind of like how so many people believe in God... our brains demand explanations of things and God is an easy fix-all in those instances.
As for being able to recount things they hear, there are numerous reports of people in semingly unconscious states being able to perceive sounds, voices, etc. This is why we are encouraged to talk to coma patients and those in unconscious states – there's a chance they can hear, be it actively or passively. Those active hearers give better accounts of things that happen during those moments.
The Scientific Disconnect
Now, the article does concede that there is a definite disconnect between the phenomena and trustable science, but only because all of the data is subjective. We can't tell what's really going on inside people's heads or how much of what they recount are facsimiles created by the brain based on things they've heard about NDEs.
As for the Erowid collection, who knows how truthful these people were being or if they even took the drugs they said they did? In most instances they probably thought they took LSD, for example, but what if it was actually Peyote? Or Ayahuasca? or Psilocybin? These things matter and they are largely impossible to back-trace. That doesn't negate the fact that so many people have similar experiences and describe them in similar ways.
I personally think that the effects of NDEs correlate closely with people's perceptions of the afterlife and here's why. The article spends a good bit of time on the subject of Ketamine and how it affects people having NDEs. It says
“Linking near-death experiences and the experience of taking ketamine is provocative yet it is far from conclusive that both are because of the same chemical events in the brain. The types of studies needed to demonstrate this hypothesis, such as measuring neurochemical changes in the critically ill, would be both technically and ethically challenging. The authors propose, however, a practical application of this relation. Because near-death experiences (NDEs) can be transformational and have profound and lasting effects on those who experience them, including a sense of fearlessness about death, the authors propose that ketamine could be used therapeutically to induce an NDE-like state in terminally ill patients as a “preview” of what they might experience, so as to relieve their anxieties about death. Those benefits need to be weighed against the risks of potential ketamine side effects, which include feelings of panic or extreme anxiety, effects that could defeat the purpose of the intervention.”
That last part, to me, is very significant. Kinda sounds like this stuff can put you in heaven or it can put you in Hell, depending on how some of the other drugs involved in the process release and interact. It's all speculative and I don't think any of it answers the question of what actually happens at the point of death. It does, however provide at least some anecdotal insight into where concepts like the afterlife, heaven, and hell come from.
It's also important to understand that there are also plenty of experts out there who have studied this phenomenon from a purely secular standpoint and here is just a summary of what they say:
Everything that we experience comes from our brains. We put things in (or, more to the point, the brain gathers its own data) and those things make up everything we know. And it's not just pictures. It's concepts, ideas, song lyrics, significant life events... and everything we learn. Heaven and Hell are learned concepts and, like with dreams (and even in the skewing of certain memories to make them more situationally relevant) our brains have various defense mechanisms.
As the brain shuts down, it does its best to shut off things like pain and fear. And how many movies and TV shows have we seen where people under extreme circumstances tell each-other stories to divert attention or calm someone down? We do that because that's how our brain responds to the stressful things that get heaped onto it. It looks for a way of escape and the most effective tool it has at that moment when we start slipping away is storytelling. At that point...
“Like a town that loses power one neighborhood at a time, Local brain regions go offline one after another. The mind, whose substrate is whichever neurons remain intact, then does what it always does: it tells a story shaped by a person’s experience, memory and cultural expectations.”
Let's look at those three concepts in turn.
Experience – I've already established that everything our brains do and the signals it transmits depend entirely on the data they've collected. The more grandiose stories we hear about the afterlife, the more the brain has in its library to concoct a good story. Remember, most Christians will never crack open their Bibles long enough to gain an understanding of what the Christian heaven actually is and just how much it actually sucks so their brains latch onto the sunshine and daisies accounts they hear from the pulpit about how grandma is in a better place, she isn't in pain anymore, and she is enjoying reuniting with her family and friends and spending real, quality time with Jesus.
When our time comes, we remember the positives and we start applying those things to ourselves. It's at that point where a lot of people will start hallucinating about parents, siblings, spouses, and even pets appearing out of nowhere and calling them to the Other Side. All the things we've experienced – relationships, religious concepts, and mind images we've created for what this scenario looks like come bubbling to the surface and they arrange themselves into a story.
Memory – I don't think that most people who have never experienced a life review understand just how much detail our brains actually hang on to, but the stores of memories we retain are massive and often difficult to tap in our normal conscious state.
Now, our brains begin firing off chemicals that make it easier to see and remember things and all of a sudden, our glass darkly experience of memory can become crystal clear. We remember the good times we had with people who have passed. We put thoughts in our heads at their funerals about someday seeing them again (or a funeral director or pastor puts them there). The memories of standing over caskets and concocting reunion scenarios stay there. And the people we loved the most and miss the most wind up at the beginning of the queue when it comes time for our brains to tell this last all-important story.
Cultural expectations - We also remember the pictures we created (or that were put into) our heads about every step of the dying process: the light at the end of the tunnel, the reunion with loved ones, what Heaven will look like, who we will meet there... and while I don't know just how far out brains are able to take the story, but I do know that they burn out telling it. In the case of a NDE, the story gets interrupted and we return to consciousness.
But one VERY significant thing to understand is that unless the story has been fabricated, there are few, if any, Hindus who come back from an NDE proclaiming, “I saw Jesus and he was not happy that I was a Hindu.” We don't see Christians coming back trying to warn people about Allah. No, Christians have very Christian NDE experiences, Hindus have very Hindu NDE experiences, and so on and so on. There is no uniformity in the cultural or religious details. NDEs depend completely on experience, memory, and expectation to put together the individual person's story.
There are, however some specific details that show up in a lot of NDE accounts that could help answer questions about the chemical processes involved with dying. Many, many NDE accounts include several of the same elements:
Out of body experiences
Removal of pain and fear
Intense light or a “light at the end of a tunnel”
It's interesting to note that that last one – the light at the end of the tunnel – happens at other times, particularly in some epileptic seizures. In fact, some epilepsy patients claim to experience some or all of these effects that are common to NDEs, making it that much clearer that these things originate and are executed within the human brain, not with external or spiritual sources.
According to WebMD, there are also a number of negative sensations associated with seizures that don't typically show up in NDEs. This seems to lend credibility to the notion of how specific variables affect the perceptions and sensations the brain is experiencing and reporting to the body when it is under different kinds of distress. There are details that are similar, but some that are very different. Seizures with aura do sometimes present with some or all of the following:
Flashing or flickering lights, blurry vision, dark spots, partial vision loss, or seeing things that aren’t there
A feeling of deja vu, panic, or detachment
Hearing voices or buzzing, ringing, or drumming sounds
Unusual, typically unpleasant smells
Sudden acidic, bitter, salty, sweet, or metallic tastes
A sudden strong emotion like joy, sadness, fear, or anger
And the even more interesting thing about these details is how they do seem to cross cultural lines in ways that others don't. Eventually we may have a more comprehensive understanding of this process, but for now, our brains have managed to keep the specific details at least somewhat of a mystery. Maybe ketamine or another chemical like it produced in the brain is responsible for all of it. We have hypotheses and anecdotal evidences but no proofs. The same article then goes on to explain why the origins of these experiences are so difficult to pinpoint:
From the Scientific American article:
“The underlying neurological sequence of events in a near-death experience is difficult to determine with any precision because of the dizzying variety of ways in which the brain can be damaged. Furthermore, NDEs do not strike when the individual is lying inside a magnetic scanner or has his or her scalp covered by a net of electrodes.”
It goes on to reiterate that cardiac arrest seems to be the one health condition that opens the window of understanding of NDEs the widest. Does the answer lie in the understanding of this process? Only time and responsible research will tell. But one thing we have learned about NDEs is that they do seem to happen under some very specific circumstances and often not at all under others. We now that they are governed my neuro-chemical responses but there are still too many variables in the equation to create a reliable map or chronology of events when it comes to NDEs. The bullet list I mentioned shows some commonalities but the actual sequence of events simply cannot be mapped.
Now for the big question: does what we know about NDEs negate any notion of an afterlife? The answer here is simple: no, it does not. Does that mean that there must be an afterlife? No, it does not. But the evidence does seem to suggest that we get whatever we expect. Well, what if you're an atheist and you expect nothing? Well, ok... I can only speak for myself here but, to answer the question...
1. I know that what my religion taught me is bunk, so evidenced by no one of another religion emerging from an NDE warning the world that they've met Jesus and he's real.
2. I know that as many mistakes as I have made, all the “bad” things I've done don't add up to being deserving of eternal torment.
3. I know that I have no clue what, if anything, comes after.
4. I know that the likelihood of anything existing for me beyond this plane of existence is slim.
As for what I think... I think that I will enjoy whatever my brain whips up for the final scene of my life if I'm not killed instantly in an accident or something similar. If that happens, I doubt I'll experience anything, especially if my brain is damaged.
I think that any perception I have of dying or the things that happen right before will quickly dissipate and I will simply lose my perceptions and expire. If my brain chooses to send me off with a perception of an afterlife that I perceive to just keep going and going, that's A-OK. I'll settle for experiencing something interesting until I can't experience anything anymore.
I'd like to leave you tonight with some kind of definitive proof that explains what NDEs are and what they represent, but until science does, none of us can. Do NDEs have particular significance? From a scientific standpoint? From the standpoint of understanding ourselves better? Certainly. From the standpoint of some kind of higher significance and relevance to our overall existence? Not so much. We still die. Eventually.
I think that science has done a very good job of identifying elements of the experience and relating them back to natural, physical causes. Of course I'd like to know more – wouldn't we all? But this is just another of those instances where, as atheists, we need to be comfortable with the fact that we don't know.
We can speculate, we can study, we can search for answers, but we cannot, and should not, assign meaning and reason to things we don't fully understand. That is one of the biggest dangers of religion – it attempts to fill in the blanks with details that can never be proven or verified. Some of those details are designed to comfort, some are designed to frighten or intimidate. All are fallacious and need to be rejected in favor of an insistence of proof. It's the only way to stop expecting, anticipating, or fearing what lies beyond and stay focused on the here and now where we belong. It's also one more thing we can do to liberate our minds from the shackles of religious superstition, pop spirituality, and blind belief in anything and stay on a path of thought and experience that leads to living unbound.