Are NDEs evidence for the separation of the mind and body?
The idea of a near death experience may sound uncomfortable or even questionable to those who have been fortunate enough to avoid coming close to death in their lives. However, decades of science shows that near death experiences mostly have the opposite effect on survivors. A near death experience is a conscious experience in people close to death who go on to survive. It is reported as a vivid, spiritual experience where the individual may meet deceased loved ones or religious figures, have an out of body experience, or find themselves heading towards a light at the end of a tunnel. Research has shown that people who have near death experiences show a reduction in their fear of death and reduced death anxiety (Pehlivanova et al., 2022). Although some individuals do have negative experiences, the majority report positive impacts with research from van Lommel et al. (2001) finding the impact to still be evident 8 years after.
Van Lommel et al. (2001) investigated near death experiences in a sample of cardiac arrest patients and found a significant increase in the belief of an afterlife and spiritual thinking. Interestingly, the researchers concluded that since only 18% of the patients reported near death experiences, physiological explanations (such as oxygen starvation) are insufficient as all patients would be expected to report having a near death experience given the circumstance. The researchers suggest alternative explanations like the dying brain hypothesis should be investigated. This theory uses near death experiences as evidence for the idea that the mind and body are separate.
The dying brain hypothesis assumes that when an individual is close to death, their brain is inactive. This means any conscious experience that the individual has would exist separately to their physical brain and body. However, as Braithwaite (2008) argues there is no scientific evidence to show that consciousness can be present in the dead. Additionally, he adds that brain scans of neurological inactivity cannot be sufficient evidence for the dying brain account. This is because neural disinhibition can be triggered by a variety of other factors such as drug use, pathology, epilepsy and more which are associated with hallucinations and abnormal perceptual experiences. The dying brain hypothesis may be founded on bad scientific practice as psychological research is conducted under the principle of falsifiability. This refers to the idea that a hypothesis must have the ability to be proven false through testing for it to be considered scientific (Popper, 1959). This can be considered an issue for the dying brain hypothesis as there is no current experiment that can test this theory to be true or false, suggesting it to be founded on non-scientific principles. Early behaviourist research in psychology heavily emphasised the use of observable stimuli while cognitive psychology challenged this practice by questioning the underlying cognitive mechanisms in the brain that cannot be seen. Psychological research has since evolved to a use variety of experimental measures which all hold the same intention to have good scientific practices and conclusions based on evidence.
Although near death experiences are yet to be fully understood, researchers hope to expand on current knowledge and create more complete explanations compared to the dying brain hypothesis. Furthermore, neurocognitive psychology is a very relevant field of research and poses many interesting questions in relation to why our minds work the way they do, and what implications does this cause for other fields like philosophy? Additionally, researchers hope that the increase in information surrounding near death experiences will also allow us to understand similar phenomenon such as out of body experiences and a variety of hallucinations.
Psychology student at Lancaster University
Braithwaite, J. J. (2008). Towards a cognitive neuroscience of the dying brain. Skeptic, 21, 8 16.
Pehlivanova, M., Carroll, A., & Greyson, B. (2022). Which near-death experience features are associated with reduced fear of death?. Mortality, 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1080/13576275.2021.2017868
van Lommel P., van Wees R., Meyers V., & Elfferich I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet
Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. University Press.