The Science of Near-Death Experiences


EXCERPT: [...] Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real, the sensations of having been there certainly are. There is something about NDEs that makes them scientifically intriguing. While you can’t rely on an alien abduction or a spiritual visitation taking place just when you’ve got recording instruments handy, many NDEs happen when a person is surrounded by an arsenal of devices designed to measure every single thing about the body that human ingenuity has made us capable of measuring.

[...] it’s worth doing rigorous research on near-death experiences if for no other reason than to rule out at least some of the spiritual explanations. Those who believe fervently in an afterlife may never be swayed. There are, after all, plenty of beliefs that people hold despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary (think vaccines, or global warming). But science advances only by acknowledging the limits of what it knows and slowly pushing them back. There are no grounds for sneering at people’s beliefs about NDEs until the work has been done to debunk them.

Let’s say experiments are done, and there is finally a comprehensive, scientifically rigorous, and materialist account of what causes an NDE. What then? Does it mean that all the stories people tell of seeing angels and meeting their deceased relatives are just fairy tales to be ignored? I would say no. What I saw at the conference—even at its most bizarre—showed me that even a hard-core materialist can learn a great deal from NDEs about how people make sense of the things that happen to them—and above all, about the central role that the stories we tell play in shaping our sense of who we are.

On this, Susan Blackmore, the arch-skeptic, feels similarly. She concluded her e-mail to me by scolding those who persist in "the false and unhelpful black and white comparison between NDEs as “true, wonderful, spiritual etc. etc.” [versus] NDEs as “JUST a hallucination of no importance.” The truth, it seems to me, is that NDEs can be wonderful, life-changing experiences that shed light on the human condition and on questions of life and death.....

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