The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 26, 1, 27-31. January 2003.
The Survivalist Interpretation of Recent Studies Into the Near-Death Experience
by Titus Rivas
There is serious evidence for veridical perceptions during the stage of flat electroencephalogram (EEG) in so called Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). This paper addresses common counter-hypotheses for a survivalist interpretation of these experiences. The only possible alternative which would account for veridical NDEs is the false memory through retrocognition-hypothesis. It is shown why this alternative is less parsimonious than a straightforward survivalist interpretation of NDEs.
The Near-Death Experience recently gained an increased scientific respectability by the publication of an article in The Lancet authored by Dr. Pim van Lommel of the Rijnstate Hospital at Arnhem (the Netherlands) and his collaborators (Lommel, et al. 2001). Their prospective work with cardiac patients who were succesfully resuscitated after cardiac arrest, resembles similar research by Dr. Sam Parnia at the University of Southampton and his colleagues (Parnia et al., 1998).
Both Van Lommel and Parnia have concluded that NDEs are real and that they cannot be explained by physiological or psychological causes (alone). Moreover, they have both accepted the implication that consciousness is not destroyed when our brain activity ceases, but that there is a continuity beyond brain coma and therefore probably after brain death as well. Consciousness does not ultimately depend on brain activity for its very existence, which makes it downright irrational to take for granted the idea that it would be obliterated after the brain ceases to exist as a physical system.
Materialists (I mean the non-reductive ones who accept the reality of consciousness during physical life) generally see consciousness as an epiphenomenon or correlate of brain activity. For the question of survival, it is therefore sufficient to show that there is no ultimate existential dependence of the mind on such brain processing. The theory of ultimate mental dependence on cerebral functioning is refuted by the survival of consciousness after the cessation of (cortical) brain processes, regardless of whether that cessation is temporary or final.
Near-death experiences and materialist theories of the mind
If it can be shown that consciousness is present eventhough the brain processes which following materialist theories are supposedly known to be responsible for it have ceased, those materialist theories can safely be considered as inadequate. Now, apriori there can be several responses to the challenge that is posed to materialism and epiphenomenalism by the recent NDE-findings:
1. Methodological scepticism: This is the usual response by skeptics whenever they are confronted by results that go against their (unquestionably closed-minded) world view. However, as the scientific reputation of the researchers involved in the recent studies certainly seems impeccable, and as their work has been accepted as worthy of publication in prestigious journals such as The Lancet, it may be safely assumed that the standard skeptic objection is simply baseless in this case. Research into NDEs cannot be dismissed anymore as being pseudo-scientific.
2. Flaws in the specific interpretation of the results. Some critics, such as C.C. French think that the findings of these studies should not be interpreted in a survivalist manner. It certainly seems to be the case that some individual patients are fully conscious during a flat EEG, but they really are not. The memories of the NDE they claim to have had are simply false memories (French, 2001). This can be further elaborated in two ways:
A. Patients who claim they have had an NDE simply suffer from some kind of self-deception. They never experienced anything like it, but they just believe they did. At a subconscious level, they have constructed a fantasy accompanied by images and feelings, and they project this fantasy into their memory as if it concerned a real experience of the (imaginary) event while it occurred.
B. Claimants of NDEs did indeed have a real experience before they came to, but not during their flat EEG. It happened during the seconds or minutes before they lost consciousness or during the last few moments before they fully awoke from their coma, and it was temporally distorted in their memory as if it really took place during the flat EEG.
Against both these criticisms researchers stress that patients are reported to have had veridical impressions of events that took place inside but also outside the room that contained their physical bodies and during the stage in which their brains showed a flat EEG. Therefore, any hypothesis that claims that these people simply deceive themselves must account for these experiences. It is very convenient for skeptics that such experiences, which seem clearly related to extrasensory perception (ESP) as studied by parapsychologists, are still quite controversial for many scientists, so that they are obviously tempted to dismiss them out of hand. However, the evidence for such veridical experiences (or memories of experiences) is growing and its quality is also increasing (Ring, 1998; Rivas, 2000; Abdalla, 2002). So unless we wish to remain hard line skeptics at any cost, it seems wise to take them very seriously.
What are the implications of real veridical experiences related to events that happened during a flat EEG? In psychical research we know two categories of ESP that relate to a time factor. First, there is precognition which in this context would boil down to an experience of an event which took place during the stage of flat EEG before that experience took place. In this case it would mean that a patient does not precognitively experience an event which -according to the false-memory theory- (unlike, say, the case of a Dunne-effect type of dream) he will eventually experience through ESP while it is taking place, because the theory holds that there would be no awareness of any events whatsoever during the stage of flat EEG. More importantly, the precognitive experiences should occur before the patient loses consciousness or at least before he enters the stage of flat EEG, whereas he should lose all memory of having had such a precognitive vision after he has come to.
Therefore, I personally cannot take this very far-fetched possibility seriously and I think we should be confident in dismissing the precognitive variant of the false memory theory.
The other time-related form of ESP is called retrocognition, i.e. knowledge acquired through ESP of past events. The retrocognitive variant of the false memory hypothesis interprets memories of veridical experiences during the stage of flat EEG as follows. Patients with an NDE subconsciously use ESP to get knowledge of past events which happened during their coma, and project that knowledge into their false memories during the last moments before they regain consciousness. The theory needs to hold that all patients with veridical experiences during their flat EEG were somehow motivated to create a fantasy and include in that fantasy false memories of real events through the aid of retrocognition. This means that during the moments between their flat EEG and their awakening from it, some patients are subconsciously motivated to use retrocognition to deceive themselves about their lack of consciousness during their flat EEG.
Retrocognition is a very strange hypothesis for NDEs, because it implies that a patient would not use ESP to perceive events that happen between the stage of flat EEG and complete awakening, but would instead focus on events that have already taken place. It cannot explain cases of NDEs in which there is paranormal perception of events that took place during flat EEG but also of events which occurred during the awakening process itself and in which such a perception is experienced by the patient as part of a coherent and continuous stream of consciousness.
An even more fatal weakness of this theory is that it uses a very unmaterialistic concept -retrocognition- to uphold a materialistic theory. Even if it were true, it simply could not be defended by a (reductive or non-reductive) materialist, at least not in the mainstream sense of this term. By its very nature, the retrocognitive false memory theory needs to be part of a broader radical dualistic theory about the mind-brain relation. It might be defended by the so called "animistic" school of thought within the parapsychological tradition, which promotes the explanation of possible evidence for survival after death in terms of ESP (or psychokinesis). However, it is very ironic that even a hard line animist like Hans Bender (1983, page 148) concluded that the ESP needed to explain veridical experiences during NDEs is in itself suggestive of survival after death. [Addition 2005: Please note that what used to be commonly known as animism, nowadays is often termed Super-ESP or Super-PSI theory.]
In any case, if veridical memories of events during flat EEG are taken seriously, we must leave the plane of (conventional) materialist theorizing about mind-brain relations. After that, we have to ask ourselves which theory is simpler or more parsimonious: a dualist theory which holds that the memories of events during flat EEG are false memories, constructed via retrocognition, or a dualist theory which holds that such memories simply are real memories based on real experiences. As dualists, we can no longer consider the real memory theory as less parsimonious just because it would imply survival, because -as even animistic champion Hans Bender acknowledges- at least some form of survival is implied by any serious radical dualist (and therefore also any animistic) theory. Therefore, I conclude that the false memory-theory is simply more complicated (i.e. less parsimonious) than necessary. In order to avoid the conclusion that consciousness survives death, it needs to postulate a mechanism which is only plausible within a parapsychological theory which ultimately implies at least some form of postmortem survival of the mind. So it really is a theory which is more complicated than a straightforward survivalist theory. It implies both survival and a strange, unknown kind of retrospective falsification of memory through retrocognition.
Therefore, in my opinion, we should only adopt the 'false memory through retrocognition'-theory after it has been empirically shown that memories of NDEs must generally be false. It's the animists (or moderate survivalists) who have to show the (radical) survivalists wrong in this case, certainly not the other way round. It's just a question of parsimony. The radical survivalist theory is the most parsimonious exhaustive interpretation of NDEs and it can be falsified by evidence for a more complex theory such as the 'false memory through retrocognition'-theory.
3. Adaptation of mainstream materialistic neuropsychological theory concerning the present-day registrability of neural activity needed for consciousness
The last materialist response (defended for example by Karl Jansen, a psychiatrist known for his attempts of artificially producing experiences which resemble NDEs) to the recent evidence for NDEs is that the memories are indeed real memories, but that a hypothetical residual and as yet nonmeasurable level of brain activity can still account for them (Abdalla, 2002). Of course, the veridical memories of events that took place in or outside the patient's room during his flat EEG, are usually ignored by this theory. If they are not, they should be seen as mental activities which can be 'embodied' in unusually low-levelled brain activity.
The problem with this theory is that there is (by definition) absolutely no evidence for it. Theorists seem to be quite content with pointing at unsuitable analogies such as certain types of sleep EEG, but no acceptable close empirical parallels have been presented so far. For instance, during most vivid dreams there is rapid eye movement (REM). As Pim van Lommel points out, if we accept NDEs as real experiences during flat EEG, we also have to accept that patients experience normal, full-blown and even heightened conscious mental activity in them. If critics want to explain this away by a still unknown type of residual neural activity, they have to present parallels which involve normal (lucid) or heightened conscious mental activity and which can at the same time be satisfactorily explained by known residual neural activity. Otherwise, we must conclude that the theory is based on nothing more than unfounded speculation! It is not forbidden to look for immunisations of a cherished, well-founded theory against apparently falsifying results, but such immunizations should of course be plausible and based on acceptable data. As far as I know, there is no serious evidence for the residual cerebral activity-theory as a counter theory for survival. That is precisely the reason that Pim van Lommel (personal communication) simply rejects it as having no scientific basis.
- Abdalla, M. (2002). Cardioloog Pim van Lommel haalt bijna-dood ervaringen uit het donker. Paravisie, 17, 13-27.
- Bender, H. (1983). Zukunftsvisionen, Kriegsprophezeiungen, Sterbeerlebnisse. Munich: R. Piper Verlag.
- French, C.C. (2001). Dying to know the truth: visions of a dying brain, or false memories? The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2010.
- Lommel, P. van, Wees, R. van, Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2039-2044. Website of Dutch Society Merkawah
- Parnia, S., Waller, D.G., Yeates, R., & Fenwick, P. (2001). A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation, 48, 149-156. Also see their website
- Ring, K. (1998). Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the Near-Death Experience. New York: Insight Books.
- Rivas, T. (2000). Herinneringen aan een periode tussen twee levens. Prana, 120, 33-38.
I’m grateful to Dr. Pim van Lommel, Anny Stevens-Dirven, Pieter van Wezel, MA, and Dr. Donald R. Morse for their useful comments.
The important case of Pam Reynolds
Do any Near-Death Experiences provide evidence for the survival of human personality after death?.
Medical support for NDE
Critique of Susan Blackmore's Dying Brain Hypothesis by Greg Stone
Consciousness during Clinical Death and after Brain Death
Parapsychologie en leven na de dood
Bert van Schuijlenburg
Veridical Perception During NDEs
Science and Spirituality: A Challenge for the 21st Century, by Peter Fenwick
About the Continuity of Our Consciousness, by Pim van Lommel
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