Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Near Death Experiences

Most of us have heard about people who have had near-death experiences – seeing a bright light or loved ones who have crossed over or floating above their bodies and looking down at themselves.

These experiences lead us to believe that we have a soul separate from our bodies and that when we die we will be transported off to heaven or some other afterlife. It’s a pretty thought. But is it accurate?

Obviously, we don’t know with metaphysical certainty.

However, we’re starting to understand these experiences much better. For example, a Dutch neurologist, Gert van Dijk, at Leiden University Medical Center, has been carrying out experiments involving making patients faint and seeing what sort of near-death experiences they have when that happens.

They commonly hear voices, sense pleasant things or feel like they’re in a different world. And this actually happens, according to his measurements, because of a temporary impairment of blood flow to the brain. If blood flow is stopped for too long a period, that oxygen deprivation will impair memory so much that you can’t remember the near-death experience.

This is why some people who have heart attacks (or nearly die for some other reason) recall these “afterlife” sensations while others do not. For those whose brains were deprived of oxygen for short periods of time, they can “remember” these experiences. If their brains were deprived of oxygen for a longer period, they recall nothing.

NASA uses centrifuges to create massive g-forces in a controlled environment as a way to teach pilots how to keep blood in their brains. During these training sessions, pilots eventually black out. As they go in and out of consciousness, they report visions and hallucinations much like what patients experience when they almost die. Tunnels, white lights, family coming to greet them: they experienced all these things.

Why does this happen?

One theory is that the brain needs to construct a narrative to explain the world and our place in it. So as the brain loses oxygen and can no longer function properly, it attempts to explain why that is happening by piecing together a story.

But why this particular story? Because when the body is shutting down, it releases opiates or stimulates the brain’s reward system in the temporal lobe. This warm sensation often coincides with strong spiritual or religious feelings. It happens commonly with people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy.

A University of Michigan study showed that rats’ brains continue to function as if the rats were conscious for about 30 seconds after cardiac arrest. And some of the electrical activity was greater than what the rats would normally experience while awake. So we think rats have near-death experiences too, though it’s difficult to get them to open up about them.

At any rate, this isn’t proof that there’s no afterlife, but it does give one pause. There may be something beyond this world. But there may not. Believe what you wish, but remember that belief is all it is. It’s not certainty.

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