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Explained: OBE, NDE, Heaven


A neurologist's interpretation of Michelangelo's famous painting

Sunday Read


Published in The Manila Times, February 17, 2013

If you’re not into popular science, that’s out-of-body experiences, as in when  “you” float out of your body and watch it as if it’s somebody else’s. Proof, the religious say, that you’re not just ashes (I prefer “stardust”), but a spirit, although they haven’t explained who chooses your clothes when you’re in your spirit mode.

NDE is near-death-experiences, a term which University of Virginia psychologist Raymond Moody coined for the phenomena he pioneered in researching:  experiences of those who were on the brink of death, or who claimed they had died and returned to life.  These accounts also purportedly bolster the view  that there is a kind of existence after death. His best-selling title says it all: Life After Life.

Heaven of course is heaven, through the pearly-gates, a kind of Sagada without the muddy roads and roaming dogs, and hundreds of times more beautiful of course, more clouds, with angels blissfully strumming their harps here and there.

While bookstores’ new-age sections have had this genre for decades, Heaven travelogues in recent years have become some kind of a fad, and manna from heaven for fast, imaginative writers, after “90 Minutes in Heaven” sold 5 million copies in 2005.   Each book has its own new twist of course, as in the case of  Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back,  which was purportedly related by a 4-year old to his father.  That sold 7.5 million copies last year.  However, there’s been no book so far giving us a glimpse of a purgatory or of the Islamic after-life with its 72 virgins for the martyr.

Even the news magazine Newsweek had a cover story last year titled: “Heaven is Real, a Doctor’s Experience of the Afterlife”. That turned out to be a big, free advertisement for the doctor’s book that came out a month later, Proof of Heaven.  (With that kind of “news story” it’s no wonder the magazine ‘died’ a few months later, i.e., it ended its print existence to have an after-life though in an ethereal cyberspace.)

The new twist here: This wasn’t just written by an ordinary doctor, but by neurologist Eben Alexander of Harvard Medical School.  I got turned off though when he wrote about heaven as a “place of clouds” with “flocks of transparent, shimmering” angel-like beings. Those descriptions aren’t even in the Bible but were creations of imaginative medieval Italian painters, but which have been for most Christians the stock images for Heaven, deeply etched by mothers and priests on toddler’s minds.

Hit movies have created an audience for these books, starting with the pioneering Ghost  in 1990 which started off Demi Moore’s career.  A genius of a director did a lot to get many people believe in an after life: M. Night Shyamalan with his blockbusters, The Sixth Sense  (“I see dead people.”) and Signs (Ghost mom foils evil E.T.).

The basic assumption in NDE, OBE, and Heaven accounts though is a bit difficult to accept.

Everything science has proven about human experience is that it is based entirely on this particularly glory of evolution: the brain, with its 100 billion neurons,  as many as stars in our home Milky Way galaxy.

We often forget how much we’ve advanced in our knowledge, just in the past 30 years.  Even as late as the 19th century and even for some people today, emotions were thought to reside in the heart (nope, they’re in the brain’s limbic system, the so-called reptilian brain that is one of its most primitive structure).  Asian cultures believe the ‘soul’ of a person was in the hara, two fingers above the navel.

Science has gone far in explaining mind as a function of the brain, as much as food digestion is the function of the stomach and the intestinal system,  or blood-pumping the function the heart. Epilepsy is not a demon taking control of a person, as Jesus seems to have believed in.  It is a disorder of the neural system. Neuroscience is even discovering that such noble characteristics like sympathy are not really ethereal traits but the action of special neurons they termed “mirror neurons”, which fire in person’s brain when for instance he sees another person in pain.

The question for accounts of OBE, NDE and Heaven can be put bluntly: If there is a mind, a spirit, a facsimile or whatever of ourselves which exists outside the brain or the body, what would these be made of?

Indeed, some scientists’ attempt to merge science with religion has led to rather convoluted explanations such as mind being the result the “quantum fluctuations” in the fabric of space-time.  But what’s that?  The clouds and shimmering beings the Harvard doctor saw, what would they be made of, spiritual atoms?

But what about accounts that they “vividly” the afterlife, that what they saw was more real than things they see in ordinary life, that they even talked with their loved ones long deceased?

Soul-stirring his Heavenly experiences may be, the Harvard neurologist’s account is entirely based on the premise that he had his heavenly experiences while he lay in a coma, “when the neurons of (his) cortex were stunned to complete inactivity.” (Another questionable premise: Were all his 100 billion neurons really all inactive, or only some of it, particularly those which create waking consciousness?)

The crucial question though: Is he sure that his experiences happened while he was in a coma? Or were his experiences merely intense dreams or even hallucinations he had just before or after his mind shut down?   That dreams can be as vivid as reality is an experience most people have, in which an hour in that dreamland would actually be just a few minutes in real time.

This in fact is one of the theses of neurologist Kevin Nelson in his book The Spiritual Doorway in the BrainA Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience.

The vividness of NDE and Heaven accounts, he explains is due to the obvious fact that just before shutting down, the brain perceives a life threatening situation, and thereby releases the flight or fight hormones created through millions of years of evolution, which a human feels as “emotions”. And it is “emotion” that explains most of what is vivid for us, whether it relates to memory or dreams.

Nelson’s argument is also based on a relatively recent discovery in psychology:  the existence of lucid dreams in which a dreamer is aware that he is having a dream. The experience of those with NDEs and perceiving heaven is some kind of lucid dreaming, Nelson explains.  Most accounts given by lucid dreamers, which explains such practices as “dream yoga”, is that for some unexplained reason, the emotion felt most strongly in such states is some kind of bliss – precisely the feeling Heaven-narrators report.

The calmness induced because of one’s perception that he is heaven may in fact have an evolutionary purpose: “Remaining quiet and still when the injury (made by a predator) is severe and inescapable may be an effective survival strategy – playing possum, playing dead, ceasing to struggle. Whatever its advantage it is effective enough o have become hardwired into our brainstem.”

And when you’re in a lot of stress, real stress, who do you almost automatically imagine would give you comfort? People who cared for you when you were just a helpless, pre-rational little human being:  your parents.  Thus, NDEs and I-was-in-heaven accounts often contain narratives of meeting long-deceased parents or aunts.

The book relates the many recent scientific discoveries and experiments explaining why from ancient times, humans have believed in a soul.  There are brain mechanisms that require one to have an image of oneself, so you can orient your body in space – in terms of evolution, a must for instance for ancestor-hunters who would have to have a precise estimation of the distance he would have to throw a spear to kill a saber-tooth tiger.

These mechanisms are not located in the entire brain, but only in particular part of it, so that neurologists have undertaken experiments in which electrical stimulation of this area makes a subject believe his consciousness is imbedded elsewhere. This is the neurological basis for positing a “spirit” different form the body.  Less intrusive, virtual reality devices have even been able to create the feeling of travelling out of one’s body.

And that tunnel at the end of which is a Light, a stock account of NDEs?  One’s eyes and visual cortex gradually running out of blood and oxygen, with one’s  peripheral vision shutting down first, making your vision seem like looking through a tunnel and highlighting the last glimmer of light at its end.

Nelson, Kevin, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience. New York: Penguin Group, 2011. (Fully Booked, Makati).