Monday, January 13, 2014

Near-Death Experience symposium review - An “Insider’s Perspective” of Experiencing Death

Consciousness scholar Thomas D. Abraham shares an "insider’s perspective” on the mini-symposium Experiencing Death: An Insider's Perspective.  We also look forward to your questions and responses.

On December 11, 2013, I was delighted to attend a mini-symposium event at the New York Academy of Sciences entitled Experiencing Death: An Insider’s Perspective, which was part of a four-part series moderated by Steve Paulson called Rethinking Mortality. The topic of this symposium was centered around the near-death experience (NDE) and the out-of-body experience (OBE) and speakers including prominent NDE author and neuropsychiatrist, Peter Fenwick; NDE experiencer Mary Neal, MD; neurologist, Kevin Nelson, MD; and NDE researcher, Sam Parnia, MD, PhD.

First, I must say how exciting it was to see hundreds of people in attendance in what is gradually moving from the fringes of serious investigation to more of a forefront of scientific study. As the speakers acknowledge, the fundamental questions pertaining to the nature of consciousness are some of the most interesting one might ask. The discussion began immediately with disagreement over the definition or what it means to be dead. Is death something one can ever return from? How does one objectively define “death.” 

Traditionally, this definition involves a cessation of the heart (cardiac arrest) and respiration as well as fixed, dilated, and unresponsive pupils. Dr. Nelson argued, however, that true death occurs with neuronal apoptosis resulting from a lack of blood-supplied oxygen. Thus, he claimed, that the subjective experience of an NDE including the OBE are related to ongoing brain activity potentially occurring after cardiac arrest but prior to neuronal death. Hence, there is a distinction between near-death and return-from-death experiences in which case he argues the later is impossible. Given this frame, we can then consider all of the components of an NDE experience as related to brain function and the stress-induced flight-or-fight response of the person facing death. 

Of course, mention was made of the numerous studies producing what I would call out-of-body illusions dating back to early neuro-stimulation experiments conducted by Wilder Penfield and up through modern research by Olaf Blanke, Henrik Ehrsson, and the like. To anyone who has had a lucid OBE, whether provoked by an NDE or not, this explanation feels thoroughly unsatisfactory as exemplified by Mary Neal’s description of her personal experience. 

Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick do not advocate a strictly materialist explanation of the phenomena or of the consciousness for that matter. Overall, I think both researchers did an adequate job of refuting most of Nelson’s arguments. For instance, as Parnia explained, brain activity required to produce the intense visual sensations associated with these experiences would certainly register on EEG. However, one can observe flat-line brain activity following cardiac arrest, even in patients reporting conscious experience during the time of supposed death. 

Likewise, the disembodied visual perspective of the consciousness cannot be easily explained by an open eye and dilated pupil, especially when the eye is unresponsive to visual input. This is even more brought into question when we consider the accounts of NDE survivors who veridically report activity that is not local to their body (such as in another room etc). Lastly, as Neal alluded to, it is hard to explain the patient’s report of experiencing an “increase in consciousness” or lucidity when the brain is in a state of deprived oxygenation. 

The panelists also discussed cross-cultural similarities and differences in NDE accounts including the frequently reported tunnel experience and encountering beings of light. It was mentioned that atheists tend to have similar experiences despite their lack of spiritual affiliation. Again there was little agreement as to the significance of the commonalities or of the differences across cultures. Nelson did suggest that some variability might be explained due to physical conditions such as the person’s age and the manner of death etc. The point was raised that many survivors have reported seeing Elvis, whereas children may report having seen Santa Claus, for example. Fenwick offered a more social explanation based on the cultural upbringing and personal circumstances of the patient. 

The conversation left off with a resounding agreement of a great need and interest to find ways to objectively experiment with this phenomenon. Also discussed were the many challenges facing this line of research including the logistical impracticality and, of course, obtaining grant funding. 

Overall, I was very happy to see such a didactic discussion on this topic and to see multiple viewpoints represented. That said, I found the arguments to be insufficient in many ways. For starters, I think there is a desperate need to disambiguate the terms NDE and OBE and for researchers to begin to recognize the NDE as one of many ways in which an OBE can be provoked. As all of the panelists came from either medical or clinical backgrounds, I think, perhaps there is a bias to consider the problem only through the NDE lens. However, studying the OBE only through the use of NDEs is highly impractical for obvious reasons. 

Secondly, even though the panelists acknowledged that an OBE can be provoked by other means, the notion was raised that only the NDE is capable of eliciting the profound, meaningful, and life-altering experience associated with OBEs. This, again likely stems from a bias on the part of the panel, none of whom, aside from Neal, have actually had an OBE. 

Likewise, even Neal, from what I can gather, has only had the one lucid OBE. This is not to downplay the significance of the event, just to say that it hardly constitutes a wealth of self-research pertaining to the phenomenon. I think the lack of personal experience with the OBE is a huge issue in this case. Not only does it result in a narrow experimental framework, I also feel the foundations of the arguments themselves were lacking a degree of multidimensionality. For instance, if indeed one accepts the premise that the consciousness is not a bi-product of brain matter but rather is “non-local” or perhaps supersedes matter, what are the real implications of this? For instance, while the panel discussed experiential differences stemming from culture, no one considered other multidimensional factors such as polykarma or the affinities with the “beings of light.” 

What are the specific connotations of the relationships between the projected intraphysical consciousness and the extraphysical consciousnesses they encountered, and how does this color the experience? Does this relationship extend beyond this intraphysical lifetime or are these extraphysical consciousnesses always someone we’ve known in this life? Was the NDE “sponsored” (i.e., provoked) by an extraphysical consciousness, perhaps as an existential course correction, or was the episode simple the result of a mishap? This lack of personal experience, I believe, causes one to interpret the data from a very intraphysical seat and therefore construct a narrow mental model of the event. 

Multidimensional characteristics such as existential seriality (rebirth, reincarnation), polykarma, and cosmoethics, don’t fit into that model and are thus omitted. Likewise, in the case of Neal, a religious upbringing can cause a spiritual interpretation congruent with one’s preexisting inclinations. Following repeated experiences with the OBE, hopefully, we begin to detach from this conditioning and become more discerning with our observations. This does not in any way serve to undermine or downplay the spiritual and life-altering nature of the experience. It is merely to say that a conception of God is merely a narrow and culturally conditioned interpretation with which we are well-served to dismiss with in our investigations of the unknown. This stands for ANY preconception, whether religiously derived or not. In sum, I would enthusiastically agree that we need to study this topic more intensely. 

Secondly, I argue that the NDE is not in any way a requisite for having an OBE. As such, we should employ the healthy, natural state of being a projected intraphysical consciousness (induced via one of many trainable lucid OBE techniques) as a primary subject of inquiry. Lastly, any serious researcher of this topic, especially one who acknowledges the tremendous benefit for those who have experienced an OBE, necessarily must strive to have more of their own personal experiences providing a foundation for exploration devoid of intraphysical bias. One cannot fully appreciate the multidimensional implications and complexities of the subject matter from a purely academic standpoint.

A video of part of the event is up on Youtube:

Thomas D. Abraham, an IAC scholar based in Colorado, has a background in cognitive neuroscience. Previous presentations in consciousness scholarship include:

"Vehicles of Consciousness," Poster Session, Science and Non-Duality, San Rafael, California, USA 2013

"Energetic Games: Models of Self-Research and Bioenergetic Development,"1st International Symposium on Conscientiological Research, IAC Research Campus, Evoramonte, Portugal, 2005


  1. I'm glad that you were there to write this informative article. It's too bad that the panel was so narrowly composed.

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