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Has the Near-Death Experience Been Debunked?

Posted on 19 September 2011, 14:08

The headline of a September 12 article at the Scientific American website reads, “Peace of Mind:  Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanation.”  The writer, Charles Q. Choi quotes neuroscientist Dean Mobbs of the University of Cambridge as saying that “many of the phenomena associated with near-death experiences can be biologically explained.”  He also references an article by Caroline Watt, whose mission seems to be to “demystify” the NDE and other psychic phenomena.

I don’t think there is anything really new in Choi’s article.  Scientific fundamentalists have been offering mechanistic explanations for various features of the NDE for years now.  And while the headline of the article suggests that an important discovery has been made, leading the uninformed reader to infer that the spiritual aspect of NDEs has been totally debunked, the explanations given are of the “possible” and “might be” kind.   

As examples of the “possible” and “might be” explanations, it is stated that that reliving moments of one’s life “might be” the result of a stress hormone being released in high levels during trauma.  Meeting deceased loved ones might be similar to Parkinson’s disease patients seeing ghosts as a result of abnormal functioning of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can evoke hallucinations.  But let’s assume that there is a link between these things and the NDE.  Does that debunk the spiritual implications of the NDE?  It seems to me that it just explains the trigger of the NDE.  If there is some intelligent design behind the spiritual component of the NDE, why wouldn’t it have a biological trigger?  Shouldn’t we expect some kind of biological release mechanism in the separation of the physical body and the spirit body?  A bullet becomes independent of the gun after the firing mechanism is effectuated, but the firing mechanism of the gun doesn’t explain the damage done by the bullet. 

During the mid-1800s, when the early form of spirit communication was by means of raps coming through a table or from some mysterious place around the sitters (one rap for “no,” three for “yes,”  one rap for each letter of the alphabet),  Michael Faraday, a renowned scientist, concluded that the raps were simply the result of the “medium” being able to slip her toe joints and make cracking sounds.  Apparently, many scientific fundamentalists of the era accepted Faraday’s explanation and had a good laugh. Yet, many astute observers of the raps said that the raps were so loud that they sometimes shook the house. Moreover, the “toe joint cracking” theory did not explain how the medium got the evidential information that was coming through to the sitters.  Of course, the pseudoskeptical scientists concluded that the medium did a lot of research beforehand.

Faraday finally said that he had too many important things to do to waste his time in investigating such phenomena. Thomas Huxley, another famous scientist of the 1800s, said that even if it were all true, it would not interest him.  Sir David Brewster, still another leading scientist of the era, claimed that various phenomena he had witnessed with medium D. D. Home, including levitations, were “impossible” and so they could only be the result of some imposture that he, not being a magician, could not understand.  What might be called “Faraday-Huxley Syndrome” and “Brewster Syndrome” persist today in mainstream science.

In the September/October issue of Explore magazine, Mark Leary, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, examines the current resistance of some scientists to paranormal phenomena The article is titled “Why are (Some) Scientists So Opposed to Parapsychology?”  Leary begins by pointing out that many of the pioneers of psychical research were noted scientists of their time and that they all were professionally attacked and personally ridiculed by those who viewed their work as misguided and opposed to a progressive society. 

Although Leary does not mention the pioneers, one such scientist was Dr. Charles Richet, professor of physiology at the University of Paris and winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in Medicine.  Richet had earlier criticized Sir William Crookes, a prominent British chemist, for validating the mediumship of D.D. Home, but after doing his own investigation of mediums, Richet apologized to Crookes.  Dr. Julian Ochorowicz, professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of Warsaw, similarly apologized to Crookes. He wrote:  “I found I had done a great wrong to men who had proclaimed new truths at the risk of their positions. When I remember that I branded as a fool that fearless investigator, Crookes, the inventor of the radiometer, because he had the courage to assert the reality of psychic phenomena and to subject them to scientific tests, and when I also recollect that I used to read his articles thereon in the same stupid style, regarding him as crazy, I am ashamed, both of myself and others, and I cry from the very bottom of my heart. ‘Father, I have sinned against the Light.’”

Richet was one of many scientists to observe ectoplasm, a substance that flows from some mediums and gives rise to physical phenomena.  “If one reflects upon the many confirmations to which the ectoplasma of Eusapia (Paladino) have given place, one is astonished to see the doubts that they have provoked,” Richet wrote.  “Scientists of all countries, France and Italy, the United States and England, Germany and Russia, Holland and Spain have turned her about, this poor Eusapia, in every manner, and they have all, finally, if they have prolonged their study at all, concluded that these phenomena were authentic.”  Richet went on to say that to deny various psychic phenomena is “to lower oneself.”  Yet, few mainstream scientists of today will admit to the reality of ectoplasm. They write it off as nothing more than cheesecloth regurgitated by some tricksters posing as mediums.  No doubt there were such tricksters, but to jump to the conclusion that all ectoplasm was cheesecloth regurgitated is to view the subject with a very closed mind. 

Although fully accepting such psychic phenomena, Richet was reluctant to admit that they were the result of spirit operation.  He admitted that it was a possibility, but said, somewhat indirectly, that he feared for his reputation if he were to give support to the spirit hypothesis.  Thus, Richet preferred to see it as the workings of the subconscious which science could not yet understand.

Not so fearful was Sir Oliver Lodge, a professor of physics and one of the pioneers of electricity and radio.  Lodge fully supported the spirit hypothesis.  “Science is incompetent to make comprehensive denials about anything,” Lodge wrote.  “It should not deal in negatives.  Denial is no more fallible than assertion.  There are cheap and easy kinds of skepticism, just as there are cheap and easy kinds of dogmatism.”

As Leary sees it, not much has changed since the days of Crookes, Richet, Ochorowicz and Lodge. While a small group of researchers continue to investigate psychic matter, many other scientists remain disdainful.  Much of the resistance, he says, “has a tenor that is rarely heard in other scientific circles, involving caustic, dismissive attacks on not only the research but also on the researchers themselves.”  Leary believes the resistance and closed-mindedness is a result of parapsychology falling outside the scope of more strict and pure science, a failure by the critics to understand the mechanism, a tendency for the critics to associate psychical research and parapsychology with religion and occult beliefs, and fear and discomfort with uncertainty.

“Unfortunately, in the minds of many critics, the phenomena studied by parapsychologists are lumped together with ‘fringe’ and ‘occult’ topics, such as alien abduction, astral projection, astrology, crystal healing, ancient astronauts, nature spirits, Bigfoot, and Tarot – topics that they also dismiss,” Leary offers, adding that if they were to look at the evidence, “they would find that parapsychological phenomena have far more scientific support than most of these other topics.”

Michael Tymn is the author of The Afterlife Revealed: What Happens After We Die, Resurrecting Leonora Piper: How Science Discovered the Afterlife and Dead Men Talking: Afterlife Communication from World War I.


This sounds like a great book Chris! I’mG going to have to see if I can get my hands on it! I’ve heard ohters mention it but you really intrigued me with it in this post. The themes you took away from it completely resonate to my own sense of what is true about reality. We are not our bodies. I like the CS Lewis quote that goes something like,  We are spiritual beings having a human experience , I think it was CS Lewis. And to love ..That is a theme that resounds from every mystic I’ve ever read from, regardless of the wisdom tradition they come from. Btw..I really like how this book comes from a man who has a scientific, analytical mind. Skepticism is just a part (perhaps a hindrance sometimes) of my spiritual self..I tend to question, to doubt, and that leads me off my path more times that I would care for. So, I really appreciate those who can dig deep, question and be critical when considering reality.Another great post. Thanks!

Nadien, Sun 14 Jul, 22:43

Please read my reply to Scientific American:

PMH Atwater, Fri 25 Nov, 06:25

Actually I have not changed one bit. I am still “cruising to where the evidence takes me.”

The evidence consists of provable, reliably and repeatably provable medical phenomena. As I pointed out, these phenomena are actually presented as proofs, whereas they are often actually no more than alternative explanations, albeit physically provable. The Pam Reynolds case, as well as the “dentures man"case reveal this point. The more background information one has, the more explicable they become. But which is the correct explanation? Dualism with its physically unprovable postulates, or materialism?

This is my point. And this is what I have pointed out in a review I did for the publisher of Kevin Nelson’s book, as well as a review in a Dutch medical journal for a similar very popular Dutch book by Dick Swaab called “Ons Brein”. 

The decision to choose between the two explanations is actually determined by the definition of the fundamental properties of an immaterial conscious mind, soul, or whatever you want to call it. The books by Chris Carter, Pim van Lommel, and even Jeffery Long have explicitly and implicitly defined these properties. So I use these properties to determine whether which explanation to use for individual NDEs and OBEs.

G.M. Woerlee, Tue 1 Nov, 00:40

Hey, Gerry, your post doesn’t seem too heavily biased towards materialistic explanations for near death experiences, as they usually are. I noticed you remained pretty objective, and didn’t specifically identify yourself as as a materialist. I’m happy to report that this is the first post from you that I’ve seen that hasn’t made me cringe. Have you decided to hop on the bandwagon and just cruise to wherever the evidence takes us, or are you still in the market to do all those fancy debunking tricks with all your preconceived notions, and inevitable churning of bad evidence?

Scott, Mon 31 Oct, 13:44

Actually the “Scientific American” is a very good magazine for busy people who want to keep their general knowledge of modern scientific developments up to date.

However, this time I must agree with Michale Tymn and some of the other respondents to this article. It is a wretchedly written article providing no proof of the physical-physiological reality of NDEs. Instead it simply provides alternative explanations without eliminating the possibility of immaterial-spiritual explanations, or dualism. Conclusion: this “Scientific American” article does nothing to further the serious study of OBEs/NDEs.

Polarizing, and unfounded statements such as those of Tsakaris do not help:

“Wake me up when they explain how NDErs have a “realer than real” experience when there is no blood flow or electrical activity in the brain.”

Nonetheless, despite its poorly conceived, and even more deplorable execution, this article does raise an interesting point. The physiological phenomena discussed in the article actually do occur. They are real and provable with repeated international experimentation. So believers in materialism and dualism both have the same problem - that of how to distinguish between the two explanations in specific cases of OBEs and NDEs. 

Interesting problem.

Gerry Woerlee, Sun 16 Oct, 15:10

A very nice article, clear and precisely demonstrating how difficult it is to have these subjects out in the open arena without the dichotomous views of scientists and spiritualists constantly butting heads LOL smile

Laura, Thu 22 Sep, 14:37

Good article, Mike!
In any case, those fundamentalists can’t explain us how a dying brain is able to see the ongoing events not only in the operatory rooms, but also outside the hospital and even if the patient is blind!
Best regards.

Claudio Pisani, Wed 21 Sep, 00:09

I’m not sure why Leary complains that psychic research is lumped in with astral projection—NDEs ARE a form of astral projection, it seems to me, and evidential instances of astral projection certainly exist and are as legitimate a subject for study as any in parapsychology. 

Thomas Huxley’s comment that “even if it were all true, it would not interest him” is just sad.  It’s hard to even call such a person a scientist, no matter how erudite he might be.  How can anyone pursue science without curiosity?

Elene Gusch, Tue 20 Sep, 11:45

I appreciate most of the articles on Mr. Tymn’s site, but this one is a disappointment, and adds nothing.

R Dean Ludden, Tue 20 Sep, 00:02

I appreciate your great thoughtfulness here again, Mike. Thanks for your assimilation of relevant historical occurrences and helpful commentary. Your highly informed voice continues to be very important.

Jane Katra, Mon 19 Sep, 21:57

Hi Mike… you’re being too gentle smile

The Scientific American article is little more than a re-hash of long debunked conventional explanations for the NDEs.  It’s a sad commentary on mainstream science/science media. 

Wake me up when they explain how NDErs have a “realer than real” experience when there is no blood flow or electrical activity in the brain.


Alex Tsakiris, Mon 19 Sep, 21:12

Consider the source Michael.  Forty years ago when I was in college, “Scientific American” was considered to be a highly reliable scientific publication.  That may not be true today.  This year I was given a gift subscription and was surprised to see that the magazine had deteriorated into a pseudoscientific version of the “National Enquirer”.  Some articles are good while others are questionable.  I place no credance in their articles now because I have found that some of them are so shallow that it’s a waste of time to read them.  They are just watered-down short, easy-to-read blurbs for high school kids.

Amos Oliver Doyle, Mon 19 Sep, 20:29

Mike, that was really good, thanks. You’d have to look far and wide for the comments you have brought together into this single very useful article.

Keith P in UK, Mon 19 Sep, 19:44

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“Life After Death – The Communicator” by Paul Beard – If the telephone rings, naturally the caller is expected to identify himself. In post-mortem communication, necessitating something far more complex than a telephone, it is not enough to seek the speakers identity. One needs to estimate also as far as is possible his present status and stature. This involves a number of factors, overlapping and hard to keep separate, each bringing its own kind of difficulty. Four such factors can readily be named. Read here
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