5X5 Episode 68

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5X5 Episode 68
Near Death Experiences
22nd May 2009

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5X5 67 5X5 69
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
M: Mike Lacelle
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Near Death Experiences[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and tonight we're talking about near-death experiences or NDEs. These are episodes in which people whose heart stop, who undergo cardiopulmonary resuscitation but then are brought back, report that they had an out-of-body-type experience and sometimes report many other experiences as well.

M: The book Life After Life written in 1975 by Raymond Moody is what spiked the current popular interest in NDEs. Raymond Moody also founded the International Association for Near Death Studies in 1978. And according to a Gallup poll in the early '90s, approximately 8 million Americans claimed to have had an NDE.

E: One of the phenomena that is often associated with near-death experiences is the out-of-body experience in which the subject has a feeling of departing from one's physical body and observing yourself as if you feel you're outside your body. This is a phenomenon that has been recorded over the years and out-of-body experiences are common when people are dreaming; they have daydreams. It also coincides with lucid dreaming, also when people are under the effects of hallucinogenics or other types of drugs, they have reported to have these kinds of experiences as well. But there's no evidence that this, in any way, relates to life after death or something along those lines.

B: Yeah, or the idea that the mind can leave the body and it's somehow a separate entity. And related to that, ketamine is also another example of a drug that can actually induce out-of-body experiences; it was used, I believe, as an anesthetic in the field during the Vietnam War and they actually stopped using it because people were having out-of-body experiences when they were on it. What it does—what this drug does is it makes you so disassociated and removed from your body that doctors can actually perform surgical procedures while you're under it. And my point of view with regards to this has always been that if the cells of your body have receptors for a drug such as this, then it's a natural thing and it's not something that is paranormal or something that could exist beyond life.

S: Yeah, the evidence is pretty substantial that out-of-body experiences in particular, and near-death experiences in general, are brain phenomena; they are not mystical or spiritual phenomena. They are not evidence of a consciousness or mind or spirit leaving the body or being separate from the body. You can induce it with drugs or in different mental states; people having seizures can have similar episodes. We're actually honing [sic] in on the different parts of the brain that cause these experiences; there are actual parts of the brain that make you feel as if you're inside your body, and if you disrupt them with like a magnetic stimulation, for example, you can induce at will out-of-body experiences. That's pretty solid confirmation that this is a brain phenomenon.

Another line of evidence that the promoters of the notion that NDEs represent a mystical or spiritual experience is that people will have memories from a time when they had no brain activity—a flat EEG. There are two problems with that line of evidence. One is that it is difficult to ensure that there is no brain activity at all during those periods. It's easy to use equipment that is not sensitive enough or does not have the gains set properly, et cetera, to not do an EEG adequately to document that there is absolutely no brain activity. But actually, the bigger point is that even if the patients are having minimal brain activity during a cardiac arrest, for example, when they should not be forming memories, the fact that they report memories, when upon awakening, that they feel date to the time they were under CPR is not reliable either. Patients after having no brain activity for minutes—you don't just wake up from that a moment later. You go through a... your brain will slowly recover and will go through a period where you're going to be delirious and confused for a while and then slowly you'll come around to full consciousness over hours or even days, depending on how long the cardiac arrest was. So there's a long period of time during which you can form memories and you will not have a really good sense of time as to when those memories date from. So you may be remembering something that happened in the recovery period but you think it happened immediately after you lost consciousness, for example, or after your cardiac arrest. So those memories are not reliable. Essentially, there is no evidence or no proof that there is any memory formation during a period when the brain itself was not functioning and able to form those memories. So in the end, what we're left with is the evidence pointing to NDEs being a brain phenomenon and not evidence of a spirit separate from the body.

B: Another big red flag for me for extraordinary claims like out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences is the fact that they are easy to prove, yet no one has done it yet. There are many hospitals—maybe not many, but there are some hospitals that have actually messages written in specific spots above the operating room, where if you actually do have an out-of—a near death experience and are floating over the body, you would clearly be able to see it. Yet no one else could easily see this thing and typically nobody has ever mentioned anything about it. Another example would be recreational out-of-body experiences; people who do this at home at will; many of them have been challenged to go to a specific place that they claim that they can do and find or determine what's inside a box that somebody has specifically hid for this purpose, and something that should be trivial for them to do if their claim is real. They typically they never do it and for whatever reason it never works.

J: Steve, what about when people claim that they've risen out of their body and watched a procedure happen to them when they were supposedly unconscious and they recall information that can have only been found out while they were under the knife, say.

S: Yeah, that's a common claim, but again it hasn't been documented in such a way that it rules out contamination. So people may be incorporating memories that they formed during their recovery period, or things may have been suggested to them or they may be just inferring things that were likely to have happened. Does it—if you say, "oh, I was floating above my body and I saw doctors working on me". You know, OK; who's not going to say that? That's a typical CPR scenario; that's what people would imagine would happen. They may say that they recognize people that were in the room but they don't—those nurses or doctors whatever may have been visiting them in the days after the event, during the recovery period, and they simply incorporate that into their memory.

And of course, there are lots of motivated believers; lots of people who want to believe this is a spiritual phenomenon. And therefore, their perception and recollection of these events may be tainted or biased. It's an extraordinary claim; that type of evidence would have to be documented in such a way as to rule out any kind of faulty memory or misperception, and it hasn't been.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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