Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Near-death Experience: The Dying Brain Theory

This theory is one that has been popularized by Susan Blackmore in her book Dying To Live. One of the greatest strengths of the afterlife theory and the argument that near-death experiences are real is also one of its greatest weaknesses. The fact that all those who had near-death experiences follow the same path toward the light, going through similar stages on the way, makes a powerful case for the whole thing being a profound spiritual journey to an afterlife where everyone, from all ages and cultures, is welcome. But that same case, the "sameness" evidence, is also a fundamental part of the argument that the near-death experience is not a real experience, not a spiritual voyage, but a function of the dying brain. All brains, regardless of where in the world they come from, die in the same way, say the skeptics. And that is why all near-death experiences have essential core elements which are the same. It is not because the dying person is traveling toward a beautiful afterlife, but because the neurotransmitters in the brain are shutting down and creating the same lovely illusions for all who are near-death.

But why? Why should the dying brain do this, if it is just a highly sophisticated lump of tissue?  That question is one of the most fundamental questions in the whole of human thinking. It boils down to asking, are we individuals with "personalities" and "souls" and "minds" that are exclusive to us? Or are we simply bodies controlled by very clever computers, or brains, each of which works a little differently from the rest, thus making each of us unique, just as an Apple computer is different from an IBM, although there are far more similarities between them than there are differences?

Scientists and researchers are divided. There are some who want to reduce the near-death experience to nothing more than a series of brain reactions.  Others, who accept the realness and validity of the near-death experience, are nonetheless quite happy to see it put into a scientific context. In other words, they are not frightened of researching the experience rigorously, of finding out everything that we possibly can about it, perhaps even being able to explain aspects of it. But they can happily let that scientific aspect sit alongside the deeply personal, life-enhancing evidence of those who have actually been there.

There are very few people around, even among the skeptics, who would deny that people have near-death experiences, and that they are deeply affected by them because so many obviously sane and well-balanced people have now come forward and talked about what happened to them. What they do dispute is what causes a near-death experience and what it means. There are two main strands of research: one takes the psychological approach, which looks for reasons for human beings to behave the way they do, and to think and possibly to hallucinate the way they do. The other is the straightforward physiological approach, which is searching for that part of the brain which malfunctions and causes a near-death experience. Increasingly, as in all brain research, not just that connected with near-death experiences, the two approaches overlap.

The ruthless, depersonalized argument - that a near-death experience is just the result of the brain beginning to die - is not acceptable to the vast majority of people who have had near-death experiences. To reduce what was a profound and transforming experience to nothing more than a set of neurotransmitters going on the blink is a bit like seeing Michelangelo's statue of David as nothing more than several tons of marble.

If there is no afterlife, and the near-death experience is just the last throw of a fevered and dying brain, why does it bother?  If everything, including the soul and personality, is going to dust and ashes, why does the brain lay on this last wonderful floor show for people near-death, or facing actual death, who relax into peacefulness and describe their wonderful visions?

If the near-death experience is just a hallucination, why do a great many people report being told, "Your mission has not been completed," or, "The time for your death is not yet," during their near-death experience? If the near-death experience is just an hallucination, how can so many people be hallucinating the same thing?  Isn't it odd that so many people are being told the same thing?  Are they all hallucinating identical responses? For many people, it is easier to believe the near-death experience is a real afterlife experience and not mass hallucination.

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