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Do Near-Death Experiences Reveal That Mind Can Separate From (and Survive) the Body?

david_myers
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It’s well-established that:

  • brain cells survive for a time after cardiac arrest and even after declared death.
  • some people have been resuscitated after cardiac arrest— even hours after, if they were linked to blood-oxygenating and heart-massaging machines.
  • a fraction of resuscitated people have reported experiencing a bright light, a tunnel, a replay of old memories, and/or out-of-body sensations. For some, these experiences later enhanced their spirituality or personal growth.

Recently, I enjoyed listening to and questioning a university physician who is launching a major multi-site study of cardiac arrest, resuscitation, and near-death experiences. As a dualist (one who assumes mind and body are distinct, though interacting), he is impressed by survivors’ reports of floating up to the ceiling, looking down on the scene below, and observing efforts to revive them. Thus, his study seeks to determine whether such patients can—while presumably separated from their supine body—perceive and later recall images displayed on an elevated, ceiling-facing iPad.

Care to predict the result?

My own prediction is based on three lines of research:

  • Parapsychological efforts have failed to confirm out-of-body travel with remote viewing.
  • A mountain of cognitive neuroscience findings link brain and mind.
  • Scientific observations show that brain oxygen deprivation and hallucinogenic drugs can cause similar mystical experiences (complete with the tunnel, beam of light, and so forth).

Thus, I expect there will be no replicable evidence of near-death minds viewing events remote from the body.

Setting my assumptions and expectations aside, I asked the physician-researcher about some of his assumptions:

  1. For how long do you think the mind would survive clinical death? Minutes? Hours? Forever? (His answer, if I understood, was uncertainty.)
  2. When resuscitated, the mind would rejoin and travel again with the body, yes? When the patient is wheeled to a new room, the mind rides along? (That assumption was not contested.)
  3. What about the Hiroshima victims whose bodies were instantly vaporized? Are you assuming that–for at least a time—their consciousness or mind survived that instant and complete loss of their brain and body? (His clear answer: Yes.)

That made me wonder: If a mind could post-date the body, could it also predate it? Or does the body create the mind, which grows with it, but which then, like dandelion seeds, floats away from it?

The brain-mind relationship appeared in another presentation at the same session. A European university philosopher of mind argued that, in addition to the dualist view (which he regards as “dead”) and the reductionist view (Francis Crick: “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons”), there is a third option. This is the nonreductive physicalist view—“nonreductive” because the mind has its own integrity and top-down causal properties, and “physicalist” because the mind emerges from the brain and is bound to the brain.

The 20th century’s final decade was “the decade of the brain,” and the 21st century’s first decade was “the decade of the mind.” Perhaps we could say that today’s science and philosophy mark this as a decade of the brain-mind relationship? For these scholars, there are miles to go before they enter their final sleep—or should I say until their body evicts their mind?

Addendum for those with religious interests: Two of my friends—British cognitive neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves and American developmental psychologist Thomas Ludwig—reflect on these and other matters in their just-published book, Psychological Science and Christian Faith. If you think that biblical religion assumes a death-denying dualism (a la Plato’s immortal soul) prepare to be surprised.

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).