“Tunnel vision” (Near Death Experiences)


While skeptic is the adjective I most use to describe myself, it would be fascinating to learn that there really are Yetis, Venusian visitors, or jasmine extracts that cure Multiple Sclerosis. And the most pleasant example of my doubts being proven unfounded would be to learn of irrefutable evidence of an afterlife. There is clearly death after life, but does another life or series of lives follow that?

Bill O’Reilly and Dennis Prager have touched on this subject and argued that if there is nothing to look forward to when this is over, then all life is ultimately pointless. I find that unnecessarily pessimistic. To me, hopelessness would be knowing there is an eternity and that it will be spent in a North Korean gulag. But the larger point is that O’Reilly and Prager are committing the Argument From Consequence fallacy. How much value there is in our Earthly existence has no bearing on whether it’s all we get.

The term Near Death Experience was coined by psychiatrist Raymond Moody, who interviewed hundreds of persons who had reported unusual experiences while hovering near death. The best-known elements are a light at the end of a tunnel, being detached from the body, and reviewing one’s life. Other than a buzzing or ringing sound, the experience is usually pleasant, though about 15 percent of respondents found the experience upsetting or even terrifying. Some report seeing deceased relatives or a religious figure, always someone from the dying person’s faith, as portrayed in their culture’s artwork. Some persons have increased religious fervor after these experiences, but there are no reported conversions. Muhammad has never appeared to a dying Jew, nor Buddha to a moribund Hindu.

These are NEAR death experiences since no one reporting them has died. This means they are not proof of an afterlife. The persons could be entering another plane, portal, or state of existence, but they could also be experiencing what happens to someone with a dying brain.

Vision researcher Tomasz Troscianko speculates that an overload of information in the visual cortex creates an image of bright light that gradually increases. NDE researcher Susan Blackmore, meanwhile, attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness to endorphin release.

One of the stronger pieces of evidence that NDEs are all in the mind come from the experiments of Dr. Karl Jansen. He has produced the effects of Near Death Experiences using a short-lived hallucinogenic dissociative anesthetic. According to Jansen, this anesthetic reproduces features such as traveling through a dark tunnel toward light, communing with a higher power, and feeling detached from one’s body. Excessive release of dopamine and noradrenaline could explain seeing dead relatives and religious figures or watching key moments from one’s life pass before you.

Neurologist Kevin Nelson suggests a reduced oxygen supply is the main culprit in NDEs, as this causes various brain regions to slow down in order to conserve energy. This messes with the hypothalamus and temporal lobe, thereby impacting emotion, memory, and limb control.

While backed up by some data, these skeptic speculations involve some guesswork. The nature of NDE claims make them impossible to falsify, measure, or reproduce. This means they fall outside the scope of being dealt with by the Scientific Method. Thus, it is impossible to definitively conclude if NDEs are the result of persons entering a new consciousness that begins when biological functions cease.

But the same standard applies to the other side. P.Z. Myers exchanged online pieces with Salon writer Mario Beauregard, who had offered a series of vivid tales centering on NDEs. Myers explained why these anecdotes were inadequate evidence: “Beauregard could recite a thousand vague rumors and poorly documented examples with ambiguous interpretations, and it wouldn’t salvage his thesis.” Beauregard attempted a vague scientific spin by throwing in the word “Quantum,” which is the New Age version of God of the Gaps argument, where anything that can’t be explained is brushed away with this buzzword.

Meanwhile, Mike Adams at townhall.com related the tale of “Carl” and his NDE, and noted there are many such stories. He’s right, there are many undocumented, unverified, anonymous anecdotes out there. I hope Adams is right about Carl having glimpsed the unending bliss that awaits us all. Or really, even perpetual mediocrity punctuated by occasional doughnut breaks with Chuck Connors and Benjamin Franklin would be enough. But until proof is available, I’ll focus on making the best of this life, which is the one I’m sure I have.

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