One of the foundational teachings of most religions, including my own, is that some part of us — usually called the “spirit” or “soul” — continues to live after physical death. Near-death experiences (NDEs) strengthen my faith that this is true.
I recognize that NDEs do not prove there is an afterlife. It is certainly possible that NDEs are caused by nothing more than physical changes in a stressed or dying brain. I have read about a number of proposed materialist explanations for NDEs, such as the release of endorphins or other opioids, lowered levels of oxygen, increased levels of carbon dioxide, imperfect anesthesia, etc. Personally, however, I don’t find these explanations particularly compelling.
The following are some of the most notable NDEs that I’ve read about (and for which the proposed materialist explanations seem inadequate):
Operation Standstill — In 1991, Pam Reynolds underwent a daring surgical procedure (nicknamed “Operation Standstill”) to repair an aneurysm in the wall of her basilar artery. Pam claimed that as the surgeon began cutting through her skull, she felt herself “pop” out of her body and hover above it. Pam later accurately described the surgeon’s drill, as well as a conversation between two of the doctors about the size of the arteries in her groin. Pam’s body temperature was then lowered to 60° F., her heart stopped, her EEG brain waves flattened, her brain stem became totally unresponsive, and the blood was drained from her body. However, Pam recalled leaving the operating room and traveling down a tunnel with a light, where she saw deceased relatives and friends, including her grandmother. (This experience is described in great detail by Dr. Michael Sabom in chapter three of his book Light and Death.)
The Case of the Missing Dentures — A man who was comatose and turning blue from lack of oxygen was brought into a hospital by ambulance. As he was being intubated, a nurse removed the man’s dentures and put them onto the “crash cart.” After about 1 ½ hours of extensive CPR, the man regained heart rhythm, and he was transferred to the intensive care unit. More than a week later, after the man’s condition had improved, he saw the nurse who removed the dentures. The nurse described the interaction as follows:
The moment he sees me he says: “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are.” I am very surprised. Then he elucidates: “Yes, you were there when I was brought into hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that car, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer underneath and there you put my teeth.” I was especially amazed because I remembered this happening while the man was in deep coma and in the process of CPR.
The man went on to explain that he had seen himself lying in bed, and he had perceived from above how nurses and doctors had been busy with CPR. (More information about this experience can be found in this article, which was published in the medical journal The Lancet.)
“Shock the Patient” — A 57-year-old man suffered a cardiac arrest, and his heart went into ventricular fibrillation (VF). However, the patient recalled floating up to a corner of the room and seeing medical staff work on him. The patient accurately described the cardiologist who worked on him (bald and “quite a chunky fella”), even though the patient hadn’t seen the cardiologist beforehand. The patient also recalled hearing an automated voice saying, “Shock the patient, shock the patient.” Medical records confirmed the use of an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) that would give the automated instructions the patient heard. Because the AED delivered two shocks, researchers believe that the cardiac arrest lasted three to five minutes. Typically, brain electrical activity stops shortly after the heart goes into VF. (For more information about this experience, see this paper published in the medical journal Resuscitation, or pp. 240-254 of Dr. Sam Parnia’s book Erasing Death.)
“Flapping His Arms As If Trying To Fly…” — In 1998, 56-year-old Al Sullivan had an out-of-body experience during bypass surgery. He recalled seeing himself lying on a table with his chest cut open. He also recalled seeing his surgeon, Hiroyoshi Takata, “flapping his arms as if trying to fly.” Following the operation, Sullivan mentioned this odd observation to his cardiologist, who explained that this was a peculiar habit of Dr. Takata’s. Nine years later, in an interview with NDE researcher Bruce Greyson, Dr. Takata confirmed that it was his regular habit to “flap” his elbows because after he has scrubbed in, he does not wish his hands to touch anything until he is actually ready to do the surgery. (See p. 399 of this article for more information about this experience.)
Seeing While Blind — A 41-year-old woman named Nancy had a disastrous experience while undergoing a biopsy related to a possible cancerous chest tumor. The surgeon inadvertently cut her superior vena cava, and then compounded his error by sewing it closed, causing (among other things) blindness. In the recovery room, Nancy woke up and screamed, “I’m blind, I’m blind!” Shortly afterward, she was rushed on a gurney down the corridor in order to have an angiogram. However, Nancy recalled floating above the gurney and being able to see her body below. She also recalled seeing down the hall where two men, the father of her son and her current lover, Leon, were both standing. Later, Leon independently confirmed all the essential facts of this event. (See p. 122 of this paper for more information about this experience.)
The Tennis-Shoe Case — A migrant worker named Maria had an NDE during a cardiac arrest at a hospital in Seattle in 1977. She later told her social worker, Kimberly Clark, that while doctors were resuscitating her, she found herself floating outside the hospital building and saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor window ledge. Maria described the tennis shoe in detail, including that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and the little toe area was worn. Clark went to the window Maria had indicated, found the shoe, and confirmed Maria’s observations about it. (I read about this experience in Dr. Mario Beauregard’s Brain Wars, which cites Clark’s description in this book.)
Nonfunctional Neocortex — At age 54, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander was struck by a rare illness, E. coli bacterial meningitis, and thrown into a coma for seven days. After recovering, Alexander studied his own medical charts and concluded that his entire neocortex — the part of the brain that is responsible for memory, language, emotion, visual and auditory awareness, and logic — was not functioning during this time. Yet Alexander recalled being taken to “a completely new world … [t]he strangest, most beautiful world I’d ever seen.” Alexander called this “the single most real experience of my life,” and he described it in the book, Proof of Heaven.
Although NDEs do not provide the kind of evidence for an afterlife that would satisfy a committed materialist, they strengthen my own faith that death is not the end.