Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Debunking Dualist Notions of Near-Death Experiences

This post is by Hayley Dewe, pictured above. She is a PhD student from the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham. Her research is based in The Selective Attention and Awareness laboratory, directed by Jason Braithwaite. Her research focuses on the neurocognitive correlates of anomalous (hallucinatory) experience, specifically pertaining to the ‘self’, embodiment, and consciousness.

In this post I will briefly discuss the extraordinary phenomena of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), and highlights key arguments raised in my recent paper, co-authored paper with Jason Braithwaite, which explores how findings from neuroscience can help debunk dualist notions of NDEs (Braithwaite & Dewe 2014; published in The (UK) Skeptic magazine).

NDEs are striking experiences that typically occur when one is close to death or exposed to life-threatening situations of intense physical and/or emotional danger (first coined by Moody 1975, Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books). This unusual experience includes a variety of aberrant components such as: sensations of peace and vivid imagery, bright flashes of light, the sensation of travelling through a dark tunnel towards a bright light, a disconnection from the physical body (a shift in perspective: the Out-of-Body Experience), and the sensation of entering a light / visions of an ‘afterlife’ etc. (Greyson 1980).

From a parapsychological (or survivalist / supernatural) perspective, NDEs are understood as mystical and spiritual experiences that expose the individual to another world (or afterlife). This is taken as evidence for the survival of bodily death (i.e. dualism); that the mind/consciousness is not dependent on the brain (Parnia and Fenwick 2002; van Lommel et al. 2001).

In stark contrast is the scientific/neuroscience perspective. Here, it is argued that NDEs are hallucinatory phenomena, generated by a disinhibited and highly confused, dying brain (known as the ‘dying brain account’; Blackmore 1996; Braithwaite 2008; Jansen 1990).

There are two important arguments pertaining to the scientific account that I would like to raise here. There are a host of logical fallacies and methodological discrepancies within the parapsychological literature (discussed at length in Braithwaite & Dewe 2014; Braithwaite 2008). One argument we propose is that, to our knowledge, there appears to be no objective study validating the presence of an entirely inactive human brain with the simultaneous occurrence of an NDE! This is of principal concern to survivalists; how is it assumed that the NDE is a glimpse of an afterlife, or evidence for dualist notions of life (or mind) surviving brain death, if no such evidence actually exists? Further, even if there were evidence of a completely inactive brain, and subsequent recollection of an NDE; evidencing their simultaneous occurrence would be extremely problematic. How could one pinpoint the precise time frame that the NDE components occurred? The NDE itself may well have occurred before levels of brain activity became ‘inactive’ (or ‘flattened’), or even experienced and recalled afterwards, during recovery.

Secondly, no component of the NDE is actually unique to the ‘near-death’ experience. The visual perceptions that are observed such as flashes of light, or alternate shifts in perspective (i.e. the OBE) can and do occur in a variety of contexts; not only when one is close to death. For instance, OBEs reportedly occur in 12% of the general population (Blackmore 1984). Therefore, one needn’t necessarily be ‘near to death’ to experience NDE phenomena, and consequently we suggest that dualist / survivalist arguments of NDEs are arguably flawed.


  1. Fascinating post and research. I'm also interested in exploring and critiquing parapsychological work with my own research in philosophy. Their methods can be problematic, to say the least.

    1. Thank you, Eric! I definitely think it's a fascinating area of research, and hopefully something of interest to the wider public too.


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