|The Survivalist Interpretation of Recent Studies Into the Near-Death Experie|
|This paper addresses common counter-hypotheses for a survivalist interpretation of veridical perceptions during the stage of flat electroencephalogram (EEG) in so called Near-Death Experiences (NDEs).|
The Journal of Religion and Psychical Research, 26, 1, 27-31.† January 2003.
The Survivalist Interpretation of Recent Studies Into the
by Titus Rivas
There is serious evidence for veridical
perceptions during the stage of flat electroencephalogram (EEG) in so called
Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). This paper addresses common
counter-hypotheses for a survivalist interpretation of these experiences.
The only possible alternative which would account for veridical NDEs is the
false memory through retrocognition-hypothesis. It is shown why this
alternative is less parsimonious than a straightforward survivalist
interpretation of NDEs.
The Near-Death Experience recently gained an
increased scientific respectability by the publication of an article in The
Lancet authored by Dr. Pim van Lommel of the Rijnstate Hospital at Arnhem
(the Netherlands) and his collaborators (Lommel, et al. 2001). Their prospective work with cardiac patients who were succesfully resuscitated
after cardiac arrest, resembles similar research by Dr. Sam Parnia at the
University of Southampton and his colleagues (Parnia et al., 1998).
Both Van Lommel and Parnia have concluded that NDEs are real and that they
cannot be explained by physiological or psychological causes (alone).
Moreover, they have both accepted the implication that consciousness is not
destroyed when our brain activity ceases, but that there is a continuity
beyond brain coma and therefore probably after brain death as well.
Consciousness does not ultimately depend on brain activity for its very
existence, which makes it downright irrational to take for granted the idea
that it would be obliterated after the brain ceases to exist as a physical
Materialists (I mean the non-reductive ones who accept the reality of
consciousness during physical life) generally see consciousness as an
epiphenomenon or correlate of brain activity. For the question of survival,
it is therefore sufficient to show that there is no ultimate existential
dependence of the mind on such brain processing. The theory of ultimate
mental dependence on cerebral functioning is refuted by the survival of
consciousness after the cessation of (cortical) brain processes, regardless
of whether that cessation is temporary or final.
Near-death experiences and materialist theories of
If it can be shown that consciousness is present eventhough the brain
processes which following materialist theories are supposedly known to be
responsible for it have ceased, those materialist theories can safely be
considered as inadequate. Now, apriori there can be several responses to the
challenge that is posed to materialism and epiphenomenalism by the recent
1. Methodological scepticism: This is the usual response by skeptics
whenever they are confronted by results that go against their (unquestionably
closed-minded) world view. However, as the scientific reputation of the
researchers involved in the recent studies certainly seems impeccable, and
as their work has been accepted as worthy of publication in prestigious
journals such as The Lancet, it may be safely assumed that the standard
skeptic objection is simply baseless in this case. Research into NDEs cannot
be dismissed anymore as being pseudo-scientific.
2. Flaws in the specific interpretation of the results.
Some critics, such as C.C. French think that the findings of these studies
should not be interpreted in a survivalist manner. It certainly seems to be
the case that some individual patients are fully conscious during a flat
EEG, but they really are not. The memories of the NDE they claim to have had
are simply false memories (French, 2001). This can be further elaborated in
A. Patients who claim they have had an NDE simply suffer from some kind of
self-deception. They never experienced anything like it, but they just
believe they did. At a subconscious level, they have constructed a fantasy
accompanied by images and feelings, and they project this fantasy into their
memory as if it concerned a real experience of the (imaginary) event while
B. Claimants of NDEs did indeed have a real experience before they came to,
but not during their flat EEG. It happened during the seconds or minutes
before they lost consciousness or during the last few moments before they
fully awoke from their coma, and it was temporally distorted in their memory
as if it really took place during the flat EEG.
Against both these criticisms researchers stress that patients are reported
to have had veridical impressions of events that took place inside but also
outside the room that contained their physical bodies and during the stage
in which their brains showed a flat EEG. Therefore, any hypothesis that
claims that these people simply deceive themselves must account for these
experiences. It is very convenient for skeptics that such experiences, which
seem clearly related to extrasensory perception (ESP) as studied by
parapsychologists, are still quite controversial for many scientists, so
that they are obviously tempted to dismiss them out of hand. However, the
evidence for such veridical experiences (or memories of experiences) is
growing and its quality is also increasing (Ring, 1998; Rivas, 2000; Abdalla,
2002). So unless we wish to remain hard line skeptics at any cost, it seems
wise to take them very seriously.
What are the implications of real veridical experiences related to events
that happened during a flat EEG? In psychical research we know two
categories of ESP that relate to a time factor. First, there is precognition
which in this context would boil down to an experience of an event which
took place during the stage of flat EEG before that experience took place.
In this case it would mean that a patient does not precognitively experience
an event which -according to the false-memory theory- (unlike, say, the case
of a Dunne-effect type of dream) he will eventually experience through ESP
while it is taking place, because the theory holds that there would be no
awareness of any events whatsoever during the stage of flat EEG. More
importantly, the precognitive experiences should occur before the patient
loses consciousness or at least before he enters the stage of flat EEG,
whereas he should lose all memory of having had such a precognitive vision
after he has come to.
Therefore, I personally cannot take this very far-fetched possibility
seriously and I think we should be confident in dismissing the precognitive
variant of the false memory theory.
The other time-related form of ESP is called retrocognition, i.e. knowledge
acquired through ESP of past events. The retrocognitive variant of the false
memory hypothesis interprets memories of veridical experiences during the
stage of flat EEG as follows. Patients with an NDE subconsciously use ESP to
get knowledge of past events which happened during their coma, and project
that knowledge into their false memories during the last moments before they
regain consciousness. The theory needs to hold that all patients with
veridical experiences during their flat EEG were somehow motivated to create
a fantasy and include in that fantasy false memories of real events through
the aid of retrocognition. This means that during the moments between their
flat EEG and their awakening from it, some patients are subconsciously
motivated to use retrocognition to deceive themselves about their lack of
consciousness during their flat EEG.
Retrocognition is a very strange hypothesis for NDEs, because it implies
that a patient would not use ESP to perceive events that happen between the
stage of flat EEG and complete awakening, but would instead focus on events
that have already taken place. It cannot explain cases of NDEs in which
there is paranormal perception of events that took place during flat EEG but
also of events which occurred during the awakening process itself and in
which such a perception is experienced by the patient as part of a coherent
and continuous stream of consciousness.
An even more fatal weakness of this theory is that it uses a very
unmaterialistic concept -retrocognition- to uphold a materialistic theory.
Even if it were true, it simply could not be defended by a (reductive or
non-reductive) materialist, at least not in the mainstream sense of this
term. By its very nature, the retrocognitive false memory theory needs to be
part of a broader radical dualistic theory about the mind-brain relation. It
might be defended by the so called "animistic" school of thought
within the parapsychological tradition, which promotes the explanation of
possible evidence for survival after death in terms of ESP (or
psychokinesis). However, it is very ironic that even a hard line animist
like Hans Bender (1983, page 148) concluded that the ESP needed to explain
veridical experiences during NDEs is in itself suggestive of survival after
death. [Addition 2005: Please note that what used to be commonly known as animism, nowadays is often termed Super-ESP or Super-PSI theory.]
In any case, if veridical memories of events during flat EEG are taken
seriously, we must leave the plane of (conventional) materialist theorizing
about mind-brain relations. After that, we have to ask ourselves which
theory is simpler or more parsimonious: a dualist theory which holds that
the memories of events during flat EEG are false memories, constructed via
retrocognition, or a dualist theory which holds that such memories simply
are real memories based on real experiences. As dualists, we can no longer
consider the real memory theory as less parsimonious just because it would
imply survival, because -as even animistic champion Hans Bender acknowledges-
at least some form of survival is implied by any serious radical dualist
(and therefore also any animistic) theory. Therefore, I conclude that the
false memory-theory is simply more complicated (i.e. less parsimonious) than
necessary. In order to avoid the conclusion that consciousness survives
death, it needs to postulate a mechanism which is only plausible within a
parapsychological theory which ultimately implies at least some form of
postmortem survival of the mind. So it really is a theory which is more
complicated than a straightforward survivalist theory. It implies both
survival and a strange, unknown kind of retrospective falsification of
memory through retrocognition.
Therefore, in my opinion, we should only adopt the 'false memory through
retrocognition'-theory after it has been empirically shown that memories
of NDEs must generally be false. It's the animists (or moderate survivalists)
who have to show the (radical) survivalists wrong in this case, certainly
not the other way round. It's just a question of parsimony. The radical
survivalist theory is the most parsimonious exhaustive interpretation of
NDEs and it can be falsified by evidence for a more complex theory such as
the 'false memory through retrocognition'-theory.
3. Adaptation of mainstream materialistic
neuropsychological theory concerning the present-day registrability of
neural activity needed for consciousness
The last materialist response (defended for
example by Karl Jansen, a psychiatrist known for his attempts of
artificially producing experiences which resemble NDEs) to the recent
evidence for NDEs is that the memories are indeed real memories, but that a
hypothetical residual and as yet nonmeasurable level of brain activity can
still account for them (Abdalla, 2002). Of course, the veridical memories of
events that took place in or outside the patient's room during his flat
EEG, are usually ignored by this theory. If they are not, they should be
seen as mental activities which can be 'embodied' in unusually
low-levelled brain activity.
The problem with this theory is that there is (by definition) absolutely no
evidence for it. Theorists seem to be quite content with pointing at
unsuitable analogies such as certain types of sleep EEG, but no acceptable
close empirical parallels have been presented so far. For instance, during
most vivid dreams there is rapid eye movement (REM). As Pim van Lommel
points out, if we accept NDEs as real experiences during flat EEG, we also
have to accept that patients experience normal, full-blown and even
heightened conscious mental activity in them. If critics want to explain
this away by a still unknown type of residual neural activity, they have to
present parallels which involve normal (lucid) or heightened conscious
mental activity and which can at the same time be satisfactorily explained
by known residual neural activity. Otherwise, we must conclude that the
theory is based on nothing more than unfounded speculation! It is not
forbidden to look for immunisations of a cherished, well-founded theory
against apparently falsifying results, but such immunizations should of
course be plausible and based on acceptable data. As far as I know, there is
no serious evidence for the residual cerebral activity-theory as a counter
theory for survival. That is precisely the reason that Pim van Lommel
(personal communication) simply rejects it as having no scientific basis.
- Abdalla, M. (2002). Cardioloog Pim van
Lommel haalt bijna-dood ervaringen uit het donker. Paravisie, 17,
- Bender, H. (1983). Zukunftsvisionen, Kriegsprophezeiungen,
Sterbeerlebnisse. Munich: R. Piper Verlag.
- French, C.C. (2001). Dying to know the truth: visions of a dying brain, or
false memories? The Lancet, 358, 9298, 2010.
- Lommel, P. van, Wees, R. van, Meyers, V., & Elfferich, I. (2001).
Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in
the Netherlands. The
Lancet, 358, 9298, 2039-2044. Website of Dutch Society Merkawah
- Parnia, S., Waller, D.G., Yeates, R., & Fenwick, P. (2001). A
qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology
of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors. Resuscitation,
48, 149-156. Also see their website
- Ring, K. (1998). Lessons from the Light: what we can learn from the
Near-Death Experience. New York: Insight Books.
- Rivas, T. (2000). Herinneringen aan een periode tussen twee levens. Prana,
Iím grateful to Dr. Pim van Lommel, Anny Stevens-Dirven, Pieter van
Wezel, MA, and Dr. Donald R. Morse for their useful comments.
Reprint requests to:
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|extrasensory perception, super-psi, dualism, flat eeg, veridical perception, neat-death experiences, survival after death, ndes|