Life After Death Or a Dying Brain?

Survivors' accounts of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) often describe a wonderful feeling of 'going home' at last. Experiences like this affect people deeply, but do they answer our question of what is it going to be like when I die?

I think it fair to conclude that if we come close to death, or if people we love are going to die, this is how it might be -- a reassuring thought. Facing illness and the possibility of death is not so difficult if you know it is likely to involve feeling warm, safe and loved, but can we conclude anything more than that from the near-death experience?

Conclusions can run wild and in diametrically opposed directions. [...] The first choice, which is more popular by far, could be termed the 'Afterlife Hypothesis'. This suggests that the NDE is a glimpse into life after death. There are many versions of this hypothesis but most often they claim that the tunnel is some kind of passageway to the next life, the bright light is the light of heaven or the world beyond, and the people one meets in that world are the real surviving personalities of people who have died before and with whom one will spend an eternity after death. The traveller is believed to be the person's soul or spirit, freed from its earthly ties. Paranormal events are only to be expected because the soul is travelling in a non-material world beyond the limitations of space and time.

The second choice could be termed the 'Dying Brain Hypothesis'. All the phenomena of the NDE are believed to be products of the dying brain; hallucinations, imaginings and mental constructions that will ultimately stop when the brain's activity stops. If this hypothesis is true then NDEs tell us nothing about life after death.

Which (if either) is correct?

The afterlife view is far more popular. Surveys show that over half the population believes in some kind of life after death. In fact, the last Gallup poll in the United States found that 70 per cent believe in life after death, a figure that has not changed much since the Second World War. The common reaction of NDErs is to think they have been given personal proof that they will live after they die. But popularity is not proof; neither is a compelling personal experience.

An NDE can change a person's life for ever but it is not necessarily evidence for life after death. To explore what it can tell us about ourselves we can look at the arguments used to bolster the two hypotheses.

The Afterlife Hypothesis

Four main kinds of argument for the reality of an afterlife are often used:

  1. The 'consistency argument' is that NDEs are similar around the world and throughout history. The only possible explanation for this, so the argument runs, is that NDEs are just what they appear to be -- the soul's journey out of the body, through a tunnel to another world that awaits us after death. Consistency, it is argued, amounts to evidence for an afterlife.
  2. The 'reality argument' is that NDEs feel so real that they must be what they appear to be, a real journey to the next world. Anyone who has had an NDE knows it is real because they have been there. Those who haven't cannot know what it is like. In this argument, feelings of reality amount to evidence.
  3. The 'paranormal argument' is that NDEs involve paranormal events which cannot be explained by science. These are therefore evidence that the NDE involves another dimension, another world, or the existence of a non-material spirit or soul. No purely materialist hypothesis can explain the paranormal so paranormality amounts to evidence.
  4. The 'transformation argument' is that people are changed by their NDEs, sometimes dramatically for the better -- becoming more spiritual and less materialistic. This proves, so the argument goes, that they have had a spiritual experience involving another world. For this reason only could their transformation have come about and it is these aftereffects that amount to the evidence.

These arguments have a strong appeal and, in various forms, appear again and again, as much in conversation over dinner or a drink as in the popular and scientific literature. But they are not necessarily either logical or correct

The Dying Brain Hypothesis

Just two main arguments are most often used for the dying brain hypothesis. Interestingly, the first one is the same as for the afterlife hypothesis but for quite different reasons.

  1. The 'consistency argument' is that NDEs are similar around the world and throughout history. The reason, this argument goes, is that everyone has a similar brain, hormones, and nervous system and that is why they have similar experiences when those systems fail.
  2. The 'just like hallucinations argument' maintains that all the features of the NDE can occur under other conditions, not near death, and therefore can be explained in terms of hallucinations or normal imagery.

I shall tackle each one of these arguments in the course of this book to find out just how compelling they are. We shall find that the answers lead us far beyond either of these two simplistic hypotheses.

Inference to the Best Explanation

250 pages later, in the last chapter of Susan Blackmore's book...

The arguments are now strong enough to take on the challenge offered by many NDE investigators [who believe in afterlife]. [...] Four arguments are commonly used as evidence for the Afterlife Hypothesis. I can now reassess them all.

1. The first was the 'consistency argument.' [...] The consistency is certainly there. We have explored many different kinds of NDEs and seen that, although no two are the same, there are consistent patterns: the joy and peace; the tunnel; the light; the out-of-body experience; the life review and the dissolution into timelessness; the return to life and the changes it brings. The consistency is there but this does not mean there is an afterlife.

The joy and peace are consistent because of the natural opiates [endorphins] released under stress. The tunnel, light and noises are consistent because they depend on the structure of the brain's cortex and what happens to it when it is deprived of oxygen or is affected by disinhibition and random activity. The OBE is consistent because it is the brain's way of dealing with a breakdown in the body image and model of reality. The life review is consistent because the endorphins cause random activation and seizures in the temporal lobe and limbic system where memories are organized. The same effect leads to the breakdown of time and its relationship to self. And it is this dissolution of self that accounts for the mystical experiences and aftereffects.

No afterlife hypothesis is required to account for the consistency of NDE across times, peoples and cultures. Indeed, the dying brain hypothesis accounts for it better.

2. The second argument I called the 'reality argument'. [...] By exploring the reasons why things seem real I have provided an alternative interpretation. It is useful for us, as biological organisms, to separate what is real from what is not. However, the distinction is largely artificial. All we have is model-building and we call some models 'real' and some 'imaginary.' The most stable and persistent ones, like those based on the senses, we call real. The ones that affect the limbic system in certain ways we feel as 'familiar' or 'meaningful.' Mostly this works well but during an NDE it leads us astray. Stable tunnel forms in the cortex seem real. An out-of-body perspective taken on in imagination seems real. So the felt 'realness' of NDEs is no evidence that there is anyone to travel out of the body or any next world to go to. The dying brain hypothesis thus accounts better for why the experience seems so real and can also account for why obviously 'unreal' things are seen in NDEs as well.

3. Third comes the 'paranormal argument'. [...] This is not a good argument for the afterlife hypothesis for two reasons. Firstly, I have cast considerable doubt on the evidence itself. Many cases are simply very weak to start with, others become weaker the deeper you look into them and some have even been invented altogether. Secondly, even if the evidence were compelling, it could not be explained just by claiming 'There is an afterlife'. If the evidence changes in the future and truly convincing paranormal events are documented then certainly the theory I have proposed will have to be overthrown -- along with a lot more psychology, physics, and biology -- but the afterlife theories we have encountered here will not do instead.

By contrast, the dying brain hypothesis explains why people seek paranormal evidence to bolster their impression of realness and how the stories are passed on and elaborated. By understanding the role of the limbic system and temporal lobe it accounts for the experiences of familiarity, insight, and déjà vu and for the increase in psychic experiences after the NDE. I shall keep looking for the evidence that might prove it wrong but for now the dying brain hypothesis accounts better for what we know.

4. Finally, there is the 'transformation argument'. This is that people are changed by their NDEs, sometimes dramatically for the better, becoming more spiritual and less materialistic.

The afterlife hypothesis attributes this to NDErs having a spiritual existence in another world. In fact this does not really explain it at all. There is no obvious reason why an afterlife should be a better one nor why contact with it should make people who return nicer. That is simply assumed.

By contrast, the dying brain hypothesis is compatible with two reasons for transformation. One is simply that being made to think about death can affect a person's priorities deeply, whether it is their death or another's and whether they have an NDE or not. This alone can make them less selfish and more concerned for others. The other is that coming close to death can provoke the insight that the self was only a mental construction; that all the struggles, attachment and suffering of life depend on that artificial construction and that it can be let go. There never was any solid self and there is no one to die. With this insight fear is left behind and life can be lived more directly and fully. The dying brain hypothesis accounts better for the mystical insight of the NDE and the changes it can bring about.

All things considered, I see no reason to adopt the afterlife hypothesis. I am sure I shall remain in the minority for a long time to come, especially amongst NDErs, but for me the evidence and the arguments are overwhelming. The dying brain hypothesis, for all its shortcomings, does a better job of accounting for the experiences themselves. And it reveals not a false hope of the self surviving for ever but a genuine insight beyond the self.

We are biological organisms, evolved in fascinating ways for no purpose at all and with no end in any mind. We are simply here and this is how it is. I have no self and 'I' own nothing. There is no one to die. There is just this moment, and now this and now this.

Excerpts from Susan Blackmore's book
Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences,
1993. New York: Prometheus Books. Check the validity of this page's XHTML Check the validity of this site's Cascading Style Sheet Page maintained by Alex Petrov
Created 2006-05-10, last updated 2006-05-10.