The Near-Death Experience
Part Two: Alternative Explanations
by J. Isamu Yamoto
In the previous issue we examined common elements in the accounts of people
who claim to have had near-death experiences. We focused primarily on the New
Age interpretation of this phenomenon, surveying the work and writings of
Raymond Moody, Kenneth Ring, and Melvin Morse. In this issue our discussion
explores alternative explanations to those of the New Age movement for NDEs.
First, there are a number of medical explanations. These range from legitimate
possibilities, such as the effects of endorphins and hypoxia, to more incredible
propositions, such as the "memories of birth" interpretation. Second, some of the
findings of both secular and Christian psychologists and medical professionals who
have researched NDEs are found to conflict with New Age interpretations. An
example of this is the occurrence in some cases of hellish experiences during near-death trauma. Finally, it is clear that New Agers often misuse Scripture to support
their assertions. For instance, the citing of Paul's conversion experience on the
road to Damascus glosses over the fact that this was not an NDE.
In conclusion, we may allow for the possibility that God works in the experience of
some of these cases, but we must reject those experiences and interpretations
that clearly deny the teachings of Scripture.
A recent issue of Life magazine featured a cover story by Verlyn Klinkenborg that
focused on near-death experiences (NDEs). What is significant about this essay is
not that it provides new insights into this subject, but that NDEs took center stage
in a major national periodical. However disconnected Klinkenborg's journalistic
treatment of NDEs was, her comments no doubt influenced the general public's
understanding of this phenomenon. In fact, I discovered and perused this article in
the waiting room of my daughter's dentist's office.
Klinkenborg begins her essay by saying, "As scientists study the meaning of near-death experiences, perhaps we can inch closer to an understanding of life."
Although the author quotes a number of professional experts in this field and
several people who have experienced NDEs, what the reader inches closer to is
more the debatable interpretations some have offered for NDEs than any reliable
understanding of the nature of life.
Medical explanations of NDEs are quickly dismissed while mystical interpretations
predominate. The following remark, for instance, is typical of Klinkenborg's
perspective: "To many, NDEs provide some of what religion has always provided:
a way to talk about death before it comes and a glimpse of death as passage
rather than termination." In addition, several religious illustrations capture the
reader's eyes more than the written word. One includes a man in a yogic position
with his fingers forming the cosmic symbol of the OM, a Hindu mystical concept.
Klinkenborg devotes much of her essay to the works and views of Raymond
Moody, Melvin Morse, and others who regularly appear in feature articles on NDEs.
Although she doesn't present their more obvious New Age ideas, she does
introduce them as noted authorities on the subject, giving them further credibility in
the minds of those readers who might want to learn more about this subject.
In Part One of this article, which appeared in the previous issue of the CHRISTIAN
RESEARCH JOURNAL (Spring 1992), we concentrated on such New Age
interpretations of near-death experiences. We reviewed the 15 common elements
that Moody, the pioneer of the study of NDEs, compiled in his book Life After
Life, which has sold over seven million copies. We considered the research of
Morse, a pediatrician in Seattle, Washington, who is a leader in the exploration of
the near-death experiences of children. We also examined the investigative work of
Kenneth Ring, a professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut who
founded the International Association for Near-Death Studies.
In Part Two of this article, we will continue our discussion of NDEs, focusing on
other interpretations of this phenomenon. Like Klinkenborg, we want to discover
whether a better understanding of NDEs will inch us closer to an understanding of
life. Unlike Klinkenborg, however, we want to give serious attention to the
observations and explanations of researchers other than those who advocate New
MEDICAL EXPLANATIONS: SCIENCE OR PREJUDICE?
The medical and scientific communities, by and large, discount the claims that near-death experiences indicate that there is life after death. Although their explanations
of NDEs are quite diverse, most are skeptical of the out-of-body experiences and
visions that have been associated with NDEs. Nevertheless, few would dispute that
a dramatic psychological effect has occurred with those people who have reported
a near-death experience. Thus, they have tried in various ways to make sense of
this fascinating phenomenon.
Lysergic Acid (LSD). Many medical professionals believe NDEs are hallucinations
caused by one of many psychoactive drugs. Because of its popularity in the sixties
and the nature of its effects on the mind, lysergic acid is one drug that is often
advanced in the cases of those who may have had prior experience with LSD. Their
main argument for linking LSD with NDEs is that people frequently feel they have
had both a religious and an out-of-body experience -- two elements commonly
associated with NDEs -- while under the influence of LSD.
NDE advocates, however, see two weaknesses in this explanation. First and
foremost, the visual hallucinations from an LSD experience are not consistent from
one person to another. In fact, images and emotions are usually distorted and
individually bizarre. NDEs, on the other hand, are quite vivid and distinct and --
most importantly -- are remarkably parallel to one another. In addition, NDE
advocates distinguish between the perceptions of people having these two
experiences. While most people on LSD know their sense of reality is being
distorted, people during an NDE perceive their experience as intensely real.
Narcotics and Recreational Drugs. Some skeptics of NDEs suggest other drugs
as the sources for this psychological phenomenon, particularly such narcotics as
morphine and heroin, since both can cause strange hallucinations. Although both
drugs can induce heavenly and blissful experiences, NDE advocates reject them
because of their side effects. While morphine and heroin users have described
nausea, vomiting, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, and even decreased vision,
these side effects are not present with NDEs.
Such recreational drugs as marijuana, cocaine, PCP, amphetamines, and
barbiturates have also been linked to NDEs. NDE advocates, however, point out
that people often experience varying levels of paranoia after taking high doses of
these drugs while people who have had near-death experiences have
demonstrated no signs of this psychological problem. Another disparity between
the two is the presence of severe depression in many who take recreational drugs
and its absence in those who have had NDEs.
Anesthetic Agents. Some medical professionals attribute the NDE phenomenon
to anesthetic agents that are given to victims or patients. Halothane, surital,
nitrous oxide, and Nembutal are the most commonly used and mentioned. This
claim is based on reports by nondying patients who are able to recall bits of
conversations or other details concerning their treatment while under anesthesia.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that these anesthetic agents are
not known to trigger hallucinations.
The anesthetic agent Ketamine deserves further discussion because a couple of its
extreme psychological effects on some people are noted to be similar to NDEs.
First, this agent frequently causes people to imagine that they have had an out-of-body experience (OBE). Second, Ketamine tends to produce a sensation in many
that they have seen their doubles, or a mirror image of themselves. NDE
advocates, however, argue that the OBE associated with Ketamine is normally of a
frightful nature and not pleasurable, as is the case (they maintain) with NDEs. In
fact, since Ketamine has had such severe adverse effects on patients, it has been
withdrawn from further use.
Autoscopic Hallucinations. The psychological event of seeing one's double is
known as autoscopy. It is usually associated with brain tumors, strokes, and
migraine headaches, and it occurs when a person superimposes his or her double
on reality. Since this double appears as a mirror image of the person, and since
many people have described seeing themselves during a near-death experience,
some skeptics of NDEs say this element of an NDE is nothing more than an
Advocates of NDEs, however, claim a clear distinction between these two
experiences. On the one hand, they say autoscopic hallucinations involve people
projecting their doubles outside of themselves. On the other hand, people view
their bodies from outside of themselves during near-death experiences. The
difference can be illustrated in this way: a man is lying on his bed and sees his
double hovering above himself -- he is having an autoscopic hallucination; a
woman who has been critically ill s