The Science of Near-Death Experiences

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John C. Hagan, III
  • Columbia, MO: 
    University of Missouri Press
    , January
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780826221032.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Science of Near-Death Experiences, with a foreword by Raymond Moody who coined the term Near Death Experience (NDE), is based on papers included in Missouri Medicine: The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association between Fall 2013 and Summer 2015. With a few exceptions, the contributions come from members of the medical profession who were selected, the editor tells us, “because physicians are objective observers, they have direct understanding of possible physiological interpretations, and their scientific background lends added credibility to their reports” (5). While we might concede the latter criteria as valid ones, the most interesting aspects of this collection are the inclusion of first-hand accounts of NDEs by physicians, as well as doubts raised about the adequacy of current psychological and/or physiological explanations to account for NDEs.

Turning to the latter topic, Bruce Grayson in “An Overview of Near-Death Experiences” offers a brief sketch of the issues. He provides a summary of characteristic features of NDEs, claims that some nine million people in the US have experienced them, and notes that the various attempts to explain their causes in terms of current psychological and/or physiological factors lack sufficient empirical support. Grayson concludes that “heightened mental functions” under seemingly debilitating conditions of impairment, “challenge the common assumption in neuroscience that consciousness is solely the product of brain processes, or that the mind is merely the subjective concomitant of neurological events” (27). Jeffrey Long in his “Near-Death Experience: Evidence for Their Reality” adds that in the past thirty-five years of investigating NDEs more than twenty different scientific explanations have been offered—none of which has gained unanimous support, indicating “there is no consensus whatsoever about how physical brain function produces NDEs” (77). Using a schema involving nine lines of evidence to evaluate NDEs, any one of which would offer compelling probability of authenticity, Long concludes that “the combination of all of the presented nine lines of evidence provides powerful evidence that NDEs are, in a word, real” (77).

With regard to first-person physicians’ reports of NDEs, we are offered a number that range from illness-induced (Jean Renee Hausheer, Eben Alexander) to accidentally induced (Tony Cicoria), all dramatic in their descriptions and clearly in support of a perspective that is not limited to psychological or physiological explanations. In particular, Alexander summarizes his NDE in “Near-Death Experiences: The Mind-Body Debate & the Nature of Reality” and includes an assertion about the limitations of scientific explanations. Instead, he advocates for a perspective inclusive of a spiritual dimension that amounts to a new vision of consciousness as all pervasive and existing independent of the brain.

His account and conclusions are countered by Kevin Nelson’s “Neuroscience Perspectives on Near-Death Experiences” that insists on the legitimacy and integrity of an objective scientific approach to the phenomenon of NDEs that needs to be demarcated from a personal, faith-based perspective: “Clinicians have an ethical responsibility to clearly differentiate the domains of science and faith, with respect to the power of near-death experiences to steadfastly transform personal meaning and spirituality” (122). In a final piece, “Near-Death Experiences and the Emerging Scientific View of Consciousness,” Alexander fires back in a detailed response, concluding that, “The emerging scientific view will be one that fully embraces these extraordinary conscious experiences and provides a far more realistic model of the universe than the paltry and barren fiction provided by lame physicalism” (137).

As a collection from clinicians and a few fellow researchers, this book has the merit of offering a window on a particular group that have focused on NDEs and the debate over medical science versus spirituality, and a possible new unifying paradigm inclusive of both. Its strengths are also its limitations, namely that such a narrowly focused professional group limits itself to issues and ways of addressing them that would be enhanced by input from expertise of other disciplines, such as philosophy, theology, religious studies, and the social sciences in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

F.X. Charet is the coordinator of the Consciousness Studies concentration in the Graduate Institute, Goddard College. 

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John C. Hagan III is a board certified ophthalmologist and was the founder of Midwest Eye Institute of Kansas City. He has published more than 140 scientific articles and designed several surgical instruments. He is the editor of Missouri Medicine: The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association and lives in Kansas City, MO.

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