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Journal of Near-Death Studies
November 17, 2001
Style file version March 18, 1999
The Structure and Function of
Near-Death Experiences: An
Algorithmic Reincarnation Hypothesis
Todd Murphy
San Francisco, CA
Hypothesizes that a near-death experience (NDE) is the
subjective experience of having the state of consciousness in which a person
experiences the last moment of his or her life being turned, in stages, into the
state of consciousness experienced as the "point of no return." The
life review
this, as is interpreted as a review of the states of consciousness experienced
during our lives. Our responses to reviewing our own behaviors while in
specific states reinforces and classifies them into those to repeat in future
lives and those to avoid. We examine a modification of the traditional doctrine
of reincarnation that takes into account biological and cultural evolution. This
allows an understanding of how the attributes of NDEs could have undergone
selection even though all opportunities for mating have already passed at the
time of death.
near-death experience; reincarnation; Buddhism; rebirth.
Seventy percent of near-death experiencers (NDErs) return from
their experiences believing in reincarnation (Wells, 1993). Often, they
tell of being counseled about the life they lived, and given help in
planning their following lives. Not only NDErs, but also a large group
of past life regression hypnotherapists (for example, Whitton, 1986) and
several major religious traditions accept the doctrine of reincarnation.
Ian Stevenson has also uncovered several types of evidence relating
Todd Murphy is an associate researcher with the Behavioral Neurosciences Program
at Laurentian University under the direction of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D. Buddhist
granted for this paper by His Holiness Samdech Preah Mahaghoshananda,
The Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Reprint requests should be addressed to
Mr. Murphy at P.O. Box 170414, San Francisco, CA 94117; e-mail:
Journal of Near-Death Studies, 20(2), Winter 2001
2001 Human Sciences Press, Inc.

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Journal of Near-Death Studies
November 17, 2001
Style file version March 18, 1999
to reincarnation (Stevenson, 1974, 1997). The pressures favoring the
exploration of reincarnation as a postulate in the explanation of NDEs
are growing. Although polls have found 25 percent of Americans believe
in rebirth, the figure reaches nearly 100 percent in other cultures, most
importantly in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds.
It should come as no surprise that traditional paradigms for rebirth
do not describe NDEs. Those theories were more likely devised to
account for experiences during meditation rather than the experience
of death. The database of death-related experiences was almost non-
existent, while the database of mystical and transcendent experiences
was quite large. The idea was that those who went deeply into medi-
tation were able to see "beyond death's door," and that spiritual
practice was a way to defeat death by breaking the cycle of rebirth.
Descriptions of meditation experiences were used, it appears, as
templates from which speculations about death were traced. Indeed,
there is some overlap between the phenomenologies of NDEs and medi-
tation experiences. The theory of rebirth was never formulated to
account for NDEs, but some reasonable parameters can be imposed
on it, allowing an exploratory hypothesis to be formulated.
One such parameter is derived from the Darwinian theory of
natural selection. According to the theory of natural selection, we
must be able to explain rebirth as an adaptation that contributed
to our survival at some point in the history of our species. If so,
then the specific mechanisms by which it operates must be the
same for everyone, because we all share a common evolutionary
ancestry. The first principle of a Darwinian rebirth hypothesis can be
stated thus:
Information that enables individuals to survive remains
following death in discreet, coherent packets, and other individuals still
undergoing prenatal development elsewhere are sensitively dependent
upon information in these packets for their development.
A reasonable postulate is:
Each person experiences the same state of
consciousness prior to the cessation of subjective experience
. This implies
that the "point of no return" reported by many NDErs, beyond which
they felt resuscitation would have been impossible, is a manifestation
of a state of consciousness that will eventually appear in each death-
process unless it is interrupted, often eliciting an NDE report.
Although there appears to be a universal grammar to NDEs, the
specific vocabulary of any given case is determined by a variety
of factors, including age, culture, the specific circumstances of the
person's death, psychological history, and possibly many other factors

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Journal of Near-Death Studies
November 17, 2001
Style file version March 18, 1999
still undiscovered. The specific phenomenology of any particular
instance of a "point of no return"-its vocabulary-will be confabulated
individually according to these and other factors; but the underlying
state of consciousness will be the same.
If the final state of consciousness in each life is the same for
everyone, then the NDE must access that state from whatever state
of consciousness a person happens to be in at the onset of death, even
if it is accompanied by pain or fear. No one knows how or when he or
she will die, or what state of consciousness he or she will be in when it
happens. The circumstances of death appear at random, and can vary
widely from person to person. I propose that NDEs are the subjective
experience of having one's randomly-appearing state of consciousness
at the time of death brought, in stages, to the nonrandom life review
and "point of no return."
Algorithms and NDEs
Any process that converts randomness to nonrandomness is called
an algorithm. According to Daniel Dennett, "An algorithm is a certain
sort of formal process that can be counted on-logically-to yield a
certain sort of result whenever it is `run' or instantiated" (1995, p. 50).
Dennett wrote that there are three key features that characterize an
algorithmic process:
substrate neutrality:
The procedure for long division works
equally well with pencil or pen, paper or parchment, neon lights
or skywriting, using any logical system you like. The power of
the procedure is due to its
structure, not just the causal
powers of the materials used in the instantiation, just so long as
those causal powers permit the prescribed steps to be followed
underlying mindlessness:
Although the overall design of the
procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each
constituent step, as well as the transition between steps, is
utterly simple. How simple? Simple enough for a dutiful idiot to
perform-or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform.
The standard textbook analogy notes that algorithms are
of sorts, designed to be followed by
cooks. A recipe book
written for great chefs might include the phrase "Poach the fish

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Journal of Near-Death Studies
November 17, 2001
Style file version March 18, 1999
in a suitable wine until almost done," but the algorithm for the
same process might begin, "Choose a white wine that says `dry'
on the label; take a corkscrew and open the bottle; pour an
inch of wine in the bottom of a pan; turn the burner under the
pan on high; . . ."-a tedious breakdown of the process into dead-
simple steps, requiring no wise decisions or delicate judgments
or intuitions on the part of the recipe-reader.
guaranteed results:
Whatever it is that an algorithm does, it
always does it, if it is executed without misstep. An algorithm is
a foolproof recipe." (Dennett, 1950, pp. 50­51)
NDEs can be seen as demonstrating these features.
emerges if we assume that the state-specific character of
hallucinations also applies to NDEs. Hallucinations are dependent
on states of consciousness (Horowitz and Adams, 1970). The same
state of consciousness can produce different phenomena in different
individuals. The breathtaking variety of NDE phenomena might be
manifestations of just a few states of consciousness.
Mardi Horowitz and John Adams (1970) have theorized that the
hallucinatory phenomena associated with complex partial seizures
arise as expressions of altered states of consciousness. The similarities
between NDE phenomena and temporal lobe epileptic symptoms have
been noted by several researchers (Saavedra-Aguilar and G'omez-Jeria,
1989; Persinger, 1994). Thus we can reasonably suppose that similar
mechanisms might be operating in NDEs and in temporal lobe epilepsy.
If so, then it follows that Horowitz and Adams' conclusion might
also apply to NDEs. If we choose to make that assumption, then the
series of experiences that constitute NDEs is better understood as a
series of states of consciousness. The underlying "mindless" apparatus
that brings dying persons to the "point of no return" operates on
their states of consciousness, and the succeeding experiences are the
phenomenological correlates. The bewildering variety of NDE phenom-
ena, as I shall describe below, can be resolved into a few basic states of
consciousness, each of which has a specific function.
Underlying mindlessness
can be derived from the observation
that NDErs find themselves undergoing succeeding stages of their
experience automatically. NDErs do not report that they "willed"
themselves into the tunnel, for example. That NDEs are outside the
control of their experiencers, together with the observation that there

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Journal of Near-Death Studies
November 17, 2001
Style file version March 18, 1999
are significant similarities in many NDEs, suggests that they follow an
automatic sequencing.
I have already made Dennett's third feature of algorithmic processes,
guaranteed results
, a postulate of this model: The guaranteed result is
the "point of no return" and eventual rebirth.
Patterns in NDEs
There seem to be certain grammatical rules governing NDEs.
Although the research elucidating them is far from complete, a pattern
of rough "rules of thumb" appears to be emerging. Examples include:
1. In India, the death process often begins not with an auto-
scopic out-of-body experience (OBE) but rather with "seeing"
messengers of death whose summons must be answered (Murphy,
2001; Pasricha and Stevenson, 1986). There are, however, some
Indian NDEs that begin with an OBE (Blackmore, 1993). The
same rule applies to Thai NDEs (Murphy, 2001).
2. Those younger than seven years old often avoid the life review
and instead visit heaven or a fairyland (Serdahely, 1990).
3. In preliterate cultures, the life review is often replaced by a
visit to a spirit world in which significant events of the dying
person's life manifest symbolically, as features in the spirit world
(Kellehear, 1993).
4. NDErs who have been able to anticipate their death and to reflect
extensively on their life often do not experience a life review;
whereas those whose death appears unexpectedly usually do
review their life (Greyson, 1985).
5. NDErs who believe strongly in a particular religious tradition
often experience the
being of light
as they have been taught
it appears (Osis and Haraldsson, 1977); whereas atheists may
experience it simply as a "presence."
6. NDErs who believe that "all mysteries will be revealed at death"
often have a transcendent experience in which mysteries are
revealed to their satisfaction (for example, Brinkley and Perry,
1994; Eadie and Taylor, 1992).
7. NDErs who need help, guidance, or an escort during their