The Structure And Function Of Near-Death Experiences:
An Algorithmic Reincarnation Hypothesis based on Natural Selection
Todd Murphy – ©, 1999 (Updated 2017)
Todd Murphy is an associate researcher with the Behavioral Neurosciences program at Laurentian University under the direction of Dr. Michael A. Persinger.
This article is a popular version of an article published by The Journal of Near-Death Studies, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
Spirituality & The Brain (Home Page)
Murphy, Todd. “The structure and function of near-death experiences: An Algorithmic reincarnation hypothesis.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 20.2 (2001): 101-118.
Summary: In this article, we hypothesize that NDEs are the experience of having the state of consciousness in which a person experiences the last moment of their lives being turned, in stages, into first the state of consciousness experienced as the life review, and then “the point of no return” (PNR). The life review is crucial in our hypothesis, as we interpret it as more of a review of the states of consciousness (states) we experienced during our lives. Our responses to looking at how we behaved while in specific states during or lives reinforces our behaviors and ‘tags’ them for repetition or avoidance in future lives. The traditional doctrines of reincarnation are modified so as to take biological and cultural evolution into account. This allows us to understand how the attributes of NDEs could have selected even though all opportunities for mating have already passed at the time of death.
According to one study (wells, 1993), 70% of Near-Death Experiencers (NDEers) return from their experiences believing in reincarnation. In many cases, NDEers tell of being counseled about the life they lived, and given help in planning their following lives. Not only NDEers, but also a large group of ‘past life regression’ hypnotherapists (cf. Whitton, 1986), as well as several major religious traditions all accept the doctrine of reincarnation as the truth.
Dr. Ian Stevenson, at the University of Virginia, has uncovered several types of evidence relating to reincarnation (Stevenson, 1974). In the cases he examined, he found children who seemed able to recall details of their past lives, and was able to verify their stories firsthand. His work spanned several cultures, including India and the Pacific Northwest Native Americans.
The pressures favoring the exploration of reincarnation as a postulate in the explanation of NDEs are growing. Although polls have found that in America only 25% believe in rebirth, the figure reaches nearly 100% in other cultures, most importantly in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds. The present author is a Buddhist, and in Buddhism it has become a convention not to use the word `reincarnation’, as it has connotations that conflict with the Buddhist teaching of ‘no-self’ (or annata) in which the notion of the entry of a self into a body is specifically rejected. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge that `reincarnation’ is the term most in use in English at the present time, and so we use it in the first paragraph and title of the present work.
Traditional theories of rebirth don’t describe NDEs. They were almost certainly devised to account for meditation experiences rather than the experience of death. The database of experiences that related to death was almost nonexistent, while the database of mystical and transcendent experiences was quite large. It was believed that those who went deeply into meditation 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. The idea becomes somewhat reasonable when we recall that there are many phenomena that appear in both, such as the light, bliss, the void, and several others. The theory of rebirth was not designed to account for NDEs, but we can impose some reasonable parameters on it, allowing an exploratory hypothesis to be formulated that will explain why NDEs appeared in our species even though death prevents the breeding opportunities that select for positive traits. ‘Survival of the fittest’ cannot explain NDEs in our species, because nobody survives death.
The first thing we need to do is accept the Darwinian theory of natural selection. If we do so, we are left with the conclusion that rebirth is an adaptation which contributed to our survival at some point in the history of our species. If this is so, then the specific mechanisms by which rebirth operates must be the same for everyone, because we all share a common evolutionary ancestry. A simple, first statement about rebirth is that : Information which enables individuals to adapt is conserved at death, and passed on to other individuals undergoing prenatal development elsewhere. To say that anything more than information is reborn would involve making assumptions for which there is no evidence. Unless this information is somehow adaptive, it is unlikely that any evolutionary mechanism would have favored its conservation.
A second statement (this one is a deliberate assumption-a postulate) is: each person experiences the same state of consciousness in the final instant of each death-process. This implies that the ‘point of no return’ (PNR) reported by many NDEers, beyond which they felt resuscitation would have been impossible, will eventually appear in each NDE unless it is interrupted by resuscitation.
Although it appears that there could 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 in which the patient dies, their psychological history, and possibly many other factors that haven’t been noticed yet. Each individuals PNR; its vocabulary, will be individually confabulated according to these and other factors. The underlying state of consciousness will be the same for everybody. The idea that a single state can appear in many different ways was first proposed in 1970 (Horowitz, i970), and since then, it has become widely accepted within consciousness research. LSD, for example, induces the same state each time a person takes it, but the phenomenon it can create for a single individual will be different each time.
No matter what state of consciousness a person happens to be in at the onset of death, their NDE must eventually arrive at the PNR , even if their initial state is accompanied by pain or fear. No one knows how or when they will die, or what state of consciousness they will be in when it happens. The circumstances in which a person begins to die appear at random, and can vary widely from person to person. The state that appears at the end of the death process, being the same for everyone, must be non-random.
We 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
A process that converts randomness to nonrandomness is called an algorithm. : “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.” Daniel C. Dennett (1995 Pg. 50-51)
Dennett tells us that there are three important features that characterize an algorithmic process:
“(1) 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 it’s logical 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 exactly.
(2) 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 recipes of sorts, designed to be followed by novice cooks. A recipe book written for great chefs might include the phrase “poach the fish 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.
(3) guaranteed results: Whatever it is an algorithm does, it always does it, if it is executed without misstep. An algorithm is a foolproof recipe.”
NDEs seem to show these features. Substrate neutrality emerges if we assume that findings about hallucinations also apply to NDEs. Hallucinations are dependent on states of consciousness (Horowitz, 1970). The same state of consciousness can produce different experiences for different people. Looking at this carefully, we see that the breathtaking variety of NDE phenomena might be manifestations of just a few states of consciousness.
It has been theorized (Horowitz, 1970) that the hallucinatory phenomena associated with temporal lobe epileptic seizures arise as expressions of altered states of consciousness. The similarity between NDE phenomena and this type of seizure has been noted by several researchers (Saavedra-Aguliar, 1989 & Persinger, 1994). We can reasonably suppose that similar mechanisms might be operating in both cases. If so, then it follows that Horowitz’s conclusion might also apply to NDEs. The series of experiences that constitute NDEs are better understood as a series of states of consciousness. The underlying ‘mindless apparatus’ that brings a dying person to their PNR operates on their states of consciousness. The succession of experiences are just their subjective manifestations. The bewildering variety of NDE experiences, as we shall see, can be resolved into a few basic states of consciousness, each of which has a specific functional role.
Underlying mindlessness can be derived from the observation that NDE episodes unfold automatically. No NDEer has ever reported that they “willed” themselves into the tunnel. The specific mechanisms whereby one episode follows another are unknown, but the fact that NDEs are outside the control of their experiencers, together with the observation that there are significant similarities in many NDEs suggests that they could be following an automatic sequencing.
We have already made Dennett’s third feature of algorithmic processes, guaranteed results, a postulate of our model. The guaranteed result is the point of no return (PNR) and eventually, 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 (we cannot emphasize this too strongly: rough; approximate) rules of thumb’ appears to be emerging. Examples include:
(1) In India, instead of an autoscopic out-of-body experience (OBE), the death process may begin with seeing’ messengers of death (Pasricha, 1986). When they call you, you must come. There are also a number of Indian NDEs that begin with an OBE (Blackmore, 1993). The same rule applies to Thai NDEs (Murphy, in press)
(2) For those under seven years old, the Life Review is avoided (Serdahely, 1990) and instead, a visit to heaven or a fairyland is in order.
(3) In preliterate cultures, delete the Life review, and substitute a spirit world , where the significant events of one’s life will manifest symbolically, as features in the spirit world (Kellehear, 1993).
(4) If an NDEer has been able to anticipate their death, (and presumably has had the chance reflect extensively on their life), they may skip the life review (Greyson, 1985).
(5) If your death has appeared unexpectedly, review your life (Greyson, 1985)
(6) If one believes strongly in a particular religious tradition, they may experience the being of light as they have been taught it appears (Osis, 1977, Pg. 37)). If one is an atheist, they may experience it as a ‘presence’.
(7) If one has come to believe that ‘all mysteries will be revealed at death’, they may have a transcendent experience in which the mysteries’ are revealed to their satisfaction. (cf. Eadie, 1992 & Brinkley, 1994)).
(8) If an NDEer needs help, guidance, or an escort during their NDE, they will encounter an Angel (Lundhal, 1992), or a Yamatoot (Murphy, in press). Long discussions are possible in which their concerns are dealt with.
(9) If an NDEer needs reassurance that it’s OK to be dead, they can see their deceased relatives and beloved friends. A joyful reunion with a beloved friend who have passed on may be just the thing to help them have positive affectual post mortem states of consciousness. One too young to have known anyone who has died, but you has lost a pet, can see the pet instead (Serdahely, 1989). If they have not lost a pet, they might see whatever comforts them; A toy for example (cf. Morse 1994, Pg. 62).
(10) If an NDEers life was marked by destructive behavior patterns, the affect of their life review may widen to include the effects of those behaviors on others (cf. Brinkley 1994 & Atwater, 1994, Pg.11).
This list of ‘rules of thumb’ should be taken as being both speculative and incomplete. Each item on the list could be regarded as an approximation of a real grammatical ‘axiom’ that influences the algorithmic progress of NDEs. Because NDE researchers haven’t been looking for them, it is not possible, at present, to state a real series of rules that will explain the functional connections between specific NDE episodes and their predisposing factors in all NDEs. Lundhal (1993) has been able to find a series of NDE rules, but these deal with likelihoods of NDE episodes, rather than their functional roles. In any case, it must be emphasized that the rules or axioms that govern NDEs will not be applicable so much to the experiences as they are to the states of consciousness that produce them.
The different instantiations of the different phases of NDEs (or their absence), presumably, reflect the differences in set, age, culture, health etc. found between individuals experiencing the same state. For example, the life review can occur as a serial re-experiencing of one’s life in one NDE, a viewing of multiple TV screens in another (cf., Atwater, 1994 Pg.59), the experience of watching one’s life pass before one’s eyes’ in yet another, and might only touch on significant events in still another. These dramatic differences might be accounted for by theorizing that each represents the most efficient phenomenology for the state that produced it.
Karma and the Life Review
The idea of karma plays an important role in all the traditional teachings concerning rebirth. In order to adopt karma as a legitimate postulate in building a theory of NDEs we need to pare it down to its simplest possible form. The traditional teachings on karma are filled with implications that can never be either proven or falsified, and this puts them outside the bounds of science. Nevertheless, one meaningful statement may be derived from these traditions: Individual behaviors in one life can have an impact on following lives. The theory of natural selection requires that the postulated death and rebirth process should have increased our chances for survival in some way. If so, then it seems reasonable to conclude that if behaviors in one life can influence those of another, that influence must tend to increase the adaptivity of our behavior.
Natural selection has no foresight. Adaptations are permanent traits that preserve past expediencies. If natural selection has provided us with the capacity to take rebirth, it will have done so to bring us away from extinction, rather than towards nirvana. Evolutionary theory dictates that the potential for enlightenment is a by-product (or ‘epiphenomena’) of human consciousness rather than its purpose. Natural selection has no long-term purposes. Adaptations happen, as it were, in the here-and-now. Evolution is not a conscious entity, so it doesn’t know what will happen later. It doesn’t know what to prepare for, so it can’t make any preparations. Writing is one of the best examples of an adaptation like this. Our brains are wired to use language, and that ability was the result of a stringent selection. later on, our enhanced motor control, developed for other things, was combined with our newfound language skills, and the eventual result was that we learned to write. To say that rebirth is a mechanism to produce enlightened people is like saying that language is a mechanism for producing writing, as though language had no purpose before it was invented.
Karma, if it is real, must function to somehow increase the adaptivity of human behavior. Because we are a social species, it makes sense to look at how it might do so with respect to our cultural environments. Especially so because the traditions concerning karma hold that it applies to both negative and positive behavior, and the evaluation of behavior is both culture-bound and culture-specific. Our rule of karma says: karma is a mechanism that labels states of consciousness that facilitate adaptive behavior in a given cultural environment in one life for repetition in following lives, and states that facilitate counteradaptive behavior are labeled for avoidance.
We will define karma as the records of specific states that facilitate or suppress behavior. If this postulate is accepted, it follows that the function of rebirth is to pre-adapt us to our cultural environments. However, the conclusion that karmas are reborn in no way implies that we ourselves are ‘reincarnated’, however comforting the idea might be.
It seems reasonable to suppose that there is a difference between the karma of a living person and that of a person who has gone past PNR. Not in the information it contains, but in the way it’s stored. A piece of computer software is the same whether it’s on a disk or actually being used in the system. The recorded behaviors are the same whether the records are in our brains or downloading to a next birth. The PNR might be likened to transferring a computer program from the RAM to a floppy disk. The life review, we suggest, is the phenomenological manifestation of a state of consciousness which uses the effects of states of consciousness experienced in one’s lifetime to create suggestions for states that enable adaptive behavior during the next life, reinforcing culture-bound behavior and at the same time preparing to download them to a future birth.
The life review can require an NDEer to re-examine everything they have ever done. Not as they remember their experiences, but as they actually happened. When they remember having done something adaptive, and recalling it induces positive affect, the correlative state is marked for repetition in their next life. If they’ve done something bad, and it makes them feel bad to remember it, the state is marked for suppression in their next life. Remembering that it’s our cultures that tell us what is good or bad, the possibility arises that (if our argument up to this point is accepted) life reviews sorts states according to how likely they are to generate culturally adaptive behavior. Perhaps the life review is usually concerned with behavior because behaviors are state-specific. States of consciousness cannot be viewed directly, but the behaviors that act them out can. Re-experiencing an event will include a recurrence of the state one was in at the time of the event, including its emotional content.
Culture and NDEs
Perhaps the reason why so many features of NDEs are culture-specific is that the death process is an evolutionary adaptation that favored those who took rebirth’ by enhancing their ability to gain status in the context of the more complex cultures that appeared in the most recent phases of our evolution. Individuals who cannot follow the rules don’t have much status. Karma, we suggest, is a set of positively and negatively reinforced states of consciousness that enable adaptive behaviors. Having karma might have given individuals an advantage in following the culture’s rules (not to mention preserving them), eliminating an important obstacle to achieving rank. High rank individuals have much better chances for mating than low-rank individuals. In this way, the effects of rebirth would tend to be amplified over time if the first individuals taking rebirth were consistently able to get to the top of the social ladder. We can speculate that those who had life reviews at the end of one life were more likely to be reborn to become alpha individuals, who usually have better mating opportunities than betas and deltas. The culture-bound character of NDEs could prove to be a case of form following function.
One important pattern emerging is that a consistent percentage (although there is no consensus regarding the exact number) of NDEs involve profound negative affect. Nevertheless, these ‘hellish’ experiences bear striking structural similarities to positive ones. One researcher, P.M.H. Atwater commented (1994 Pg. 40): ‘During my own interviews of experiencers…I discovered little difference between heavenly and hellish near-death episodes in consideration of how elements unfolded in sequence.”
LSD, usually a pleasant experience, can also turn out to be a ‘bummer’; a frightening or hellish ordeal. When we consider that both types of ‘trips’ are created by the same chemical, it seems unlikely that any specific affect is integral to the LSD experience. The same is true for TLE seizures (LaPlante, 1993). If Horowitz’s (1970) hypothesis applies to NDEs as it does to TLE, and apparently, to the LSD experience, then the possibility that negative affect is integral to unpleasant NDEs can be reasonably ruled out. The best candidate for the cause of hellish NDEs in our model is resistance, as we shall see.
The source of the hellish affect is another question. Recent temporal lobe research by Dr. Michael Persinger (1994) supports the possibility that single states of consciousness can evoke very different affects, implying that temporal lobe affects may be implicated in both hellish and blissful NDEs.
The involvement of the brain’s temporal lobes in NDEs appears to be well established. It has been theorized (Persinger, 1987) that when our species first evolved it’s unique cognitive abilities, two parts of our brains enlarged more that other portions. The frontal lobes (generally specialized for extrapolating out into the future) and our temporal lobes (generally specialized for remembering the past). When this happened, people learned a new skill; The ability to remember death, and to realize that the same thing would happen to them in the future. The then-new neuromorphological upgrade software included a program for death anxiety. The fear of impending doom. However, the adaptive value of being able to project into the future to imagine hitherto unknown ways of dying (and so avoid them) would have been canceled out by the dysphoria it would also have produced. A compensatory mechanism seems to have appeared at the same time. Arnold J. Mandell, (1980 Pg. 411) spoke of: “…(the) affective specialization of the brain, with `negative’ emotions like fear and paranoia and dysphoric feelings like sorrow … lying …(in)…the the left temporal lobe, and with the mute, geometrically cognitive, musical right temporal lobe specialized for joy.” This statement applies to the neocortex only. The deeper structures are specialized for the opposite emotions(Persinger, personal communication). Dr. Melvin Morse (1990a) contends that portions of the right temporal lobe mediate the entire NDE experience, calling them the “circuit boards of mysticism”. The Left temporal lobe’s neocortical functions, on the other hand, include profound negative affect. Wilder Penfield, discussing the results of temporal lobe surface stimulations (1954 Pg. 451) described: “…ictal emotions which (his) patients described as fear, fright, (a) scared feeling, terror, sadness, (and) loneliness …(which)… may be said to have ganglionic representation within the fissure of Sylvius and their underlying (structures). …The ictal emotion is produced as a distinct experience and is the result of cortical discharge.” Illustrations accompanying Penfield’s text show that this refers to the left temporal neocortex.
These findings allow the possibility that the reason why some NDEs are hellish is that the positive affect that usually accompanies NDEs, out of the right temporal neocortex together with the left amygdala, is replaced by negative affect out of the left temporal neocortex together with the right amygdala. If this were so, then it might explain how an NDE can be unpleasant, but not why it is so.
We propose that one reason why some NDEs are unpleasant is that the person is resisting the death process. Atwater (1994) has suggested that it is because of an individual history of repressed guilt, while Greyson & Bush’s accounts of distressing NDEs, (1992) all contain comments to the effect that the person didn’t want to go. The most commonly reported emotion in negative NDEs is fear. Whether the crucial factor is guilt or fear, both feelings inspire resistance. If so, this idea, together with the algorithmic interpretation of NDEs we are proposing here, implies that a specific affective state must be achieved. That affective state, we will suggest, can be called surrender, the opposite of resistance. We do not propose that surrender must be achieved only in order to enable PNR. Rather, it looks more likely that it also might enable the life review. In our interpretation of NDEs, in which each phenomenon is an expression of a state of consciousness, and each state of consciousness (whether utilized in any specific NDE or not) has the specific function of increasing the likelihood of reaching first the life review, and then the PNR. The Life Review is less of an anomaly in evolutionary terms if it is seen as contributing to the survival of those who undergo rebirth.
If the human death process involves going through some form of the life review then there is a strong possibility that any negative affect must be changed to a positive one before life review is achieved. The life review can require that a person examine, re-experience, or witness their own maladaptive behavior. When this same thing is needed in psychotherapy, it often evokes resistance. Resistance often occurs in conjunction with negative affect. If this kind of resistance were to occur during the death-process, the experience might well be negative. If this negative affect arose out of the left temporal neocortex, as described above, the result might well be hellish. Atwater (1994) suggests that negative NDEs are a result of repressed guilt, while Greyson & Bush’s (1992) case studies of distressing NDEs all contain allusions to the subjects not wanting to die. Both of these mechanisms implicated in hellish NDEs may be grouped together as resistance. As any psychotherapist can tell you, resistance makes meaningful self-examination impossible in therapy. Perhaps it’s the same during life reviews.
Hell: Special case #1
Not all negative NDE episodes are necessarily the product of resistance. A different type of negative affect might arise in conjunction with the life review, as in the famous case recounted by a former Vietnam war assassin (Brinkley, 1994).
The following narrative (Greyson & Bush, 1992) suggests a symbolic, aversive life review:
“I was unconscious … yet something weird was happening to me. …I was in a circle of light. I looked down upon the accident scene….I looked into my car and saw myself trapped and unconscious. I saw several cars stop and a lady taking my children to her car to sit and rest until the ambulance would arrive…. A hand touched mine, and I turned to see where this peace and blissful feeling was coming from … and there was Jesus Christ – I mean the way he is made out to be in all the paintings – and I never wanted to leave this man and this place. I was led around to a well, because I wanted to stay with him and hold his hand. He led me from a side of bliss to a side of misery. I did not want to look, but he made me look – and I was disgusted and horrified and scared … it was so ugly. The people were blackened and sweaty and moaning in pain and chained to their spots. And I had to walk through the area back to the well. One was even chained to the evil side of the well – I wanted to help them to help him, but no one would. – and I knew that I would be one of these creatures if I stayed. I hated it there. I couldn’t wait to get to the well and go around it. He led me to it, but he made me go through it alone as he watched. … I leaned over (to look in) the well … There were three children calling “Mommie, Mommie, Mommie, we need you. Please come back to us”….The little girl looked up at me and begged me to go back to life – and then all at once … I saw the accident scene again…
The aversive episode in this NDE centers around images of children. It’s possible that the woman in this case wanted to have a child, or more children, saw her life in terms of a hell in which she was to rescue the souls of unborn children, by bringing them into the world. If we recall our assumption that karma functions to increase the adaptivity of one’s behavior from one life to the next, and that, during most of our evolutionary history, having and raising a child is one of the most adaptive things a woman could do, this unusual life review makes sense. It seems to be confined to only one behavior; not having had a child. If only that one karma were resolved in her next life as a result of this experience (by having a child, and thus, passing on her genetic material), the net adaptivity of her behavior in her next life would have increased dramatically as a result of this review, even though it dealt with only one behavioral issue.
Hell: Special Case #2
One phenomena that does not appear in typical, ‘core’ NDEs is the experience of a vacuum. Although the word void has been used to describe it, it does not seem to be the same as the void which occurs in the stage often occupied by the experience of the tunnel. That void is often induces highly positive affect, while the vacuum is, as far as we are aware, always hellish. The vacuum has been described as
“Empty,…and dark. Not like night dark, somehow, it was thinner – whatever that means. It was very dark and immense all around, but somehow I could see them (negative-affectual beings); the voidness seemed to thin out somewhere off by the horizon, but it wasn’t lighter, just thinner. It seemed to go on forever. …That utter emptiness just went on and on. …there didn’t seem to be any end of it, and no way out.” (Greyson & Bush, 1992 Pg. 102).
Other descriptions include:
“(being) suspended in a total vacuum with nothing to see or do for eternity”, and “hours going by with absolutely no sensation, there was no hot, no cold, no light , no taste, no smell, no sensation whatsoever, none, other than (a sensation of movement)… (after a certain) point it became unbearable, it became horrific …”.
Interestingly, the majority of cases of the vacuum in one study (Greyson & Bush, 1992) occurred during childbirth under anesthesia. Perhaps pregnancy provides a fail-safe’ that delays the onset of PNR until the last possible moment; an adaptation that would have greatly enhanced the chances for survival of infants born to mothers who hemorrhaged heavily during childbirth. Deaths due to violent trauma or old age were probably far less likely to end in resuscitation that those in childbirth. Historically, one of the most common causes of death in childbirth has been loss of blood. Blood can be replenished more easily than most other human tissues. Death due to it’s loss might be more easily reversed. An NDE ‘Fail safe’ for childbirth would have increased the chances for survival of two individuals, not just the one who had the NDE.
Like most NDE phenomena, the vacuum does not occur only at death. It has also been found in sleep paralysis; a neurological disorder that affects the ability to wake up (LaPlante, 1993). In these cases, the victims find themselves suspended in a vacuum, trying to wake up, but unable to. It seems to be a problem with whatever mechanism shifts states of consciousness from that of REM sleep to waking. Because both sleep and death involve moving through many different states of consciousness, it could be that symptoms occurring in sleep disorders might also appear in NDEs. If so, the vacuum, occurring in both, could be the phenomena confabulated out of the inability or unwillingness to move from one state to another, and that suggests an interesting possibility.
Both NDEs (in our model) and sleep involve moving through multiple states of consciousness, and this suggests an interesting possibility. Perhaps the adaptation that created the death process was a new application of the same neurological mechanisms which previously been responsible only for sleep. This speculation is lent further credence by reports of NDEs induced through lucid dreaming (Rogo, 1990 & Green, 1995)
Speculations on the functions of typical phases of NDEs.
Death can often be anticipated (as in protracted terminal illness), and that can have an impact on the death-process. Greyson, (1985), Morse & Perry, (1994), and Osis (1977) have demonstrated that the incidence of spontaneous altered states can increase dramatically in premortem periods. Dying patients frequently report seeing the light in their rooms, visitations by angels and beloved dead friends and relatives. The appearance of NDE phenomenology in premortem states implies that the same states of consciousness that appear during the death-process begin to operate whenever we become cognizant that life will end. If so, then when such a person begins their death process, they will be familiar with many of the percepts they encounter, and thus be less likely to resist as they orient themselves.
The OBE might function to convince the dying person that they are dead. Remember that through much of our evolutionary history, deaths were often traumatic. Males often died violently, during war or on hunts. Women, as we tend to forget in our safer, modern times, often died in childbirth. An autoscopic OBE would often find it’s experient looking back on itself and seeing a very distressed corpse.
In Thailand and(Hindu) India, on the other hand, NDEs are more likely to commence with a visitation by a Yamdood, one of the messengers of Yama, the lord of the dead (Murphy, 2001, & Pasricha, 1986). When a Yamdood appears, it’s time to go. Resistance is futile. Fear of Yamdood occurs frequently in Osis’s (1977) study of premortem states in India. It’s not impossible that the incidence of distressing NDEs varies from one culture to the next. We also cannot rule out the possibility that the Grim Reaper once served as a sort of Yamdood in western culture, and that just centuries ago, many more death-processes were hellish in Western countries than at present. Perhaps Europeans once ran from the Grim Reaper as Hindus sometimes run from the Yamdood sent to take them.
The typical core’ NDE finds the tunnel or void after an autoscopic OBE, in which one continues to sense the environment. These experiences might convey that sensory perception ended, and that the defense mechanisms which are valid in states that accompany it are now obsolete. The symbolism of the tunnel as meaning a transition from one world’ to another in NDEs has already been explored (Chari 1982). Perhaps the tunnel or the void reflect a state of consciousness which functions to take one from sensory perception to wholly endogenous percepts.
The appearance of dead beloved friends and relatives might evoke the feeling that it’s OK to be dead. Feelings of loneliness, separation anxiety or feelings of being abandoned, guilt at leaving those who are dependent on us, or grief at the loss of beloved living people might be mollified by the creation of an inner, death-contextualized., social environment. One could feel safe there, and thus, be less likely not resist out of fear.
The being of light, which typically precedes or appears at the same time as the life review, might function to prevent resistance. The all – pervading love and feelings of acceptance it evokes is incompatible with the kind of negative affect resistance creates.
NDEs can be seen as an algorithmic process that alters the many states of consciousness possible at the time of death so as to produce first, the life review, and then the PNR. There can be positive or negative affect in any state of consciousness that comes up in NDEs, although these states will always tend to average toward the positive affect that will inhibit resistance to the experience. The life review, we propose, has a special function: to sort out behaviors to repeat in future lives from those to avoid.
An enormous amount of work needs to be done for this hypothesis to be extrapolated out into a theory. The previous list of grammatical ‘rules of thumb’ needs to find a more rigorous expression, as well as being expanded to include other rules. Perhaps the most obvious are those culture-bound effects specific to major cultural groups. Southeast Asian, traditional African, Latin American, Chinese, Himalayan, Islamic, and Oceanic NDEs might demonstrate culture-specific patterns that will become apparent as their NDEs are studied. Some age-specific NDE features have been noted, but there may be features which are characteristic of specific phases of life. Are there common elements in the NDEs of newlyweds? Adolescents? Pregnant women? A system of classification for the factors that influence the succession of states of consciousness needs to be devised and tested. Are age, culture, psychological set at time of death, expectations regarding what death will feel like, and the length of time one has to anticipate one’s death the only factors? When we consider how young (and poorly funded) the field of NDE research is, it seems reasonable to assume that there are determinative influences still waiting to be discovered.
Predictions and Applications
Before looking at the potential applications of our hypothesis, we should note that the validity of an hypothesis is not determined by its initial applicability, but rather by its falsifiability. The present hypothesis’ first prediction is that NDEs of all cultures will exhibit a typical sequencing. Because we have hypothesized that 1) karma is a set of states of consciousness and implied 2) that states of consciousness have a neuromagnetic component and/or basis, we are left with the implication that the brain might emit complex magnetic signals at some point in the death process. If we assume that these signals will be propagated within the earth’s magnetic field, then we are left with the prediction that these signals will be in the 15 to 45 nanotesla range (Persinger, 1995). At present, there is no way to read these signals (Persinger, personal communication), but if a way were found, and the brain was not found to have such emissions, it would cast doubt on the present hypothesis.
An implication of the algorithmic NDE hypothesis for research is is that a catalog of NDE phenomena needs to be built up in order to provide a database that can allow for the states of consciousness involved in dying to be meaningfully analyzed and classified. Eventually, perhaps, therapies for the post-NDE personality syndrome (Atwater, 1988) might be devised that treat, not the after effects of NDEs, but rather the after effects of the specific states of consciousness experienced during specific experiences. The understanding that death will involve multiple states of consciousness, each one run’ as clear experiences, and that the content of those experiences will be deeply meaningful can only tend to reduce death anxiety in those terminally ill people who experience premortem altered states of consciousness. If, for example, the functions of the various kinds of hellish NDEs were understood, it might lead to the development of techniques in premortem psychology that would allow some of those at risk for hellish death processes to be identified and given counseling that might reduce their risk. If the premortem and post mortem altered states really are similar (as is implied by their similar phenomenologies), the affects associated with those states before death will be the ones most likely to occur after death.
Finally, one distant possibility comes up. One so improbable as to invite dismissal by many scientists. Nevertheless, it could produce vast benefits for humanity.
One not uncommon NDE experience involves “miraculous cures”. A terminally ill person is visited by an angel who tells them they are healed, and then it turns out that there is no sign of a tumor, or that their T cell counts have risen by an order of magnitude. If the state of consciousness associated with this phenomena were to be isolated and all it’s manifestations and predisposing factors were known, it might open up avenues of research into miraculous cures. Recognizing that such miracles are correlates of specific states of consciousness might allow common factors associated with a variety of miraculous’ cures to be discerned. This, in turn, might suggest ways to induce them In a clinical setting. Chinese medical tradition records many such cures associated with poisonous mushrooms, some of which, in small enough doses, act as hallucinogens (Dr. Bernard Yeh, personal communication, 1988).
Much NDE phenomena has been induced in a laboratory setting by the application of low-intensity complex magnetic signals to the temporal lobes (Ruttan, 1990). These studies reveal that NDE phenomenology and presumably at least similar states of consciousness can be induced by stimulation of the temporal lobes with magnetic signals. Perhaps there is a way to induce the state of consciousness in which miraculous cures occur, and so eventually add them to the tools of modern medicine One of the most promising avenues of research in this area is offered by NDE research, which is one of the few fields prepared to acknowledge the validity of miraculous’ cures, and which can compile the reliable reports that will be needed in any serious studies of the phenomena.
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