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This article follows up on a paper published in the Journal of Near-Death Studies.
Reincarnation is one of the most common religious beliefs in the world. At the same time, nearly everybody has some belief in the world view of modern science. Science is more than a set of beliefs about our physical world; it’s also a method. Science has its critics, but none of them deny its ability to arrive at some sort of truth. The fact that so many millions of people believe in both modern science and in reincarnation would make a meeting of the two a very important event.
Like many such important moments, this one came and went almost without anyone noticing. In the year 2000, the journal for near-death studies published a paper called “the structure and function of near-death experiences: an algorithmic reincarnation hypothesis”. It was written by Todd Murphy, a member of a Canadian neuroscience research team. The paper discussed reincarnation as though it were an actual human behavior, without reference to traditional teachings about it.
Let’s look at its answers to some common questions about reincarnation.
Actually, my conclusions on this subject are very close to Buddhism. There is nothing that leaves one body and then enters another during the reincarnation process. Certainly nothing physical. It seems to be information about how to live in what anthropologists call “complex culture”. That’s the kind humans live in. Living in complex culture puts us in close and constant touch with other humans. It’s our evolutionary strategy. Without it, we would have gone extinct, or we would not exist as the species we are today. Being a human being is a very complicated business, and a large part of the learning accomplished in our long childhood is about how to live with other people. Learning how to take care of babies, or hunting, or how to identify plants is easy by comparison.
Learning to relate to other people isn’t easy. There are so many kinds of people, and each one has to be treated a little different from the others. More than that, the standards for relating to different “types” of people (like kids, old women, warriors or leaders) within a culture are usually there for good reasons. Understanding them on a “gut” level probably helped us to survive. Some cultures maintain ceremonies in which food is sort of thrown around, even destroyed, or deliberately wasted. Other cultures treat food as though it were a semi sacred thing. Some cultures are harsh and punishing with their children, while others tolerate nearly anything from them. Most anthropologists agree that some factor that improves the economics of a tribe (or other social group) are what stands behind these wide differences.
Reincarnation allows people to know things without recourse to instinct. An instinct is very hard to change. If we had an instinct to be generous and compassionate with one another, then a famine could kill us all off easily. Everybody might be motivated to give their food to people who were hungry, and everyone would run out of food at the same time. We could all starve to death. If a few people were very generous, they could certainly make the beginning of a famine a little easier to deal with. When the food supply had really run out, those who had hoarded food might go on to live a little bit longer. They may have been holding out on the people around them, but their survival will help the survival of the species, and the survival of their tribe a little more likely. It’s just one example, but it shows that really comes to dealing with other human beings, instinct won’t work. Instincts are absolute rules. Humans need rules of thumb. We need rules that are ready for exceptions.
Another way people learn how to live with others is to grow up among them. The trouble is that the childhood is already overburdened. Humans have the longest childhood of any primate species. Part of the reason for that is our large head size, combined with a small size female pelvis. If our heads got any bigger than they do while we’re in the womb, we would be too big to get out when the time came. Developments that happen before birth in other primates happen after birth with humans. We also have lots more to learn.
Reincarnation would’ve relieved us of the burden of learning to understand other people. Instead of learning how to live in a culture one behavior at a time, we could be born already knowing a set of approximate ground rules. We might even be born with some very specific rules in place. But no matter how important these rules are, none of them are absolute. As circumstances change, so can the rules. It may take a generation or two, but they’re not genetically predetermined, as instincts are thought to be. Reincarnation allows information to be passed without its having to be learned during childhood, or codified into an instinct. The circumstances of a tribe or other group can change. A change in the environment, or an inter-tribal war that suddenly reduces the population, a tribe being pushed off its land, and instincts that helped people survive in one circumstance can quickly become a danger.
Learning from past lives is more reliable than childhood training, and more flexible than instinct.
I don’t think past life information is about rules, though. The word rule implies something that you can write down, or at least express in words. Rules have sharp edges, and pieces of past life learning are much more fuzzy. I don’t think they’re memories. At least, not in the usual sense of the word. For past life information to consist of memories would make it a very inefficient system. There might be such things as past life memories, but it would take large amounts of very specific information to re-create one. Then there is the problem of how to make use of the information in past life memories.
Suppose we learn something in one life, and we “remember” it in a next life, how closely does the memory have to match a circumstance in the present for us to make use of its lesson? Probably it would have to be a close match, so we would have to search our memories extensively in order to make use of past life learning. Not a very efficient way to use a mind. Each time we were under stress, our mental workload would increase far more than necessary, as we searched our minds to find ways to respond to it.
A simpler and more efficient way for people to make use of past life learning would be to preserve a repertoire of states of consciousness. Here, I’m talking about more normal states of consciousness. Altered states are another matter. If each state of consciousness were marked as adaptive or maladaptive when relating to other people, it could guide huge amounts of behavior with very little information.
States of consciousness have characteristic patterns of brain activation behind them. If our brains could recognize it when one of these patterns are happening, then it could help people to contain their behavior when they’re in one state, like anger, and to let it go when they’re in another, like when they’re with a group of people and feeling good. This implies that there are a limited number of ordinary states of consciousness. When it comes to transcendent states, and States of consciousness that go beyond all “form”, as described in the yoga traditions, there may be huge numbers of them. If specific states of consciousness are the result of the activation of specific groups of brain parts, then normal consciousness will reflect the activation of the most important brain parts. Although the brain has billions of cells, most of its activity (that we experience) is governed by a handful of specific structures. Interestingly, classical Buddhist psychology distinguishes 121 states of consciousness. Some of these are unique to spiritual process, but the overwhelming majority are states that we experience in our daily lives; our common states of consciousness. Of course, the Buddhist theologians lived long before Darwin and didn’t have the benefits of his vocabulary. They recognized wholesome and unwholesome states of consciousness, while basic evolutionary theory suggests we are better off thinking about adaptive and maladaptive states.
When individuals avoid states that lead to maladaptive behavior, there’s a payoff for the whole social group, but there are also big payoffs for the individual. The more a person can avoid negative behavior, the higher the social rank they can achieve. People who can’t get along with others won’t be the most respected ones in their group. They won’t be leaders. They won’t be alpha males or females. This is extremely important because in every primate species without exception, the higher an individual’s rank, the more mating opportunities they have.
Let’s call each state of consciousness, together with its label telling you to repeat it or avoid it, a karma.
So, to get back to the question, “what reincarnates?”
What reincarnates is information about which states of consciousness to avoid, and which ones to cultivate in order to achieve the highest social rank possible, and with it, the opportunity to pass on one’s DNA. Knowing which states of consciousness to avoid will also certainly help you in getting your children to grow up to adulthood.
OK, so if the point is information, how is the information transmitted? What’s the medium?
The best candidate, and it can explain so much it’s probably not going to be replaced, is the earth’s magnetic field. Many studies have shown that the earth’s magnetic field can interact with human consciousness. Psychic skills seem to go up when the geomagnetic field is quiet. Out-of-body experiences are more probable during geomagnetic instability. One scientist was published saying that perhaps portions of our consciousness are integrated with the earth’s magnetic field. This idea finds support in a fascinating study published late in 1992. Joseph Kirshvink at UCLA discovered that the human brain has five million magnetite crystals per gram. Of course, they are extremely small. The shape of these crystals is unique. It doesn’t occur in nature. The implication is that they’re formed in the brain. They’re also organized to maximize the magnetic “moment” (sort of an analog to momentum) existing between the crystals.
Although not much is known about it so far, the existence of so many magnets in our brains seems to imply that the brain has another system besides the well-known ones. There’s a chemical level of brain activity, as the brain responds differently to hundreds of different chemicals. Electrical impulses travel down axons and dendrites, allowing different parts of the brain to communicate with each other. The existence of millions of magnetite crystals per gram in human brain is very difficult to explain without the hypothesis that, like the hundreds of chemicals, and billions of neurons, these millions of crystals function to facilitate communication within the brain. Interestingly, the tissue that surrounds the brain (called the dura mater) has 100 million of these crystals per gram, twenty times as much as is found in the brains tissues. It’s hard not to speculate that this high density of crystals surrounding the brain may exist to inhibit or facilitate communication between the brain and the earth’s magnetic field.
Is karma something subconscious?
Most of the time, yes. It would have to be. In moments when we experience stress and draw on our karmic repertoire of responses, we’re not concerned with anything except the stressor, and it’s in moments like that when our introspective powers are at their lowest. Certainly Hinduism and Buddhism teach that karmas are created at a very fine level of consciousness. The mechanism I’m hypothesizing here is simple. All we would need to do is check on each state of consciousness while it’s happening to see if that state is currently working to your advantage or your disadvantage. Of course, it would play special emphasis on social rewards and benefits, but that’s a straightforward thing to hypothesize. We are, after all, a very social species.
There is one case where the creation of karma seems to have a clear outward manifestation. I’m talking about the death process. I’m making an assumption here. I’m assuming that near-death experiences are death processes that were interrupted by resuscitation. That is to say, the death process is just like a near-death experience except that you don’t come back.
Near-death experiences (that go on long enough) usually have a phase called the “life review”. In this phase, a person can see their life pass before their eyes, re-experience their life in just a few seconds, or perhaps they might only see a few highlights. I know of two cases in which life reviews consisted of standing in front of a wall covered with television screens. Each screen was playing an episode from their lives. In India and Thailand, life reviews seem to consist of karmic review in which only one or two events in a person’s life were shown to them. Perhaps these events symbolized behavioral tendencies during their life. One anthropologist published the paper in which they said that features of the spirit world found in near-death experiences of people from hunting and gathering societies might symbolize events in their life.
What I think is happening in the life review (during the death process) is that, although it seems that events are under review, it’s really about the states of consciousness that inspired the person’s behavior; the anger, the greed, the fear. The life review marks states of consciousness for repetition or avoidance.
Have you given up the idea of reincarnation towards enlightenment? It sounds like you’re saying that the goal in reincarnating is to survive better, or pass on your DNA more than others.
Well, you have to remember that one of the first points about enlightenment is that it’s blissful. In Buddhism, enlightenment is the end of all suffering. To be utterly without suffering brings a state of supreme joy and tranquility. In Hinduism, moksha, a word that means freedom, is said to bring a constant experience called satchitananda, a word that combines truth, consciousness, and bliss. I believe that people who had achieved such total happiness, no matter what happened around them, could very likely have found themselves at the top of the social ladder. Perhaps enlightenment might create alpha male personalities, but many “enlightened ones” have chosen to remain silent, or to retreat from the world; which would prevent them from becoming leaders.
But you are correct. In fact, evolution does not move towards anything. Rather, it moves away from threats to our survival. The mechanism of karma as I understand it would certainly encourage increasingly adaptive behavior, but increasingly spiritual behavior? A greater and greater aptitude for religious states? That’s another matter. I see these as having more to do with individual sensitivity to altered states of consciousness — non ordinary states of consciousness. That, in turn, has to do with the fine structure of the brain you have in your present life. Attaining enlightenment might require abandoning mal-adaptive states of consciousness, but it would take more than that. It would also require opening up some states of consciousness that would make no practical contribution towards survival or social success. I don’t think that we are evolving towards these states. Rather, our evolutionary strategy might make it advantageous for some individuals to have very large repertoires of states of consciousness. Not because they are worthwhile in themselves, but because repeated entry into these states creates personality traits that help the person and the people around them, and such individuals might be ideal shamans.
This all seems to explain a lot about death and rebirth, which I think, is the core of Asian religions, but doesn’t it have any explanations to offer science? I mean, if these scientific ideas work, they should be able to answer some spiritual questions, shouldn’t they?
Yes. In the field of near-death experience research, one question that’s been very hard to address is how human beings could have been evolved the death process. Throughout most of our history almost anyone who began to death process died. Interrupting the process through resuscitation is a very recent development. The problem was that in order to select a trait, a species has to find itself in a position where those who have trait survive, and those who don’t, die off (or fail to reproduce). When it comes to death, nobody survives. The idea that people who died with one subjective experience while dying had better chances of survival is absurd. We accept reincarnation, where behaviors in one life, including those that only happen at death, can have an impact on another life. Thinking about reincarnation in evolutionary terms may be “fringe” science, but so far, mainstream scientists have had nothing at all to say about the evolutionary adaptation that led to the human capacity for near-death experiences, and by inference, the process of our deaths.
If human beings have this way of living and dying, it must come up at some point in our evolutionary history. How did it happen?
I think it happened around the time that we acquired language and complex cultures. The idea is that our more complex cultures rewarded any extra learning, and learning from past lives, learning which behaviors to avoid, and which ones to repeat, allowed us to be born better educated than our ancestors were, without recourse to instinct or to lengthening our already long childhood.
Evolution does not proceed by sudden inventions. Rather, it takes existing mechanisms and alters them to suit new situations. The death process involves several states of consciousness, which unfold differently for different people, and over which individuals have very little control. There may be a few people who can control their death process the way lucid dreamers control their dreams, but most of us have to go along with it; it doesn’t go along with us. Sleep is very much like the death process. It also involves multiple states of consciousness. It also involves the manipulation of intensely personal imagery during dreams. The function I suggest is at the core of near-death experiences is reviewing one’s behavior, and the same seems to be true for many dreams. It’s possible that whatever mechanism helps us to dream at night was reworked to facilitate an adaptive kind of death process.
What about out-of-body experiences?
What about them?
Are they real?
Of course, they’re real the same sense that dreams are real. I think what we need to ask is whether or not the experiences during OBEs correspond to anything outside our minds. Are they just hallucinations?
There isn’t much evidence about this, but what there is points to OBE’s having some kind of reality. There’s been a couple of cases where people had OBE’s, were resuscitated, and something they saw during their OBE, but could not have known about in any other way, turned out to be real. In one case, it was a tennis shoe on the roof of the hospital. The patient, a woman in intensive care who had a heart attack, could not have gotten up to the roof.
There’s another kind of evidence on the subject, in which people saw things happening around them. Their doctors saw a flat line showing that they were dead even as they experienced themselves as having an out-of-body experience. Most commonly, and not surprisingly, these have usually been resuscitation procedures. Patients see themselves being defibrillated, injected, and being taken through all sorts of procedures. Later on, they describe them with surprising accuracy. Several young children have also been able to describe procedures that they could not have known anything about, and many patients have described as the physical appearance of those who were working on them while they themselves had all the clinical signs of being dead.
One explanation is that they are hallucinations of the environment around the person. This would explain the verified perceptions of some OBEers, but without forcing us to suppose a whole alternate reality in order to explain them. OBEs could be real, in the sense most people mean it, but it will hard to prove in either direction. There are convincing stories, observations and anecdotes that are hard to explain as anything else besides the existence of consciousness outside the body, but not-being-able-to-explain-it-any-other-way is not the same thing as proof.
I strongly suspect that there is some kind of limit on how long they can go on. In near-death experiences, they usually move on to the next phase fairly soon.
What about the differences in near-death experiences between different cultures?
Near-death experiences are very different in different cultures. I published a paper on near-death experiences in Thailand that found that their near-death experiences usually don’t begin with out-of-body experiences. For them, the most common first phase is being greeted by a servant from the underworld; a servant from the lord of death, called Yama. Thai near-death experiences are very similar to the ones in India, and the name for these servants is similar. They’re called Yamatoots. Typically, Yamatoots just walk up to the person and tell them that they’re dead. Then, they take them on a walk to the underworld, where they see many different hells, each one dedicated to the torture of a particular kind of sinner. Alcoholics have to drink boiling oil, adulterers have to endure incredible pain while surrounded by beautiful naked bodies, and liars have their tongues pulled out, and so forth. Yamatoots appear to be a bit like the Grim Reaper. In the underworld looks like something out of Dante. Once a person reaches the center of the underworld they meet Yama, who reads to them from a ledger where everyone’s karma is recorded. From there, they are ordered to their next incarnations, or back to life. Western near-death experiences often involve being told, “it’s not your time”, while Thai and Hindu Indian near-death experiencers are told that they were brought to the underworld accidentally, and the Yamatoot is ordered to bring them back to life.
In Thailand, there’s a scripture called the book of “Prah Malaya”, which records the visions of a monk by that name. It describes the same underworld that Thai people see in their NDEs. The motifs that occur in the book are deeply embedded in Thai culture. Children’s television often depicts actors dressed as to Yamatoots, who often appear in comic books, newspaper cartoon pages, and public safety advertising.
I think what’s happening is that the experiences after death reflect our expectations. These are largely drawn from the culture we grow up in, the images we’re exposed to, and the beliefs we’re taught. These expectations come from our cultures, and within our cultures they come from our religions. But, it’s a long way from the beliefs of a particular religion to the experiences after death for anyone of its believers. Near-death experiences show considerable variety even within religious groups, where everyone has the same beliefs about what will happen to them when they die. The same thing happens with another experience. Dreams. You can take 100 Catholics, and get them to tell you about a dream of going to church, and you would hear a hundred different dreams, even though you’d still find they shared many motifs.
The actual content of near-death experiences reflects a culture, the religion, the expectations of the individual, as well as their private symbolism. When I say private symbolism I mean pretty much anything that’s too small for trivial for the religion to have any specific teachings about it, so the individual fills in for themselves.
Most published near-death experiences derive from modern Western culture. There, people no longer accept the traditional religious myths. It’s a religious teaching that Jesus taught people to love their neighbors; it’s a religious myth that we will see Angels playing harps when we die . Another religious myth is that of St. Peter standing before a gate made of pearl. Another is that one will stand before God, who will be seated on a marble throne. There is a scriptural basis for standing before God, so it’s a teaching, but there is none for the marble throne, so it’s a myth.
Most of what we experience after death is extrapolated out of our myths, not our religious teachings. In the West, people have largely abandoned religious mythology, and those who continue to be believers are more likely to insist that their beliefs derive directly from their scriptures, unlike Europe before the Reformation. Even then, many Christians in today’s world prefer to interpret their teachings for themselves.
And this is the going on for one or two generations. That’s long enough for idea to begin to circulate in our culture, and have an effect on the way people think. So where will Westerners get their expectations about what death will be like? What will shape the broad outlines of their experience?
I think that there are defaults templates for this. Experiences that occur when there are no expectations. So, in the West near-death experiences begin with out-of-body experiences. It’s expedient because during an out-of-body experience you can turn around, look at your own body, and see that you’re dead. Presumably, knowing that you’re dead will make you less likely to resist going through the process.
The next phase, going through the tunnel seems to say that the world of one’s experiences is behind one. You’re going someplace else. Different rules will apply. Shamans who want to reach the underworld can often create visions in themselves that begin with going through a tunnel. Visions of tunnels have been elicited in laboratory settings through stimulation of the occipital lobe. The brain is wired for this experience, and because it conveys the right message, we have been able to make it a part of our death process.
The next phase is the one where you see the light. The light has been elicited through stimulation of one brain structure, the amygdala on the left side. This same structure has also been implicated in the experience of bliss, as well as the experience of God. So, we find that the next three near-death experience phenomena happen together, and all involve the same area of the brain. The idea is simple enough. When you are in the light, you are in bliss, and that’s where he emerges because God is made of bliss. None of your failings in life matter when you’re a state of bliss. If God is there, he forgives all. Therefore, you can examine yourself without resistance, which brings us to the next phase. The life review. In Thai NDES, people are frightened into acceptance. In the east, people can’t resist. In the west, they don’t need to.
The life review seems to be a very highly individualized review of one’s life. In one, you see scenes from your life appear on multiple television screens. In another, you re-experience your life in the blink of an eye. In yet another, your life passes before your eyes.
The portions of the brain involved in memory retrieval, the hippocampus and cortical areas around it, are implicated in this experience. If so, there’s a kind of dumping of all your memories, all at once. Ordinarily, our memories are retrieved through context. During the life review they are more often displayed in serial order, and that’s an odd way for memory to work ordinarily. It suggests that there is some specific neural mechanism at work, though I can’t tell you what is right now. Nobody can.
Some religious traditions say that their spiritual techniques allow one to see “beyond death”. Is there any truth in this?
I think so. If the brain is pre-wired to produce certain experiences after death, and these experiences are felt to be spiritual, then they become desirable goals for those who manipulate their consciousness. The activation of these brain structures while one is still alive can explain many, many religious and mystic experiences. It could well be that the world’s schools of mysticism have developed the spiritual techniques, such as prayer, meditation, yoga, trance dancing, and so forth using the appearance of mystic experiences in those who practice them as the yardstick by which they measure the worthiness of a spiritual technique. This would gradually prune out methods for working with consciousness that didn’t work – that didn’t create mystic experiences.
Persons with past life experience bred out those without it” & the goal is to reach the top of social hierarchy & this is the evolution? (Sounds good but Respectfully, have you seen what the worlds leaders have to do to reach the top? THAT IS NOT THE BEHAVIOR OF ENLIGHTENED SOULS, even though gentleness means a lot when you get to the top to sustain Alpha male status.)
Reincarnation is an evolutionary adaptation that happened early in our history, so the context for thinking about alpha males (with respect to the hypothesis you are commenting on) is in our early, tribal and shamanic cultures, not today’s’ politicians, CEOs and military authorities. In our early history and tribal societies, the alpha knew everyone in the tribe personally, and so they could be held accountable by anyone in the tribe. I believe that made the Paleolithic alpha males hold their power with much more respect than today. I mean respect for their own power as well for the people around them.
I should also mention that my reincarnation hypothesis does not include the belief that the “cycle of lives” culminates in Enlightenment – or that it culminates in anything at all. I do believe that enlightenment is possible, but that’s not what reincarnation is ‘for” in evolutionary terms.
“Am I right , you want a scientific study of reincarnation using the religious lore & doctrine?”
No, I want a scientific statement of reincarnation, how it works, how it appeared in our evolution, and what benefit it confers on our species. My secondary goal is to do it without any reference to “religious lore and doctrine”. “Lore and doctrine” don’t offer evidence, though they can contain valid perceptions of how it works. A scientific statement of reincarnation must be based on ideas shared with the rest of the scientific community, and use vocabulary that other scientists use. That excludes scriptural sources.
Murphy, Todd. “The structure and function of near-death experiences: An Algorithmic reincarnation hypothesis.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 20.2 (2001): 101-118.
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