Recently I was being my usual sceptical self in a coffeehouse conversation, saying "Everything we humans are aware of is processed by the physical brain, so nobody has ever had a purely spiritual experience."
My companion replied, "But what about near-death experiences? Sometimes people leave their bodies and view them from the outside."
Well, not really, according to a neurophysiologist, Kevin Nelson, who is a leading researcher on NDE's (near-death experiences). A recent issue of New Scientist has an interview with him -- attached as a continuation to this post -- where he states that NDE's are akin to lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreams are among the closest things we know of to an NDE. They are very similar. Brainwave measurements show that lucid dreaming is a conscious state between REM and waking. During REM consciousness, the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex is turned off. As that's the executive, rational part of the brain, this explains why dreams are so bizarre. But if the dorso-lateral cortex turns on inside a dream, you become aware that you are dreaming. It is like waking up in your dream. When the body is in crisis during an NDE and the brain is slipping from consciousness to unconsciousness, it can get momentarily stuck in a borderland between REM and waking, just like a lucid dream.
Near the end of the interview Nelson talks about the evidence, or rather lack thereof, that consciousness is separable from the physical brain.
You often hear people claim that these experiences happened during minutes when they were declared clinically dead. How could that be?
This is an incredible misconception that has arisen because people use the term "clinical death" when they really mean cardiac arrest. When your heart stops and you lose blood flow, you don't lose consciousness for another 10 seconds and brain damage doesn't occur until 30 minutes after blood flow is reduced by 90 per cent or more. So when experiencing an NDE, you are not dead.
People like to say that these experiences are proof that consciousness can exist outside the brain, like a soul that lives after death. I hope that is true, but it is a matter of faith; there is no evidence for that. People who claim otherwise are using false science to engender false hope and I think that is misleading and ultimately cruel.
Absolutely. And if it is misleading and cruel to use false science to engender false hope, doesn't this also apply to false spirituality, false religion, and false mysticism?
Like Nelson, I too hope that some part of us lives on after death. However, hope isn't reality; belief isn't truth. While I'm alive I'd rather live honestly, facing facts as we humans currently best understand them, instead of taking refuge in a fantasy realm.
I've ordered Nelson's book, "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience." The way I see it, if there truly is a domain of consciousness beyond the material, it won't be found through means that are demonstrably physical.
So even if someone believes in an other-worldly spirit, soul, heaven, god, or whatever, they should pay attention to what science is learning about so-called "spiritual" experiences -- since if these are produced by the brain, as Nelson considers NDE's to be, they aren't what a seeker of spirit is looking for.
I came across another interview with Nelson that looks to be even more interesting, from a quick read-through of the first part of it. Early on he skillfully defends the following point of view against the interviewer's challenges.
Sure. I think near-death experiences are in the brain and I think that the only experience we can really know about comes from the brain and so I think that my emphasis as a neurologist, of course, is just that. It’s the brain.
Read on for the complete New Scientist interview.