Near Death Experiences – Responding to the “Dying Brain” Hypothesis

Medical science today can bring people back from the brink of death. In the last fifty years, doctors, philosophers, and theologians have been studying a phenomenon called Near-Death Experience (NDE). This is an altered state of consciousness some people experience when close to death, and also when in a completely flat-line physical state, or clinically dead. Doctor Raymond A. Moody did the first major study of thousands of these reported experiences, publishing the first book on NDEs in 1975 – Life After Life. Moody notes that, while NDEs are in some senses a modern phenomenon, resulting from medical advances in technology and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, he also finds evidence of them occurring in ancient Greek philosophy from thousands of years ago. Plato’s Republic recounts the tale of Er who was apparently killed in battle, yet revived during his funeral, and told the tale of leaving his body and entering the afterlife before returning. Democritus founded atomic theory, and in his fragmentary surviving writings, show an interest in many “returning from the dead” stories.[1] NDEs have been happening throughout human history it seems.

In this blog series I am going to argue that naturalistic explanations for NDEs fail to account for the evidence surrounding the cases I assess, and they aren’t sufficient to account for the cumulative weight of testimonial and veridical NDE evidence. Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic “dying brain” hypothesis claims NDEs occur within a dying individual’s head, they are not instances of a soul departing the physical body. First, I’ll discuss her physiological argument, then I will assess her psychological argument. I will argue Blackmore’s argument does not adequately account for testimonial and veridical evidence of particular NDEs. I will then discuss the important veridical phenomenon called “shared NDEs” and finally, I will assess how I think NDE reports are consistent with a Biblical view of life after death and can therefore withstand challenges from NDE skeptic Christians. I conclude that NDEs complement a Christian view of life after death.

Defining Near-Death Experiences

An NDE is an event sometimes reported by people who return from either a near-death or complete clinical death state. Three hundred million contemporary cases exist from Near-Death experiencers (NDErs) of different ages and cultures. Jeffrey Long surveyed over six hundred NDErs to identify common elements in their experiences. Over fifty percent reported an out-of-body (OBE) experience where consciousness apparently left their body. They experienced heightened senses, encountered an unearthly kind of world, and met a mystical light, spiritual beings, or previously deceased relatives. They described a love and beauty that was hard to articulate. This group also recounted a decision during the NDE to return to their body. Under fifty percent of NDErs experienced an OBE involving tunnel traversal, a life review assessing how they had impacted others in life, and a one-way barrier.[2] Long also reports NDErs are profoundly changed by their experience, becoming more loving, and knowing decreased fear of death.[3] In a small number of cases, Long encountered evidence of frightening, or hellish NDE experiences.[4]

Responding to Blackmore’s Physiological Dying Brain Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist who engages with NDEs from her naturalistic worldview, seeking to ground them in physiological and psychological terms alone. Physiologically, she observes the human brain requires oxygen to function, and at some point, the oxygen supply to the brain of a dying person will cease. Eventually, the brain enters a state of oxygen deprivation called anoxia. Studies on fighter pilots show that under extreme G forces they experience G-LOC, temporary acceleration induced anoxia.[5] Blackmore suggests the effects mirror NDEs; unconsciousness, having an OBE, vivid dreams, and seeing loved ones.[6]

NDEs may be like the effects from anoxia, yet fundamental differences exist. First, unconscious G-LOC subjects encounter living loved ones, while NDErs report only meeting dead relatives. If the NDE is due to anoxia close to death, surely comforting images of living relatives would appear, not dead ones. William Serdahely opines the dying brain hypothesis fails to account for these visions of dead relatives.[7] Second, the clarity of a subject’s anoxic experience differs from the average NDE. Blackmore’s G-LOC study records during unconsciousness, the anoxic subject displays total incapacitation followed by a period of confusion until consciousness returns.[8] Anoxia causes confusion that impairs human perception.

Chris Carter describes high altitude mountain climber studies that match the pilot G-LOC studies. As the brain loses oxygen, disorientation and confusion occurs, and one’s capacity for completing tasks is impaired.[9] Yet Long’s NDErs experienced complete loss of brain function combined with extreme clarity of thought and heightened awareness during their NDE. Dr Pim van Lommel observes during NDE, “there … [is an] inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.”[10] This suggests anoxia differs fundamentally from the NDE experience. Carter supports this conclusion with Allan Pring’s testimony. Pring experienced both high altitude anoxia and an NDE later in life. Assessing both experiences, he concludes, “there was no similarity. On the contrary, the whole [NDE] … was crystal clear and it has remained so for the past fifteen years.”[11]

However, a more fundamental challenge to Blackmore’s hypothesis comes in Vicki Umipeg’s case. She died in a sudden car accident and experienced a vivid NDE that she recounted upon resuscitation.[12] In her case, the brain had no time to succumb to the chemical changes caused by anoxia before her NDE began. This reinforces the conclusion that these oxygen deprived brain states are quite distinct from the NDE experience, so the physiological dying brain hypothesis fails to account for this NDEer testimonial evidence.

In part two of this series, I will respond to Blackmores psychological explanation for NDEs.


[1] Raymond A. Moody, “Near-Death Experiences An Essay in Medicine and Philosophy,” in The Science of Near-Death Experiences, John C Hagan III MD, ed, (University of Missouri Press, 2017), 11-12.

[2] Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry, Evidence of the Afterlife The Science of Near-Death Experiences, (New York:HarperCollins, 2010), EPub edition, 5 – 20.

[3] Long and Perry, 50.

[4] Jeffrey Long, “Frightening NDEs,” Evidence of the Afterlife – Supplementary Material, accessed 3rd November, 2021, https://www.nderf.org/NDERF/EvidenceAfterlife/evidence/Frightening_NDEs.htm.

[5] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 57.

[6] Ibid., 59 – 60.

[7] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996.

[8] Blackmore, 57 – 58.

[9] Chris Carter, Science and the Near-Death Experience How Consciousness Survives Death, (Rochester: Inner Traditions, 2010), 162.

[10] Van Lommel, “Consciousness Beyond Life,” quoted in John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 326.

[11] Fenwick and Fenwick, “The Truth in the Light,” quoted in Carter, 168.

[12] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 232 – 233.

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Respond

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

6 thoughts on “Near Death Experiences – Responding to the “Dying Brain” Hypothesis”

    1. >> and still no evidence for a god.

      This particular blog doesn’t claim to present such a thing.

      Generally speaking – the posts I make to this blog site pose ARGUMENTS for the truth of Christianity. So when you dismiss them by claiming they are not PROOF of Christianity – you show you are mistaken and generally confused about my epistemological intentions.

      Happy Thanksgiving!

      1. that’s quite interesting that you claim that your blog doesn’t claim to present evidence for your god but you claim that NDE are evidence for your god and a “christian view of life after death”.

        “I will then discuss the important veridical phenomenon called “shared NDEs” and finally, I will assess how I think NDE reports are consistent with a Biblical view of life after death and can therefore withstand challenges from NDE skeptic Christians. I conclude that NDEs complement a Christian view of life after death.”

        Do tell how that works. And giving arguments for the truth of Christianity is presenting what you find to be evidence for Christianity.

        “Critical thinking means being able to make good arguments. Arguments are claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence. Argumentation is a social process of two or more people making arguments, responding to one another–not simply restating the same claims and reasons–and modifying or defending their positions accordingly.” University of Pittsburgh, Department of Communication “Argument: Claims, Reasons, Evidence” webpage

      2. My previous response still applies. You’ve just restated your misunderstanding. Arguments can be evidential – but they are not proofs. Consistency with a Christian view is – an evidential argument. It is not a proof. You would do well to learn that. Also – dismissing a part of an argument without reading all of it is simply bad manners. No change there then.

      3. So you admit that you have no proof your version of Christianity is true, nor that your god exists. You also have no evidence.

        Do show where I’ve simply dismissed an argument and where I’ve not read your responses.

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