NDE – Responding to the Dying Brain Hypothesis – Part 2

In my first blog post, I described the NDE phenomena and argued a physiological explanation does not adequately account for the testimony of NDErs. Lack of oxygen, and changing brain chemistry does not adequately explain NDEs. But what about the field of human psychology? Can we explain the supposed out of body experiences (OBE) in psychological terms?

I’m going to argue that psychology alone is insufficient to account for a few particular evidential examples of OBE. There are so many of these sorts of veridical accounts in the NDE literature. For example, check out the scholarly, peer reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies for much more. So, I think we can begin to draw the conclusion that human psychology cannot account for NDEs either. This blog explains why.

Responding to Blackmore’s Psychological Dying Brain OBE Hypothesis

Susan Blackmore’s naturalistic dying brain theory explores psychological causes of the OBEs that are very often described by NDErs.

As a matter of course, she says the brain constructs environmental models used by the subject to understand their world and place within it. Sensory input is interpreted in the construction of these models. Subjects hold multiple models simultaneously and intuitively select the most stable and appropriate model of reality. Consequently, an OBE does not involve the leaving of the self from the body. Rather, because the dying brain experiences failing sensory input, it copes by choosing an alternative model driven by memory and imagination instead.[1] Blackmore claims our memories occur from a birds-eye view, which explains why OBEs proceed from that vantage point.[2]

She justifies her brain model argument claiming that model switching occurs in cited instances of a subject’s sensory deprivation leading to hallucination experiences.[3] Yet for her theory to explain OBEs, it also must account for the subject’s birds-eye view. Her claim that memories proceed most often from a birds-eye view lacks justification. She cites a memory study by Nigro and Niesser (N&N). Serdaheley observes N&N distinguish two memory types. Field memories proceed through our personally observed experience, while observer memories proceed from an external vantage point. Field memory seemed more common than observer memory in the N&N memory study, and while observer memories were emotionally detached, field memories involved vivid emotional recall.[4] Consequently, Blackmore finds no support for her claim that observer memories are more common in the N&N study. She therefore has not accounted for the classical, birds-eye OBE viewpoint.

Blackmore tries to account for OBE observations during NDErs unconscious state by highlighting instances where apparently unconscious subjects retained residual sense experience. Senses combined with imagination may explain how the subject constructed an imagined memory of their situation. She cites an instance during resuscitation where the subject remembered a nurse giving him a procedure, he mistakenly interpretated as an injection. She suggests unconscious subjects retain touch or hearing awareness and build these into imaginary models.[5] This may explain why unconscious patients appear to remember their resuscitation by medical personnel. Yet Blackmore’s theory assumes residual touch and hearing are sufficient to construct a picture in every case. Dr. Miguel Quesada recounts an OBE patient who could describe the shape and colour of the medical instruments used while unconscious during her operation. She was unfamiliar with the instruments, and their colour was not mentioned during the procedure.[6] Neither residual touch nor hearing can account for this. Further, if OBEs are caused by residual sense stimulation, why are none reported from the prone position? OBEs are always described from a birds-eye view. Serdahaley opines that, if Blackmore is correct about residual sense experience, surely some NDEs would involve the subject looking up into the faces of their carers or relatives, rather than always looking down on them from above.[7]

When assessing the positive experiences NDErs have, Blackmore says it comes from realizing, “the self was only a mental construction … that can be let go. There never was any solid self and there is no one to die.”[8] Yet this claim conflicts with her idea that there is no self. If there is no self, then who is concluding there is no self during an NDE? It sounds self-refuting to claim a subject realises that their self does not exist. More generally, it is unclear to me how one can gather knowledge about an experience from a naturalistic worldview ontology. Blackmore’s naturalism is evident in her discussion about the brain modelling reality, and she rightly concludes on naturalism there is no self. But in this case, she has an epistemological problem. If people have thoughts and beliefs about NDE experiences, this means they have intentionality because there is an aboutness related to these thoughts. This intentionality requires one to have a mental state from which to consider beliefs. But Blackmore’s naturalism only allows sensory inputs to a brain that builds models. On this naturalistic ontology, there are no essences, no intentionality, just interpretation without the possibility of knowing.[9] Scott Smith concludes that on naturalism, knowledge becomes impossible, and so the NDErs knowledge of their experience cannot exist under Blackmore’s ontology. Yet NDErs do have knowledge of an experience that has enduring effects upon them, suggesting Blackmore’s naturalistic worldview is inadequate.

Consequently, Blackmore’s physiological and psychological dying brain hypotheses fail to account for NDEer experience. She also fails to account for many veridical NDE cases as well. For example, Serdaheley interviewed a subject who experienced an OBE while an assailant strangled her on the beach. She found herself observing the scene from above her body and watched as he fled the scene on a beach path she had never used. The path was identified, an individual was placed there at that time, and was subsequently convicted of her attack.[10] If Blackmore is right OBEs result from dying brains, how do we account for this woman’s ability to observe her attacker’s escape while lying unconscious on the ground? I would argue the dying brain theory generally fails to account for veridical NDEs like this one.

In the next blog post I will explore more veridical NDE evidence. I will discuss the phenomena of shared NDE.


[1] Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Near-Death Experiences, (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1993), 173 – 175.

[2] Ibid., 177.

[3] Ibid., 70 – 71.

[4] William Serdahely, “Questions for the Dying Brain Hypothesis,” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 15(1), 1996, 43.

[5] Blackmore, 125.

[6] Titus Rivas, Anny Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, The Self Does Not Die Verified Paranormal Phenomena from Near-Death Experiences, (Durham: IANDS, 2016), 24.

[7] Serdaheley, 45.

[8] Blackmore, 263.

[9] R. Scott Smith, In Search of Moral Knowledge Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy, (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), 152.

[10] Serdaheley, 46.

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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.

4 thoughts on “NDE – Responding to the Dying Brain Hypothesis – Part 2”

  1. “Consequently, Blackmore’s physiological and psychological dying brain hypotheses fail to account for NDEer experience. She also fails to account for many veridical NDE cases as well”

    Veridical simply means “truthful”. Someone might truthfully think they have experience magic, but there is no evidence for it. That you find you must use such an obscure word to claim that NDEs are truthful is amusing.

      1. yep, nice to see you can use the same sources I have. “Truthful or accurate, especially in relation to perceptions, dreams, or premonitions that are confirmed by subsequent observations.”

        Funny how nothing confirms the claims by those who claim that NDEs are magical in nature.

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