Friday, October 14, 2011

Spiritual Doorway in the Brain Chapter 4: The Varieties of Near-Death Experience

What are the criteria for a spiritual experience or near-death experience? How do you know you’ve had one? What is the most common feature of a near-death experience? Does having a spiritual or near-death experience prove that God exists?

Nelson reiterates in this chapter his reasoning behind choosing the brain stem as his area of the brain to focus on for the near-death experience.

“The part of our brain responsible for these stories extends backward to our primal origins, thousands of millennia before our brains developed language and we could tell the stories. My research unites our brain’s survival reflexes with other ancient regions where we can reasonably say our ‘god impulse’ resides; an area responsible for dreaming and emotions.”

He offers that the idea of deities or a (many) creator(s) dates back to the time when language was made. This is a very important evolutionary time stamp; because it allowed us to talk about religion (we haven’t taken a break yet!). But Nelson thinks we had the idea of a deity before we gained language because the two came about simultaneously, giving us the mega phone (so to speak) for our ideas (God/afterlife).

Nelson discusses NDEs which have been recounted by some unlikely characters, skeptics. “It’s probably safe to say that millions of Americans consider these experiences as proof that an afterlife exists and that our consciousness or souls can separate from our bodies. Skeptics, on the other hand, maintain that the spiritual dimensions of NDEs are drug-induced or illusory, the product of a blood-starved brain, wishful thinking, or both.”

Many different cultures ascribe their own set of beliefs about death and the process that it entails. Americans see the typical white light, encounter dead relatives and spiritual beings; they have a life review, approach a boarder or have and out-of-body experience. Any grouping of those is very typical for those of the American culture or western culture. However, the Japanese view the boundary as a brook or river. Few tunnels in Japan and their religious views lend their NDEs to be different in detail.

In India, if a person’s name is not called off of a roster then the person returns to “life”. They were not meant to move onto the afterlife. Nelson uses this analogy: “All people feel and satisfy hunger. Yet comparing the means by which different societies obtain, prepare, and consume food tells us little about what nutrients are necessary for the body or the biochemistry of how the gut extracts those nutrients during digestion. So with near-death experiences our common biology produces shared features, but each culture imparts it own distinct flavors.”

18 million Americans may have had a NDE including Sharon Stone during a brain hemorrhage and Gary Busey after a motorcycle accident. Some people who have had NDEs wish to go back to that comforting place and beg to do so like William James’ friend; Symonds.

A young man in Dr. Nelson’s care described a NDE in which he floated to high above the gurney he was physically on, he was afraid that the light in the hospital room would burn him. Nelson found this interesting because he was suggesting that he was levitating and was afraid he’d burn this physical body. He’s noticed this exact scenario in his patients who suffer from vertigo. This is a semi-common inner ear problem. The issue makes a person feel like their spinning like after you’ve left a rotating merry-go-round. This phenomenon, his patient experienced, was an illusion of the brain which is similar to the illusion of the brain creating an extra limb.

Nelson references the work of Dr. Bruce Greyson who studied the psychological effects of a NDE. Sixty-seven cases were studied and he used eighty characteristics of these typical experiences to make up sixteen questions that fell into four categories: Cognitive (thoughts), Affective (feelings), Paranormal, and Transcendental. Each question had a value between zero and two. A total score of seven was minimal to be considered a NDE.

Nelson used this scaling procedure (the Greyson scale) as reference for his own experiments. Out of the fifty-five research subjects, no one scored a perfect, max score, of thirty-two and the average score of his subjects was sixteen. Nelson admits that this system is not fail proof either. Nelson’s research group found it interesting how little of the paranormal they found during their experiments.

A renowned neurologist, Oliver Sacks referred a woman named Margaret to Dr. Nelson. During a procedure in which most patients are anesthetized, but Margaret couldn’t be for medical reasons, she experienced herself going down a silky pink tunnel that was warm and the farther down she went the redder the tunnel became. She heard the sounds of people talking and music playing down in the tunnel and likened it to a brothel. People told her they assumed she was going to hell when she died because of society’s association of hell with red and being hot etc. she didn’t seem to mind at all. Nelson discovered that Margaret has trouble being able to tell if she’s awake or asleep.

Sir Alfred Ayer, well-known atheist, recalls a NDE he had when he nearly choked to death at age seventy-seven. He went into a coma and correctly determined that his brain remained active although his heart had stopped. As a very well learned man he was able to add insight on his experience which was very uniquely his own.

He mentioned and reflected on the fact that “nearly all of our cells (except neurons) are replaced every seven years. And even the molecules are exchanged that make up all the cells that remain with us throughout our lives. He also pointed out an excruciatingly common fallacy: “that every near-death experience including his own, seems to spawn: life after death proves that God exists. He argued that since this life is not proof of God, why should the next be different? There might be evidence of God in the next life, but, he reasoned, ‘we have no right to presume on such evidence when we have not had the relevant experiences’.” He remained an atheist and maintained that his experience did not prove that God exists.

Nelson believes that the moment when a NDE occurs is essential to his studies. We’ll talk more about this later. Jung, the ground-breaking psychologist, also had a NDE which occurred during a bout of pneumonia. This NDE consisted mostly of past experiences and memories. Like Ayer, Jung’s NDE weaved his autobiographical memory into a narrative.

Children have also reported NDEs. Theirs are quite different from those of adult, possibly due to their lack of life experiences to recall during their NDE. Kids don’t experience the life review that an adult might. Their ideas of the afterlife generally involve things like castles, rainbows, wizards, past pets, and guardian angels.

Sometimes kids will see relatives and religious figures too. A big question is: why do children have NDEs anyway? They have little to no understanding of death. Many of the core features of NDEs mentioned earlier in the book are present in child NDEs as well. Seeing relatives that may be dead or may not be dead, feeling peace or joy and consciously deciding to return to “life”. These children reacted in much the same way an adult would, by comforting their friends who were in the hospital and their parents. They like adults usually come to some peace and understanding about their own mortality. Other differences are that there is no feeling of unity with the universe, nor the alteration of time during their NDEs. Nelson has discovered that at the root of every NDE is a narrative with a beginning, middle and end.

Eyewitness testimony has proven faulty in the past and continues to do so. Some people have been wrongly convicted, as brought to light by current DNA evidence, by eyewitness accounts used as actual evidence. Usually, these are mistakes anyone can make not a plot or intentional lie to incarcerate someone.

“Most of us regard ourselves as expert witnesses to our own experiences, and spiritual experiences are no exception, especially because they’re often so vivid and compelling… it is stunning how often our perception can be distorted without giving us the slightest hint that this has happened… we have to distinguish when we’re operating in an area of faith or speculation rather than empirical evidence or proof.”

Nelson states that most NDEs occur because of lack of blood flow to the brain. Memory structures are the first in the brain to be injured (due to survival techniques of the body, cleaver right?). Damage to memory structures means that memories coming from visual experiences start with a falsehood. As an example of how your mind distorts things: there have been accounts of the blind being able to see what is going on around them during a near-death experience. Could this be due to some kind of miracle? Is there a neurobiological reason for this? Nelson believes that some of the aspects of a near-death experience may come from “eyes half open or conversations overheard while medical personnel and others are preoccupied.”

Dr. Nelson makes it very clear in this chapter that he sees little of the supernatural in spiritual experiences. He admits that it is significant to the person having the experience. However, the accounts of these experiences can be distorted due to the common human error that is ingrained in our very being. We only actually see the light waves that reflect off of objects.

Our eyes and brain individually process this input and any error (incredibly common) or slight difference (as in color blindness, astigmatism and the like) can cause exponential alterations in perception. Actually, our brain actually does so much filtering and changing during the data processing system for any sensation it is unrealistic to think that while a person is in any situation that may alter their brain’s usual functioning they are fully aware of what is happening in reality. “…but with eyes wide open to the ways our brain distorts through subtly filtering, shaping, and interpreting the raw data of our experiences.”

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