Near Death Experiences: Science and Skepticism

In response to my recent post about near-death experiences (NDEs),  several readers wrote in and described their own brushes with the beyond. Writes Tamara,

I started to panic but no one could hear me, I couldn’t breath, I could barely move. Then I got real calm and reached under me and pulled the plug out without even thinking about it. It was like I was watching myself from outside of my body. My body rolled itself over so I was face up. Then my vision shot out of the bathtub and it was as if I was shooting through the sky, I was running through the grass in our backyard and then back to the sky and then I was in space and the stars were shooting past me.

So here’s the question du jour: was Tamara’s experience an untimely glimpse into the world that awaits us beyond death? Or was she simply experiencing a hallucination brought on by elevated levels of carbon dioxide, as this study suggests?

You will find passionate advocates for both answers. After my first post ran, I received an invitation to take part in a podcast discussion with Alex Tsakiris, who runs a blog called Skeptiko. Tsakiris believes that mainstream science has given short shrift to his own view of NDEs — namely, that they do indeed offer glimpses of the afterlife — and wanted to engage me on why science journalists such as myself tend to take a narrowly materialistic view. Approach the topic from wildly different perspectives, it would have been easy to clash and misunderstand, but on the contrary I think we had a fascinating exchange. A brief excerpt:

AT: Are science journalists driven by a code… an invisible hand that drives them away from anything that might be labeled ’spiritual’, and simultaneously lowers their guard against weak research that confirms their pre-existing beliefs?

JW: That’s not what it feels like from my perspective… we’re interested in things that make sense in the context of everything else that we know, but that’s novel. So things that are boring, that we see every day we’re not interested in. Things that completely don’t make any sense or we have to completely deconstruct our entire worldview in order to incorporate them, those things also aren’t interesting… I think that’s really the problem. If you’re trying to propose a theory or a view of a phenomenon that is radically at odds with how, let’s say mainstream science views the operation of the world…

You can read the whole thing, or listen to the podcast, here.