Near-death experiences, if real, have profound implications for our understanding of memory, consciousness, and the brain-mind problem.
A near-death experience (NDE) is a profound, subjective experience reported by 10% to 20% of people who come close to death, as in a suicide attempt, or because of serious injury in military combat, or in an accident such as a car collision, drowning, or falling from a height, or during a life-threatening medical condition, such as cardiac arrest, major surgery, or complications of childbirth. Although there are some individual variations, the core NDE is remarkably consistent and independent of distinguishing characteristics such as culture, religious belief, or age. Common features include out-of-body-experience with a sense of detachment or dissociation from the body, enhanced consciousness, feeling of oneness and interconnectedness with the universe, encounters with deceased relatives or friends, a flash review of one’s life, and overwhelmingly positive and intense feelings ranging from incredible peace and tranquility to joy and ecstasy. However, about 8% of NDEs are unpleasant involving frightening sounds and encounters, and a smaller percentage still are neither pleasant nor unpleasant experiences, more like a featureless void1,2.
Despite having been extensively studied by many scholarly investigators, no single neurophysiological or psychological explanation has been able to account for all features of NDEs. It has been shown that NDEs: (i) are not dreams; they occur under deep anesthesia, known to suppress dream activity; (ii) nor are they hallucinations, for they remain vivid for decades and often lead to profound and permanent transformations in personality, attitudes, beliefs and values; (iii) nor are they caused by abnormal states of the brain, such as some brain malfunctions, nor by the release of chemicals to help cope with the stress of death, nor by the effects of various physiological factors that come into play when death is imminent, such as oxygen deficiency or increased levels of carbon dioxide; (iv) nor are they explained as a psychological defense mechanism in reaction to trauma. Nevertheless, NDEs remain essentially anecdotal recounts that cannot be objectively verified. Although most scientists are of the opinion that NDEs should be explainable within the framework of present-day science, many renowned scientists believe that NDEs are beyond conventional scientific explanation. The spiritual or transcendental explanation of NDEs is that they are very real and provide evidence of a nonmaterial mind or soul departing upon death from the physical body to an afterlife that also exists. Those who experience NDEs describe them as “more real than real”.
If real, NDEs raise some intriguing and thought-provoking questions about memory, consciousness, and the mind-brain problem. First, NDEs seemingly involve a higher state of consciousness, as evidenced by: (i) experiencing colors and sounds that are not perceived in the normal state of living; (ii) extraordinary visual acuity and field of vision; in the words of a near-death experiencer: “…I watched the mowing of the lawn from straight above, anywhere from several hundred to a couple of thousand feet, as though I were a camera…I could have counted the mosquitoes…;” (iii) the life review is conducted in minute detail and at an incredibly high speed; and (iv) extreme clarity of thought and a sense of all-knowledge and oneness with the universe. And all this whilst the physical brain is clinically dead or at least severely impaired. How can that be?
Second, in the out-of-body experience, NDE experiencers view their physical bodies from above, without feeling any attachment to them. In this out-of-body state they can still see, hear, and feel while unconscious, with their eyes taped shut and their ears plugged. How can that be?
Third, relatives and friends encountered during an NDE have their own memories, feelings and thoughts, despite having been dead for long time and their bodies decomposed; yet their consciousness and memory are preserved. How can that be?
It is seen that the implications of NDEs, if real, is that memory and consciousness have an existence of their own, outside the physical body. Our consciousness is at the essence of our human existence. As conscious beings we are aware of the world around us and of ourselves in this world as individuals having our own subjective worldview based on our own opinions, attitudes, and past experiences. We have our own ideas, beliefs, thoughts, desires and hopes as we plan for the future. We have volition to make decisions and free will to choose between alternatives based on our motivation and drive, value system, circumstances, past experiences, and judgement. Consciousness influences our feelings: no two people experience physical pain in the same way, nor perceive smells and colors in the same way. It is this conscious self that provides the unity of being and continuity in time that defines each human being as a unique individual.
Consciousness is part of our mental attributes, or mind. The relation between body and mind, or the mind-problem, has engaged philosophers and scientists for a long time. At one extreme are the materialists who consider the mind to be simply the product of the physical processes of the brain, much like digestion being the product of the physical activity of the stomach. At the other extreme are the dualists – represented by some philosophers and a minority of scientists – who, beginning with Descartes in the 17th century CE have claimed that the mind and brain are two separate entities. NDEs seemingly support dualism, although they do not elucidate the exact nature of the mind as a separate entity and its relation to the physical brain.
It is interesting in this regard that an English researcher, Rupert Sheldrake, postulated in the early 1980s the concept of what he calls morphic fields, as an extension and development of the idea of morphogenetic fields first proposed in the 1920s by embryologists as a hypothesis to explain some still unexplained aspects of morphogenesis, that is, the development of form and structure during embryonic growth. Sheldrake attempts to explain many phenomena associated with living organisms, including instinctive animal behavior, in terms of morphic fields and their interactions3. According to Sheldrake, memory is not in the brain at all, but in the morphic field, whose influence is not diminished by distance or time from the past to the present.
It is noteworthy that the Quran distinguishes between three entities: the physical body, the self (Arabic, nafs), and the spirit (Arabic, ruḥ). The body-self-spirit has been compared to a car. The material parts of the car are analogous to the physical body. The ignited fuel (or the charge in the batteries in the case of an electric car) that “brings the car to life” and makes it move is analogous to the spirit. To be useful, the car must be acted on in a purposeful manner – moved forward or backward, turned right or left, accelerated or decelerated, or driven to some destination. The driving agency, which may be a human driver or some form of autonomous or remote control, is analogous to the conscious self. Thus, the spirit is the essence of life, whereas the self is the essence of conscious being.
Nassir Sabah is a neuroscientist/biophysicist and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. He has over 100 technical publications, mainly in neurophysiology, biophysics, and biomedical instrumentation and has authored four books on electric circuits, electronics, and neuroscience. This article is adapted from his most recent book Spirituality Rekindled: The Quest for Serenity and Self-Fulfillment, London and Washington, O-Books, John Hunt Publishing, 2023. He could be reached at his website https://nassirsabah.com.
- Greyson, B. (2021) After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal About Life and Beyond, New York, St. Martin’s Essentials.
- Allison, D. C. (2022) Encountering Mystery: Religious Experience in a Secular Age, Grand Rapids MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Sheldrake, R. (2012) The Presence of the Past: Morphic Resonance & The Memory of Nature, revised and expanded edition, Rochester VT, Park Street Press.