Previous Page                      Back to Table of Contents                        Next Page



Debunking PseudoSkeptical Arguments of Paranormal Debunkers

Argument # 23: The Dying Brain Hypothesis for Near Death Experiences.


Stated as: “Near death experiences (NDE's) are hallucinations caused by the stress of an oxygen-deprived dying brain.”


This argument, called the Dying Brain Hypothesis, is purported by many skeptics and materialists.  NDE Skeptic and University of London Psychology Professor Susan Blackmore is one of the main proponents of this theory.  In her book Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences, she argues that the NDE is merely the result of hallucinations from the brain that erupt as it malfunctions and collapses.  However, Greg Stone, an NDE expert on my discussion list, wrote an elaborate and excellent critique of Blackmore’s book in his article Critique of Susan Blackmore's Dying to Live.  He has also written an excellent in-depth but easy to read novel about NDE’s entitled Under the Tree which presents all arguments from both sides of the NDE controversy (I consider it a must read for all seekers and enthusiasts).


The main criticism of her work by other NDE experts tends to be that she dismisses the vast data that doesn’t fit into her hypotheses.  NDE author Kenneth Ring, who wrote Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience pointed this out in an article he wrote for the Winter 1995 issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies. 


Although many features of the NDE can be explained by neurological or physiological processes, this doesn’t explain the message being sent.  In fact, the neurological effects could just be the result effects of the NDE, rather than the cause.  Perhaps the TV/radio analogy to the NDE helps explain this best.  As Kevin Williams of explains:


“Such reductionism, however, may only be explaining the mechanism of the near-death experience, not necessarily the near-death experience itself. In the same way, it is possible to reduce a television set to its basic elements such as electrodes and tubes, but one cannot satisfactorily explain the television show being played on it using reductionist terms. Concerning the chemical basis of the near-death experience and using this television analogy, if the brain can be thought of as a television set, then the near-death experience can be thought of as the television show being played on it. Science maybe able to quantify everything concerning the television set components (i.e. the brain), but science is unable to satisfactorily quantify the television show being played on it (i.e. the near-death experience).”


There are several convincing categories of evidence to suggest that NDE’s are not just mere hallucinations caused by a brain that is shutting down.  For more on this, see  These tend to be ignored or dismissed by Blackmore and others who support the Dying Brain Hypothesis:


1)   First and most importantly, there are many well documented cases where the NDEer while out of body were able to see specific details and hear conversations in other rooms and far away places that they couldn’t have known about beforehand, and yet upon returning to the body find that what they saw or heard was in fact verified to be accurate and true.  This is a phenomena that skeptics and materialists still haven’t been able to explain away no matter how hard they try.  Blackmore herself knows about these cases and even mentions them in her book, but she dismisses it simply by stating that she doesn’t believe them.  This of course reflects the closed mental model of skeptics who dismiss facts and data that don’t fit into their hypotheses.  If NDE’s and OBE’s were just dreams or hallucinations, then these perceptions at a distance wouldn’t turn out to be accurate.  The separation of spirit from body or the mind’s ability to remote view are the best hypotheses that fit this well documented data.  One famous example of this is the case of a nurse named Kimberly Clark.  Talbot describes this incident in The Holographic Universe: (page 231-232)


“Such facts notwithstanding, no amount of statistical findings are as convincing as actual accounts of such experiences.  For example, Kimberly Clark, a hospital social worker in Seattle, Washington, did not take OBEs seriously until she encountered a coronary patient named Maria.  Several days after being admitted to the hospital Maria had a cardiac arrest and was quickly revived.  Clark visited her later that afternoon expecting to find her anxious over the fact that her heart had stopped.  As she had expected, Maria was agitated, but not for the reason she had anticipated.


Maria told Clark that she had experienced something very strange.  After her heart had stopped she suddenly found herself looking down from the ceiling and watching the doctors and the nurses working on her.  Then something over the emergency room driveway distracted her and as soon as she "thought herself" there, she was there.  Next Maria "thought her way" up to the third floor of the building and found herself "eyeball to shoelace" with a tennis shoe.  It was an old shoe and she noticed that the little toe had worn a whole through the fabric.  She also noticed several other details, such as the fact that the lace was stuck under the heel.  After Maria finished her account she begged Clark to please go to the ledge and see if there was a shoe there so that she could confirm whether her experience was real or not.


Skeptical but intrigued, Clark went outside and looked up at the ledge, but saw nothing.  She went up to the third floor and began going in and out of patients' rooms looking through windows so narrow she had to press her face against the glass just to see the ledge at all.  Finally she found a room where she pressed her face against the glass and looked down and saw the tennis shoe.  Still, from her vantage point she could not tell if the little toe had worn a place in the shoe or if any of the other details Maria had described were correct.   It wasn't until she retrieved the shoe that she confirmed Maria's various observations. "The only way she would have had such a perspective was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe," states Clark, who has since become a believer in OBEs.  "It was very concrete evidence for me." (Footnote 8)


Bruce Greyson and C. P. Flynn, The Near Death Experience (Chicago: Charles C. Thomas, 1984), as quoted in Stanislov Grof, The Adventure of Self Discovery (Albany, N.T.: SUNY Press, 1988), pp. 71-72.”


In addition, research studies back up these claims as well.  One example is the experiment done by Cardiologist Michael Sabom.  Talbot describes this as well: (page 232-233)


“Experiencing an OBE during cardiac arrest is relatively common, so common that Michael B. Sabom, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Emory University and a staff physician at the Atlanta Veterans' Administration Medical Center, got tired of hearing his patients recount such "fantasies" and decided to settle the matter once and for all.  Sabom selected two groups of patients, one composed of 32 seasoned cardiac patients who had reported OBEs during their heart attacks, and one made up of 25 seasoned cardiac patients who had never experienced an OBE.  He then interviewed the patients, asking the OBEers to describe their own resuscitation as they had witnessed it from the out-of-body state, and asking the nonexperiencers to describe what they imagined must have transpired during their resuscitation.


Of the nonexperiencers, 20 made major mistakes when they described their resuscitations, 3 gave correct but general descriptions, and 2 had no idea at all what had taken place.  Among the experiencers, 26 gave correct but general descriptions, 6 gave highly detailed and accurate descriptions of their own resuscitation, and 1 gave a blow-by-blow accounting so accurate that Sabom was stunned.  The results inspired him to delve even deeper into the phenomenon, and like Clark, he has now become an ardent believer and lectures widely on the subject.  There appears "to be no plausible explanation for the accuracy of these observations involving the usual physical senses," he says.  "The out-of-body hypothesis simply seems to fit best with the data at hand.” (Footnote 9)


Michael B. Sabom, Recollections of Death (New York:  Harper & Row, 1982), p. 184.”


Also significant are the studies done that support the validity of Out of Body Experiences (NDE’s are considered a type of OBE).  Rick Stack describes one notable example of these in his book Out-Of-Body Adventures: (page 12-13)


“A notable study by Osis and McCormick involved an out-of-body subject trying to view a target that was contained within an optical image device and could be viewed only from a specific location.  The target was a picture composed of several elements.  These elements were not physically together in any one place within the apparatus.  If you looked through the viewing window from a point directly in front of the apparatus, however, the various elements of the final target came together as an optical illusion.  The OOBE subject, Alex Tanous, was instructed to project into the room with the target, which was several rooms away, and to try to view it.  Meanwhile, the experimenters attempted to measure physical effects at the target location (effects that may be caused by the subject's out-of-body presence).  They placed sensor plates in a shielded chamber at the viewing location.  The sensors were capable of picking very small movements, or vibrations, which would then generate electrical impulses in extremely sensitive strain gauges.  These strain gauges, therefore, enabled the experimenters to note very minutes changes in the vibration of the sensor plates.  Tanous was led to believe that the strain gauges were being used only for a subsequent task in order to reduce the possibility of his deliberately trying to affect the sensors while attempting to view the optical image device.


Osis and McCormick thought that the OOBE might be a state that fluctuated with respect to degree of externalization; that is to say, there may be degrees of clarity of intensity in the out-of-body state.  It may be possible, for example, to be both partially out of and partially in your body.  The investigators hypothesized that when the OOBE subject was most fully out and, consequently, able to view the target more accurately, there would be greater mechanical (physical) effect caused by the experient's out-of-body presence than there would be when the subject was less out and, therefore, less able to accurately view the target.


The results of the Osis-McCormick study supported their hypothesis "that ostensibly unintentional kinetic effects can occur as by-products of narrowly localized OB [out-of-body] vision."  In other words, apparently unintentional physical motion or effects can occur when someone sees something at a specific location while feeling that he is out-of-body.  The strain gauge activation level that occurred when the subject was viewing the target and scored "hits" was significantly higher than when the subject scored "misses."  This finding lends some support to the concept that the greater vibration of the sensor plates was caused by some exteriorized portion of the subject's personality. (Footnote 2)


2.  "Kinetic Effects at the Ostensible Location of an Out of Body Projection during Perceptual Testing" Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 74 (1980): pp. 319-329.”


Another notable example was done by Charles Tart, where a girl known as Miss Z was able to identify a 5 digit number above her bed in a position that she could only have seen if she had floated up there.  This experiment is described at


2)   Second, NDE’s usually result in permanent life changing effects whereas dreams and hallucinations do not.  Usually, real experiences are what cause life changes, not imaginary ones.  NDEers usually report that through their NDE they gain valuable insight into the universe, about themselves, what their lives are really all about and how we’re all really connected in a vast superconsciousness, etc.  Many also report life reviews where everything they’ve ever done flashes through in a brief moment and they feel the impact of their actions on others, which allows them to reevaluate their lives from a much higher perspective.  As a result, many learn to love more altruistically and be less selfish.  In addition, most NDEers lose all fear of death as well, claiming that they’ve discovered that death is just a doorway, not an end.


3)   Third, people have had NDE’s while they were declared dead with flat EEG lines on their brain activity.  Any activity in the brain/mind, even simple thoughts, results in some EEG activity.  Therefore, it should be impossible (according to materialistic science) to have any kind of conscious experience while your brain shows a flat EEG line, yet this has happened with NDE’s.


4)   Fourth, some people have NDE’s even when they were not in danger of death.  Pediatrician Dr. Melvin Morse notes some of these in his article Are Near Death Experiences Real?: (


“The experiences do not only occur to dying dysfunctional brains. The Journal of the Swiss Alpine Club, in the late 1800s, reported 30 first hand accounts of mountain climbers who fell from great heights and lived. The climbers reported being out of their physical body, seeing heaven, having life reviews, and even hearing the impact of their bodies hitting the ground. They were not seriously injured.


Yale University Pediatric Cancer specialist Dianne Komp repoorts that many dying children have near death experiences, without evidence of brain dysfunction. Their expereinces often occured in dreams, prayers, or visions before death. One boy stated that Jesus had visited him in a big yellow school bus and told him he would die soon. Others heard angels singing or saw halos of light.


The American Journal of Psychiatry, in 1967, reported the experiences of two miners trapped for days in a mine. They were never near death and had adequate food and water. They said that mystical realities opened before them in the tunnels. They also said a third miner who seemed real to them helped them to safety, but disappered when they were resuscued.”


Also see SCEPCOP member Travis Basinger’s list of features of apparitions that suggest the survival hypothesis which Pseudo-Skeptics do not take into account in their hypotheses and refuse to include in their data.


For more on NDE’s, this website has the most extensive information I’ve ever seen on the web:  Also look for books by authors such as Kenneth Ring, Melvin Morse, Raymond Moody, and PMH Atwater.  In PMH Atwater’s book The Complete Idiot's Guide to Near-Death Experiences, she writes of Blackmore’s Dying Brain Hypothesis:


“A parapsychologist at the time of her original work but now focusing on psychological research, Blackmore has written one of the most influential books on the near-death experience - Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences - in which she presents a detailed version of the dying brain theory.  Her aim is to provide a materialistic interpretation of near-death states.


Blackmore’s theory is too complex to present in its entirety here, but the following is a summary of it:


·         Anoxia can cause the occurrences of hearing music (by stimulating the cochlear region of the ear), seeing tunnels, and seeing a light.

·         An inordinate release of endorphins at the time of death are the source of the euphoria associated with a near-death episode.

·         The actions of endorphins and neurotransmitters cause such cerebral structures as the hippocampus (associated with memory) o release stored memories, resulting in the life review.

·         The sense of timelessness is the result of the breakdown of one’s sense of self at death (the self being the basis upon which we distinguish moments of time).


To respond to each of these points is not necessary.  Instead, we can offer a rebuttal to the whole by quoting Dr. Kenneth Ring’s criticism from his excellent review of Blackmore’s book in the Journal of Near-Death Studies (Winter 1995, p. 123): “Does the brain state associated with the onset of an NDE explain the experience or does it merely afford access to it?”  In other words, although many (all?) of the near-death-related phenomena may be traceable to our body’s responses to dying, does that mean that those responses explain the phenomena, or do they simply provide us with an interesting way of talking about them?


There is no answer.


To see this, consider the popular Psych 101 experiment of imagining that you’re eating a lemon.  Make that experience as vivid, as sensory-rich as you can.  If you imagine it strongly enough, you’ll taste the tartness and you’ll begin to salivate - despite there not being any lemon in your mouth.  So the imagination can produce the identical physical responses as an “objective” experience.  Does this mean, then, that when you’re eating a real lemon, it’s not the lemon but your imagination that’s producing the physical sensations you’re having?


Well, we know the answer to that.”


To read more on NDE’s, see the following.


Kenneth Ring’s book:  Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience - The website of Near Death Experience researcher and pediatrician Dr. Melvin Morse, M.D. - A site with a comprehensive list of articles on the Near Death experience representing many viewpoints. - The largest database of NDE stories and articles.


Journal of Near-Death Studies


International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS)


Medical Evidence for NDEs by Pim van Lommel, in reply to a "Skeptic" article by Michael Shermer, presents strong scientific evidence for the reality of Near Death Experiences.


Here are some interesting video presentations and documentaries on NDE’s:


Near Death Experiences: An Indepth Examination of Veridical Evidence & The Rebuttal of Common Skeptical Explanations – presents point by point arguments that NDE’s are a nonphysical phenomenon.


CBS news story on NDE’s, presenting both sides


News report on NDE’s:

Dr. Victor Zammit argues that NDE's are real: 

People who had a near death experience and saw Heaven and have returned!

Moving NDe accounts. The second account of the business tycoon was moving, and especially fascinating was the woman blind from birth who could see during her NDE!

NDE's: Heaven and Hell accounts

A great BBC documentary on NDE’s, presenting both sides:


Part 1 of 6:

Previous Page                      Back to Table of Contents                        Next Page

Sign my Guestbook or Comment in my Forum