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The Structure and Function of Near-Death Experiences: An Algorithmic Reincarnation Hypothesis

  • Neuroscience research group, L.U. Sudbury, Ontario


Hypothesizes that a near-death experience (NDE) is the subjective experience of having the state of consciousness in which a person experiences the last moment of his or her life being turned, in stages, into the state of consciousness experienced as the “point of no return.” The life review this, as is interpreted as a review of the states of consciousness experienced during our lives. Our responses to reviewing our own behaviors while in specific states reinforces and classifies them into those to repeat in future lives and those to avoid. We examine a modification of the traditional doctrine of reincarnation that takes into account biological and cultural evolution. This allows an understanding of how the attributes of NDEs could have undergone selection even though all opportunities for mating have already passed at the time of death.
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The Structure and Function of
Near-Death Experiences: An
Algorithmic Reincarnation Hypothesis
Todd Murphy
San Francisco, CA
ABSTRACT: Hypothesizes that a near-death experience (NDE) is the
subjective experience of having the state of consciousness in which a person
experiences the last moment of his or her life being turned, in stages, into the
state of consciousness experienced as the “point of no return. The life review
this, as is interpreted as a review of the states of consciousness experienced
during our lives. Our responses to reviewing our own behaviors while in
specific states reinforces and classifies them into those to repeat in future
lives and those to avoid. We examine a modification of the traditional doctrine
of reincarnation that takes into account biological and cultural evolution. This
allows an understanding of how the attributes of NDEs could have undergone
selection even though all opportunities for mating have already passed at the
time of death.
KEY WORDS: near-death experience; reincarnation; Buddhism; rebirth.
Seventy percent of near-death experiencers (NDErs) return from
their experiences believing in reincarnation (Wells, 1993). Often, they
tell of being counseled about the life they lived, and given help in
planning their following lives. Not only NDErs, but also a large group
of past life regression hypnotherapists (for example, Whitton, 1986) and
several major religious traditions accept the doctrine of reincarnation.
Ian Stevenson has also uncovered several types of evidence relating
Todd Murphy is an associate researcher with the Behavioral Neurosciences Program
at Laurentian University under the direction of Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D. Buddhist
Imprimatur granted for this paper by His Holiness Samdech Preah Mahaghoshananda,
The Supreme Patriarch of Cambodia. Reprint requests should be addressed to
Mr. Murphy at P.O. Box 170414, San Francisco, CA 94117; e-mail:
Journal of Near-Death Studies, 20(2), Winter 2001
2001 Human Sciences Press, Inc. 101
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to reincarnation (Stevenson, 1974, 1997). The pressures favoring the
exploration of reincarnation as a postulate in the explanation of NDEs
are growing. Although polls have found 25 percent of Americans believe
in rebirth, the figure reaches nearly 100 percent in other cultures, most
importantly in the Hindu and Buddhist worlds.
It should come as no surprise that traditional paradigms for rebirth
do not describe NDEs. Those theories were more likely devised to
account for experiences during meditation rather than the experience
of death. The database of death-related experiences was almost non-
existent, while the database of mystical and transcendent experiences
was quite large. The idea was that those who went deeply into medi-
tation were able to see “beyond death’s door, and that spiritual
practice was a way to defeat death by breaking the cycle of rebirth.
Descriptions of meditation experiences were used, it appears, as
templates from which speculations about death were traced. Indeed,
there is some overlap between the phenomenologies of NDEs and medi-
tation experiences. The theory of rebirth was never formulated to
account for NDEs, but some reasonable parameters can be imposed
on it, allowing an exploratory hypothesis to be formulated.
One such parameter is derived from the Darwinian theory of
natural selection. According to the theory of natural selection, we
must be able to explain rebirth as an adaptation that contributed
to our survival at some point in the history of our species. If so,
then the specific mechanisms by which it operates must be the
same for everyone, because we all share a common evolutionary
ancestry. The first principle of a Darwinian rebirth hypothesis can be
stated thus: Information that enables individuals to survive remains
following death in discreet, coherent packets, and other individuals still
undergoing prenatal development elsewhere are sensitively dependent
upon information in these packets for their development.
A reasonable postulate is: Each person experiences the same state of
consciousness prior to the cessation of subjective experience. This implies
that the “point of no return” reported by many NDErs, beyond which
they felt resuscitation would have been impossible, is a manifestation
of a state of consciousness that will eventually appear in each death-
process unless it is interrupted, often eliciting an NDE report.
Although there appears to be a universal grammar to NDEs, the
specific vocabulary of any given case is determined by a variety
of factors, including age, culture, the specific circumstances of the
person’s death, psychological history, and possibly many other factors
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still undiscovered. The specific phenomenology of any particular
instance of a “point of no return”—its vocabulary—will be confabulated
individually according to these and other factors; but the underlying
state of consciousness will be the same.
If the final state of consciousness in each life is the same for
everyone, then the NDE must access that state from whatever state
of consciousness a person happens to be in at the onset of death, even
if it is accompanied by pain or fear. No one knows how or when he or
she will die, or what state of consciousness he or she will be in when it
happens. The circumstances of death appear at random, and can vary
widely from person to person. I propose that NDEs are the subjective
experience of having one’s randomly-appearing state of consciousness
at the time of death brought, in stages, to the nonrandom life review
and “point of no return.
Algorithms and NDEs
Any process that converts randomness to nonrandomness is called
an algorithm. According to Daniel Dennett, “An algorithm is a certain
sort of formal process that can be counted on—logically—to yield a
certain sort of result whenever it is ‘run’ or instantiated” (1995, p. 50).
Dennett wrote that there are three key features that characterize an
algorithmic process:
“1. substrate neutrality: The procedure for long division works
equally well with pencil or pen, paper or parchment, neon lights
or skywriting, using any logical system you like. The power of
the procedure is due to its logical structure, not just the causal
powers of the materials used in the instantiation, just so long as
those causal powers permit the prescribed steps to be followed
2. underlying mindlessness: Although the overall design of the
procedure may be brilliant, or yield brilliant results, each
constituent step, as well as the transition between steps, is
utterly simple. How simple? Simple enough for a dutiful idiot to
perform—or for a straightforward mechanical device to perform.
The standard textbook analogy notes that algorithms are recipes
of sorts, designed to be followed by novice cooks. A recipe book
written for great chefs might include the phrase “Poach the fish
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in a suitable wine until almost done,” but the algorithm for the
same process might begin, “Choose a white wine that says ‘dry
on the label; take a corkscrew and open the bottle; pour an
inch of wine in the bottom of a pan; turn the burner under the
panonhigh;...”—a tedious breakdown of the process into dead-
simple steps, requiring no wise decisions or delicate judgments
or intuitions on the part of the recipe-reader.
3. guaranteed results: Whatever it is that an algorithm does, it
always does it, if it is executed without misstep. An algorithm is
a foolproof recipe.” (Dennett, 1950, pp. 50–51)
NDEs can be seen as demonstrating these features. Substrate
neutrality emerges if we assume that the state-specific character of
hallucinations also applies to NDEs. Hallucinations are dependent
on states of consciousness (Horowitz and Adams, 1970). The same
state of consciousness can produce different phenomena in different
individuals. The breathtaking variety of NDE phenomena might be
manifestations of just a few states of consciousness.
Mardi Horowitz and John Adams (1970) have theorized that the
hallucinatory phenomena associated with complex partial seizures
arise as expressions of altered states of consciousness. The similarities
between NDE phenomena and temporal lobe epileptic symptoms have
been noted by several researchers (Saavedra-Aguilar and G
1989; Persinger, 1994). Thus we can reasonably suppose that similar
mechanisms might be operating in NDEs and in temporal lobe epilepsy.
If so, then it follows that Horowitz and Adams’ conclusion might
also apply to NDEs. If we choose to make that assumption, then the
series of experiences that constitute NDEs is better understood as a
series of states of consciousness. The underlying “mindless” apparatus
that brings dying persons to the “point of no return” operates on
their states of consciousness, and the succeeding experiences are the
phenomenological correlates. The bewildering variety of NDE phenom-
ena, as I shall describe below, can be resolved into a few basic states of
consciousness, each of which has a specific function.
Underlying mindlessness can be derived from the observation
that NDErs find themselves undergoing succeeding stages of their
experience automatically. NDErs do not report that they “willed”
themselves into the tunnel, for example. That NDEs are outside the
control of their experiencers, together with the observation that there
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are significant similarities in many NDEs, suggests that they follow an
automatic sequencing.
I have already made Dennett’s third feature of algorithmic processes,
guaranteed results, a postulate of this model: The guaranteed result is
the “point of no return” and eventual rebirth.
Patterns in NDEs
There seem to be certain grammatical rules governing NDEs.
Although the research elucidating them is far from complete, a pattern
of rough “rules of thumb” appears to be emerging. Examples include:
1. In India, the death process often begins not with an auto-
scopic out-of-body experience (OBE) but rather with “seeing”
messengers of death whose summons must be answered (Murphy,
2001; Pasricha and Stevenson, 1986). There are, however, some
Indian NDEs that begin with an OBE (Blackmore, 1993). The
same rule applies to Thai NDEs (Murphy, 2001).
2. Those younger than seven years old often avoid the life review
and instead visit heaven or a fairyland (Serdahely, 1990).
3. In preliterate cultures, the life review is often replaced by a
visit to a spirit world in which significant events of the dying
person’s life manifest symbolically, as features in the spirit world
(Kellehear, 1993).
4. NDErs who have been able to anticipate their death and to reflect
extensively on their life often do not experience a life review;
whereas those whose death appears unexpectedly usually do
review their life (Greyson, 1985).
5. NDErs who believe strongly in a particular religious tradition
often experience the being of light as they have been taught
it appears (Osis and Haraldsson, 1977); whereas atheists may
experience it simply as a “presence.
6. NDErs who believe that “all mysteries will be revealed at death”
often have a transcendent experience in which mysteries are
revealed to their satisfaction (for example, Brinkley and Perry,
1994; Eadie and Taylor, 1992).
7. NDErs who need help, guidance, or an escort during their
experience often encounter angels (Lundahl, 1992) or Yamatoots
(Murphy, 2001) who may engage the experiencers in long
discussions in which their concerns are dealt with.
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8. NDErs who need reassurance that it is all right to be dead
often encounter deceased relatives and beloved friends. Joyful
reunions with beloved friends who have passed may facilitate
positive affect in postmortem states of consciousness. Those too
young to have deceased friends but have lost a pet may see
the pet instead (Serdahely, 1989–1990). Those who have not
lost a pet might see a comforting object such as a toy (Morse,
9. An NDEr whose life was marked by destructive behavior patterns
may experience a life review affectively widened to include the
effects of those behaviors on others (Atwater, 1994; Brinkley and
Perry, 1994).
This list of “rules of thumb” is both speculative and incomplete.
Each item on the list should be regarded as an approximation of
a real “grammatical rule” that influences the algorithmic progess of
NDEs. It is not possible at present to list a series of rules that will
explain the functional connections between specific NDE features and
their predisposing factors. Craig Lundahl (1993) delineated a series
of NDE rules that addressed the likelihoods of NDE features, but not
their functional roles. In any case, it must be emphasized that the
rules or axioms that govern NDEs will be applicable not so much
to the experiences themselves as to the states of consciousness that
produce them.
The different representations of the different phases of NDEs
presumably reflect differences in set, age, culture, health, and so on
between individuals experiencing the same state. For example, the
life review can occur in various NDEs as a serial re-experiencing of
one’s life, a viewing of multiple television screens (Atwater, 1994), the
experience of “watching one’s life pass before one’s eyes, or a summary
of only one’s significant life events. These dramatic differences might
be accounted for by theorizing that each represents the most efficient
phenomenology for the state that produces it for that individual.
Karma and the Life Review
A feature in every tradition that preserves the doctrine of rebirth
or reincarnation is the idea of karma. In order to adopt karma as a
legitimate category in building a theory of NDEs, we need to reduce it
to its simplest terms. The traditional teachings on karma are filled with
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unfalsifiable implications. Nevertheless, one meaningful statement
may be derived from these traditions: Individual behaviors in one life
can have an impact on subsequent lives. The theory of natural selection
requires that the postulated death and rebirth process should increase
chances for survival in some way. That is, if behaviors in one life can
influence those of another, that influence must tend to make behaviors
in the later life more adaptive. Natural selection has no foresight;
adaptations are permanent traits that preserve past expediencies. If
we really do reincarnate, we are being reborn not towards nirvana,but
rather away from extinction.
For human behavior to become more adaptive it must do so first
with respect to our cultural environments, because the evaluation of
behavior is both culture-bound and culture-specific. A second principle
for a Darwinian rebirth hypothesis emerges and can be stated as
follows: States that facilitate adaptive behavior in a given cultural
environment in one life tend be repeated in following lives, and states
that facilitate maladaptive behavior tend to be avoided.
For the present work, I shall call this the rule of karma. I will
call the records of specific states that facilitate or suppress behavior
karma. It follows that the function of rebirth may be to pre-adapt us
to our cultural environments. However, the conclusion that karmas are
reborn in no way implies that human beings are reincarnated, however
comforting the idea might be.
In order for karmas to be transmitted from a dying person to an infant
or fetus, they must be broadcast in some way. It seems reasonable to
suppose that karma of a living person differs from that of a person who
has gone past the “point of no return” in the way it is stored—although
not in the information it contains. A piece of computer software contains
the same information whether it is stored on a disk or actually being
used in the computer’s microprocessor. Likewise, the recorded states
of consciousness are the same whether the karmic records are in
our brains or downloading to a subsequent birth. The “point of no
return” might be likened to the point at which a computer program
is transferred from its random-access memory (RAM) to a disk. The life
review, I suggest, is the phenomenological manifestation of a state of
consciousness that creates, from the effects of states of consciousness
experienced in one lifetime, suggestions for states that enable adaptive
behavior during the next life.
The life review can lead NDErs to re-examine everything they have
ever done, not as they remember their experiences, but approximately
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as they actually happened. When they remember having done
something adaptive, and that recollection induces positive affect, the
correlative state is marked for repetition in their next life. When they
remember having done something maladaptive, and that recollection
makes them feel bad, the state is marked for suppression in their next
life. Because it is one’s culture that designates what is good or bad,
the possibility arises that the life reviews sorts states according to how
likely they are to generate culturally adaptive behavior. The life review
must focus on behavior because behaviors are state-specific; states of
consciousness cannot be viewed directly, but the behaviors that act
them out can. Re-experiencing an event will invoke the state one was
in at the time of the event.
Culture and NDEs
The reason so many NDEs features are culture-bound may be that
the death process is an evolutionary adaption favoring those who “take
rebirth, specifically by enhancing their ability to gain status in the
complex cultures that appeared in our recent evolution. Individuals
who cannot follow the rules do not acquire much status. Karma,
I suggest, is a set of positively and negatively reinforced states of
consciousness that enable adaptive behaviors. Having karma might
give individuals an advantage not only in surviving but also in following
cultural rules, eliminating an important obstacle to achieving rank.
Individuals with high status have better chances of producing offspring
than those with low status. The effects of rebirth would be amplified
over time if the first individuals ‘taking’ rebirth consistently rose to the
top of the social ladder. I suggest that those who had life reviews at the
end of one life were more likely to be reborn to become dominant alpha
individuals, with better mating opportunities than betas and deltas.
The culture-bound character of NDEs could be a case of form following
function. Karma can change as culture changes. A state approved in
one cultural context might be avoided following cultural change.
“Hellish” NDEs
One important pattern emerging is that some NDEs involve profound
negative affect. These “hellish” experiences bear striking structural
similarities to positive ones. P. M. H. Atwater commented: “During my
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own interviews of experiencers ...I discovered little difference between
heavenly and hellish near-death episodes in consideration of how
elements unfolded in sequence” (1994, p. 40).
Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), which usually induces a pleasant
experience, can also produce a negative or hellish ordeal. Because the
same chemical can lead to both types of experience, it seems unlikely
that any specific affect is integral to the LSD experience. The same is
true for seizures in temporal lobe epilepsy (LaPlante, 1993). If Horowitz
and Adams’ (1970) hypothesis applies to NDEs as it does to LSD, then
the possibility that negative affect is integral to unpleasant NDEs can
be reasonably ruled out. The best candidate for the cause of hellish
NDEs in our model is resistance, as I shall describe below.
The source of the hellish affect is another question. Temporal lobe
research by Michael Persinger (1994) suggests that single states
of consciousness can evoke very different affects and implies that
temporal lobe affects may be implicated in both hellish and blissful
The involvement of the brain’s temporal lobes in NDEs appears
to be well established. Persinger (1987) has theorized that when
our species first evolved its unique cognitive abilities, two parts of
our brains enlarged disproportionately: the frontal lobes, generally
specialized for extrapolating into the future, and the temporal lobes,
generally specialized for remembering the past. Those developments
allowed people to remember death and to realize that the same
thing would happen to them in the future. That upgrade included
a software for death anxiety. However, the adaptive value of being
able to project into the future, to imagine ways of dying and so avoid
them, would have been canceled out by the dysphoria it would also
have produced. A compensatory mechanism seems to have appeared at
the same time. Arnold Mandell speculated on “affective specialization
in the lateralization of the brain, with ‘negative’ emotions like fear
and paranoia and dysphoric feelings like sorrow and depression
lying ...[in] ...the left temporal lobe, and with the mute, geometrically
cognitive, musical right temporal lobe specialized for joy” (1980, p. 411).
Mandells argument refers to the temporal cortex. Melvin Morse
contends that portions of the right temporal lobe mediate the entire
NDE experience, calling it the “circuit boards of mysticism” (Morse and
Perry, 1992). The left temporal cortex’s functions, on the other hand,
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include profound negative affect. Wilder Penfield and Herbert Jasper,
discussing the results of electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe
surface, described unpleasant emotions:
These ictal emotions which patients described as fear, fright, scared
feeling, terror, sadness, loneliness ...[which] ...may be said to have
ganglionic representation within the fissure of Sylvius and their
underlying circular sulcus. ...The ictal emotion is produced as a
distinct experience and is the result of localized cortical discharge.
(Penfield and Jasper, 1954, p. 451).
Illustrations accompanying this text showed that it referred to the left
temporal cortex.
These findings suggest that the reason some NDEs are hellish is
that the positive affect of most NDEs, originating in the right temporal
cortex, is replaced by negative affect from the left temporal cortex. This
hypothesis, if true, it might explain how an NDE can be unpleasant,
but not why it is so.
I propose that one reason some NDEs are unpleasant is that the
person is resisting the death process. Atwater (1994) suggested that
unpleasant NDEs are related to an individual history of repressed guilt,
while Bruce Greyson and Nancy Bush’s (1992) accounts of distressing
NDEs all contain comments to the effect that the person did not want
to die. The most commonly reported emotion in unpleasant NDEs is
fear. Whether the crucial factor is guilt or fear, both feelings inspire
resistance. This idea, together with the algorithmic interpretation of
NDEs I am proposing here, implies that a specific affective state must
be achieved. That affective state, I suggest, is surrender, the opposite
of resistance. I do not propose that surrender must be achieved only
to experience the “point of no return”; rather, I suggest that it also
might enable the life review. In this interpretation of NDEs, each
phenomenon is an expression of a state of consciousness, and each state
of consciousness has the specific function of increasing the likelihood of
reaching first the life review, and then the “point of no return. The life
review is less anomalous as a result of natural selection, if it is seen as
contributing to the success of those who undergo rebirth.
If all NDEs not interrupted by resuscitation go through some form
of the life review, then I suggest that any negative affect must be
changed to a positive one before life review is achieved. The life review
can require that a person examine, re-experience, or witness his or
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her own maladaptive behavior. When this same thing happens in
psychotherapy, it often evokes resistance. Resistance in psychotherapy
often occurs in conjunction with negative affect; if it were to occur
during the death process, the experience might also be unpleasant.
As noted above, Atwater (1994) suggested that hellish NDEs are a
result of repressed guilt, while Greyson and Bush’s (1992) cases of
distressing NDEs all contained allusions to not wanting to die. Both
of these mechanisms implicated in hellish NDEs may be grouped
together as resistance. Resistance hinders meaningful self-examination
in psychotherapy; perhaps it does the same during life reviews.
Hell: Special case #1. Not all negative NDEs are necessarily the pro-
duct of resistance. A different type of negative affect might arise in
conjunction with the life review, as in the case recounted by a for-
mer Vietnam War assassin (Brinkley and Perry, 1994). The following
narrative suggests a symbolic, aversive life review:
I was unconscious to all onlookers, yet something weird was happening
to me. ...I was in a circle of light. I looked down upon the accident
scene. ...I looked into my car and saw myself trapped and unconscious.
I saw several cars stop and a lady taking my children to her car to sit
and rest until the ambulance would arrive. ...A hand touched mine,
and I turned to see where this peace and serenity and blissful feeling
was coming from ...and there was Jesus Christ—I mean the way he is
made out to be in all the paintings—and I never wanted to leave this
man and this place.
I was led around to a well, because I wanted to stay with him and
hold his hand. He led me from a side of bliss to a side of misery.
I did not want to look, but he made me look—and I was disgusted
and horrified and scared was so ugly. The people were blackened
and sweaty and moaning in pain and chained to their spots. And I
had to walk through the area back to the well. One was even chained
to the evil side of the well. ...I wanted them to help him, but no
one would—and I knew that I would be one of these creatures if
I stayed. I hated it there. I couldn’t wait to get to the well and go
around it. He led me to it, but he made me go through it alone as he
watched. ...
I leaned over the well. ...There were three children calling “Mommie,
Mommie, Mommie, we need you. Please come back to us. ...The little
girl looked up at me and begged me to go back to life-and then all at
once ...I saw the accident scene again. ...(Greyson and Bush, 1992,
pp. 105–106)
The aversive episode in this NDE centers around images of children.
It is possible that the woman in this case wanted to have a child,
or more children, and saw her life in terms of a hell in which she
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was to rescue the souls of unborn children by bringing them into the
world. This unusual life review makes sense if we assume that karma
functions to increase adaptive behavior from one life to the next, and
that during most of our evolutionary history raising a child is one of
the most adaptive things a woman could do. Even though her review
was confined to only one assumed behavior—being childless—resolving
only that one karma in her next life by having a child, and thus
passing on her genetic material, would have increased dramatically
the adaptiveness of her behavior as a result of this review.
Hell: Special case #2. One phenomenon that does not appear in
typical, pleasant NDEs is the experience of a vacuum. Although the
word void has been used to describe it, it does not seem to be the same
as the void that occurs in the stage along with the tunnel. That void
associated with the tunnel often induces highly positive affect, while
the vacuum is, as far as I am aware, always hellish. One experiencer
described the vacuum as follows:
It was empty ...and dark. Not like night dark, somehow, it was
thinner—whatever that means. It was very dark and immense all
around, but somehow I could see them [tormenting beings]; the
voidness seemed to thin out somewhere off by the horizon, ...but it
wasn’t lighter, just thinner. It seemed to go on forever. ...That utter
emptiness just went on and on. ...there didn’t seem to be any end of
it, and no way out. (Greyson and Bush, 1992, p. 102)
Other descriptions include: “suspended in a total vacuum with nothing
to see or do for eternity” (Greyson and Bush, 1992, p. 103) and “hours
went on with absolutely no sensation ...there was no hot, no cold,
no light, no taste, no smell, no sensation whatsoever, none, other
than ...a slight sensation of travelling. became unbearable, it
became horrific” (Greyson and Bush, 1992, p. 104).
The majority of cases of the vacuum in Greyson and Bush’s
study occurred during childbirth under anesthesia. Perhaps pregnancy
provides a “fail-safe” mechanism that delays the onset of the “point of
no return” until the last possible moment. Such an adaptation would
greatly enhance the chances for survival of infants born to mothers
who hemorrhaged during childbirth. Deaths due to violent trauma or
old age were probably less likely to end in resuscitation than those in
childbirth. Historically, a common cause of death in childbirth has been
loss of blood; but blood can be replenished easily, and death thereby
easily reversed. An NDE “fail-safe” mechanism for childbirth would
increase the chances for survival not only for the NDEr but for her
child as well.
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Like most NDE phenomena, the vacuum does not occur only at death.
It has also been found in sleep paralysis, a neurological disorder that
affects the ability to wake up (LaPlante, 1993). In these cases, the
victims find themselves suspended in a vacuum, trying to wake up
but unable to. Because both sleep and death involve moving through
different states of consciousness, symptoms occurring in sleep disorders
might also appear in NDEs. If so, the vacuum, occurring in both, could
be the phenomenon confabulated out of the inability or unwillingness to
move from one state to another. That hypothesis suggests an interesting
possibility: that the adaptation that created the death process was
a new application of the neurological mechanisms that previously
had been responsible only for sleep. Both processes involve multiple,
sequenced states of consciousness. This speculation is lent credence by
reports of NDEs induced by lucid dreaming (Green, 1995; Rogo, 1990).
Speculations on the Functions of Typical
Phases of NDEs
Death can often be anticipated in protracted terminal illness, and
that anticipation can have an impact on the death process. Several
researchers have demonstrated increased incidence of spontaneous
altered states in the period shortly before a person approaches death
(Greyson, 1985; Morse and Perry, 1994; Osis and Haraldsson, 1977).
Dying patients not yet at the brink of death frequently report seeing
“the light” in their rooms, and visitations by angels and beloved dead
friends and relatives. The appearance of NDE phenomenology in these
premortem periods implies that the same states of consciousness that
appear during the death process can begin to operate whenever a person
becomes cognizant that his or her life will end. When people who have
already experienced these states of consciousness begin their death
process, they will be familiar with and less likely to resist many of the
percepts they encounter.
The OBE at the beginning of many NDEs might function to convince
the dying person that he or she is dead. Through much of our
evolutionary history, deaths were often traumatic. Males often died
violently, during war or on hunts. Women, as we tend to forget in our
safer, modern times, often died in childbirth. Autoscopic OBEs would
permit the experiencers to look back on themselves and see a very
distressed corpse.
In Thailand and India, on the other hand, NDEs are more likely to
commence with a visitation by a Yamatoot, a messenger of Yama, the
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lord of the dead (Murphy, 2001; Pasricha and Stevenson, 1986), than
with an OBE. Resistance to the summons of a Yamatoot is futile.
Fear of Yamatoots occurred frequently in Karlis Osis and Erlendur
Haraldsson’s (1977) study of premortem states in India. It is possible
that the incidence of distressing NDEs varies from one culture to the
next. Within Western culture, it is also possible that in past centuries,
when many more death processes were hellish than at present (Greyson
and Bush, 1992), the Grim Reaper served as a Western analog of
a Yamatoot, and that Europeans once ran from the Grim Reaper as
Hindus sometimes run from the Yamatoots sent to take them.
The typical core” NDE progresses to the tunnel or void after an
autoscopic OBE, in which one continues to sense an environment.
These experiences might indicate that sensory perception has ended,
and that the defense mechanisms valid in states that accompany
sensory perception are now obsolete. The symbolism of the tunnel as
a transition from one “world” to another in NDEs has already been
explored (Chari, 1982). Perhaps the tunnel or void reflects a state of
consciousness that functions to take one from sensory perception to
wholly endogenous percepts.
The appearance of dead beloved friends and relatives might evoke the
feeling that it is all right to be dead. Feelings of loneliness, separation
anxiety, feelings of being abandoned, guilt at leaving those who are
dependent on us, or grief at the loss of beloved living people might
be mollified by the creation of an inner, death-contextualized, social
environment. One could feel safe there and thus be less likely to resist
out of fear.
The being of light, which typically precedes or appears at the same
time as the life review, might function to prevent resistance. The all-
pervading love and feelings of acceptance the being of light evokes is
incompatible with the negative affect created by resistance.
NDEs can be viewed as an algorithmic process that alters the many
states of consciousness possible at the time of death so as to produce
first, the life review, and then the “point of no return. There can be
positive or negative affect in any near-death state of consciousness,
although the states will tend toward the positive affect that decreases
resistance to the experience. I propose that the life review has a special
function: to sort out behaviors to repeat in future lives from those to
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An enormous amount of work needs to be done for the present
hypothesis to be developed into a theory. The list of grammatical “rules
of thumb” needs to find a more rigorous expression, and it needs
to be expanded to include other rules, most obviously those culture-
bound effects specific to major cultural groups. Some age-specific NDE
features have been noted, but there may be features characteristic of
specific phases of life: Are there common elements in the NDEs of
newlyweds, of adolescents, of pregnant women? A classification system
for the factors that influence the sucession of states of consciousness
needs to be devised and tested, beyond the obvious factors of age,
culture, psychological set at time of death, expectations regarding what
death will feel like, and the length of time one has to anticipate one’s
death. When we consider how young and how poorly funded NDE
research is, it seems reasonable to assume that there are determinative
influences still waiting to be discovered.
Predictions and Applications
Before considering the potential applications of my hypothesis, we
should note that the validity of an hypothesis is determined not by its
initial applicability but rather by its falsifiability. One prediction of the
present hypothesis is that NDEs of all cultures will exhibit a typical
sequence. The notion that karma is a set of states of consciousness,
coupled with observations that there are magnetic components and/or
bases for states of consciousness (Persinger, 1994), predicts that the
brain might emit magnetic signals at some point in the death process.
If these signals are propagated within the earth’s magnetic field, then
we are left with the prediction that the intensity of these signals
should be within the range of the constant (steady-state) values for the
geomagnetic field (Persinger, 1995). If so, then the geomagnetic field
might serve as the medium for karmic signals. Interactions between
geomagnetic phenomena and NDE experiences have been noted in the
literature (Persinger, 1995). Failure to find such signals emitted from
a dying brain (once we have developed the technology to read them)
would cast doubt on my hypothesis.
A research implication of the algorithmic NDE hypothesis is that
NDE phenomena need to be catalogued in order to provide a database
that can allow researchers to analyze and classify the states of
consciousness involved in dying. Eventually, perhaps, therapists might
devise treatments for the post-NDE personality syndrome (Atwater,
1988) directed not at the aftereffects of NDEs but rather at the
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aftereffects of the specific states of consciousness experienced during
specific events. The understanding that death will involve multiple
states of consciousness, each one played out as a distinct experience
with deeply meaningful content, may reduce death anxiety in those
terminally ill people who experience premortem altered states of con-
sciousness. For example, understanding the functions of the various
kinds of hellish NDEs might lead to techniques in premortem
psychology that would allow the identification of those at risk and
counseling to reduce their risk. If premortem and postmortem altered
states are as similar as their similar phenomenologies imply, then the
affects associated with those states before death will be the ones most
likely to occur after death.
One final distant possibility, so improbable as to invite dismissal by
many scientists, could nevertheless produce vast benefits for humanity.
Purportedly miraculous cures are sometimes reported following NDEs.
Terminally ill patients sometimes report that they were visited by
an angel who told them they were healed, and thereafter there was
no sign of a tumor or their T-cell counts rose dramatically. Isolation
of the state of consciousness associated with this phenomenon and
identification of its manifestations and predisposing factors might open
up avenues of research into “miraculous” cures. Recognition that such
miracles are correlates of specific states of consciousness might allow
common factors associated with such cures to be discerned, which
might in turn suggest ways to induce those states in a clinical setting.
Chinese medical tradition has recorded many such cures associated
with poisonous mushrooms, some of which, in small enough doses, act
as hallucinogens (Bernard Yeh, personal communication, 1988). Many
NDE phenomena have been induced in a laboratory setting by the
application of low-intensity complex magnetic signals to the temporal
lobes (Ruttan, Persinger, and Koren, 1990). If the state of consciousness
in which miraculous cures occur can be induced by stimulation of the
temporal lobes with magnetic signals, the induction of such states could
be added to the tools of modern medicine.
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... One spiritual model that focuses on altered states of consciousness has been proposed by Todd Murphy (1999Murphy ( , 2001. In this model, Murphy explains that NDEs are biologically-based, algorithmic processes that systematically alter states of consciousness. ...
... According to this theory, humans have two senses of self, one for each temporal lobe of the brain. Murphy (2001) writes that if the two lobes slip out of phase the "subordinate right hemisphere's sense of self intrudes into the left side's awareness, and is experienced as an external presence" (p. 262). ...
This thesis investigates current scientific literature on near-death experiences (NDE), focusing on two common types of models used to explain the NDE: biological models and spiritual models. Four biological models and two spiritual models are presented and evaluated. During the evaluation, particular emphasis is placed on how these models accommodate veridical evidence. I found that, of the biological models, only one could account for veridical evidence, whereas both of the spiritual models provided explanations of these strange occurrences. From this conclusion, the implications of NDE research on human survival are explored.
Since the time of atomists like Democritus, forerunner of Plato and Aristotle, two modes of scientific explanation have been used to fill the conceptual space between mind and brain, a dualism more grudgingly resistant to resolution than that of energy and matter. One method assumes a world of hidden realities, impenetrable, to be understood by conjecture and test, observations evaluated for their consistency with hypothetical constructs. The other requires an intuitive grasp of the essence, insightful awareness of the thing itself. The first approach defines a unification of mind and brain out of the possible; the second assumes it. Feelings about these orientations still run strong. In a recent book, the philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper expressed irritation with Plato for intermixing these two thought styles without acknowledging the intermixture, concluding that only the conjectural-test approach is valid; the other kind of knowing Popper dismissed as a “will-o-the-wisp” (Popper & Eccles, 1977).
Visual or auditory hallucinations may accompany epileptic seizures or auras. Penfield reproduced such experiences by electrical stimulation of the temporal lohe cortex. We have found that similar hallucinatory experiences may arise from subcortical stimulation of the temporal lobe. The study of these events yields information pertinent to the processes involved in perception, imagery formation, and memory.
A paucity of literature exists for pediatric neardeath experiences with only thirteen cases reported thus far. Morse and his colleagues have called for additional welldocumented cases to further our knowledge of children’s neardeath experiences. The present case study is of a boy who had an NDE due to nearly drowning when he was seven years old. Besides adding to the sparse pediatric NDE population, this case presents a variation of the tunnel experience not before reported in either the adult or the pediatric NDE literature. Instead of seeing deceased friends or relatives or sensing a presence while in the tunnel, this boy was comforted by two of his family’s pets who had died prior to the neardrowning incident.
Several researchers have found that near-death experiences (NDEs) tend to increase belief in reincarnation. This study examined factors underlying this belief shift. The author used a questionnaire to compare the tendency toward belief in reincarnation among 43 near death experiencers (NDERs), 34 individuals merely interested in NDEs, and 30 nonexperiencer, noninterest controls. In addition, 14 NDERs were interviewed to gain insight into factors influencing NDERs' beliefs. NDERs' reincarnation belief shift appeared to be due to (1) direct knowledge of reincarnation gained by some NDERs in the NDE itself, (2) knowledge of reincarnation gained through a general psychic awakening following the NDE, or (3) exploration of alternative perceptions of reality following the NDE. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
This book brings to date the reports and conclusions from the Montreal Neurological Institute's clinical, physiological, and neuro-surgical studies of epilepsy, and is, in a sense, a sequal to "Epilepsy and cerebral localization," published in 1941. There is extensive addition of new material on subcortical mechanisms, functional cortical localization, surgical and medical treatment and electroencephalography. The book is illustrated with 8 color plates and 314 black and white illustrations. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)