Why Does Science Have a Problem with Near Death Experiences?

Cardiac arrestThe Australian Sunrise Morning Show must be up there with the Top Ten most bland TV shows in the world, but when I caught the headline for a segment posted on Yahoo!, I couldn’t help but watch it. Titled, “Near Death Experiences: new research suggests they’re all in the mind“, it was too intriguing to miss. I spent a lot of time researching NDEs while working on my novel, Soul Surfer and came to the conclusion that they simply can’t be explained away by science, but that was over ten years ago. Had science come up with something new?

The segment started off with an interview with a woman who had experienced an NDE. She said, amongst other things, “I have a lot of trouble with why people need to be sceptical.” I know exactly where she was coming from and the rest of the segment just increased my “trouble.”

Her interview was followed by an interview with the late Kerry Packer, formerly Australia’s richest man. After having been resuscitated after a near fatal horse riding accident, Packer proclaimed that, “The good news is that there’s no devil. The bad news is there’s no heaven. There’s nothing.” He said this with his typical authoritative air and the viewer was supposed to take his word as the last word.

Then they interviewed Dr. Jeffrey Long, author of Evidence of the Afterlife. He presented the argument that the “study” the segment was supposed to be about actually only studied sleeping subjects, so its conclusion that NDEs were “all in the mind” due to a neurological disorder had no scientific basis in fact. He went on to say that NDEs occur after the brain flatlines – when there is no brain activity whatsoever.

Up next was Dr. John Perkins of the Australian Atheists Association. He said that the visual hallucinations of a “white light at the end of a tunnel” were caused by the optic nerve. When asked how a person could have that experience after the brain had ceased to function, he said that since science doesn’t know if flatlining, which by definition means that there is no electrical activity in the brain whatsoever, causes a cessation of brain activity, “All of these experiences are created by people’s wishful thinking.” It was some of the most bizarrely twisted logic I’ve ever heard.

I came away from that segment thinking that the desire to discount NDEs are “created by people’s wishful thinking,” but couldn’t for the life of me figure out why. Why did the Sunrise Show slant their whole segment towards the “NDEs are figments of the imagination” angle when the opposite argument, that they more strongly suggest the reality of NDEs and the message of hope they give us, was more plausible, when viewed objectively. The study that “proved” their point consisted of a control group of 17 people, none of whom had a Near Death Experience. After a little digging, I learned that Dr. Jeffrey Long was more than just an “author.” He is a radiation oncologist who has personally catalogued the stories of 1600 people who had NDEs. This and the fact that he is a medical doctor were not mentioned by the presenters. You can read a much better presentation of his argument in this Time interview.

Obviously, not all scientists have a problem with NDEs. Dr. Long is just one of many researchers who believe they may have something to teach us. Why do so many scientists, who are supposed to be objective, step outside of any kind of scientific objectivity in defence of their opinion that life ceases at death? All I can think is that they need to believe just as strongly as a fundamentalist Christian, Muslim or Jew needs to believe. That’s not science; it’s superstition and just like the Inquisitors, they are prepared to do anything to defend their faith.