Wait, What is that White Light Anyway? The Science Behind Near-Death Experiences
Is it a spiritual near-miss or a bunch of neurons overfiring? And what's going on when patients float to the top of the operating room and look down on their doctors busy working on ... them? Well, turns out one first-time author -- and full-time neurologist -- has a compelling theory.
Dr. Kevin Nelson is a professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky and the author of "The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist's Search for the God Experience." Drawing on research and patient histories, the book describes his efforts to understand what happens in the brain during near-death experiences. The book offers a provocative glimpse of the nature and origins of "spiritual" experiences ... and just might change the way you think about who you are.
MyDaily: Are there phenomena that you can think of that can only be explained in spiritual terms, that science can't explain?
Dr. Kevin Nelson: I don't think evolution killed spirituality. Evolution is a good example, it explains in some framework how we got to where we're at today but there are many questions unanswered around that process.
You write that science is bringing us to new levels of spiritual exploration. What do you mean by that?
Yeah I think it does; for example theres a wide range of emotions that can attend a spiritual experience. A lot of these emotions we can experience in a paler form in every day life: joy, love, awe, pain, fear. But there's one emotion that is almost exclusively spiritual, and that's the mystical sense of oneness. There's a great deal we don't understond about it. We understand it has a basis in the serotenergic neurochemical system. People are familiar with that because it's involved with depression, but it's also linked to fear. I think that's a tremendous domain that is to be explored yet in science, this sensation of oneness.
What are some of the applications or implications for that vein of research?
I think that too is something that we're going to have to explore as well. But I think there may be an application for it.
Do you foresee being able to make that type of spiritual experience accessible to a broad spectrum of people?
Oh certainly. We have those means within our grasp even today. I'm referring to psilocybin. That's just the beginning. One of the things I think that my book, one of the important observations that I tried to bring out, is that the mystical sense of oneness is tied to near-death experience. But there's also a tie in to the arousal of the primal brain in fear and that is so often overlooked. We've all heard of the "bad acid trip," and it's a bad acid trip because you're stimulating the primal fear circuitry that is tied ever so closely to that sense of oneness.
And these emotions are generated in primitive parts of our brain?
Not only near-death, but mystical experiences are inexplicably tied to our primal brain. One of the things that's been overlooked is that when we think of spiritual experience we think of it as separating us the most from other creatures, so we look to our highly developed cerebral cortex, but that doesn't seem to be where these experiences arise from.
Why is that important?
Fear is intertwined with the mystical oneness, and frankly that is not an observation that other people have made, although portions of my book have not been subjected to peer review yet, and I'm clear about that. I thought it's an important observation because it ties in the brain systems at play during these experiences.
So your findings -- if their borne out by the peer review process -- have identified the neuro-biological origins of that euphoric sense of oneness? Is that a breakthrough you're claiming having made?
I've not heard other people talk about that.
You didn't test for that specific observation in your study, is it your intent to do another study with that as a primary endpoint?
Yes it is. I can't talk about it, but we are looking at that in a more formal way.
That isn't something that can be measured with an MRI?
It might be there are several ways of doing it.
I saw a documentary about near-death experiences. There was a patient who had an out of body experience while he was being operated on, and during that experience he claimed to see the doctor making chicken-like movements, and there was a cloth that blocked his vision of what the doctor was doing. The doctor does in fact use those movements, pointing with his elbows to keep his hands clean. Is there a scientific explanation for that?
Yes. When people are unconscious, their eyes are often open. When you faint, your eyes are open. During cardiac arrest, your eyes are open. People can hear, see, process a lot more than is apparent. I caution the people I'm training in the ICU. There will be a tendency to talk about patients in operating rooms.
This phenomenon has led some people, misguidedly I believe, to suspend cards from the ceilings of emergency departments in the hopes that someone who's had an out of body will go up and read the card and return with knowledge of what's on the card.
People have tried that?
About a year ago these individuals announced that they were starting this study. They got a lot of press, but it needs to be subjected to peer review before being discussed in public.
I don't think one of the most profound of all scientific questions can be answered through a card trick.
I was interested in the portion of your book about Carl Jung's near-death experience, and the premonition he claims to have had about the death of the physician who was operating on him when he had the NDE. Did he write that premonition down prior to the doctor's death?
I don't know, it comes after the fact in Jung's memoirs. I don't have access to his personal papers. And that again is just one interesting facet. Did he remember this after the fact or not? I tend to think he did have a premonition, but he could have overheard someone discussing the doctor's health while he was unconscious.
Do I hope that there's consciousness outside of the human brain? Yeah, I'd be overjoyed, I think. Heretofore, that's in the realm of faith though, not the realm of science.
Do you go to church?
The book is about how the brain works, it's not about the why of faith. I don't want to get into my personal faith because I don't think it's relevant to the book, I'm interested in the how question, not the why question.
Stephen Kosloff lives in Brooklyn, and so does his brain. He is a freelance writer and photographer, and you can visit his website here.
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