The Popularity of Near-Death Experience

By Michael CholbiAugust 11, 2017

The Popularity of Near-Death Experience

Near-Death Experiences by John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin

THE TYPICAL near-death experience memoir follows a clear pattern. A person suffers a life-threatening accident or injury, but before their recovery (invariably “miraculous”), an encounter with the afterlife occurs. Often those with near-death experiences report having “floated” above themselves, witnessing doctors examining them or their loved ones assembled around their body. The nearly dead frequently report a moment of reckoning, as they “review” the events of their lives. The encounters generally take a spiritual turn, with the nearly deceased meeting God, communing with angels, or visiting heaven. Reunions with dead loved ones — or meetings with relatives or lovers unfamiliar from earthly life — are described joyfully. There is also a subgenre including reunions with pets. The nearly deceased then “return” to life renewed or reborn, attesting to visions of peace, beauty, or awe. Death, they claim, should not be feared.

The most popular versions of such stories feature protagonists who, because they seem to have no agenda to promote belief in the afterlife, appear credible to otherwise skeptical readers: children (Miracles from Heaven: A Little Girl and Her Amazing Story of Healing [2015] tells of nine-year-old Annabel Beam’s visiting heaven while trapped in the hollow of a cottonwood tree), doctors (Mary C. Neal’s To Heaven and Back: A Doctor’s Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again [2011] reports the author’s “spiritual journey” after almost drowning in a kayak accident), or psychologically troubled “sinners” (Crystal McVea and Alex Tresniowski’s Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again [2013] details how McVea drifted away from her faith only to have it rekindled by a brush with death). No less successful than these memoirs are seemingly dispassionate scientific appraisals of near-death experiences. Investigative journalist Leslie Kean’s Surviving Death: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for an Afterlife (2017) promises to be “analytical and discriminating” in appraising near-death reports, taking them to suggest that our “consciousness — or some aspect of ourself — may survive physical death.”

Many take near-death experiences to be our clearest empirical evidence for what philosophers John Martin Fischer and Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, in Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife, call “supernaturalism.” Supernaturalists advance two contentious claims. The first is that, in addition to the familiar physical world, there is another realm, separate but reachable from our mundane reality. Near-death experiences appear to be temporary excursions into that world. The second claim is a denial of “physicalism” about the mind. Physicalists maintain that, because the mind is — or is essentially dependent upon — the brain, then if the brain stops functioning, the mind too must stop. According to physicalism, a brain that ceases to function cannot be conscious or have experiences. Near-death experiences seem to refute the assumptions of physicalism: if individuals can have these visions of divinity or peace during times when their brains are not functioning, then our minds must be in some measure non-physical or immaterial — not simply brains, but souls.

It should come as little surprise that those who take near-death experiences as evidence for supernaturalism are nearly always sympathetic to theism, usually of a broadly Christian variety. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin do not confront theism directly in Near-Death Experiences. But in asking whether near-death experiences really do provide compelling evidence for supernaturalism, they are nevertheless obliquely critiquing the orthodox theistic worldview by confronting what is arguably the most concrete “evidence” in its favor. For, if supernaturalism is correct, then surviving death by ascending into a post-mortem heaven is a genuine possibility. Those hoping for a Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins–style “smackdown” of the credibility of near-death experiences, or of the credibility of the millions who claim to have had them, will be disappointed by this book.

Stories of near-death experience are a lucrative media industry, and standards of verification and validation are apparently lax. The best-selling Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012), for example, recounts how Eben Alexander, a “highly trained neurosurgeon who had operated on thousands of brains,” contracted meningitis and went into a multi-week coma. Upon waking, he recounted an elaborate visit to heaven with millions of butterflies. As it turns out, Alexander has … well, credibility issues. He has previously lost his surgical privileges and been accused of falsifying evidence. The physician who treated Alexander attests that, contrary to the author’s claims, his brain was active during his coma, which was induced medically. More troubling still is the case of Alex Malarkey (yes, that really is his name). Co-authored with his father Kevin, The Boy who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond this World (2014) describes how Alex suffered near-fatal injuries from an auto accident but later told his parents how, while comatose, he saw angels and met Jesus. He and his mother have since convinced religious publisher Tyndale House to cease printing the book because Alex has publicly acknowledged that the near-death experience attributed to him never happened. “I did not die. I did not go to heaven,” he wrote on his blog. “I said I went to heaven because I thought it would get me attention.” Caveat lector, such tales remind us.

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are neither oblivious to the fraught social dynamics of near-death experience reports nor naïve about the potential for exploitation of believers. Indeed, they devote a chapter to the role of “confirmation bias” in securing popular belief in the veracity of near-death experiences. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin gently suggest that acceptance of near-death experiences reflects a deep human yearning to avoid a candid confrontation with the horrors of mortality. As the framework known as “terror management theory” would have it, we humans, cursed with the knowledge that we must someday perish, devise cultural practices that serve to manage (or at least dampen) the terror this knowledge induces. Chief among these are immortality-based belief systems that deny outright that death is really our end. The grip of these belief systems hampers our capacity to impartially appraise doubts raised against them. In the case of near-death experiences, this confirmation bias is likely exacerbated by a kind of commercial-selection bias. At this point, the market for near-death experience tales is well established. Yet that market will almost certainly not promote or celebrate near-death experience stories that do not fit into the established uplifting, salvific pattern. I for one am not aware of any near-death experience memoirs in which individuals reveal that the afterlife is no more profound or enthralling than an afternoon spent in a local coffee shop. (And given the centrality of Christianity in all this, where are the return reports from hell?)

Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin largely set such sociocultural critiques of near-death experiences aside. They invariably forgo the low road, abjuring cynicism in favor of sober, charitable, and painstaking analyses of near-death experiences and the arguments that appeal to them in support of supernaturalism. Their willingness to engage near-death experiences with philosophical seriousness is therefore courageous and, institutionally speaking, path-breaking. To a large degree, contemporary philosophical discussions of supernaturalism tend to stick to largely a priori disputes (whether, for instance, consciousness can be wholly theorized in physical terms or whether zombies could behave as humans do without having an interior mental life). Philosophical theology has exhibited this same tendency, more invested in whether (as Anselm proposed) there must exist a being none greater than can be conceived, than in ordinary people’s apparent confrontations with the supernatural and the divine. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin thus deserve enormous credit for investigating a phenomenon that, in all likelihood, does more to stimulate or sustain religious belief than any abstract philosophical argument ever has.

Near-Death Experiences exhibits intellectual virtues rarely valued in popular discourse and sometimes honored only in the breach in academic circles. Tempting as it might be simply to dismiss near-death experiences as outright delusions and their enthusiasts as cranks, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin take their interlocutors to be reporting their experiences sincerely and in good faith. They also give elements of near-death experience their evidential due. It is remarkable, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin note, how many near-death experiencers give highly accurate accounts of events that others later confirm — events that took place while the experiencers exhibited no brain function. Pam Reynolds reported hearing a conversation among medical staff about her small arteries, followed by the grind of a surgical saw with interchangeable blades — all of which did occur while she registered blank on an electroencephalograph.

Yet Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin are ultimately unconvinced that near-death experiences do much to advance the cause of supernaturalism. The heart of the book is their dissection of the errors found in common attempts to invoke near-death experiences in support of supernaturalism. Part of their critique consists in questioning whether the events near-death experiencers report as having occurred during the period of non-existent brain function did in fact occur during that time window. We do, after all, have atypical conscious experiences of events that feel as if they are occurring during the experience but clearly could not have (for example, an adult dreams of a memorable childhood event, perceiving it to be happening now). Such time lags between events and our recollection of them suggest to Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin the prospect that the brain may register sensations at a time when a person is not conscious and later bring to mind these sensations such that they seem to have occurred when the person was not conscious. While fully unconscious, Pam Reynolds’s brain “stored” auditory sensations of her surgeons conversing, which she later (when conscious) reported to have occurred during her period of unconsciousness.

Perhaps Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin’s conjecture about time lags is correct. But I do not believe we need go so far afield to raise credible doubts about the reliability of near-death experience reports. Psychological research increasingly highlights how fallible, partial, and manipulable human memory is. From an evolutionary perspective, it is not likely to be advantageous to have a snapshot-like memory that provides highly detailed information about our worlds. Memory instead contributes to survival by amplifying some aspects of what happens to us while suppressing others. This is particularly plausible when it comes to emotionally charged memories such as subjects’ recollections of their near-death experiences. “Emotional memory” generates highly vivid impressions of the salient themes in our experiences but at the expense of accurate recall of details. Memories of near-death experiences are likely to be paradigm cases of this kind of tunnel vision, with powerful emotional resonances obscuring the fine-grained details. As Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin observe, the fact that near-death experiences feel extremely vivid is no reason to place greater trust in them. But we can go one step further: their vividness likely speaks in favor of their reliability as reports of the experiencers’ emotions (feelings of awe, reassurance, and the like) but against their reliability as detailed reports either of earthly events that allegedly took place while the subjects were “dead” or of the afterlife itself.

And the details themselves, I would venture, are not difficult for near-death experiencers to fill in. In their account of how near-death experiences can be understood in non-supernaturalist terms, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin explain “how the subject acquired the information relevant to some aspect of” the experience and “why this particular content would be included in a near-death experience.” Moreover, near-death experience is an established social category that brings testimonial expectations in tow. If a person undergoes a near-death experience, she is almost certain to know the script that many in her prospective audience are expecting her to follow: anguished family members, review of one’s life, sensations of peace and awe, meeting God or Jesus, a reluctant return to life on earth. The “light at the end of the tunnel” metaphor is so widely known an element of this script that it would be remarkable, as Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin argue, for this not to serve as a “framing condition” for how near-death experiences are subsequently reported or described.

Moreover, this script can change from era to era. As Carol Zaleski documents in Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experiences in Medieval and Modern Times (1987), changes in near-death experience testimony have tended to track changes in Christian belief systems. Medieval reports include spirit guides, references to hell and purgatory, and other details that reflect a Catholic vision of the afterlife filtered through Dante, whereas modern reports are hopeful and individualistic. “Near-death experiencers” are therefore likely to be subject to Ian Hacking’s “looping effects,” accounting for their own experiences in terms that conform to the “social kind” they have become. We humans have less capable memory than we suppose but greater capability to conform to social roles than we recognize, and in the case of near-death experiences, these narrative reports, as Zaleski concludes, are “through and through a work of the socially conditioned religious imagination.” These cultural tropes are what makes it possible for an essentially private experience, one necessarily available only to the individual subject, to take on the cast of public verifiability. Again, this is not to imply that near-death experience testimony is insincere, much less intentionally deceptive. But distilling an unsullied, reliable core of truth from such a socially and emotionally inflected experience appears well nigh impossible.

Much of the rest of Near-Death Experiences catalogs the errors and shortcomings found in the arguments for supernaturalism that rely on near-death experience reports: confusing sincerity with veracity, but also insisting that the absence of a currently accepted scientific explanation implies that no such explanation is forthcoming; implausibly requiring that any physical explanation of near-death experiences appeal only to a single factor present in all near-death experiences; and carelessly applying Occam’s razor to argue that simpler supernaturalist explanations must be correct solely because they are simpler, regardless of how successful they may be in accounting for the phenomena in question. Philosophically speaking, these are rookie mistakes. But those sympathetic to supernaturalism should not take umbrage at Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin for pointing them out, given the generous and gentle tone in which they do so.

Having found the arguments in defense of revelations of a supernatural realm wanting, Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin nonetheless clearly appreciate the profound moral and spiritual significance of near-death experiences. Their 10th chapter is enough to make anyone who cannot profess to have had such an experience actually welcome one. As the authors convincingly show, near-death experiences diminish our fear of death, enhance our acceptance of and love for others, reinforce our commitments to justice, reduce aggression, stimulate altruism, improve our attentiveness to our own emotions and to the natural environment, and lend a warm glow to day-to-day life. (Where do I sign up?) This helps to account for why many near-death experience stories read like repackaged self-help tomes, inviting readers to follow the protagonist who has been transformed by her brush with the afterlife into a promised land of personal success and well-being.

But as Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin note, near-death experiences are not alone in having the capacity to bring about such salutary transformations, and a supernatural explanation in those cases strains credulity. Ingesting peyote, listening to Mozart’s Requiem, or standing at the edge of the Iguazú Falls seem to instill similar sentiments, but recourse to a supernatural explanation is hasty in those cases. “Supernaturalism,” the authors point out, “has no monopoly on transformative power.” Here they echo the pushback that atheists (Alain de Botton, most notably) have recently given to the religiously minded who insist that a physicalist outlook must inevitably drain the world of its emotional or spiritual resonance, leaving a sterile, inhuman void. Only an impoverished imagination can credit such an assumption. A wholly natural world offers us ample opportunity for self-transcendence and meaning, an abundance of chances to achieve a perspective distinct from or “greater than” ourselves. Yet taking this “different perspective does not force us to believe in a different reality or realm of being.”

And it is here, I believe, that the source of the popularity of near-death experiences and their retellings resides. Such experiences seem to reveal the best of ourselves and the best of our hopes for the world. Visions of the afterlife are really visions of idealized life. Near-death experiences bring us outside ourselves to a more impersonal perspective while simultaneously accentuating our bonds to others. They reveal us to be part of an enchanted but beautiful and tactile world. They make us feel both the integrity of ourselves and our profound interconnectedness. They are moral revelations whose importance need not be rooted in the supernaturalism that so many want to enlist them to demonstrate. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin might well object to my putting the matter this way, but what seems to operate in the background of this urge for supernatural explanation is an inversion of David Hume’s dictum that one cannot infer an “ought” from an “is.” Those wanting to bolster supernaturalism by appeal to near-death experiences wrongly infer a metaphysical story (the “is”) from the ethical insights (the “ought”) that such experiences afford us. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin clearly show that this inference is both unwarranted and unnecessary.

In contrast to near-death experience memoirs, Near-Death Experiences represents a sadly neglected genre. Academic thinkers don’t often engage with popular discourses that intersect with their areas of expertise, especially when those discourses seem riddled with suspect reasoning or outright misinformation. Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin offer a powerful model of bridge-building between academic and popular writing in a way that does justice to each.


Michael Cholbi is professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona and the founder of the International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying.

LARB Contributor

Michael Cholbi is professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly Pomona and the founder of the International Association for the Philosophy of Death and Dying. He has written a number of books and articles on philosophical questions related to suicide and immortality, and is currently completing a book manuscript on ethics of grief.


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