Are Near-Death Experiences Hallucinations?

Peter Teekamp painting. By Kevin Williams

 

Skeptics claim that the NDE is a product of the brain which occurs during life threatening situations. They claim the brain produces an avoidance response similar to a hallucination when endorphins flood the brain similar to when LSD is introduced into the body. Skeptics also point to the fact that the NDE can be duplicated by using the Hemi-Sync process developed by the Monroe Institute.

 

But when studies show that psychedelic drugs, meditation, and other methods can be used to induce non-ordinary states such as a NDE, this does not negate the Afterlife Theory. It only shows that there is a biological component involved in the brain. When experiments can be reproduced in the laboratory, such as inducing a NDE with a psychedelic, it means that the phenomenon has satisfied the criteria for scientific evidence according to the scientific method. Proving that there is a biological component in the brain does not negate the Afterlife Theory nor does it prove that NDEs are purely biological. NDEs can be induced many ways. My Triggers of the NDE section of my website lists the many ways that a NDE can be induced. The fact that NDEs can be induced in the brain by certain triggers does not mean that NDEs are not real. On the contrary, it proves they are real.

 

There is also a misconception in the general public and among materialists that the following things are not real: intuition, ideas, thought, notions, insights, fantasies, visions, daydreams, feelings, visualizations, dreams, and anything having to do with the mind at large. This may be one of the main reasons why the materialist believes that NDEs and all such mental images are just unreal "mental flatulence" of the brain.

 

There are many published studies of drugs such as PCP, LSD, Marijuana, cocaine, heroin and morphine. They cause distortions of reality, alterations of body image, and disorientation as to time and place. The near-death experience does not involve distortions of reality, but rather the perception of another reality superimposed over this one.

 

Although the hallucination theory can explain a brain chemical basis, the theory cannot explain everything. Here are some comments by experts in this field:

Psychologist John Gibbs states:

"NDE accounts from varied times and cultures were found to be more orderly, logical, defined and predictable than comparable accounts from drug or illness-induced hallucination. Impressive data from Tart, Moody and Carl Becker also argue for the objective elements of a NDE, including returning with knowledge later verified and third-party observations of odd death-bed phenomena (such as luminosity or apparitions)."

Neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, describes the difference between the NDE and hallucinations: 

"The difficulty with those theories is that when you create these wonderful states by taking drugs, you're conscious. In the NDE, you are unconscious. One of the things we know about brain function in unconsciousness, is that you cannot create images and if you do, you cannot remember them."

Fenwick describes the unconscious state of the NDE:

"The brain isn't functioning. It's not there. It's destroyed. It's abnormal. But, yet, it can produce these very clear experiences ... an unconscious state is when the brain ceases to function. For example, if you faint, you fall to the floor, you don't know what's happening and the brain isn't working. The memory systems are particularly sensitive to unconsciousness. So, you won't remember anything. But, yet, after one of these experiences (a NDE), you come out with clear, lucid memories ... This is a real puzzle for science. I have not yet seen any good scientific explanation which can explain that fact."

So it appears that we may never know exactly what a NDE is and what produces them, until science can define exactly what consciousness is. We may have a long way to go to learn this."

There are many published studies of drugs such as PCP, LSD, Marijuana, cocaine, heroin and morphine. They cause distortions of reality, alterations of body image, and disorientation as to time and place. The near-death experience does not involve distortions of reality, but rather the perception of another reality superimposed over this one.

Dr. Kenneth Ring, the leading figure in NDE studies has this to say:  

"Drugs, anesthesia and medication did not seem to be a factor in inducing these impressions and exquisite feelings of a NDE. Indeed, drugs and anesthesia seemed to be more likely to cause a person to forget memories of a NDE."

Dr. Ring definitely concluded that NDEs are not hallucinations because hallucinations are rambling, unconnected, often unintelligible and vary widely, whereas NDEs tend to have similar elements of a clear, connected pattern.

Ketamine is a drug which several researchers feel creates effects which are similar to NDEs. However, they have not published controlled studies to substantiate their point of view. Scott Rogo describes similarities between NDEs and ketamine induced visions, but ultimately feels that ketamine often causes bizarre, paranoid visions not seen in NDEs.

It is interesting to note that Karl Jansen, a ketamine researcher, not only felt that NDEs and ketamine induced visions were the same, but became convinced that BOTH induced real visions of a real god. He has become very spiritual as a result of his ketamine research.

As a medical student, Dr. Melvin Morse spent time at both Mt. Sinai Hospital in Baltimore and the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Washington, DC, both hotbeds of LSD research. He personally spoke with therapists who used LSD to help patients overcome the fear of death and with psychiatrists who used LSD to successfully treat alcoholism and depression.

For example, Dr. Stanislav Grof reports that Ted, a 25 year old man dying of colon cancer, was given LSD in the context of therapy and reported:

"[Ted] became convinced that he had died. God appeared to him as a brilliant source of light telling him not to fear, and assuring him that everything would be all right. He was overwhelmed at the realization that behind the seeming chaos and complexity of creation, there is only one God. He started realizing the underlying unity of it all."

Many excellent studies showed that positive personality transformations occurred with LSD therapy, with many psychiatrists advocating using it as an office-based treatment drug. These studies persisted at the Veteran's Administration Hospital even into the late 1970's, after street use of the drug gave it its bad reputation, for one simple reason: LSD worked.

Understanding the chemistry of LSD led to the discovery of a class of hallucinogens which have served to shape early man's religious and social systems. One cannot compare the unregulated street use of LSD mixed with many other drugs, to the use by our human ancestors throughout the world of hallucinogens as sacred drugs. Primitive peoples, on every continent used these drugs, within religious rituals to do all of the things modern NDEs do, including traveling out of the body to other realities, encountering dead relatives and spiritual entities, and transforming the individual into a more productive member of society.

For example, primitive people in Columbia in 3000 BC took Yaje, a plant with hallucinogenic chemicals in it to "awaken as a new person, fully integrated and at one with his culture. During the experience, the individual 'sees' the tribal god and the creation of the universe. The user is said to 'die' and then be reborn in a state of wisdom."

Two common questions are: What possible evolutionary pressure could have resulted in NDEs? Why would dying brains suddenly have the ability to perceive other realities?

Karl Jansen feels that similarities between the effects of ketamine and NDEs provide an explanation. Users of ketamine describe:  

"..becoming a disembodied mind or soul, dying, and going to another world. Childhood events are relived. Users often are not sure they have not actually left their bodies," or, "I was convinced I was dead. I floated above my body. I reviewed all the events of my life, and saw areas in which could have done better."

Ketamine acts in the brain to increase a neurotransmitter called L-glutamate which protects the brain against injuries or stresses, such as a lack of oxygen. Its action is in the same areas as the right temporal lobe, the hippocampus and associated structures in the brain.

Jansen states that the NDE is:

"...an important phenomena that can be safely reproduced by ketamine."

He feels the drug can be used as a door to another space. It causes the same effects seen in yoga and meditation.

Skeptics often glibly dismiss NDEs as a result of the lack of oxygen to the brain or to the many drugs that dying patients are often given. The scientific evidence does NOT support narcotics, valium, anesthetic agents, or a lack of oxygen to the brain as causing NDEs. But, two drugs, ketamine and LSD, may cause experiences strikingly similar to NDEs, including positive spiritual transformation.

It is important to realize, however, that there are many ways to have a NDE-like experience without taking drugs. Methods such as meditation, yoga, and dreaming are some examples.

Dr. Jeffrey Long states:

"One concern of NDE skeptics is the concept of a dual physical and spiritual life presence, with the spiritual presence surviving bodily death. The physical presence is easily discernable, while the spiritual presence is generally not easily discernable. It is very helpful to personally have a NDE or NDE-like experience to address such concerns. For virtually all NDErs, a NDE cures NDE disbelief. However, only approximately 4% of the United States adult population have a personal history of NDEs. Others find they are opened to the possibility of a dual physical/spiritual life presence through other spiritually transformative life events.

 

"These life experiences may include, but are not limited to, markedly serendipitous events, other personal paranormal experiences, and acceptance of other people's accounts of their spiritually transformative experiences. I personally believe that if such spiritually transformative experiences are sincerely sought, they are likely to be encountered. NDE research is somewhat unique due to the subjective nature of the experience. This subjectivity precludes certain conventional scientific methods of studying NDEs, such as replicating NDEs or studying physical changes associated with the experience.

 

"This inability to study NDEs via certain accepted methods of conventional scientific verification results in the need for some element of faith to accept the reality of NDEs. I think this necessary element of faith is a problem for many people in accepting the reality and significance of NDEs. Mitigating against this concern is the fact that NDEs are relatively common. Millions of people have had NDEs. NDEs are quite varied, but the consistency of the NDE elements (OBE experience, tunnel, light, meeting other beings, etc.) is striking. There is no plausible biological explanation of NDEs. There is no other human experience so dramatic, shared by so many people, and so relatively consistent in its elements. The preceding suggests faith in the validity of NDE accounts is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence."

Dr. Stanislav Grof states:

"I had my training as a psychiatrist, a physician and then as a Freudian analyst. When I became interested in non-ordinary states and started serving powerful mystical experiences, also having some myself, my first idea was that it (consciousness) has to be hard-wired in the brain. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out how something like that is possible.

 

"Today, I came to the conclusion that it is not coming from the brain. In that sense, it supports what Aldous Huxley believed after he had some powerful psychedelic experiences and was trying to link them to the brain. He came to the conclusion that maybe the brain acts as a kind of reducing valve that actually protects us from too much cosmic input. So, I don't see, for example, that experiences of archetypal realms, heavens, paradises, experiences of archetypal beings, such as deities, demons from different cultures, that people typically have in these states that they can be somehow explained as something that comes from the brain. I don't think you can locate the source of consciousness. I am quite sure it is not in the brain not inside of the skull. "It actually, according to my experience, would lie beyond time and space, so it is not localizable. You actually come to the source of consciousness when you dissolve any categories that imply separation, individuality, time, space and so on. You just experience it as a presence.

 

"People who have these experiences can either perceive that source or they can actually become the source, completely dissolved and experience that source. But such categories as time and space, localization coordinates, are not relevant for that experience. You actually have a sense that the concepts of time and space come from that place. They are generated by that place; but, the cosmic source itself, the cosmic consciousness cannot be located certainly not in the material world."

Webmaster Kevin Williams states:

"I believe the evidence suggests that the conscious mind (and personality) is the product of a brain function which processes our higher non-localized consciousness. This brain function may be comparable to a similar process that a television (the brain) has when it receives signals in the airwaves (consciousness) and processing them (brain function) to create a television program (conscious awareness, personality). At death, consciousness becomes unrestricted by the brain (the television is shut off, conscious mind disappears) and therefore consciousness expands to its original dimensions (the brain no longer processes consciousness to produce a conscious mind) which is everywhere and nowhere in particular. So, in this sense, both groups are correct - the hallucination theory group and the afterlife theory group. At death, the conscious mind "dies" and never more exists because it is a product of the brain. But the subconscious mind (soul) and superconscious mind (spirit) expand to become a person's "new" conscious mind and "new" subconscious mind. That is, the subconsciousness now plays the new role of "conscious mind" and the superconscious mind now plays the new role of the "subconscious mind."

 

"Skeptics often rely on reductionism in an attempt to prove that it is only the brain which produces NDEs. However, by using reductionism, these skeptics may only be defining the brain process which processes consciousness to produce a conscious mind and for which a "trigger" can be introduced which changes that process to free the restrictions of consciousness and allowing it expand and produce a NDE.

 

"It is the same principle as with a television set. Using a television analogy, we can reduce a television set to all of its basic components: circuits, tube, transistors and wires, and say that this is all there is to television programs such as "I Love Lucy". But we would be ignoring where the television signals originate and where they are located - in the airwaves. And in this sense, conscious awareness might only be one of these televisions shows coming from the airwaves which the television processes to produce. But, when we shut the television off, the television signals still exist in the airwaves including "I Love Lucy" except that it is no longer processed by the television that was shut off. So, in this sense, death is merely "shutting the television off" for good. And near-death experiences may be the result of shutting off the television, or in some instances, using a "trigger" that alters brain function to the condition where brain is not shut off but the brain process restricting consciousness is. This may also explain phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, dreams, remote viewing, hallucinations, psychic and spiritual visions, etc. 

So the real questions are these: What is consciousness? Where is it located? Can it exist separately from the brain? Is the NDE a phenomenon for which consciousness transcends the brain? If so, what about other phenomena such as dreams and hallucinations? We can all concede that these states of consciousness all have a chemical basis, but the real question is - are they only a brain thing? Is the human mind only the product of the brain?

Dr. Ronald Siegel photo. Dr. Ronald Siegel says, "No." He is author of the book, Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination, and is the distinguished expert in psychopharmacolgy at UCLA. He is one of the leading experts in the field of hallucinogens and an ardent skeptic of the "consciousness survives death" theory. The following is an interview with him concerning NDEs.

Question:  There has been a recent explosion of popular articles and books stating that life after death is supported by hard scientific data. This evidence comes from survivors of clinical death, deathbed visions of terminal patients, and other sources of data. Dr. Siegel, you have investigated the NDE for many years with great thoroughness. Can you tell us what a NDE is?

Dr. Siegel:  Our study of life after death is highly dependent on the words, pictures, and other symbols used in description. Many of these words have sensory qualities and describe such properties as sight, sound, taste, and smell. Accident victims who have had NDEs often report visions of long, dark tunnels or sounds of ringing and buzzing. Surgical patients who are resuscitated following cardiac or respiratory failure frequently report floating out of their bodies and watching the operation from a distant perspective and many of them have an awareness of returning to their physical body. Terminal patients often experience unbidden memory images of long forgotten childhood events and deceased relatives. These images arise with such startling vividness that they often prompt the patient to react by speaking with the image or moving toward it. Many people see a blinding white light and regard it as a higher being or god. Some of these people feel ecstasy in their experience.

Question:  Why did you become involved in investigating NDEs?

Dr. Siegel:  All of the descriptions of the afterlife bear a strong resemblance to people's descriptions of drug-induced hallucinations or hallucinations produced by other conditions. I was aware of the popular imagery associated with the NDE and was struck by the similarity of those kinds of reports with those that I had gathered from my drug subjects and from other subjects who were not even taking drugs.

Question:  What is a hallucination?

Dr. Siegel:  It has to due with a change of attention in a person. Hallucinations mean literally a wandering mind or a wandering in attention. To that extent whenever we are even daydreaming technically we are hallucinating. When the brain is really roaring with LSD or in a state of extreme stress from a life-threatening danger, or in a state of isolation there seems to be a lot of wandering in mind that does not seem to be under volitional control. Attention constantly shifts around. When such a person is given a psychological or problem solving test they do miserably on it, because they can't focus attention or concentrate. The death bed is a very good place or very conducive to these kinds of experiences. The person is lying down and is quiet. This is the state into which we try to get our subjects. We used hospital beds in a quiet room. The idea being to get the person to shift from the external events to the internal world.

Question:  In many of the reports describing the NDE the patient was later able to accurately describe the conversations of the doctors and nurses that took place while he or she was unconscious. Is this evidence for an out-of-body experience?

Dr. Siegel:  No. The hearing of voices or other sounds is reminiscent of surgical patients recovering from anesthesia who often recall auditory stimuli that occurred during surgery. This is particularly common with the dissociative anesthetics nitrous oxide, ether and ketamine, which allow sensory input to the brain.

Question:  What about the strength of the subject's conviction that he or she was actually physically undergoing an out-of-body or NDE? Shouldn't that person be able to tell that they are hallucinating?

Dr. Siegel:  You can't tell anything from the conviction of those reports. I heard similar convictions on the supposed reality of experiences from my own subjects under the influence of drugs and stress. These are very powerful experiences. The imbeddedness, the concreteness, the veracity of the experience is so great that it manifests itself in truthfulness. In our experiments we could regulate the truthfulness of the experience by the dosage of the drug. A low dose of the drug produced a mild image and no one was fooled by that, but a very large dose of the drug produced very intense experiences and people tend to make the transition from what we call pseudo hallucinations to true ones.

Question:  What is the difference between a pseudo hallucination and a true hallucination?

Dr. Siegel:  Pseudo hallucinations are when I see that little green man out there, but I know that he really is not there because I say to myself, "I've just taken acid and this is a trip." A true hallucination is when I see that little green man out there and by God he is really there. Now I'm going to get my gun and protect myself. It is very easy to get carried away by this and some people really do. The mechanism that helps explain exactly what happens in the brain during all these states is fairly complex and is still somewhat of a puzzlement to neurophysiologists.

Question:  Some writers on the NDE state that many of the dying patients were not on drugs and their consciousness was clear. They say these experiences were not hallucinations.

Dr. Siegel:  It is important to note that hallucinations can occur in states where consciousness is "clear." People can experience hallucinations in states of sensory deprivation, extreme hunger, cold, or stress. For instance, people can have a hallucination of a dead relative or friend in states of clear consciousness when triggered by emotional states surrounding death, such as mourning. Recently, we did a study with different types of hostages. Some of them were political and some had been kidnapped or raped in cases. We even had a few alleged UFO abductees. All of them had been subjected to some kind of stress, some kind of life-threatening danger, and some kind of isolation. Many of the hostages had visual or physical isolation for periods of time ranging from a couple of hours up to over a year. We noticed some striking similarities in the description of hostages' experiences to that of the description of the NDE. The format of these descriptions was the same. There were bright lights, tunnel perspectives; there was a sensation of moving down that tunnel and being out of one's body.

Question:  Did you do any cross-cultural studies?

Dr. Siegel:  Yes. I lived for a while with a group of Indians in the High Sierra Madres, in Central Mexico, and one particular village that I chose to go to had not been visited by a white team in their three-thousand-year history. In this particular tribe I knew that we were tapping a source of people who were not contaminated, that hadn't been exposed to Mickey Mouse cartoons. They didn't have any of our cultural biases and we studied the use of their peyote, a cactus extract, which contains mescaline as the active hallucinogen and their reports were virtually identical to the NDE. We also did some studies with the Indians in the Amazon basin who use ayahuasca, which is a visionary vine that produces lots of imaginary experiences. So we found that there was a cultural consistency too.

Question:  In other words, you had a lot of common states to a wide variety of situations?

Dr. Siegel:  That's right. It seems to reflect some common wiring in the visual and central nervous system that we all have. While the Indian may see a long dark cave and we may see a long train tunnel the structure and forms of the hallucination were still very similar. We were very pleased with the consistency of this data. We were able to go into the literature and look at other reports and find that with other groups of people and with a mixed variety of situations it was pretty much the same, be they in states of insulin shock or hyperglycemia. Look at the writings of Jacque Monroe, a psychiatrist, who wrote the first book on hashish and mental illness, in which he said the best way to study mental illness and some of the paranormal phenomena associated with it was to provoke it artificially through the injection of hashish which he went ahead and did. At that time in France his medical colleagues were very reluctant to accept his advice but some of the Bohemian artists of nineteenth-century Paris were much more receptive and all of their writings testified to the kind of experiences that were possible with hashish. There were lots of NDEs in their writings, some of which I have recently transcribed and published.

Question:  Can you elaborate on this idea that the similarity of hallucinations are due to the common wiring of our visual and nervous systems?

Dr. Siegel:  Given a wide variety of stimulations to the brain, the brain responds in a finite number of ways. The patterns that we have called "hallucinatory form constants" (the NDE and archetypical images) are really descriptions of the finite patterns of the way the brain responds to an infinite variety of stimulations. The simple imagery consists of tunnels, bright lights and colors, and geometric forms. This is probably caused by phosphenes, which are visual sensations arising from the discharge of neurons in structures of the eye. They also reflect the electrical excitation of organized groups of cells in the visual cortex of the brain. In other words, although you can shake up the brain by many different methods it still transmits out in pretty much the same way.

Question:  How about people who are not wired in the same way. People who are congenitally blind, for instance?

Dr. Siegel:  When we give hallucinogens to congenitally blind individuals we find that they hear the echoes in the room becoming alternatively farther away or closer. This is the same dimensional shift that we find in another modality for the sighted person who would see images becoming very small or getting very large.

Question:  What causes the famous tunnel perspective?

Dr. Siegel:  This is probably due to the stimulation of the central nervous system that mimics the effects of light on the retina. It can also occur when the electrical activity in the brain is altered in such a way that the threshold for perception of phosphenes (electrical activity in the visual system) is lowered, and bright lights are seen in otherwise dark surroundings. This point can create a tunnel perspective.

Question:  Do you have some simple analogy to help explain the relationship between the near-death and out-of-body experiences to hallucinations?

Dr. Siegel:  The analogy that I have found very useful in understanding this is an analogy that I call the fire in the brain. Picture a man in his living room, standing at a closed window opposite his fireplace and looking out at the sunset. He is absorbed by the view of the outside world and does not visualize the interior of the room. As darkness falls outside, though, the images of the objects in the room behind him can be seen reflected dimly in the window. With the deepening of darkness the fire in the fireplace illuminates the room and the man can now see a vivid reflection of the room, which appears to be outside the window. Now he throws into the fire a couple of logs and the fire roars brightly. He turns around to look out the window. He still can't see because it's dark, but he sees a reflection of himself and the furniture in the room on the glass as if it came from the outside. The analogy is that the window is the window of our eyes and ears and senses of the real world. The fire is the degree of electrical excitation that is produced in the brain, so when it's dark at night and not much is happening, and the fire roars brightly in your brain you've got a lot of LSD there. For example, you may no longer see the real world but you see the furniture of your own mind, your memories, images, fantasies, and daydreams reflect as if they came from the outside. The brighter the fire the more vivid those reflections become until some people become sort of like Alice going through the looking glass. They think that all this stuff on the other side is real. Keeping this analogy in mind you can produce those experiences without lighting the fire too much, by just turning off the lights on the outside and using the normal fire in the brain. You can stir up the fire or you can depress it. Drug use is an easy way of manipulating that fire in the brain. There are other ways of doing it, but it is an easy way that we felt that we could control and use very precisely. When you reduce the illumination levels outside you raise the awareness of the internal events. Maybe that's why the imagery that's associated with meditation is very similar to the imagery associated with hallucinations. Whether you light the fire within with drugs or turn off the lights from outside. You get the same kinds of events.

Question:  When did you first discover that the near-death and out-of-body experiences were related to hallucinations?

Dr. Siegel:  It started in the 1960s when I was a graduate student in experimental psychology. I was working with brain chemistry and changes in animals during learning. I was also clinically studying drugs and testing marijuana. At that time the literature on the subject was very poor. I had made an extract of some marijuana and injected it into a pigeon. The pigeon wouldn't perform in the Skinner box. It was quiescent. I then injected a homing pigeon with the extract and threw it out the laboratory window. The pigeon did a kamikaze nose dive straight to the street below. I was fascinated by this. There was a little bit of the extract left and I took some of it and did a nose dive straight to the floor of the laboratory. I remained there for about eighteen hours surrounded by a fantasmagoria of imagery and experiences. They reminded me of all the things that I had read about in the history of psychology, including the stuff I had read about concerning the psychical society and their quest into the supernatural world. I had them all. It seems as if I had every experience I had ever read about during those eighteen hours. It was a very strong experience and I am happy I survived it because it was a fairly toxic dose. When I recovered from that I decided that this was a very interesting experience. I wanted to apply the techniques of experimental psychology to the study of this phenomenon.

Question:  What does your research into the NDE lead us to conclude?

Dr. Siegel:  We end up being able to say that the NDE or afterlife experience is uncannily similar to the experiences that are produced by a wide variety of other situations. But similarities are not explanations and they are no proof that they really are the same. We will probably never be able to convince anyone that they are the same until our technology is able to communicate to the other side.

Question:  Do you have any concluding remarks?

Dr. Siegel:  In the past, dying and death were often accompanied by fear and loneliness, as if the individual were possessed by Pan, the Greek god of lonely places and panic. The belief in life after death provided much comfort and security. Through the research and explanations discussed here, investigators have begun to examine the nature of these life after death experiences as hallucinations, as based on stored images in the brain. Like a mirage that shows a magnificent city on a desolate expanse of ocean or desert, the images of hallucinations are actually reflected images of real objects located elsewhere. The city is no less intriguing and no less worthy of study or visitation because it is not where we think it is. With such understanding, we can counsel the dying to take the voyage not with Pan at their side, but with Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom.

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"The spirit is life. The mind is the builder. The physical is the result." - Edgar Cayce

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