A Critique of Susan Blackmore's
Dying Brain Hypothesis by Greg Stone
began his college studies in physics, but ended
up graduating with a degree in psychology (University
of Colorado). He also studied at Chicago Theological
Seminary at the University of Chicago. He believes
his personal love for both science and spiritual
matters mirrors a trend in society toward a
greater understanding of the connectedness of
the two disciplines. Greg Stone's book
is entitled "Under
which is a novel set in the world of the near-death
experience. He has also written a new essay
on Buddhism and reincarnation called "The
Read all his other fascinating essays on his
Background on Susan Blackmore
you read Greg Stone's excellent critique of skeptic Susan Blackmore's
theory of the NDE, you may want to first read a brief description
Susan Blackmore's hypothesis.
She is the author of several books including:
Dying to Live,
In Search of the Light,
and her latest,
The Meme Machine.
Blackmore has more information at her website:
Prologue to Critique
about the near-death experience and the idea that consciousness
separates from the body are frequently challenged by skeptics
who ask: “Didn't you know Susan Blackmore proved, scientifically,
that NDE's are hallucinations caused by brain activity?”
When I first
heard such claims, I rushed out and purchased Dying to Live,
Blackmore's work on the near-death experience. After reading
the book, however, I was left wondering what it was skeptics
had read. Dying to Live not only failed to provide
scientific support for a “brain only” hypothesis,
it contained only conjecture and speculation.
In a moment
of passion, I fired off a critique of Dying to Live,
which was subsequently posted on a number of sites. Over the
following years, readers wrote to thank me for having posted
the critical analysis of the work.
responded as well and confirmed my observation that the work
was primarily that of conjecture and speculation. So much for
the skeptic's argument that the issue of NDEs has been settled
once and for all, scientifically.
The following is an edited version
of the critique. (The content remains the same, the prose was
in dire need of repair, as the critique originated as an unedited
It is my
hope that addressing the contents of Dying to Live
lessens the flurry of posts and e-mails that arrive saying, “Didn't
you know, Blackmore...” For those who have not read
Dying to Live, I highly recommend the book, even though
I disagree with the conjectures presented therein; the book
nonetheless presents a worthwhile discussion of NDEs. In order
to understand the subject, one must become familiar with all
the different views that surround the subject.
In dialogue with
skeptics, I often encounter the claim that Susan Blackmore,
in Dying to Live, provides scientific proof the near-death
experience results from a “dying brain.” Skeptics
argue her work disproves the existence of spirit and the afterlife.
A close reading of Dying to Live, however, shows otherwise.
The following is a critique of the first eight chapters.
claim Susan Blackmore is an unbiased researcher, in the preface
to her book, she makes her prejudices known as she assumes the
viewpoint of the
biased skeptic. She writes:
"It is no wonder that we like
to deny death. Whole religions are based on that denial.
Turn to religion and you may be assured of eternal life.
...." And, "Of course, this comforting thought
conflicts with science. Science tells us that death
is the end and, as so often, finds itself opposing religion."
- Susan Blackmore, Dying To Live
is a misrepresentation of both religion and science. Consider
the comment, "whole religions are based upon a denial of
death." Religion's primary concern lies with the spirit
and its relationship to the universe. Some prefer the term “spiritual”
to describe religious views, focusing on the core issue - the
existence of spirit. Almost all religions hold the belief man
is, in essence, a spirit or soul that lives beyond body death.
This is not a denial of death, but rather a focus on the life
of the spirit. No one I know denies the existence of death -
the body dies. The life of the spirit is another matter. By
assuming spirit does not exist, Blackmore cynically reduces
the subject of religion to a denial of death. If the spirit
exists, however, and transcends body death (one of the two hypotheses
considered in Dying to Live), then Blackmore, not religion,
is in denial.
with page one, it's clear she does not intend to explore the
subject of NDEs (and survival of the spirit) with an unbiased
scientific approach. Her prejudice, not the research, will dictate
We see further
evidence of bias in her statement that belief in life after
death conflicts with science, as though "science"
were a monolithic authority that decrees "what is,"
rather than being a method of inquiry.
She offers the unsupported and blatantly
false statement that "science tells us” death is
the end. Though she may personally believe death is the end, "science"
makes no such pronouncement. Later in the book,
researchers with scientific
credentials who take the opposite position - that spirit
survives body death - are mentioned, which puts the lie to her
earlier statements that science tells us death is the end. Though
it may be appropriate to state the personal belief that spirit
does not survive body death, presuming to speak for "science"
diminishes the book's credibility from the outset.
to Live turns out to be, first and foremost, a personal
opinion in support of the skeptical viewpoint, not a statement
of scientific evidence or proof.
Later in the preface, another illogical
statement points up her agenda:
"The problem with evolution
is, and has always been, that it leaves little room
either for a grand purpose to life or for an individual
Nothing could be further
from the truth. Though the body is an evolving bio-organism,
the spirit is not; when it comes to questions of spirit or soul,
evolution is irrelevant. She uses a biological argument to dismiss
a non-biological premise, revealing her intention to dismiss
evidence a priori and substitute biases that arise from the
field of evolutionary psychology - the "man-is-an-animal"
school of thought.
Skeptics who claim the author
of Dying to Live is non-biased are proven wrong; skeptics
who claim she provides scientific proof are shown, by her own
words, to be in error.
competing hypotheses are advanced in
Dying to Live:
and The Dying Brain Hypothesis. The Afterlife Hypothesis states
spirit survives body death. The NDE is the result of spirit
separating from the body. The
Dying Brain Hypothesis
states the NDE is an artifact of brain chemistry. According
to the dying brain hypothesis, there is no spirit which survives
sets out to examine arguments for these two conflicting hypotheses
- then fails to do so. Blackmore never presents the actual Afterlife
Hypothesis; she presents a version intended to be refuted -
a straw man argument. So much for skeptics' claims of unbiased
In the list
of four arguments for the Afterlife Hypothesis, the most important
argument is omitted (later in the book it is addressed in passing).
This primary and most basic tenet of the Afterlife Hypothesis
- that spirit (and consciousness) separate from the body - deserves
primary attention, but Blackmore instead addresses tangential
to formulate a clear and concise statement of what must be demonstrated
to support each hypothesis, she fails to test clear assumptions
and ends up concluding neither has proof, after which she expresses
her feeling the Dying Brain Hypothesis must be right. Skeptics
make the mistake of claiming scientific proof when Blackmore
offers only opinion.
In the first
chapter, in quotes provided by NDErs, specific references are
made to being "outside
his/her body." NDEs, we learn, sometimes include the
observation of actual proceedings, such as operations, viewed
from unusual vantage points. This important point evidence,
the very essence of the Afterlife Hypothesis, is ignored at
this early stage in the text.
Particularly annoying to this reader
is a brief passage regarding
"The difference between
these teachings and the folk-tales we have been considering
-- and it is a very big difference -- is that in Buddhism
these experiences are not meant to be taken literally..."
She could not be more wrong. Tibetan
Buddhism endorses the Afterlife Hypothesis. Readers with only
passing familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism are aware they search
for reincarnated leaders and reinstate them to their position
in the monastery. Buddhists take life beyond death quite literally.
Blackmore misappropriates Buddhist concepts and fails to understand
Buddhist practice disproves her Dying Brain Hypothesis!
Convincing stories of the
tradition of NDE's in Buddhist
circles are compared to modern day NDE's:
Live arrives at the essence
of the Afterlife Hypothesis, the separation of spirit and body,
then ignores its significance. This dismissal of the key issue
casts doubt on the integrity of the work, integrity which is
placed further in doubt by the following:
sums up the similarities and differences she found between
modern and medieval accounts of people who died and
were revived again. In both, the first step is a kind
of dualistic parting of body and soul, with the separated
spirit looking down on its former dwelling place..."
"Western philosophers and
scientists have long argued cogently and powerfully
against this dualist view and the few who still defend
it.... are in a tiny minority amongst academics."
The opinion of a select few
academicians, who are not experts on the subject, can hardly
be called scientific evidence. In an earlier passage, she notes
that well over half the public, some seventy percent surveyed,
believe in life after death, then dismisses "popularity"
as a scientific criterion. Now she turns around and uses "popularity"
among academics as grounds for her argument. She offers personal
"The dualist temptation
is so great. Just as we do not like to imagine that
we will one day die, so we do not like to think of ourselves
as just an ever-changing and perishable body..."
People also do not like to think
of themselves as an immaterial being; they do not like to think
of themselves as anything but a body. The argument cuts both
ways. We are presented with amateur psychology in lieu of scientific
proof. Her opinion does not determine whether spirit departs
the body, it only serves to explain her personal psychology.
the chapter, once again, she misses the crux of the issue:
"Some have argued that
there is a kind of core experience that is common to
all people and to all cultures but which is overlaid
with cultural differences. .... It is tempting to think
that if we could somehow delve beneath the surface of
the accounts people give we would find the invariant,
true NDE underneath. But this is a vain hope."
But there is an invariant core to
the Afterlife Hypothesis:
the separation of spirit from body. This is obvious. It
is the very hypothesis under consideration.
perceives while it is separate is a different question. This
should be obvious, but apparently is not. Most of
Dying to Live
is spent disputing differences in perceptual or experiential
content, rather than inspecting the core hypothesis.
the point, consider the following thought experiment. Ask people
in various lands to take a Sunday afternoon stroll and report
their experience. There will be similarities, for example, the
report of the mobility of the body through the environment accompanied
by the senses taking in the environment. We would not be surprised,
however, to find a walk through Manhattan produces very different
content from that produced by a stroll through the bush country
of Kenya. Likewise, when one investigates NDEs, one needs to
distinguish core factors or invariants (such as separation from
body) from the varied content of perception. When this critical
difference is overlooked in
Dying to Live,
the validity of the work is undermined.
Drugs are entered
into the equation and Blackmore reveals her personal experiences
phenomena under the effects of controlled substances. She
notes some differences in NDE's when they occur as a result
of drug use, then uses this to "disprove" the
invariance hypothesis (the hypothesis that these experiences
should have commonality):
"My own interpretation
is that the invariance hypothesis is not supported.
The NDE varies according to the conditions that set
it off and the person having it."
previously mentioned, she errors in looking at content differences,
while ignoring invariance in the basics. In our thought experiment,
it was demonstrated that reports which varied due to differences
between scenery in Kenya and Manhattan did not mean one subject
did not take a walk. Likewise, if the stroller in Manhattan
ingests drugs and then turns in a report that varies in content,
this does not mean the subject did not stroll through the environment
as requested, only that his perceptions varied due to his drugged
the invariance hypothesis, Blackmore fails to take into account:
of spirits when they separate (to varying degrees) from
the body and,
The varied perceptual and
cognitive content that occurs, depending upon the circumstances
It is folly to reduce a complex human
and spiritual experience into machine-like simplicity. When
it comes to the study of humans, such
reductionism results in absurd conclusions.
This error underlies the theoretical
turn she takes which colors the remainder of the book:
"Do you have to be near
death to have an NDE? One motivation for asking this
question is the 'just like hallucinations' argument.
According to this view, NDE's, drug-induced hallucinations,
out-of-body experiences occurring under normal conditions
and other kinds of hallucinations are all related."
In other words, the NDE is
not an isolated phenomena. The common link between NDE and these
other experiences is the release of the spirit, to a greater
or lesser extent, from the body. This is the relation that should
The real question should not be, "Do
you have to be near death to have an NDE?" but rather do
you have to be near death for the spirit to separate from the
tells us the answer is no.
The spirit can and does leave the
body in any number of situations, including those that occur
without drugs or trauma. This is exactly what one would expect
to find if the Afterlife Hypothesis is true. If one postulates
spirit surviving body death, one also postulates spirit being
different and separate from the body it inhabits. The Afterlife
Hypothesis predicts the spirit should be capable of separating
from the body under conditions other than impending death. The
evidence Blackmore cites thus directly supports the Afterlife
of recognizing a common link that supports the Afterlife Hypothesis,
"This might lend support
to theories trying to explain the features of the NDE
in medical, psychological, or physiological terms and
go against theories involving a spirit or soul or heavenly
Failing to see the obvious common
element between the different situations, she offers an unwarranted
and unsupported assumption. How she arrives at her conjecture
is not clear, as she doesn't make the case for her argument.
She fails to support her reasoning. She assumes, incorrectly,
that NDE phenomena must be purely medical, psychological, or
physiological with no spiritual component.
Throughout the book, one finds this
pattern repeated. Evidence that clearly supports the Afterlife
Hypothesis is presented, then, without explanation, the opposite
conclusion is advanced.
that follow lend further support to the Afterlife Hypothesis:
"There is lots of evidence
for NDE-type experiences in people who are not close
to dying. The experience of leaving the body has a long
history and surveys show that something like 10-20 per
cent of people have this experience at some time during
“The experience of leaving
the body has a long history” clearly supports the Afterlife
Hypothesis. She considers drugs to present “medical phenomena,”
but does she not consider how drugs affect the spirit's connection
to the body. How do powerful hallucinogens and anesthetics affect
a spirit's ability to remain connected to the body? Do toxic
effects of such drugs bring the body close to death? As she
presents these phenomena, she fails to take the Afterlife Hypothesis
into account. Her bias prevents her from asking common sense
on to discuss the effects of drugs, including
"Under conditions of extreme
tiredness and smoking hashish I had an NDE-type experience
complete with the tunnel and light, out-of-body travels,
expansion and contraction of size, timelessness, a mystical
experience and the decision to return..."
It becomes critical for our understanding
to consider how drugs affect the interface between spirit, mind,
and body. How drugs affect the condition of the spirit when
it separates and when it returns? Drugs are a major source of
confusion within NDE research.
end of the chapter, research is cited that suggests the spirit
separates from the body in other than death situations, which
supports the Afterlife hypothesis. Blackmore writes:
"The argument used by others
reporting on this research goes like this: if the brain
is responsible for thinking, then when it is dying one
would expect thinking to become disordered or less clear.
The evidence that it becomes clearer therefore implies
that the brain is not responsible; that the soul or
spirit is experiencing the clarity and may go on doing
so after death."
Again, we find a consistency
between the Afterlife Hypothesis and the evidence reported.
Blackmore, however, stands before the evidence and engages in
"This is one possible interpretation
of the evidence, but it is not the only one. It is not
obvious that the dying brain must produce either more
or less clear perceptions and thoughts. An alternative
is that as the brain dies, less thoughts are possible
and so the few that remain seem clearer and simpler
That a dying brain showing little
or no activity should function in this clear-thinking manner
is absurd, and totally unsupported by research. The author of
Dying to Live
reviews the literature, inadvertently presents a well-supported
case for the Afterlife Hypothesis, then advances unsubstantiated
conjecture. Bias and prejudice undermine scholarship.
ends with an unwarranted conclusion, unsupported by anything
that has preceded:
"Our next step is now clear,
if not easy; to try to understand what happens in the
The evidence points to a
spiritual being that separates from the body. Understanding
the details of how this happens is our logical next step.
Blackmore instead claims the agenda
is to understand the dying brain, an assertion motivated by
bias, not evidence. Prejudices erode and damage the quality
of Dying to Live.
The chapter opens
with Blackmore presenting a claim that a person under the effects
nitrous oxide was able to view from outside his body. Her
non-sequitur conclusion reads:
"I think this illustrates
the reluctance we have to accept that our experience,
especially profound and personally meaningful experience,
comes from our brain's activity and nothing else."
other words, when someone reports an out-of-body experience,
he thereby demonstrates a reluctance to admit it was his
brain at work. With no discussion of facts that would contradict
the purported event, with no discussion of the possible
variables at work, without a shred of contrary data, she
concludes the person made up the account because saying
he was out of his body "made a better story."
Non-sequitur conclusions diminish her case. She states
evidence for A, concludes B.
Later in the chapter, she states:
"Are these profound experiences
a direct correlate of changes in the brain's activity
and nothing more, or are they experiences of a separate
mind, soul, astral body, or spirit? ... The general
assumption of today's science says one thing yet people...say
another -- especially people who have had NDE's. Scientists
for the most part assume some form of materialism; that
mental phenomena depend upon, or are an aspect of, brain
Skeptics must be squirming. What
could she be thinking? She argues based upon what scientists
assume. This is exactly the approach skeptics criticize. She
favors scientists' assumptions over firsthand accounts. If skeptics
were honest in their appraisal of
Dying to Live,
they would state “Susan Blackmore assumes...” and
that would be the end of the debate. Instead, they misrepresent
the work as scientific proof.
"As we have seen, the very occurrence
of NDEs is not proof either way," she writes. With a wave
of her pen she dismisses evidence she previously presented,
evidence supporting the Afterlife Hypothesis, and asks us to
accept non-sequitur conjecture. We should be wary of such biased
thinking. The fact is the NDE - with its out-of-body component
- goes a long way toward proving the spirit exists separate
from the body. Later, she writes:
"If the Afterlife Hypothesis
can answer them best then I shall accept that and work
with that as well as I can. If the dying brain hypothesis
does better than I shall work with that."
As we have already seen, however,
she has no intention of considering the Afterlife Hypothesis.
Even in Dying to Live,
the Afterlife Hypothesis is a best fit with the evidence, however,
when evidence points to the Afterlife Hypothesis, it is blatantly
Next, the reader is asked to consider
the ever popular "cerebral
the loss-of-oxygen-to-the-brain scenario. She presents four
reasons researchers argue anoxia cannot be responsible for the
NDE. It is only necessary for us to consider the first:
NDEs can occur in people
who obviously do not have anoxia.
Her response reads:
"This is certainly true
but is not a sound argument at all. As we have seen,
there is clearly no one cause of the NDE. .... The fact
that NDEs can occur without anoxia is no argument against
it sometimes being responsible for them."
As she agrees anoxia does not provide “the”
explanation for the NDE, that it is one among many possible
factors, the obvious question to ask is, "What do ALL the
factors have in common?"
Trauma to the body can interrupt the connection between
the spirit and the body -
lack of oxygen,
injury, even the
anticipation of great bodily harm or death. These
are all factors which serve to disconnect or separate
the functioning of spirit and body. That which requires
research and explanation is how spirit interfaces with
the body and what causes an interruption or severance
of this connection.
And one finds:
Experiences not involving drugs or trauma but rather
a decision on the part of the spirit to separate from
the body, either as a demonstration of
natural ability, or as a result of
acquired skill. For example,
Tibetan Buddhism or other training.
Thus, we have "accidental"
separation and "intentional" separation. The key factor
recounts the story of
a volunteer in high G force experiments, who, while outside
his body, "went home and saw his mother and brother."
Again and again, we have examples that cry out for explanation
in terms of the Afterlife Hypothesis, but Blackmore fails to
even consider the Afterlife Hypothesis. She states evidence,
then dodges with:
invariance hypothesis is not sustainable. The NDE
is not always the same and we need to try to understand
its different elements in different ways."
She fails to consider the
basis of the Afterlife Hypothesis, that the spirit separates
from body. She instead uses variety of content as an excuse
to ignore the profound, consistent core of the NDE and related
experiences - separation of spirit from body.
She fails to ask,
what is the nature of spirit? What are the spirit's perceptual
and cognitive abilities when separate? Without an inquiry into
such matters, it is not possible to consider the Afterlife Hypothesis.
Her bias toward
philosophical materialism prevents consideration of the
considering the Afterlife Hypothesis, she asks how anoxia affects
the brain, even though anoxia itself is not the common element.
She argues anoxia is not a common invariant factor of the NDE,
then proceeds in her attempt to explain the NDE on the basis
of anoxia. The real question is, "What
condition does anoxia cause that is the same as conditions caused
by other precipitating factors?" In other words, "What
do they have in common?"
Without asking these questions, we
end up with a one-sided and incomplete analysis based entirely
upon bias toward a brain explanation. The Afterlife Hypothesis
is merely trotted out as a straw figure to be knocked down.
this chapter, the author discusses
drug-induced hallucinations, but fails to explore the question
what exactly is a hallucination, what does one view in a
hallucination? The assumption is made that the nature of hallucination
is known, when this is not the case. The study of consciousness,
still in a primitive state, does not answer this question. She
works on the premise that a hallucination is a visual or auditory
perception that does not coincide with "objective"
reality, but fails to establish what it is one views in a hallucination.
It's obvious that something, some from of mental imagery, is
perceived. What is it?
As a result
of bias, she does not ask how spirit, detached from a body,
as in the Afterlife Hypothesis, might perceive mental pictures
or imagery. How do such perception correlate with "objective"
reality? In other words, she fails to consider a
model of mind that would accompany the Afterlife Hypothesis
and confines her speculation to
brain theory. An unbiased researcher must investigate the
phenomena within the paradigms of each hypothesis.
about the NDErs passing through a tunnel of mental energy, she
"There are many serious
problems with such a theory. If the other worlds are
a part of this world then they cannot really account
for the afterlife."
This conclusion proves false
when we consider the NDE reports. They see not only
ethereal energy patterns, they view the “objective”
world - the world of operating rooms and other more mundane
settings. Reports tell us "this" world is intermingled
with the world of
mental energy. This same phenomenon is common in everyday
experience - people are perfectly capable of managing the world
imagination, the world of
mental images, while going about their business in the "real"
Mixing subjective and objective reality is a common experience.
Why this should not be so after death is not made clear by Blackmore.
In fact, the question is not even considered. She continues:
"Something should be seen
leaving the body and going into the tunnel. The tunnel
itself would be present in physical space and we should
be able to measure it or in some way detect its presence."
That's why those skilled
at observing the
subtle energy that surrounds the spirit are able to perceive
such events. Reports from NDErs claim an ability to perceive
spirits while out of body. Mediums skilled at communicating
with disembodied spirits perceive this energy as well. Research
death bed patients often perceive disembodied spirits. Will
we ever possess detectors sensitive enough to measure the mental
energy patterns that make up our subjective world? Of course.
The history of science is filled with examples of technological
breakthroughs that have allowed researchers to
detect that which was formerly invisible. There's good reason
to suspect this scenario be repeated in this field. Blackmore
"Still we should not reject
such theories out of hand just because they seem senseless.
It is better to apply some criteria to them and see
how they fare. Is this theory specific? No, not at all.
The tunnels described are all different in precise form
and this theory can say nothing about what forms they
should or should not take."
She again focuses on content, not
underlying phenomena. The structure of specific tunnels is not
in question; as has been stated, they are mental constructs,
mental energy patterns. As such they take many malleable forms.
Such mental energy is not confined to a brain, but rather is
patterned energy that makes up the mind, which is not the brain.
If one considers the Afterlife Hypothesis and the NDE reports,
one must consider mind to be patterned energy that can be viewed
by spirit. This patterned energy exists separate from, but superimposed
upon, the body.
spirit separates from the body, as in the Afterlife Hypothesis,
it remains "cloaked" in its mind. Individual spirits
exist within energy masses when they leave the body. The content
of this mind will vary from individual to individual, which
explains why we have varying content, but invariant mechanics.
energy patterns we shall call the mind can best be imagined
by comparing it to the
quantum pilot wave concept, in which a less substantial,
quantum wave pattern is entangled with a denser, macroscopic
structure. (An analogy would be a
radio signal directing the motions of a large super tanker.)
patterned energy of the mind entangles with the
body and the brain. The degree to which the spirit disentangles
mind from body monitors the degree to which spirit can be out
element that precipitates the NDE or OBE is the disentanglement
of the mind and spirit from the body. The disentanglement of
subtle energy from coarse energy. In the Afterlife Hypothesis,
one would find the spirit moving out of body, surrounded by
its mind, which also detaches (to a greater or lesser degree)
from the body/brain.
attention, when out of body, shifts from the concerns of the
body to the subtle energy of the mind. It views old energy patterns
and/or creates new ones, either by itself or in concert with
other disembodied spirits. One has variance of content, invariance
of the mechanics. In our mundane, every day lives, we are familiar
mental realm that cloaks the spirit. This is the subjective
world, the world of the mind, the world of
consciousness. The degree to which the
spirit, outside the body, focuses on dense physical as opposed
to less dense mental energy patterns, varies. This accounts
for the varied nature of NDE accounts which include both perceptions
of physical setting and patterned mental energy.
If one intends
to compare the Afterlife Hypothesis to the Dying Brain Hypothesis,
one must take this model of the mind into account. One must
understand the spirit in its disembodied condition. Without
such understanding, one never compares the two hypotheses, which
leads to a failure to determine which model best explains the
unable to conceptualize the assumptions of the Afterlife Hypothesis,
gives it no consideration at all. Contrary to skeptics' claims,
she fails to weigh the evidence in light of the two opposing
mountains of reports from experiencers attesting to out of body
states it is incumbent upon us to explore the reports as
they are given. Before one decides they're purely imaginary
and lack substance, one must attempt to understand the ways
in which the reports might be accurate - as presented. One must
at least attempt to come to grips with the details and not summarily
dismiss the phenomena as brain-induced hallucination.
If one is
to consider the Afterlife Hypothesis as more than a straw man
argument to be discarded, one must look at how the detached
spirit interfaces with the body. One must take the basic premise
of the Afterlife Hypothesis, the separation of spirit from body,
and ask, how might this work?
When one goes the extra step and
considers the model in detail, a more coherent theory emerges
which explains the phenomena without the necessity of dismissing
NDE reports. The model fits the data.
do not fit Blackmore's Dying Brain Hypothesis, thus she must
assume the NDErs are mistaken. She must discard evidence and
substitute conjecture. She must avoid the actual research.
Perhaps she fails to explore the
Afterlife Hypothesis due to a lack of knowledge and insight
or perhaps bias prevents her from considering both hypotheses
equally. In either case, the primary failing is the lack of
a valid inquiry into the Afterlife Hypothesis. Failing to correctly
state the premises of the Afterlife Hypothesis, let alone compare
research data with the assumptions, undermines the work.
In this chapter,
the author's actual agenda becomes clear. It is not an agenda
that includes researching and comparing the two stated hypotheses.
She takes off the mask, and admits:
"I have been developing
a theory of the NDE that tries to explain it completely
in terms of processes in the dying brain."
The attempt to reduce
the near-death experience to brain physiology rests upon a semantic
"The first is a direct
challenge to any physiological or naturalistic theory
of the NDE. It is simply this: that some NDErs claim
they could accurately see events from outside their
bodies. In other words, they claim paranormal powers.
And paranormal powers, by definition, cannot be explained
in terms of 'normal' theories."
Her dismissal of evidence
that stands in opposition to her theory makes no sense, for
a number of reasons:
She dismisses the very claims she purports to study.
She dismisses the Afterlife Hypothesis as "paranormal."
Though our task was to evaluate how evidence fit the
Afterlife Hypothesis, she now dismisses the hypothesis
entirely by simply labeling it "paranormal."
proper approach would be to pursue the research as originally
proposed and compare the hypotheses in light of the data. One
finds claims of out-of-body perception directly support the
Afterlife Hypothesis, which states the spirit survives body
death in a conscious state. Claims of out-of-body perception
directly support this hypothesis as they demonstrate the existence
of a spirit which can detach from the body. The actual reports
from those who experience the phenomena support the Afterlife
Hypothesis and contradict the Dying Brain Hypothesis. This is
the type of analysis one conducts if one is doing science.
Scientific procedure dictates that
if you find data that support one hypothesis over another, even
if you are not sure exactly how the underlying phenomena work,
you are duty bound to further investigate the hypothesis the
data supports. Following the argument a step further:
"The second objection often
comes from people who have had NDEs or other kinds of
mystical experiences. You are wrong, they say, this
feeling of bliss is nothing like a chemically induced
high. It is a spiritual joy; an experience of the soul;
a transcendence of ordinary pleasure and pain. Drug
induced joy is a sham; not the real thing at all."
This objection, voiced by those who
have had the experience, those closest to the subject of our
research, conforms to the Afterlife Hypothesis. They claim the
experience is not body/brain/drug based, but rather an experience
of separation from ordinary body sensations.
If one takes
the Afterlife Hypothesis seriously, one would predict a change
in feeling/perception when the spirit disentangles or disengages
from the coarser energy of the body. A picture of what might
be expected can be extrapolated from the Afterlife Hypothesis.
Such a projection closely matches the NDE reports. Susan Blackmore
dismisses the data and instead inserts her "contention:
"... It is my contention
that this "real thing" -- NDEs, mystical experiences
and indeed everything encountered on the spiritual path
-- are products of a brain and the universe of which
it is a part. For there is nothing else."
Those interested in knowledge gained
via pursuit of the scientific method are left adrift. Not only
does Blackmore blatantly toss out primary research data and
substitute her own prejudices, she makes the outrageous statement:
"For there is nothing else."
This begs the question, how does
she know "there is nothing else?"
begins with perhaps the most accurate statements found in the
"Some very strong claims
are made. The implication is always the same; that people
during NDEs have actually seen the events occurring
from a location outside their bodies. 'They' have left
their bodies and that is why they can accurately see
what is going on. If these claims are valid then the
theory I am developing is wrong...."
Strong claims have been made.
The data exits. The experience exists. Those reporting concur:
they view from outside their bodies. This should not be
a surprise given the Afterlife Hypothesis predicts exactly
this result. When making a decision on which hypothesis
is supported by the research, without doubt, the Afterlife
Hypothesis wins out.
is correct: the Dying Brain Hypothesis is wrong. But here
is how she responds to reports that clearly contradict her
"I want to be quite
clear. It is my contention that there is no soul,
spirit, astral body or anything at all that leaves
the body during NDEs and survives after death. These,
like the very idea of a persisting self, are all
the face of data that clearly contradicts her theory, Blackmore
simply contends the Afterlife Hypothesis is false.
How does she explain
reports of out-of-body perceptions that contradict her theory?:
"The answers include prior knowledge,
fantasy and lucky guesses and the remaining senses of
hearing and touch."
Aware of the tenuous
nature of her argument, she must reassure us:
"This may sound destructive
and doubting - an exercise in debunking. But my intention
is not to debunk so much as to assess the alternatives."
one follows the arguments in the book, however, it's clear the
sole purpose is to debunk. There is no intention of assessing
alternatives. When research clearly supports the Afterlife Hypothesis,
the data is ignored or dismissed as "lucky guesses and
fantasy." She contends there is no spirit, thus no reason
to consider the Afterlife Hypothesis. Research data is replaced
with personal bias and opinion.
Assessing the merit
of her dismissal of NDE reports, we find claims the NDErs are
not really seeing from a vantage point outside the body, claims
NDErs construct a visual image as a result of hearing and touch.
does not correlate with the reports of those who have the experience.
They recall the actual event of viewing from specific locations.
In other words, it is not merely the content they view, but
also the actual experience of viewing. One can perform a simple
demonstration to illustrate the difference. Sit down, close
your eyes, and visualize the room - based upon what you hear
and feel. Now open your eyes and view the room. You can distinguish
the two events. In the latter, you experience the actual process
prior knowledge accounts for reports in which subjects view
events, settings, or personnel does not hold up, for often it
is the first time the setting and events are viewed. In such
cases, no prior experience exists upon which to draw. Prior
knowledge fails to account for awareness of viewing in the moment.
Blackmore's claim is comparable to saying a person only imagined
he woke up this morning because he had prior knowledge of what
it was like to wake up. There is a discernible experiential
difference between reconstructing memories and actually viewing
in the present. Sit down, close your eyes, and recall a memory
of being in the room. Open your eyes and perceive the room.
Notice the difference between the recall of the memory and experiencing “in
the moment.” Blackmore ignores reports that claim the
experience was not one of reconstructing memories, but rather
one of being aware in the present.
explanation does not merit a response when it comes to reports
wherein the scene viewed matched actual physical events. She
risks falling into the dubious trap of becoming the "authority"
on someone else's experience when she puts forth such conjecture.
Assigning the label of fantasy arbitrarily removes the research
from the realm of science and places it squarely in the realm
of personal opinion. As long as she is the authority who determines
what is real and what is fantasy, we arrive not at scientific
conclusions but rather at her personal view of the world.
attempt to dismiss the evidence by attributing it to "lucky
guesses" is an insult to readers. This covers all the bases
- yes, you perceived correctly, but it was a "lucky guess."
This is an arbitrary method of eliminating research that contradicts
one's pet theory.
It's apparent Blackmore
does not respect the reports of people who have actually had
an NDE. She does not need their reports. (After all, their reports
are fantasy or lucky guesses.) When actual research disproves
her theory, she tosses the research aside and substitutes conjecture.
If this analysis seems overly harsh, consider her closing remarks
in this chapter:
"Why are so many books full
of accounts of people seeing at a distance while out
of their bodies? I think there is a simple answer to
this. When things seem real we expect them to correspond
to an external shared reality. The NDE, like many other
altered states of consciousness, is an exception to
this rule. In the NDE things seem real when in fact
they are constructed by the imagination. No wonder people
are led astray."
offers no proof that NDE perceptions are imagination, she only
offers conjecture, prejudice, and bias. She dismisses the simplest
conclusion - that people making the reports are truthful and
accurate. This allows her to circumvent the obvious: the reports
support the Afterlife Hypothesis and contradict the Dying Brain
Hypothesis. She states:
"Finally, many people have a
strong desire to believe in a life after death and,
even more so, in a self that persists through life.
Evidence that what they saw was correct may seem to
back up the idea that they, themselves, do have a separate
existence and might survive."
right. The evidence supports the Afterlife Hypothesis. And yet
she dismisses the evidence, implying that simply because people
have such a desire they must be exaggerating, falsifying, and
fantasizing. This is the same as saying because alcoholics crave
liquor there really isn't any liquor - they're making it up.
Desire leads to fantasy. Any objects of our desire therefore
must be fantasy.
If, as the data suggests, spirit
exists separate from the body and survives body death, it is
Blackmore's desire to deny the existence of spirit that leads
to exaggeration, falsification, and fantasy. The Dying Brain
theory is the result of her passionate desire to debunk the
In this chapter, Blackmore
agrees the NDE is a real experience, but disputes the reality
of the content:
"I don't think any of them makes
any sense or can do the job of explaining the NDE. This
is a wide and sweeping dismissal but I believe it is
justified, not least because all these theories start
from confused assumptions about the difference between
reality and imagination."
confusion rests in a failure to understand the difference between
reality and imagination. A failure to understand objective and
subjective. But the confusion is Blackmore's. She fails to understand
the "reality" of the subjective - energy patterns
that make up the mind (not the brain), which encompass the spirit
and account for much of the content of the NDE. She fails to
understand that in the typical NDE one views both the mental
energy patterns and the "objective" world.
The reader can perform
a simple demonstration to illustrate the fact. Look at the room:
objective reality. Now imagine a lion covered with pink dots
stretched out on the floor. Superimpose the subjective, imaginary
lion over the objective room. People manage to shift focus back
and forth and superimpose thoughts over the objective world
all the time. When the spirit departs the body, this combination
of subjective and objective comes into play.
She comments on the
nature of the world the NDErs encounters when they depart from
"The act of dying, according
to Ring's new theory, involves a gradual shift of consciousness
from the ordinary world of appearances to a holographic
reality of pure frequencies."
refers to the energy patterns or pictures I reference above.
He notes the increased focus on subtle energy patterns when
the spirit is outside the body. Blackmore adds:
"The second error is to suggest
that consciousness can function in this other reality
without the brain."
no "error,” the Afterlife Hypothesis states the spirit
exists independent of the body. The Afterlife Hypothesis does
not tie consciousness into the brain. Ring's statement is consistent
with both the Afterlife Hypothesis and the evidence.
Blackmore fails to consider the Afterlife
Hypothesis on its own terms. Instead, she applies the assumptions
of the Dying Brain Hypothesis. She fails to consider the Afterlife
Hypothesis and its assumption that spirit consciously separates
from the body/brain. Ring's argument and the body of evidence
support just such an assumption. Blackmore falls back on prejudice: “the
brain did it.” She recognizes the aborted nature of her
"My dismissal of the holographic
theories might still seem cavalier, especially since
they seem to provide an insight into mystical experience
dismissal not only seems cavalier, it is. She fails to consider
the evidence and hypotheses under consideration.
takes up concepts presented in Talbot's
David Bohm's implicate order
Pribram's speculation on the holographic mind
model. (Both Bohm and Pribram
work on the assumption the brain is the source of consciousness,
so neither should be considered spokespersons for the Afterlife
Hypothesis.) Bohm describes a classical universe resting
on top of a more basic quantum reality. He describes this underlying
reality as "idea like" but fails to consider that
mind and spirit exist separate from the body. Thus, he fails
to take the step that would make his theory relevant to the
question at hand. His theories become useful only when they
are applied to the concept of mind separate from the brain.
When one considers mind to be energy patterns which encompass
the spirit, the application of quantum theory and implicate
order begins to make sense.
Roger Penrose, another
physicist presenting theoretical work on consciousness, also
fails because he does not consider consciousness separate from
the brain. See Penrose's
Shadows of the Mind.
In the section, "Paranormal
Phenomena (Not) Explained," Blackmore claims:
phenomena above can all be explained when one understands: the
mind; the dynamics between mind and spirit; communication between
spirits; and the impingement of mind upon the body. A detailed
explanation emerges when all these factors are taken into account.
the existence of explanations by critiquing only Bohm's work.
Bohm, however, did not attempt to answer such questions with
his theory and never applied his implicate/explicate model to
the concept of a spirit. Blackmore appears to respond to
Talbot's accounts and
conjectures, which are admittedly sketchy and incomplete.
In order to compare the Afterlife Hypothesis and the Dying Brain
Hypothesis, one must start with the research. All phenomena
reported can be explained quite easily by a comprehensive model
of spirit out of body. I'm no doubt too critical of Blackmore
in this regard as she does not have the tools to construct such
a model. There would be nothing wrong, in my opinion, with her
simply admitting she does not understand the Afterlife Hypothesis
and holds a bias in favor of the Dying Brain Hypothesis. She
"If we think of the eye as a
camera then we are inclined to think that it sends a
picture up into the brain. What in the brain looks at
this picture? Well, another sort of 'inner eye,' I suppose.
And how does this inner eye see? .... This is known
homunculus problem because it implies a little person,
homunculus, sitting in the brain looking at the
description calls for exactly what we find in NDE and OBE phenomena,
a spirit that exists independent of the body which answers the
question of who is looking. (Of course, one needs to arrive
at an accurate description of the observer, rather than using
the metaphor of a little person sitting in the brain.)
It is just this spirit that the Afterlife Hypothesis posits
and which the NDE evidence supports. All that's missing is research
into the exact nature of this spirit. The only reason this does
not happen is the idea is dismissed off hand.
In place of genuine
research, Blackmore suggests cognitive science has the answer:
brain as computer, the person as robot. She doesn't support
this contention, and anyone even tangentially familiar with
the subject realizes such models have failed dramatically to
account for real life. She goes on:
"There is no need for that homonculus
... Right from the start of the process of perception,
the sensory information is transformed, processed, and
stored as connection strengths between neurons..."
explanation does not hold up. The old "stored in the neurons"
theory has been found wanting. Anyone interested in the problems
encountered with such models should read Roger Penrose's
Shadows of the Mind, which addresses the failure
of computational models to account for the nature of consciousness.
Blackmore's simplistic, reductionist model fails to account
for natural everyday consciousness, let alone the NDE reports
of perception from outside the body.
She then presents
models" concept from
cognitive science. The idea is, basically, that thought
and perceptions are little programs, subroutines stored in the
brain. She proclaims:
"'I' am no more and no less
then a mental model." and "My brain builds
She takes the analogy further:
"My answer is that consciousness
is just the subjective aspect of all this modeling.
It is how it feels to be a mental model. Of course,
'I' am only one of the models. ‘I' am not a special
being inside the head directing attention to one thing
or another. Rather 'I' am just one of many models built
by this system..."
goes on to say 'me' is basically an illusion.
The computing model she presents, however,
does not account for many aspects of consciousness - non-computational
thought, free will, qualia, etc. - and most importantly it does
not fit the NDE or OBE phenomena, which contradict and disprove
her model. (That may be the real reason she needs to "debug"
the phenomena - when one factors in the NDE and OBE, her computational
theories are no longer appropriate.)
Her "mental model"
theory becomes tenuous, mysterious:
"And is there a real world out
there? Well, if we adopt this view we can never know.
We assume there is in the way we talk about brains and
what they do. But it is only an assumption - a useful
working model. It is just another of those ubiquitous
mental models. Indeed everything we experience, including
ourselves, is a mental model."
"If there is no underlying reality
then the NDE, like every other experience, is a matter
of the mental models being constructed by the brain
at the time."
mental models which deny any possibility of knowing "reality,"
ends up being the ultimate subjectivism, with no bridge to the
objective world possible.
Skeptics may be surprised
to discover she holds this viewpoint which directly contradicts
their debate platform. A primary tenet of their arguments, that
the world "out there" is real and everything "in
here" is unreal, falls apart if they support her theory.
Their argument, that believers in the paranormal are solipsistic,
must be discarded if they embrace Blackmore, for her model concludes
we can never know if there is a real world out there.
This "we can
never know" theory simply fails to cross the threshold
into an understanding of the subjective and the objective, and
the relationship between them. A full discussion of such details
lies outside the scope of this critique. A brief summary of
Idealism, however, includes the concept that our subjective
experience is real and from this primary realm flows the objective
world. In other words, the objective flows from the subjective.
Condensed thought (subjective) becomes the world of matter (objective).
Thus, there's not only a perceptual link between the subjective
and the objective, but a causal link as well. Ultimately one
must gain an understanding of Idealism and the link between
subjective and objective if one is to truly understand the Afterlife
For now, I will merely suggest we can
know both the subjective and the objective. We're not stranded
forever inside our craniums in the bleak, robotic world Blackmore
proposes. In the Afterlife Hypothesis, consciousness is not
an emergent property of a brain. Thus, that which consciousness "models"
and perceives and creates is not a product of the brain.
In Blackmore's model,
we can never know whether what we perceive out there is real
as we are only models in the brain, limited by our emergence
from the brain. In the Afterlife Hypothesis, we can know what
is real as our perceptions and knowledge are not limited by
the brain / body. We can know "out there."
If one analyzes Blackmore's
theory, one finds it is, at its core, idealistic. If one removes
the brain as the source of her mental models and replaces it
with the spirit, one arrives at Idealism consistent with the
Afterlife Hypothesis. She considers the physical brain creates
mental models and consciousness as emergent properties, whereas
the Afterlife Hypothesis assumes the spirit creates the mental
models, in which case the physical emerges from consciousness,
not the other way around.
Dying to Live
turns mystical thought inside out:
"Once you see that all 'you'
are is a collection of mental models, you see the illusion."
attentive reader will ask - who is the "you" that
sees the "you" mental model? In traditional mysticism,
it is the immaterial you, the spirit, that sees its "identities"
as mental models (Idealism). Blackmore alters this traditional
mystical view. Her statement should read: Once the mental model
sees 'you' as a mental model, the mental model sees the illusion.
Mental models trapped forever in feedback loops with no real “you”
there. She turns mysticism upside down and postulates the physical
as the only reality, a reality we can never know. This is not
what we find, however, when we investigate real living persons.
This is not what we find with NDEs and OBEs. We find the traditional
mystical model - with an immaterial being, a spirit that
is “you” - to be accurate.
Her misuse of "illusion"
tips the reader off to her misunderstanding of the Buddhist
concept which considers the physical to be thought, thus an
illusion. The is the ultimate version of Idealism. In such a
system, the brain is itself an illusion in the sense that all
physical is illusion. Her model ignores the Buddhist concepts
of reincarnation and afterlife, in which the "you"
is obviously not a mental model, but rather the "you"
of the Afterlife Hypothesis.
She borrows the language, but not
the meaning, of Buddhist concepts, when she equates illusion
with her cognitive science mental models. She borrows "illusion"
from Buddhism, but fails to explain
Buddhist concepts of life after death
and the survival of the spirit. Those beliefs support the Afterlife
Hypothesis and contradict the Dying Brain Hypothesis.
Perhaps the western practice of mixing
drugs and mysticism causes some of the confusion. She mentions
an encounter with
Baba Ram Dass:
"Once a successful psychologist,
Richard Alpert, he had many experiences with drugs and
studied with gurus in the East before becoming a teacher
himself. When I met him I was confused."
She was confused. So was he: He commented
to her that things just got more confusing, but such may be
nothing more than a common side effect of LSD. Drugs bring confusion
not enlightenment. Blackmore states her experience with NDE/OBE
phenomena occurred as a result of drug use, so we may guess
that in order to understand the NDE and related phenomena, it
may be necessary to clear up the confusion introduced by drugs.
most important question is taken up in this chapter titled "In
or Out of the Body?"
The experience of
being outside the body is the single most important aspect of
the NDE; and defines OBE. Why is it so important? The experience
of being out of the body directly confirms the Afterlife Hypothesis
which states the spirit transcends death. If the spirit is different
from the body, one would expect the spirit to be able to separate
even in non-death situations, and that is exactly what the out
of body experience confirms.
The chapter begins
with a report of someone claiming to have been outside, looking
down on the body. The person making the report continues to
be conscious, to think, and to perceive physical events. And
reports slamming back into the body. The report includes the
person confirming details of what he had seen while out of body.
Then Blackmore provides
additional examples, which we know are a few among many, many
reports with the common elements of viewing the body from outside,
seeing events transpire, and being jolted back into the body.
"The people who have OBEs are
just as likely to be male or female, educated or uneducated,
religious or not religious."
(Which disproves her earlier
contention that the experience arises out of people's religious
denial of death.)
She notes drugs are often
associated with OBEs and states:
"I have had OBEs myself
with this drug (ketamine), though not as vivid as naturally
As noted before, her experience with the
subject matter is drug-related. She goes on:
"OBEs occurring in daily life
tend to happen when the person is resting, about to
fall asleep, or meditating, but they can also happen
in the midst of ordinary activity."
will be seen to be important when it comes to her conjecture
that all such experiences are the result of trauma-based imagination.)
regarding the separation:
"....I believe that what happens
when an individual is near the point of apparent death
is a real, and not just a subjective, separation of
something... from the physical body. It is this 'something'
that then perceives the immediate physical environment
and then goes on to experience events..."
analysis supports the Afterlife Hypothesis. The something, the
spirit, leaves the body. His analysis conforms to the reports.
His analysis matches the research data. The difference between
Kenneth Ring (and others who study the phenomena intensively)
and Blackmore is the degree to which their conclusions conform
to the research data.
Blackmore, in my opinion,
ignores the research and takes a tortuous route into pure speculation
of a most tenuous nature. She speculates the only 'I' is a mental
model, and the reason we apparently get out of the body is tied
in with why we think we are in it, namely:
"Part of the answer is that
building a model from eye-level view is the most efficient
way of making use of the information coming in from
our predominant sense." And, "It can only
be a guess, but I imagine that dogs are more inclined
to feel they are inside their noses than we are."
Time to stop for a chuckle, then
on with her suggestion that these models (who we really are)
dissolve under various conditions such as drugs. Blackmore writes:
"I shall never forget my own
ketamine experience, the extraordinary sensation of
watching the floating parts of the body that seemed
to have nothing to do with 'me' coming in and out of
vision as 'I' seemed to drift about away from them."
says "I shall never forget" but, according to her
hypothesis, the "I" should have been dissolved. Incapacitate
the model maker, and the model should disappear. Yet there is
this stable sense of "I." The "I" that "shall
never forget." She is unable to live her own theory.
She says she watched
parts of her body which seemed to have nothing to do with "me."
She experienced being separate from the body. If she was just
a model, created by the body, this would be a very, very unlikely
event. Her sense of "I" or "me" should have
dissolved. It should not be viewing the body as though the two
were separate. That is not something of which a mental model
She seemed to drift away from the body
which a model would not do. A model would remain located in
the position in which it was always created. How would a body
create a model outside and distant from the body's perceptual
organs? Remember her earlier contention that the model was created
as a result of viewing from eye level. When we are out of body,
we are nowhere near the eyes. She suggests other models just "take
over." Any other model, she claims. Then why not models
of the "I" burrowing through intestines? Or models
of the "I" running down a nose hair? The body has
all kinds of inner data by which to make these models. But instead
we consistently find the "I" outside the body, where
the body has no perceptual tools with which to model.
A few wild leaps of
"... one possibility is to get
back to normal by using whatever information is available
to build a body image and a world. If the sensory input
is cut off or confused this information will have to
come from memory and imagination. Memory can supply
all the information about your body, what it looks like,
how it feels and so on. It can also supply a good picture
of the world."
states the body image and the world disappear and must be reconstructed.
The mental model "I" - an illusory product of the
brain - somehow remains in charge and reconstructs from imagination.
The research does not support this imagination
conjecture. Reports include physical settings and events that
are not contained in memory. Those reporting distinguish between
the experience of recalling memories or imagining and the experience
of perceiving in the present. As pointed out, most people are
fairly well aware of the differences between recalling, imagining,
and perceiving in the present. We know when we stop to recall
a past event, we know when we stop to daydream, and we know
when we are in the present perceiving moment to moment. Most
of those reporting NDE know the difference and state they are
perceiving from outside their body very vividly. Not memory.
Not imagination. Firsthand, in-the-present observation.
(The one time in "normal" life
when we often confuse the present with memory and imagination
is when we are drugged, which is when Blackmore experienced
NDE. One might suggest her theory derives from the confusion
arising from the drugged state.)
to explain away the common out of body experience of looking
down on the body with a most unusual assertion:
"... there is one crucial thing
we know about memory images. The are often built in
a bird's eyes view. .... Remember the last time you
were walking along the seashore. Do you see the beach
as though from where your eyes would be? Or are you
looking from above?"
does one acquire such bird's eye views in the first place? If
it is a memory that contains an elevated viewpoint, one must
ask, where does the perceptual content come from originally?
When did one "fly" in order to have such a memory?
In the particular
example given - that of a seashore - one always approaches from
a higher vantage point. The land always descends to the water's
edge. Thus, one can remember the "wide shot" one viewed
as one approached. Is this what she means by bird's eye view
memory? (She provide other examples.) In the seashore example,
the "wide shot" one witnessed with one's eyes gives
you such a view. The person merely recalls an eye-level view
from higher ground.
When one recalls going
to the market, however, does one recall the roof of the market?
Not usually. My hunch is that Blackmore faces an almost intractable
problem with the bird's eye view reported by NDErs. Her theory
falls apart on this point; the seashore example is a "cheat."
If one eliminates
examples with higher vantage points built into the geography,
one is still left with some valid cases of bird's eye view memories.
Where might they come from? It turns out the OBE is more frequent
than one might expect and therein we find the answer to what
observes from such a viewpoint in the first place. The spirit
frequently perceives from a wider / higher vantage point than
the vantage possible using the body's senses. We achieve out
of body states more frequently than is acknowledged. This is
consistent with the Afterlife Hypothesis which states the spirit
and the body are not the same and thus are able to be separate
to varying degrees at any time.
does not address the question of how one perceives from a bird's
eye vantage point. Her hypothesis fails to account for perceptions
from a bird's eye view. She fails to ask the critical question
- who or what perceives from that vantage point?
She goes on to say:
"The normal model of reality
breaks down and the system tries to get back to normal
by building a new model from memory and imagination.
If this model is in a bird's-eye view, then an OBE takes
This is her cornerstone argument
for explaining away evidence that supports the Afterlife Hypothesis
and disproves the Dying Brain Hypothesis. In her argument, however,
she fails to:
Account for the OBE when the person is not in a situation
in which "reality breaks down." She fails
to account for OBE without drugs, or injury, or near
Account for "perceiving
in the moment" reports of the NDErs. She fails
to account for their vivid perceptions which differ
from recall or imagination.
Account for the
NDErs perception of physical events never before encountered,
physical events and details which do not exist in memory.
Answer the question
of who perceived the bird's-eye view in the first place
in order to "remember it." NDErs are not shown
bird's-eye view films of their operations prior to the
experience. The question remains who or what perceives
from that vantage point?
Explain unique events the NDErs viewed which were corroborated
by others in the physical environment.
turns away from actual research data, from the reports, and
from logic in constructing her "model." She makes
false claims for her model:
"It [her model] easily accounts
for the way the world looks and the fact that apparently
correct details are often mixed with ones that are obviously
false. The system has put together the best information
other words, she tosses out significant correct perceptions
solely on the basis that some errors were present. This is analogous
to the clicked story of accident witnesses whose reports vary.
Our “normal” perceptions are rarely, if ever, one-hundred-percent
accurate. Blackmore tells us nothing new and employs false standards.
On that basis, all our perception is invalid. What is important,
however, is that there are correct perceptions. She fails to
account for such correct perception of details from an out of
body vantage point that's impossible to achieve with bodily
She goes on to try to explain away "you"
"In the OBE you actually feel
that 'you' are at the imagined point. This makes sense
because it is this imagined world that you control.
You can no longer control the actual body because you
no longer have a good body image. Instead, you have
either a new body image, outside the physical, created
by memory, or you are just a moving position, moving
as imagination takes you. In either case, 'you' will
seem to be at that location because that is what can
be controlled by what you (the system) are thinking
This convoluted explanation
fails to conform to the data. It is worth considering in detail
as it forms the crux of her argument that skeptics accept as "scientific
"In the OBE you actually feel
that 'you' are at the imagined point."
It should be noted that in
NDE and OBE reports the "you" that views from "outside
the body" positions is experienced as the same “you”
that perceives in normal day to day living. In other words,
they experience actually being there. This differs from imagining
such a view. The reader can verify the difference by perceiving
the room, moment to moment, then closing his eyes, and viewing
the "memory." There is a qualitative difference.
"This makes sense because it
is this imagined world that you control."
Reports include viewing objective
physical settings and events. This contradicts the claim of
an imagined world that one "controls." Most people
are aware of the difference between an imaginary world they
can move about, as in a daydream, and the objective world which
does not respond to their "control." The imagination
scenario fails to explain the consistency of NDE reports of
viewing outside the body. Imagination would be more random.
"You can no longer control the
actual body because you no longer have a good body image."
According to Blackmore, the "you"
never controls the actual body. The "you" is merely
a model the body's brain constructs. It controls nothing. It
is merely a "model" that floats behind the eyes as
a result of perceptual input processing. Thus, when the body's
brain and senses are incapacitated or traumatized (in some NDE
cases there is no brain activity), the creator of this highly
complex and consistent model is inoperative, which means there
should be no "you" to control (or even view) anything.
"Instead, you have either a
new body image, outside the physical, created by memory
would one have "memories" of something one never experienced?
If "you" are only a brain-created model then "you"
can only model body perceptions. The "you" model has
no way to create a memory from an outside viewpoint. The outside
viewpoint reported is not a series of snapshots of prior memories.
It contains moment by moment, in the present, continuity of
If the brain is creating new models under
stress, why would it not create that which it knows best - the
inside of the body. Why does the brain not randomly generate
wild trips through the intestines? Why do NDErs consistently
report being outside the body instead?
"... or you are just a
moving position, moving as imagination takes you. In
either case, 'you' will seem to be at that location
because that is what can be controlled by what you (the
system) are thinking about."
the perceptions of NDErs contradict this explanation.
They do not always view imaginary scenes. They often view objective
physical settings. And, as above, that which creates the model
is supposedly out of operation. Blackmore continues:
"Why should people be surprised
at seeing themselves as others see them? This is often
given as evidence that the OBE cannot be imagination.
However, this does not follow. You may have gathered
lots of information about yourself..."
she fails to investigate the actual reports and substitutes
conjecture. When NDErs report they view the body "like
others would," they do not mean they catch imaginary glimpses
compiled from memory. They do not mean they recall seeing glimpses
of themselves in the mirror, or old photos. They view the body
in its entirety from outside, in the moment. The experience
is very different from recalling glimpses in a mirror and old
Thus, her conjecture does not fit the
data. Not only is it not scientific proof, it is conjecture
that does not conform to the facts at hand.
(Without going into
a long dissertation on the matter, it should be pointed out
her model falls apart when one takes into account OBE phenomena
when there are no drugs, no injuries, no near death. The mechanisms
Blackmore proposes obviously fail to account for such reports.)
Moving on from the basic argument to Blackmore's attempt at
supporting her contention:
"... it was suggested that people
with vivid imagery would be more likely to have OBEs.
This was found not to be the case, suggesting that OBEs
are not imagination. However, since then it has been
found that OBE experiencers have superior spatial abilities;
.... they are better at detecting the viewpoint from
which a three-dimensional object is seen and are better
able to switch viewpoints in their imagination."
OBEs are not imagination, as I've stated. The second finding
is interesting - they "are better able to switch viewpoints."
This finding is consistent with a spirit who can move and assume
varied viewpoints without regard to the body. The Afterlife
Hypothesis predicts this outcome.
In an amazing intellectual
sleight-of-hand, Blackmore goes on to claim a bird's-eye viewpoint
is a prediction that supports her Dying Brain Hypothesis:
"Another prediction concerns
the habitual use of bird's-eye viewpoints. This theory
predicts that people who habitually imagine things or
dream in a bird's-eye view should be more likely to
have OBEs (whether deliberate or spontaneous). Both
Irwin and I have found this correlation for dreaming
but not for waking imagery."
takes a key experience that supports the Afterlife Hypothesis,
turns around and states she is able to predict this experience,
and then argues this supports the opposing Dying Brain Hypothesis.
She cleverly takes a factor that disproves the Dying Brain Hypothesis
and claims her ability to predict that factor supports the Dying
Brain Hypothesis. (Though the factor itself does not support
the Dying Brain Hypothesis, she claims her ability to predict
this factor supports the hypothesis.)
As we saw earlier,
bird's-eye viewpoints do not support the Dying Brain Hypothesis,
and she has not shown they do. To the contrary, the bird's-eye
view directly supports the Afterlife Hypothesis which postulates
the spirit leaving the body which puts the spirit in a position
to have a bird's-eye viewpoint. In her argument, she shows no
way for the bird's-eye view to take place, no way for that perceptual
viewpoint to be achieved. She states the bird's eye view is
the work of imagination and memory, but does not state how that
view comes into being in the first place so it can be imagined
The ability to predict
a factor that supports the Afterlife Hypothesis does not support
the Dying Brain Hypothesis.
Her research fails
to correlate OBE with imagination, yet she states the OBE is
imagination. Her research correlates the OBE with out of body
dream states that further support the Afterlife Hypothesis which
predicts separation from the body when there is lessened attention
on the body, such as in sleep and dreaming.
Blackmore fails in
the extreme to explain away the cornerstone evidence for the
Afterlife Hypothesis - the out of body experience. She instead
twists the very essence of the experience, the bird's-eye viewpoint,
the viewpoint of a spirit separate from the body, into a claim
for the Dying Brain Hypothesis.
remainder of Dying to
Live only furthers the
basic errors seen in the earlier chapters. These include a failure
to consider the assumptions of the Afterlife Hypothesis, a failure
to conform to the data on hand, and the presentation of conjecture
regarding brain theories that don't fit the NDE reports. A continued
critique would be redundant, so I will spare the reader a lengthy
trip over established ground.
Skeptics claim Blackmore provides
scientific proof that NDEs are merely brain phenomena, proof
spirit does not exist. This is simply false.
Dying to Live
presents conjecture, assumptions, speculation, but no proof.
Furthermore, her conjecture does not match the evidence she
The skeptics' second claim, that
she has explored both hypotheses as an unbiased researcher is
also false. The major shortcoming of
Dying to Live
is a failure to explore or present the Afterlife Hypothesis.
It is propped up on false legs in order to be knocked down.
Every time the evidence and the reports
clearly support the Afterlife Hypothesis, she makes a non-sequitur
leap to the Dying Brain Hypothesis. Should we blame her for
not understanding the Afterlife Hypothesis? No. This is not
her area of expertise.
What is perhaps most
needed in the field of NDE studies is a clear statement of the
Afterlife Hypothesis so authors, like Blackmore, will be forced
to address the actual hypothesis, not straw man versions.
The following are e-mails exchanged with
regard to the above critique.
Susan Blackmore's Response,
have not claimed that any of my work proves the Dying
Brain Hypothesis. In fact no amount of research ever
could. The most I could hope to do, and in fact what
I tried to do in Dying
is to show that we can account for all the major features
of the NDE without recourse to such ideas as a spirit,
a soul, or life after death.
My account was far from complete,
but even if I had provided an extremely detailed and
convincing explanation of every feature - from the tunnel
and lights to the life review - it would always be open
to someone to say ... "Right, I agree that tunnels
and lights, and OBEs and life reviews can be explained
by what happens in the brain, but after the brain has
finally stopped something else carries on". In
other words no amount of evidence can prove the Dying
Brain Hypothesis. The best it can do is provide a plausible
explanation of the events leading up to the death of
the brain and body. As for what happens next - each
of us will eventually get our own one chance to find
Am I as horribly biased as ZipZap
(Greg Stone) suggests?
If having experiences, doing
research and forming opinions based on them means being
biased then, yes, I am. My obsession with NDEs and OBEs
really began back in 1970 (before the term NDE was even
invented) when I had a most extraordinary and wonderful
experience. At the time I called it astral projection
because that was the only name I had for it. Later I
realized that I had experienced the tunnel, the wonderful
light, an OBE that lasted several hours, a difficult
decision to return and, finally, a mystical experience
which is very difficult to describe in ordinary words.
A few days after the experience I wrote my own account
of it. For anyone who is interested it is now available
After that experience I was probably
very biased. I was convinced that my soul had left my
body, that I had visited worlds beyond this one, and
that death could not be the end. This is why I decided
to give up a sensible career in psychology, and devote
myself to parapsychology instead - to the disgust of
my academic teachers and the horror of my parents.
story of what I found is familiar (I wrote about it
In Search of the Light: The
Adventures of a Parapsychologist,
Prometheus, 1996). I found that many of my assumptions
were wrong; ESP was not round every corner, scientists
were not trying to suppress evidence for it - there
just wasn't any evidence that stood up to scrutiny.
I had to change my mind. Interestingly, having changed
my mind in such a dramatic way once, I have little fear
of having to do so again. This is why I say that if
any convincing evidence for the paranormal, or for life
after death, comes along I will change my mind again.
So far it has not.
Alongside all this I began to
realize that chasing after the paranormal was an understandable,
but inappropriate reaction to what I had seen. This
was a deep, profound and life-changing experience. Saying
that something left the body, or that it proved the
existence of another world, was trivializing it. Gradually
I explored, and found other ways of touching that experience
I have practiced
now for nearly twenty years. At the heart of this practice
are the ideas of letting go, of non-attachment, and
of no-self. The idea is not that there is no self at
all, but that the self is not what we commonly think
it is. ‘I' am not a persisting entity separate
from the world, but a flowing, ephemeral, ungraspable
part of that world. As anyone who has had a mystical
experience knows, everything is one. I think those lessons,
and many more, were thrust upon me in that original
experience. They gave me not only an academic desire
to understand strange experiences but the motivation
and insight to pursue a spiritual life.
As happens with many NDErs, my
experiences and my research have taken away the fear
of death, not because I am convinced that 'I' will carry
on after this body dies, but because I know there is
no one to die, and never was. If others, like ZipZap,
disagree that is their prerogative. All any of us can
do is seek the truth to the best of our ability, and
- even if that truth turns out to be quite different
from what we hoped or expected - to accept it when we
I am glad
that ZipZap so warmly recommends my book to anyone interested
in NDEs. I hope it will speak for itself and provide
interested readers with a way of understanding the NDE
that does justice to the experience without requiring
belief in spirits, souls, or an after life. Whether
the theories in it are right only time and more research
Greg Stone's Response
I was disappointed that Susan Blackmore did not respond
to the substance of my critique, I was extremely pleased
that she did clarify some very important issues. The
most important being that she does not claim her work
proves the Dying Brain Hypothesis. Many
members DO make such a claim on her behalf and now,
with her definitive statement on the record, that will
no longer be an issue.
The other side of the coin in
this regard is that she has not proven the nonexistence
of the spirit. This, too, is often claimed by CSICOP
members and other skeptics to be the case and, I presume,
will no longer be an issue. (In my critique, I go a
step further and discuss how her work doesn't even present
a plausible argument for the nonexistence of the spirit,
but rather takes evidence those points quite clearly
to the existence of spirit and dismisses it summarily.
No point to rehash the details here.)
In her response to my critique,
she mentions "having experiences, doing research,
and forming opinions." I'm all for people having
experiences and forming opinions on the subject. My
objection, stated in my critique, was that her opinions
were being elevated to the level of scientific proof
by those, such as CSICOP members, who claim to represent
the "scientific" viewpoint. As she is a member
and fellow of CSICOP, I would hope she would now make
an effort to clarify the exact status of the work to
I find it ironic that she posted the account of her
drug induced out of body experience on a site that promises
a "safe place" for professionals to post their
unusual experiences while she's an active member of
a group that's primarily responsible for making it unsafe
to discuss and research such phenomena. Perhaps she
may wish to reconsider her membership in CSICOP? She
asks if I perceive her as being biased (I do), while
she notes the bias and social pressure that exists within
her profession and immediate circle. Maybe the personal
bias is merely a function of the institutional and social
biases with which she's surrounded.
account of her OBE was invaluable in shedding light
on her personal point of view. While I do not think
it appropriate to discuss her personal experience in
a public forum (but am willing to do so in private),
the nature of the events that led to her current position
(a la Dying to
Live) are quite
common. An extensive drug history, a drug-induced OBE,
fear of being able to re enter the body, and the lack
of spiritual knowledge with which to understand the
experience all commonly lead to an "explaining
away" of the primary phenomena.
Dying to Live,
in my opinion, is merely an extension of this need to "explain
away" a rather profound, but nonetheless frightening
and disorienting experience.
Rather than take this personal
viewpoint as the last word of science on the matter,
I think it is important to take NDEs on their own merit
and allow science to move ahead in understanding exactly
what we find, as it is, no matter where that takes us
-- "even if that truth turns out to be quite different
from what we hoped or expected," as Blackmore states.
The evidence points very clearly in the direction of
a consciousness that can exist outside the body and
which survives body death. This is upsetting to many.
And yet we must overcome our emotional queasiness and
A last note
that echoes all that goes before -- she mentions her
tenure in Zen Buddhism and the pursuit of a spiritual
life. In an ironic way, this echoes the conflict and
paradox between the experiences she recounts and her
professional views. One must ask how can one have a
spiritual life without spirit? One may possess humanity
and other qualities, but certainly not spirituality
without spirit. One cannot study Buddhism without also
studying the spirit and its existence apart from the
body. Buddha's teachings directly addressed the concept
of non-attachment to the body and the physical; and
addressed the transcendence of birth and death, transcendence
beyond obsessive reincarnation. Buddha's teachings addressed
exactly that which we find in the NDE, the OBE, and
the past-life recall. The reduction of Buddhism, no
matter which "school," to physical monism
would not make Buddha smile. The concept of non-attachment
is the exact opposite of physical monism, which she
presents as Zen Buddhism. Physical or materialistic
monism is total attachment, total identification with
the physical. The exact opposite of Buddhism. Perhaps
this best captures the bias I detect in her work --
an attempt to deny everything spiritual, including her
own experiences and urges toward spirituality, in an
effort to reduce everything to the material.
yes, I'm happy to recommend
Dying to Live
as all viewpoints must be considered in depth and none
discarded out of hand. In retrospect, I wish she had
included the full text of her experience in the book.
Perhaps in the next edition?