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I recently read in Life magazine about people who have had near-death experiences. These people report walking toward a being of light, feeling totally loved, etc. Do near-death experiences prove there is some type of existence after death? --Jeff Collier, Falls Church, Virginia

If you doubt there's some type of existence after death, Jeff, you've never been to the suburbs. Whether it's anything akin to personal existence (that is, the kind of existence you have now) is another question. Unfortunately, near-death experiences (NDEs) don't offer much clue one way or the other.

A surprisingly large number of people have had an NDE--maybe a third to a half of those who almost die but don't--and their accounts of the experience are sufficiently similar to have intrigued scientists. The typical NDE has five stages: (1) you experience a sense of peace; (2) you have the sense of leaving your body and observing it from afar--in other words, you have an out-of-body experience (OBE); (3) you enter a tunnel or "darkness"; (4) you see a light at the end of the tunnel; and finally (5) you enter the light. Often at some point during the process you see your life pass before your eyes.

All of this seems absolutely real. People who have had NDEs say there is nothing hallucinatory or dream-like about them. Research has shown that many who have had NDEs permanently improve their behavior, presumably because they are convinced of the reality of an afterlife.

What really happens during an NDE? British psychologist Susan Blackmore, writing in The Skeptical Inquirer, reviews several theories: (1) Astral projection--the soul or "astral body" exits the physical body and departs for another world. Not as antiscientific a view as you might think, Blackmore opines, but not supported by any evidence either. (2) Reliving the birth experience, that is, traveling down the birth canal. Carl Sagan likes this idea, but Blackmore ridicules it, pointing out that the infant brain is too immature to retain any memory of birth. What's more, getting extruded through Mom's pelvis cannot by any stretch of the imagination be equated with floating blissfully toward the light. (3) Just a hallucination. Fine, but why does everybody have the same hallucination?

Blackmore points out that you don't have to be near death to feel you are floating through a tunnel. It's common "in epilepsy and migraine, when falling asleep, meditating, or just relaxing, with pressure on both eyeballs, and with certain drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, and mescaline."

Why? Blackmore guesses it has to do with the structure of the visual cortex, the part of the brain that contains a "map" of what the eyes see. "There are lots of [cortical] cells representing the center of the visual field but very few for the edges," she says. As the brain begins to lose control, whether due to oxygen loss, drugs, or fatigue, random neural firing apparently begins to occur, which the mind interprets as light. Since there are more cells in the center of the visual field than at the edge, you get the impression of a light at the end of a tunnel. As random firing increases, the "light" takes up a larger portion of the visual field, making you think you are floating toward the light source.

You also don't have to be near death to have an out-of-body experience. We know that surgical stimulation of the brain can trigger extremely realistic recreations from memory, and something similar probably occurs during an OBE or NDE. Subjects see themselves from afar because many people habitually use a bird's-eye view when dreaming or remembering. (If you're one of them, research suggests you may be more likely to have an OBE.) In short, Blackmore thinks that while the near-death experience is real, it can be explained on neurological grounds. Disillusioning, but in keeping with science's role as party pooper to the human race.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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