Are NDEs Real, Illusions, or Hallucinations?
In considering whether or not NDEs are real or not, we have to first consider how we determine reality in general, and how this relates to the brain and our five senses through which we perceive the world outside. The brain can be likened to a very complex computer that has various sensors attached to it through which it can gather information.Yet all our senses are limited. For example we can only see within a very narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum, i.e. natural light. Of course we are able to build various devices such as microscopes or infra red cameras to help us detect things that lie outside the range of our physical senses, but nevertheless there is always a limitation upon the extent to which we can detect the reality of the external world. We are essentially limited by the limitations of our senses, any external machinery that we may use, and then ultimately the processing abilities of our brain. The brain can only perceive things in a three-dimensional form, but in modern times scientists have discovered that there are other dimensions beyond the 3D world. Therefore we know that our perception is limited. A simple limitation of our senses and brain becomes apparent what we looking at an Escher picture (see picture on homepage or those above). So no matter how sophisticated our machinery we are still limited in what we can perceive of the external world and we have to be able to accept that. We are thus unable to say that something is not real, simply because it we are unable to perceive it using our natural senses and or any machinery that we have devoid in a certain era.
Many people have argued that by identifying potential intermediary pathways that mediate a subjective experience such as an out of body experience that therefore this makes them unreal or in effect, hallucinations or illusions. Identifying a neuronal or in other words a brain pathway that mediates any experience will not determine its reality. It simply identifies part of the pathway that mediates the experience. For example when we look at a painting, we see a picture because electromagnetic waves in the range of visible light coming off that object go through our eyes and cause a chemical reaction that activates cells in the back of the brain. The brain's software then gives meaning to that activation of cells, producing a picture in our minds. There are therefore many intermediary pathways in between the light entering the eyes and an image forming. Now if we activate that exact area of the brain artificially, we would see that exact picture even if there was no image in front of us. In other words the areas of the brain that mediate visual processing are like a complex set of keys. When one is pressed it gives off a signal to indicate a specific image e.g the colour blue. If such a key is activated by any means it gives off the same signal 'blue'. So simply being able to reactivate a specific area of the brain that is involved with a visual experience doesn't make that sensation unreal. Identifying the mechanics of the process cannot determine whether it is real or not. It just tells us what the pathways are. Similarly, if we were to study any particular state of mind we could identify the specific areas of the brain that become active when that feeling is taking place. For example if we were to place a mother inside a scanning device and then show her her giggling baby, we would be able to identify the areas of the brain involved with maternal love. Nevertheless, this would neither explain how that particular feeling arises from the brain processes nor its significance. The same concept applies to NDEs. Many scientists have debated which parts of the brain are involved in NDEs and have theorized that they may be due to brain cell activity in the limbic or temporal lobes. What we do know is that each area of the brain processes multiple functions and that 'conscious' states such as seeing, thinking, feelings and emotions are mediated in many areas at the same time.
When someone is about to die, the body initially responds by releasing certain chemicals and steroids to try and maintain the blood pressure and allow sufficient blood to get to the brain. After a while, however, the blood pressure drops and there is thus reduced blood flow to the brain, which will in turn activate certain parts of the brain and leads to the near death experience. Although we still do not know exactly which areas are involved, undoubtedly brain processes do mediate the experience. But the discovery of the exact areas will not explain the significance of near death experiences. Neither will it make a near death experience 'unreal' or a hallucination, in exactly the same way that discovering the areas of the brain involved in viewing pictures or experiencing maternal love doesn't make those sights or feelings hallucinations.
Therefore we cannot objectively say that a NDE or out of body experience is not real. Certainly NDE's feel very real to those who have experienced them. For others who haven't experienced them we simply don't know. The only way to know is to conduct objective studies to answer the question, which in this case means determining whether or not the claims of being able to see during cardiac arrest are correct or not (see research). we cannot allow our own socially formed prejudices to sway our decisions. Another important point is that much of what we perceive as real or not is socially formed, in fact much of reality is socially formed. When two or more individuals agree upon the interpretation and experience of a particular event, a consensus about an event and its experience begins to be formed. This to a group, then becomes the 'truth' as seen and agreed upon by a certain set of people. Thus one particular group may have a certain set of agreed truths, while another group might have still different set of truths that have reached consensus. This lets different communities and societies have varied and extremely different notions of reality and truth of the external world. The religion and beliefs of people or communities are a fine example of this level of reality. Again as for NDE, the reality as determined by society is determined by the group who is asked, many think it is real, particularly those who have experienced it, whereas many others consider it a hallucination. Therefore as discussed above we need to rely on objective tests and experiments that would determine the potential validity of the experience.