Monday, 15 October 2012

Psychology and NDEs - Light at the end of the tunnel?

I've had three encounters with near death experiences (NDEs) in the last week.

The first was reading an article in the Telegraph by Colin Blakemore who was very dismissive of the paranormal claims of NDErs. Then last Thursday I attended a talk as part of Sheffield's Off The Shelf literary festival. Author Linda Hoy was promoting her new book The Effect in which she argued that science and spirituality are converging. She spent a lot of time talking about NDEs. Finally today I read a very well-argued, enjoyable, but skeptical blog post by psychologist Christian Jarrett. His line of reasoning was that NDEs, are simply brain activity along the lines of certain types of drug use. He remains firm in the belief that the mind exists within the brain.

Dr Jarrett makes a strong case and argues well, however my view is that the opposing thesis - i.e. that the mind somehow exists beyond the brain - cannot be ruled out. The arguments presented by Jarrett and others are simply inconclusive. I hasten to add that there's nothing empirical to support the idea that NDEs are real or that the mind can exist in a yet-to-be identified dimension. Therefore for me at least, it remains in the 'possible but scientifically unsubstantiated' category. 

It seems to me that many take a position on this subject based on aspects of their psychological make up. It's the old Carr (1961) dictum - "before you study history study the historian". This is true for some historical theorising and also areas of psychology where there is a lack of good empirical data. So in this case materialists, atheists and others view the mind as being a physical neurological entity, whereas those who enjoy contemplating the metaphysical and spiritual allow for the possibility of as-yet undiscovered mental modus operandi. 

The psychology of psychologists if you like.

The British Psychological Society magazine published a letter of mine earlier this year (BPS, 2012), in which I argued for a theoretical psychology similar to theoretical physics. The rationale for this was that there are some constructs that are very difficult to test (the idea of the big bang could not be adequately tested by physicists, so for many years it remained simply the best theory). At some point however, a methodology or serendipitous sequences of events may allow empiricism to be applied to the theory. Particularly note that it was the creative theoretical physicists who drove huge progress in the field (for better or worse) culminating in the splitting of the atom and nuclear power - and weapons.

Personally, I am attracted to the idea that a new concept of brain-mind would "shake our understanding of natural laws of science to its very foundations". Anyone who has ever read Kuhn (1970) will know that huge leaps of scientific progress take place via such revolutions (paradigm shifts). I mean we haven't had a Copernicus for a few centuries now (although Einstein probably counts) and I think we're due one. Furthermore, there's so much about human mental functioning that we don't fully understand: psychopathy, dreams, and NDEs themselves. If a new paradigm helps answer some of these questions, then perhaps it is something to work towards - not to be afraid of. Heresies such as the brain-mind disconnect are simply a contemporary equivalent of those that Galileo and Copernicus expounded.

I agree that NDEs are weird. But so is quantum mechanics, and some of the theories at the far edges of astro-physics; indeed Copernicus' idea of the Earth not existing at the centre of the universe led to some labelling him mad (Kuhn, 1970). Perhaps what is needed in psychology are more imaginative researchers, able to devise well-argued theories to explain many of the weird phenomena that occur in relation to the mind. 

Ultimately psychology is about people. As Dr Jarrett accurately states, to the experiencers NDEs are psychologically significant events. A constant theme that runs through NDE reports (both positive and negative) is how real they feel to the experiencer. Perhaps it's slightly high-handed of psychologists to ignore this element of the self report (when in so many other instances we completely rely on the self-report - I give you the Likert scale).

Therefore to dismiss aspects of these experiences because they challenge our current ideas about the universe is I feel, folly on so many levels. In the same way that medical researchers such as Dr Sam Parnia are performing scientific studies in this area, I think many more psychologists should have the courage to explore the weird too.

And for the record I guess I fall into the metaphysical/spiritual camp, however that aspect of my makeup (like my race, sexuality etc.) can co-exist quite happily with my respect for scientific principles.


Carr, E.H. (1961) What Is History?
Kuhn, T. S. (1970) The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions
BPS (2012) Letters: "Theoretical Work Psychology?" The Psychologist, 25 (4), p. 257


  1. have you read Chris Carter's 2nd book Science & The NDE.Its a cracker.

  2. Irreducible Mind by Kelly and Kelly (2007) gives ample evidence for phenomena outside the remit of reductionist scientism.

  3. Micky - Many thanks. I'd not encountered the Kelly & Kelly (2007) book. I've just read the synopsis on Amazon and it sounds reasonable and well-argued. It may well help bolster my thinking on this subject.

  4. Nice blog post, thanks. I mentioned Consciousness Beyond Life by Pim van Lommel on the Psychology Today blog on this theme. A very good read and rigorous. Metaphysics - here we come!

  5. Thanks Rhonda. I read a Van Lommel paper from 2001 some years ago(published in the Lancet) which was one of the first hard empirical studies of this phenomena that I'd encountered. Love the sentiments expressed in your last sentence although the word "Metaphysics" could be replaced by "New paradigms", "Progress", "Knowledge leap" just as easily :-)