Thursday, January 29, 2015

Heaven or Hallucination?

Benjamin Franklin once proclaimed, "In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." While most of us can begrudgingly deal with taxman, we have a much harder time facing the Grim Reaper. It is this fear of the finite that has put the notion of an afterlife at the center of many world religions. Like a good book, we simply don’t want our life's story to end, so most people believe that there must a sequel.

Long ago, people used to think that Heaven was up in the sky. Led Zeppelin even implied that Heaven was accessible via a stairway available for purchase. A more modern idea is that Heaven is transcendental, perhaps in another dimension that is inaccessible to scientific instruments.
What does science have to say on the subject of Heaven and the afterlife? Ancient notions that Heaven resides on mountaintops or in the clouds have been dispelled, and our exploration of the universe so far has not uncovered any evidence of a physical Heaven. The failure to find evidence does not necessarily negate the possibility, but our knowledge about the universe has prompted a change in how most people conceptualize Heaven. Since Heaven is now considered by most to be an ethereal realm unreachable to the living, scientific analyses do not apply and the afterlife must remain a matter of faith.
However, some argue that there is tangible evidence of Heaven based on eyewitness accounts of people who've been there during a “near death experience”, or NDE. When evidence is put forth, science is obligated to scrutinize the claim. People surviving a NDE awake with an unshakable feeling that they’ve traveled beyond the confines of their body. You may have heard about the recent case of Alex Malarkey, a young boy who was in an automobile accident in 2004 that left him paralyzed. With the help of his father, they penned a bestselling book in 2010 called, “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven”. But a couple weeks ago, Alex (now 16 years old) admitted that his story was, um, malarkey. Alex now claims that he made up the whole thing as a child because he “thought it would get him attention”. Consequently, the book has been pulled and the million or so people who purchased it are feeling as deflated as a New England Patriots football.

Rock singer Bryan Adams also once thought he'd died and gone to Heaven.
But turns out he was just love-struck.

We are so eager to feast on these personal accounts of an afterlife that a whole new genre of entertainment has been christened “Heavenly Tourism”. Heavenly Tourism is now a big business, even getting a major motion picture in 2014Some cases appear to bring real credibility to the phenomenon, such as Eben Alexander, M.D., the neurosurgeon who wrote the bestseller “Proof Of Heaven” after his NDE. While science is not a system designed to test matters of faith, researchers can examine what is going on in the brain during NDEs.
Flatliners” was a movie from 1990 about a group of medical students who tried to reproduce NDEs in the lab. The real miracle is that most of these actors were able to resuscitate their career after this movie.
Dr. Steven Laureys heads a Coma Science Group in Belgium that studies NDEs very seriously. His research is revealing that patients who have a NDE form memories during this period that are unusually vivid, feeling “even more real than real”. Dr. Laureys asserts that the lucid nature of these NDE memories fools many people, including Dr. Eben Alexander, to believe they were real events. But Dr. Laureys attributes these powerful experiences to a dysfunctional brain.

According to Dr. Laureys, there is no evidence that consciousness exists independent of brain activity. In other words, patients forming memories during a NDE were not dead, and the images they retain were the natural result of residual brain activity, which can persist for some time even after the heart stops beating. Further evidence that heavenly visions are not real is that they can be reproduced when certain parts of the brain are artificially stimulated. Oliver Sacks has also written extensively about how the stimulation of certain brain areas can produce an array of transcendental experiences that feel absolutely real. Psychedelic drugs can have a similar impact on the brain.

Supportive findings have emerged from studies that record brain activity in dying rats. In rats that would be considered “clinically dead” by human medical standards, researchers observed a surge in specific brain activities that are signatures of “hyper-consciousness”, the same type of phenomenon that Dr. Laureys observes in patients reporting a vivid NDE. 

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg studies the effects that certain religious practices have on the brain, pioneering a new discipline he calls "neurotheology" that aims to identify the biological underpinnings of spirituality. His studies have revealed why NDEs often leave the impression that you traveled down a tunnel towards a bright light. According to Newberg, peripheral vision is lost during a NDE, producing the sensation that one is in a tunnel.

The more we study NDEs, the more it becomes clear that there is a neurochemical basis that explains the imagery and sensations. Collectively, these studies raise a red flag about the validity of Heavenly Tourism, so buyer beware. Those offering to be your tour guide may be teaching you more about neurology and psychology rather than what may await us when the brain truly shuts down. Heaven is outside the realm of scientific examination, so the afterlife remains a matter of faith.

It has been posited, however, that our growing scientific knowledge gives less credence to the supernatural, making an afterlife seem highly improbable. Stephen Hawking has proclaimed, "I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark." John Lennon once asked us to image no Heaven. While the thought of a finite existence is unfathomable to many, the truth is that the only existence we can be certain of is the one we are living here and now. Embracing the possibility that life is a one-take movie can inspire us to do wondrous things with the time we have alive. Knowing that we will not be reunited with friends and family in the Great Beyond should prompt us to cultivate better relationships with them now. The logical course of action is to treat our life as a fragile and precious commodity, taking good care of the body and mind and enabling others to do the same, which interestingly agrees with the prime directive of most religions. 

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter.

For more information:
Thonnard, M., Charland-Verville, V., Brédart, S., Dehon, H., Ledoux, D., Laureys, S., & Vanhaudenhuyse, A. (2013). Characteristics of Near-Death Experiences Memories as Compared to Real and Imagined Events Memories PLoS ONE, 8 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057620

Borjigin, J., Lee, U., Liu, T., Pal, D., Huff, S., Klarr, D., Sloboda, J., Hernandez, J., Wang, M., & Mashour, G. (2013). Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (35), 14432-14437 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1308285110

Newberg AB (2014). The neuroscientific study of spiritual practices. Frontiers in psychology, 5 PMID: 24672504

Blanke, O. (2005). The Out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction The Neuroscientist, 11 (1), 16-24 DOI: 10.1177/1073858404270885

Physicist Sean Carroll recently gave a lecture that debunks the notion of an afterlife.


  1. If you believe in the scientific method then you need evidence. If you believe in religion and base your life on that and it works for you then fine. Enjoy. Either way you belief can cause an enhancement of your life but, the proof of an afterlife can only come after death and is just a theory that can't be proved in our plane.I'm not sure what all the fuss is about, especially since too many people think their way is the only way and are willing to kill to prove it.

  2. I must say this is defiantly a take on Near Death Experiences (NDE) that I have never considered. When you hear about someones NDE you will either believe it to be true based on your religious beliefs or say it is false based on science. According to the people and examples used in this blog post, NDE of Heaven is created by the brain as a coping mechanism. With many people afraid of death, the brain has to form a way to avoid these negative thoughts in order to focus on more positive ones. The Terror Management Theory states that people cope with the fear of death by focusing on positive thoughts of life. So if you have a NDE and believe that this is it and you might die, your brain will start to think about the positive memories you have about your religion and what that religion believes to be true about death and afterlife. If you believe that after you die you will go to Heaven, according to this you then create an experience so strong and vivid that it will seem so real to you even if it isn't reality. Your memories will form this encounter and make you believe that it really occurred. So did people who say they have died and visited heaven really just fall into a deep sleep and dream about visiting this wonderful place in order to overcome the fear of dying? Or did they really visit Heaven and return to tell their story?

  3. The consistent details with nde accounts of multiple eras and people and the fact that they are much more vividly aware of the events, with no brain activity, so much that they say this life is a dream state in comparison, exactly opposite of hallucinations, disqualifies them as being subjective.