3 February 2010


Michael N. Marsh. Out of Body and Near Death Experiences: Brain State Phenomena or Glimpses of Immortality. Oxford University Press, 2009. (Oxford Theological Monographs)

There is a surgical procedure in which corpus callosum is cut, resulting in a loss of communication between the two hemispheres, such that they might start to develop separate personalities.
This is a split brain book, one hemisphere of which is the work a scientific rationalist trained as "an academic clinical biomedical research physician", the other is the work of a fairly conservative Christian theologian. There is however just the one author.

There is a huge literature on Near Death Experiences, most of which is aimed at championing what we might call 'envelope dualism', the idea that the body is nothing more than a lump of meat, which houses the true person, a detachable, usually otherly physical soul or astral body, which in NDEs ascends to transcendential realms, which might be identified with the realm housing an afterlife.

Michael Marsh, rightly in my view, rejects envelope dualism, arguing that modern biology, in particular neuroscience, show that consciousness and human personality are fundamentally routed in the embodied human brain, rooted within human society (and one might add the whole biosphere).

Marsh critically examines the various NDE accounts and argues that they represent accounts of fragmentary experiences, lasting in total only a few minutes of what are prolonged periods of unconsciousness. In some senses his assessment is even bleaker than say Susan Blackmore's. She regarded NDEs as illusions of a dying brain (which suggests we might have one before we finally pop off), Marsh regards them as illusions of the reviving brain, coming into existence in the minutes before the return to consciousness.

He examines a wide range of neurological conditions which might underlie such experiences, ranging from radical neurological events such as migraine, epilepsy, to discussions of dreaming. He argues that contrary to the NDEs claims many of these episodes do have the bizarre, illogical quality of dreams. He further argues that few of the NDE proponents have really critically examined these stories, and does show how respondents at times are subjected to leading questions.

Can this book be recommended then as a good quality sceptical treatment of NDEs? I am afraid not. For one thing, for all Marsh's obsessions with the (I must say not inconsiderable) motes in the NDE's eyes, he seems oblivious to fairly large beams in his own.

Even as sceptical observer in this scene, I got the impression that Marsh was not really confronting how strange some of these accounts are, and that his study was rather superficially dismissive. There is a worse problem; now I haven't the time to check all the accounts in this book for errors, but one screams out. He describes the famous account of 'Pam Reynolds' starting on page 19 with this sentence: "Pam Reynolds was a 35 year old woman who came to Dr Sabom's attention twenty years (my highlighting) after an operation for a basilar artery aueurysm..." This was an operation which involved draining the blood from the super cooled brain, and effectively putting it out of operation for a few minutes. Reynolds claims a dramatic NDE over that period.

Now, reading that I first thought that I hadn't ever realised that such a length of time occurred between the alleged event and the account, then remembering that Sabom's account was published in 1998, and thought "could such a radical procedure have been performed in the late 1970s". A quick check showed that all published reports claim that Reynolds operation took place in 1991, in which case at most 7 years, probably less occurred between the operation and the report. I have not seen any skeptical posting which challenges that 1991 date. so I am afraid I am very suspicious of that 20 year claim.

There is an even bigger problem, which is that it becomes clear in the second part of the book that Marsh's scepticism is as much motivated by theological animus as by science. He opposes transcendentalist interpretations of the NDE basically because they do not support his own interpretation of Christian dogma and tradition. Judging empirical claims by reference to ideological dogmas whether Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Marxist-Leninist or whatever is not a good idea at all.

To an extent I would agree with him that the 'afterlifes' revealed in some of these stories, especially in the rather literalistic interpretations of them, are rather banal; they resemble nothing so much as a theme park heaven. However one must be alive to the possibility that some of this banality results from an attempt to translate ineffable experiences into the nearest available vocabulary. and most of these people are not academic medical researchers or theologians, so the language they will use will be that of folk religion and popular culture. This holds true equally whether these experiences are the product of neural events or revelations of a transcendential realm. One case from Papua New Guinea involves an NDE in which the percipient meets his grandfather, dressed in his old grey cardigan. How banal, except that this is probably someone who in life had few personal possessions. The grey cardigan may have been his most prized possession, not just as a material object, but as perhaps the symbol of his transition from 'savagery to civilization' or similar; something of great meaning.

Marsh's alternative to the continuing 'soul' is quasi-bodily resurrection in some alternate universe by God's grace. As he quotes Jesus's alleged comment about not marrying in heaven, one assumes that this is some sort of birthless, deathless, sexless realm where one neither eats nor excretes. Somehow God transfers memory traces to this new body (how, for Marsh had argued that memory was based on the physical brain, so presumably memory traces and hence God must have some sort of physical substrate).

Now as I pointed out earlier, and Marsh and seemed to agree, human beings and the human personality and much more than memory traces, or patterns of information, they are products very much of the wet-ware of the human body and the global environment. Thus a totally different environment and body could not sustain anything that one could call a human life - could one even call it life? Curiously there is a secular version of this sort of austere existence, it is the idea of humans downloading themselves onto/into computers to find some secular version of passionless crystalline perfection. This argument equally applies to the 'astral bodies' of envelope dualism. Clearly there are some people who feel discontented with being human beings.

Though some interesting critical points are made about the NDE, this is ultimately a flawed book, which if it points to anything, is that science and theology are not natural bedfellows.


  1. alanborky6.2.10

    Peter Rogerson: "one must be alive to the possibility that some of this banality results from an attempt to translate ineffable experiences into the nearest available vocabulary."

    I've long been prone - from infancy to the present day - to visions, highly structured hallucinations, (but not dreams - they're a whole other world of fun and games!), call them what you will, and during the period leading up to the Millennium, I underwent a batch which completely contradicted all my notions that if there was an afterlife it took place in some kind of ineffable cosmic realm, way, way beyond anything humanity could begin to conceive.

    These visions're always highly detailed, very elaborate experiences, seemingly at times occuring out of the body and at other times in the body, but to give an extremely shortened version of one of the Millennium period ones, a voice suddenly said to me, "Say what you see..." and the next thing I knew I was being given this panoramic view of the entire world and listening to myself respond, "I see a world where one half of the world's dying from a lack of consumption while the other half's dying from overconsumption."

    Then an 'unseen' 'butler' type was suddenly escorting me 'up' in this rickety old fashioned wooden 'elevator' to this infinitely receding plane on which were strewn all these souls gathered in groups of different ethnic and religious persuasions.

    The thing I immediately wanted to know was why these people were deliberately refusing to enter Heaven, and I was given this high-falutin' supposed explanation, (which there's no need to go into here).

    The bottom line, though, was 'Heaven' went completely against all my preconceptions of ineffable indescribable cosmicness - it resembled something out of a medieval artist's painting of, say, Jerusalem, surrounded by a wall just tall enough to stop you looking in, but not tall enough to stop you seeing all these rays of white 'glory' glowingly peeping back over its edges.

    Even Heaven's 'gate' was just a rickety old wooden thing, whose slight ajarness was what'd tipped me off in the first place about the myriad souls strewn across the plane refusing to enter the place.

    Anyway, experiences like that suggest to me the "attempt to translate ineffable experiences into the nearest available vocabulary" is actually much more of a collective affair than people might suspect and, furthermore, makes me wonder how much of what we take for the real world isn't just a collective 'interpretation' too?

    Put it this way, I no longer have any difficulty with the idea we may all be as much butterflies dreaming we're people, as people capable of dreaming we're butterflies.

  2. Anonymous7.2.10

    How could a trait like "comforting images to make death more comfortable" evolve?

    After all, the original mutation would die off in the first generation.

    I have the same question regarding the idea that homosexuality is genetic. A trait that would produce no offspring does nothing to further the survival of the genetic code.