19 April 2014


Birk Engmann. Near-Death Experiences: Heavenly Insight or Human Illusion? Springer, 2014.
In this short book, Birk Engmann, a neurologist at the University of Leipzig, critically examines the sorts of claims that are often made about NDEs. He argues that many of the beliefs that have grown around them have been influenced by the pervasive Christian traditions of the western world, and of the continuing influence of aspects of Gnosticism on these traditions. He critically analyses the view that imagery from earlier times can be taken as fairly literal representations of actual experiences.
For example, he points out that Hieronymus Bosch’s famous work Ascent of the Blessed, with its depiction of a tunnel with a light at the end, which has become an icon of the NDE, is just one of four panels; the others being Terrestrial Paradise; Fall of the Damned, and Hell; and that all four are influenced by the cultural beliefs of the period.

Indeed, given that only a very small percentage of people are even today successfully resuscitated from actual cardiac arrest (1.8% in Germany), then it his highly unlikely that in the pre-modern period there were many actual recoveries from cardiac arrest ‘clinical death’. Indeed Engmann points out that there is no consistent definition of what ‘near death’ actually means, and that the number of people claiming such experiences greatly exceeds those who have in fact been brought back from ‘clinical death’, only a minority of whom claim NDE’s. Others may have had coma, serious illnesses, severe accidents and other forms of what Engmann calls ‘fear death experiences’.

Engmann examines the experiences of NDEs in other cultures. One such which he examined was Uzbekistan, where there was a combination of Islamic religious history, the continuing remnants of traditional religion and seventy years of state atheism. These reports included sounds, light, odd feelings and out of body experiences, but entirely lacked the tunnel and the life review. Engmann concedes that the sample (13) may be just too small for any grand conclusion.

Indian NDEs contain features not found in the west; such as the patient receiving stigmata from the experience in the form of marks on the body. Note the similarity with the various marks reported by abductees, and also note the similarity with the belief in several cultures that birthmarks in children are marks of wounds in past lives.

Another even more intriguing cultural divide is between the former West and East Germany in which a study taken in 2006 showed that reports of out of body experiences, light; journeys to the otherworld are more common in the West than the East; in the East however the tunnel was reported more often. More strikingly this study showed that negative experiences and feelings were more common in the East than the West (and also more common among men than women). Whether this is due to the greater influence of religion in the West, as Engmann suggests, or, perhaps to the greater influence of American culture in the West, is a moot point.

Engmann also points out that such reports are always generated after a lapse of time, in many cases years or decades later, time enough for the reinterpretation of memory, or even for the generation of false memories. There is no way of knowing whether these experiences are generated during the crisis or in the recovery period. He also points out the biases in some of the questionnaires used. One developed by Bruce Greyson has multiple choice answers like;

Did you have a feeling of peace or pleasantness?
a) No
b) Relief or calmness
c) Incredible peace or pleasantness

The same went for joy, sensory vividness etc.; all giving a choice between a very terse negative, and a powerfully emotive positive answer (or indeed, boring, slightly interesting, or very amazing, wonderful and special).

Engmann also examines the claims that blind people have visual experiences during NDE’s, and argues that blind people may use sight-like language to describe quite different sensory experiences, which the sighted automatically translate into their own visual imagery. Given that people who have had sight restored after medical procedures have to be taught how to see properly, and quite often never really master sight, claims of literal restoration of sight are not at all plausible, and for the congenitally blind, as opposed to the blinded or those with residual sight, it is not clear that they could have any conception of what visual experience is actually like.

He also briefly looks at claims that NDEs take place at times of zero brain activity, by pointing out that even when used in emergency rooms, electroencephalographs are often quite crude, often using just two frontal electrodes. One should add furthermore that EEG’s do not record brain stem activity. I have the suspicion that in a good number of cases where there is talk of flat-lining in emergencies, someone is confusing the EEG with the electrocardiogram (ECG). One should point out also that on a number of occasions, “too good to be true” stories in this field, turn out not to be true.

In his final conclusions Engmann argues that one should not confuse scientific and religious claims, as these lie in two different domains.

In general this is an interesting and serious work, though occasionally the style can be jarring to an English language audience, and that some of the historical sections, for example that dealing with fears of premature burial, are of doubtful relevance. Not likely to convince any true believer, but certainly raising thoughtful points and providing a view from a non-Anglo-American perspective. – Peter Rogerson.

No comments: