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4 Possible Explanations for Near-Death Experiences

1. The mind is not controlled by the laws of physics.

Key points

  • Our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of the mind.
  • The commonly accepted deterministic view of the mind as an epiphenomenon of the brain is no longer tenable.
  • The Embodied Mind provides a bridge between neuroscience and more spiritual approaches to consciousness.
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I am sure most readers have heard of out-of-body experiences (OBEs) and near-death experiences (NDEs). Psychiatrist Raymond Moody coined the term near-death experiences in his 1975 book, Life After Life, in which he detailed the experiences of more than 100 people who survived “clinical” death but were subsequently revived.

NDEs are triggered during singular life-threatening episodes such as a heart attack, asphyxia, or shock. When revived, these people tell us what it was like for them to exist suspended between life and death.

They share strikingly similar narratives: they speak of having experienced peaceful tranquility and happiness, seeing a golden light, often at the end of a tunnel, being greeted by deceased relatives, or detaching from their body and floating above it. They often report feeling obliged to make a choice—remain in this other world, or return to their life.

Usually, they relate perceiving themselves from a perspective above or to the side of their physical body and describe accurately the conversations of the medical staff present in the room as well as the medical interventions that were performed on them. Given that they were clinically dead, how is this possible? Skeptics have raised objections to the credibility of these accounts by pointing out that they may be due to religious indoctrination.

However, the phenomenon is remarkably consistent across cultures and religions and has been reported even by children and toddlers who were not exposed to religious doctrine.

In 2014, Sam Parnia, a critical care and resuscitation specialist at New York University's Langone Medical Center, published the world’s largest study of what happens to the human mind and consciousness in the early period around the time of death. Based on his research, Parnia believes that the conscious mind continues operating after the heart stops beating and the brain stops working for some period of time. Studies of near-death experiences are challenging the idea that our mind fades to black when our body expires.

Theories of the mind fall into four general categories:

1. The mind is separate from the brain and is not controlled by the laws of physics of any kind.

This is essentially a religious or spiritual view that assumes that the mind has been in the universe all along. Individual minds are parts of a greater, all-encompassing mind which may or may not be God or a higher power. Obviously, this theory is faith-based and does not lend itself to scientific study.

2. The mind is the product of the complex neuronal activities of an individual’s brain.

It is an evolutionary adaptation. In scientific jargon “the mind is an epiphenomenon of the brain,” an emergent quality. In other words, as urine is a by-product of the kidneys, the mind is a by-product of a functioning brain.

This theory equates the mind, which cannot be measured, weighed, or quantified with a physical substance. Furthermore, while awake or under anesthesia as in sleep, we can be of two minds. We also find many examples of multiple personalities in the psychiatric literature.

Classical neuroscience is unable to provide an explanation of these phenomena. Therefore, I am prepared to reject this theory. This leaves us with two other ones.

3. The Hameroff-Penrose Hypothesis

In 1994, Stuart Hameroff, from the Departments of Anaesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona, Tucson, advanced what seemed—at the time—one of the more bizarre ideas about the human brain. Supported by Sir Roger Penrose, Hameroff suggested that quantum vibrational computations in microtubules, which are major components of the cell cytoskeleton, govern our consciousness.

Hameroff points to the single-celled paramecium as evidence. The paramecium has no central nervous system, no brain, no neurons, but it swims, locates food, finds a mate, and avoids danger. It seems to make choices, and it definitely seems to process information. And since microtubules are nanoscale structures, Hameroff also began thinking that quantum physics might play a role in consciousness and the mind.

The Hameroff-Penrose hypothesis states that the mind obeys physical laws not yet fully understood acting on the neurons of the cerebral cortex. This is the view proposed by the philosopher Albert North Whitehead and elaborated on by Hameroff. In his theory, as I understand it, consciousness and the mind are epiphenomena of quantum computations in brain microtubules. To Hameroff, the mind is an intrinsic factor of the universe.

To me, this seems to represent a marriage of theories #1 and #2 above. Since I subscribe to the truth in “Ockham’s razor,” which states that when faced with competing explanations for the same phenomenon, the simplest is likely the correct one, I give this one a wide berth. This leaves us with...

4. The Kauffman Hypothesis

Stuart Alan Kauffman, emeritus professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, with Samuli Niiranen and Gabor Vattay, was issued a founding patent on the Poised Realm, an apparently new "state of matter" hovering reversibly between quantum and classical realms, between quantum coherence and classicality.

Kauffman thinks that the system seen in the chlorophyll molecule (which he studied at length) raises the possibility that webs of quantum coherence or partial coherence can extend across a large part of a neuron, and can remain poised between coherence and decoherence.

The Kauffman hypothesis proposes that the mind, consciousness, and free will are associated with the Poised Realm. Our brains with our sense organs connect us to the universe.

The difference in theories between Hameroff and Kauffman is that the former locates consciousness in the microtubules and the latter in the Poised Realm. They both lean heavily on quantum physics for their hypotheses. This is the theory that makes the most sense to me.

In Summary

Near-death experiences (NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), multiple personalities, the effects of placebos and hypnosis, and lucid dreaming present convincing examples that the brain acts as a transceiver of mental activity, i.e., the mind can work through the brain but is not necessarily produced by the brain.

Therefore, I propose we embrace the concept of the embodied quantum mind, in which the mind is both dependent on and independent of the brain and the rest of the body. Like protons or electrons that, depending on circumstances, can be particles or waves or the in-between states of wavicles, the mind is fluid and adaptive.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: mangojuicy/Shutterstock


Hameroff, Stuart (2014). Consciousness, Microtubules, & ‘Orch OR’: A ‘Space-time Odyssey.’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol 21, no 3-4, pp 126-158

Kauffman, S. (2010). Is There A 'Poised Realm’ Between the Quantum and Classical Worlds. Cosmos and culture.

Kauffman, S., Niiranen, S., & Vattay, G. (2014). U.S. Patent No. 8,849,580. Washington, DC: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Moody, Raymond (1975). Life After Life. Mockingbird Books.

Parnia, S., Spearpoint, K.,... & Wood, M et al., (2014). AWARE—Awereness during Resuscitation—A prospective study. Resuscitation, 85(12), 1799-1805

Penrose, R. (1994). Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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