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From Issue One, August 2010 « Previous Article

“Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences”

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In 1998, Jeffrey Long, a radiation oncologist long fascinated with near-death experiences (NDEs), founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) and its website (www.nderf.org). As with the International Association for Near-Death Studies’ (IANDS) predecessor website (www.iands.org), anyone who thought or knew they’d had an NDE and who had Internet access could provide a narrative and complete a questionnaire about the experience and its aftereffects. Long revised his questionnaire in 2004, and between 2004 and 2008, 613 people from around the world met Long’s criteria of a legitimate entry. Evidence of the Afterlife is based on his analysis of these data and on corresponding findings from previous NDE research.

Long’s premise in the book is that his findings provide nine lines of evidence (several of which defy medical explanation) that together represent “proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of an afterlife.” These nine lines of evidence follow:

(1) NDEs are usually lucid psychological experiences at times of unconsciousness—even during cardiac arrest, when such experiences should be physiologically impossible.
(2) NDErs often perceive earthly events realistically and accurately from a position outside their physical bodies, sometimes when those events were seemingly impossible to perceive physically.
(3) Congenitally blind NDErs describe “an unearthly form of visual experience” during the NDE.
(4) NDEs sometimes occur during monitored general anesthesia, when such experiences should be physiologically impossible.
(5) NDEs sometimes include completely realistic and detailed reviews of NDErs’ lives, often including long-forgotten events, for which no physiological explanation exists.
(6) NDErs sometimes encounter and communicate with deceased people, usually relatives, some of whom they had never met but recognize from family photographs.
(7) Young children have reported NDEs comparable in complexity to those reported by adults and yet have had far less cultural experience and awareness of these domains.
(8) NDEs are consistent among people around the world.
(9) For a majority of people, NDEs are followed by changes—even transformations—in their beliefs, values, abilities, and physical condition, indicating that “those who step briefly into the afterlife bring back a piece of it when they return.”

The book has a number of strengths. For example, his Internet-based findings correspond well to previous researchers’ findings from predominantly interview and hard-copy questionnaire data. Another benefit is Long’s summaries of many prominent skeptics’ theories about NDEs, as well as NDE researchers’ responses. The book enables readers unfamiliar with NDE research and its controversies to become more educated and ultimately reach their own conclusions.

There are aspects of Long’s book that raise questions, however. His statement, for example, that NDEs “take place as a person is dying or, indeed, is already clinically dead” could mislead some readers. In fact, experiences apparently indistinguishable from NDEs occur when the experiencers are not near death; people who’ve had such experiences should not discount their legitimacy.

Of biggest concern is Long’s major premise: “[T]he afterlife is for all of us . . . a loving . . . realm.” First, he has generalized to “all of us” an experience that has been reported by a minority of people who survive a close brush with death. Of those survivors, only 10 to 30 percent later report an NDE, and 70 to 90 percent have no memory of anything. Also, despite their similarities, every NDE is unique in its contents, which defies a definitive description of “the afterlife.” In addition, the nature of consciousness during reversible, temporary death does not necessarily characterize “the afterlife” during irreversible, permanent death. Furthermore, a substantial minority of NDErs report distressing rather than “loving” experiences—a topic Long admitted was beyond the scope of his book.

As a scholar, I was also frustrated by unanswered or glossed-over methodological questions that inevitably arise when presenting evidence about such a complex topic, even if written for a popular audience. And despite Long’s stated affiliation with science and assertion that he considers the evidence he presents to be “proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the existence of an afterlife,” scientific hypotheses are not proven but merely supported.

Nevertheless, this book makes some important contributions to the field of near-death studies, such as Long’s finding of a much greater prevalence of profound silence during NDEs than previous research has revealed, as well as a first-ever-reported case of a congenitally deaf NDEr. Another contribution is additional—though methodologically controversial—data on a new area of near-death studies: cross-cultural NDEs. Still another highlight are text and footnotes that direct interested readers to other important recent works in the field of near-death and consciousness studies. Readers will also appreciate a fresh batch of NDE narrative excerpts that Long richly seasons the book with and that even those familiar with NDEs are likely to find fascinating, inspiring, and provocative.

I do agree with Long that much of the data about NDEs lend support to the hypothesis of an afterlife—although commitment to that belief remains, from a purely scientific perspective, a leap of faith. I also believe that the data provide far more equivocal evidence about the exact nature of that existence. With these considerations in mind, I recommend Long’s book for its contribution to discourse within the noetic sciences and the evolving field of near-death research.

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  • 5 Comments
  • Neon1 Oct 04, 2010

    Thank you for the review. I've placed this book on my list....

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    renovatio06 Dec 04, 2011

    I see a strong bias in all NDE-related "research" to the effect that researchers tend to WANT to find "proof" of an afterlife. However, the subject of research as you point out is fickle, much more so the methods being used. Gathering data is one thing, but I don't see much evidence for researchers installing control groups as is done with any other subject of research and as this is usually the academic modus operandi. it's almost as if researchers turned a blind eye towards those 70-90% of "non-NDErs". All in all, I'd say there is a substantial lack in diligence and it makes it even harder to "believe" that there was any substance to their findings.
    Admitted: At times - and by no means always - I'd love to see that proof, too as it is one of the most horrific thoughts to understand that we as individuals simply don't matter to nature at large. But, sorry, current research doesn't seem to do too good a job in thwarting that notion (of no afterlife, that is). (I had 2 cents to spare... :))

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    mussel Dec 22, 2011

    @renovatio06:
    talking about proof... your comment proves that you did NOT read the book - or any other serious publication on the subject, for that matter... (that was the interest on your 2 cents ; ))

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    dustproduction Dec 24, 2012


    http://www.closertotruth.com/video-profile/Do-Persons-have-Souls-George-Lakoff-/1525

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    JEW91 Apr 04, 2013

    Hi Dr. Holden,

    Thank you for the review. You claim that "the data about NDEs lend support to the hypothesis of an afterlife—although commitment to that belief remains, from a purely scientific perspective, a leap of faith."

    I am sorry if I missed it, but I couldn't see a clear justification or explanation for why the afterlife hypothesis remains "a leap of faith." Could you please explain and, if possible, also make an illustrative contrast with another scientific hypothesis to show why that hypothesis is not a leap of faith but why the afterlife hypothesis is. Thank you.

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