Skeptical Neuroscience, NDE’s and the Search for “Heaven”

I've done a lot of radio interviews about the three (unfortunate) occasions in my life when had experiences of the "Near-Death" variety (NDEs), and often my skeptical questioners ask whether there's any "actual, scientific evidence" to support my belief in an extra-dimensional, spiritual experience of consciousness beyond this life, or if experiences like mine are just the result of the cascading neurochemical activity common to a failing brain. They want to know if there's scientific proof of my "spiritual" experiences, or if it's just "a matter of opinion."

At this point, there are lots of stridently scientific studies that come down on both sides of the issue, from the studies done at the University of Michigan on the neurobiology of rats at the point of death, or thorough research by the psychologist Susan Blackmore (an NDE survivor herself) – each supporting the belief that the common transcendent experiences of an afterlife are simple paroxysms, generated by neurologic failure; to the likewise very credible, expansive studies of afterlife experiences by doctors like the Dutch cardiologist Pim Van Lommel, or Bruce Greyson, with the University of Virginia School of Medicine's Division of Perceptual Studies, that seem to definitively prove the continuation of consciousness, beyond this life (as I believe I experienced).

Skepticism cuts both ways, that's for certain. The ever-shifting conclusions of scientific research may, in reality, elicit a healthier doubt than the seemingly solid, consistent ground of faith and mystical experience – especially to the experiencer. As I've pointed out in past articles, the "paranormal" has regularly become the academic standard, and it’s true that skeptical scientists have often become the most ardent converts to the miraculous.

For that variety of spiritual skeptic devoted to "scientific proof," profound spiritual experiences have always presented an intriguing problem in finding a provable explanation for these mysterious, personal phenomena of transcendence and transpersonal connection. When one has predetermined that no extra-dimensional cause, or "magical" explanation is possible, the challenge is then to simply reveal the source of the phenomenon by applying scientific methodology. Like flicking on the lights on at a fraudulent séance.

These days, the favorite way to conduct that search for a non-spiritual source of spiritual experience comes through "mapping" the human brain, whose incredibly complex workings are currently being cataloged by ever-expanding artificial intelligence. Since there's so much going on inside our brains, naturally the paranormal, and even "The Divine," simply has to come from somewhere in there too.. The idea that there's a spiritual part of the brain–an area where cellular electro-chemical activities generate sensations of unity and transcendence (called neurotheology)–isn't new, but thanks to advances in brain-mapping, it's been getting a lot more play lately. Locating and documenting the "God Part" of the brain could provide a neat explanation for the persistent belief that an external, or even cumulative, intelligence is at work in the world. It could decisively debunk all the claims of transpersonal, extra-dimensional spiritual experiences, like those made by the growing ranks of near death survivors, reincarnation testifiers, and other such witnesses of the sublime.

While we mystics do suggest an inward path to spiritual realization, the idea that divine experience originates solely from within the circuitry of our brains runs into immediate trouble when every other direction you look in gets magical pretty quickly. Looking beyond ourselves, we’re immediately assailed by the totally incomprehensible domain of our very being. First, there's the fabric of Time/Space–loaded with galaxies and other cosmic mysteries of definitively infinite variety. Then there's the limitless sub-atomic universe, described by the ridiculously magical, yet scientifically reliable, quantum mechanics. In both directions, scientific explanations have always been at best conditional, and most reliably, subject to change.

Mapping the mysterious processes within our brain may function to demonstrate the actions along our neural pathways, but not the nature of their inspirations, how and why it works the way it does, or what our brains may actually be capable of doing. It's a bit like capturing lightning in a bottle–there's a whole lot more to it than just it’s observable actions in a given moment.

In my opinion, the real questions posed by neuroscientific skeptics are these: How are all of our sensory, and especially "extra-sensory," experiences explained by the idea that each of our brains is independently conscious? Are our brains exclusively generators of everything we perceive, including transcendent feelings of oneness (or "God"), or aren't they quite possibly receivers, and projectors too?

Naturally, there's a part of my brain that experiences spiritual sensations. There's a part of it that experiences heat and cold and hunger and heartbreak, too. There's a degree to which all sensations are received, and generated, and projected out into my life (and yours sometimes) by me, and my little ol’ eight pound brain. And the same is true for you too. That’s how we process this life, whether our "reality" reaches into us from the outside, or grows out of us in the many ways we create it ourselves; but no scientist worth his salt would suggest that temperature only exists because our brains say so, though how sensitive we are to it, or how much of it we generate ourselves can vary.

The same holds true for experiences of profound spiritual realization. The reality of spiritual awareness, consciousness, and extra-dimensionality is naturally realized in the parts of our brain that do that for us; the degrees to which we create it, or sense it ourselves, varies.

For thousands of years, humans have been describing shared spiritual experiences of an extra-dimensional nature with more solidarity and consistency than the scientific community, in its comparatively brief life, has ever managed to disprove or explain away. Even the ‘materialist’ theory that there's an individual, brain-centered experience of the spiritual, simultaneously manifesting as a kind of mass delusion throughout humanity, suggests the participation in a shared field of consciousness – a bit of conceptual lightning that quantum mechanics let out of the bottle long ago.

And what of the human heart? Studies now demonstrate conclusively that the heart, with cellular similarities to the brain, serves a cognitive function, at times controlling intellectual judgment, as well as emotion. Can science map those intangibles as well?

eelings of love, compassion, and sublime connectedness are all processed by a mix of mind and heart; as are those deep, transformative realizations of a spiritual reality – most convincingly testified to by meditators and trauma survivors (including near death experiencers). But as usual, the people who have the most trouble scientifically squaring these kinds of testimonials are those who’ve never had such profoundly spiritual experiences themselves. If they do, they usually change their tunes pretty quickly.

While we don’t appear to be evolving much physically these days, we unquestionably are spiritually. The internet, synchronicity, measurable instances of global consciousness, spiritual realization of all sorts on a mass scale–as well as the incredible potential revealed by mapping the human brain–all point to an increasing awareness that demonstrates this evolution.

Like the evolution of those parts of our brains that have allowed us to process logical thought, vision, communication, creativity, and cooperative effort, our brains–and hearts–are evolving to process our growing spiritual potential. We’re not just simply generating spiritual sensation, we’re becoming more and more capable of observing, receiving, and projecting spiritual energy, through our shared field of consciousness.

I certainly don’t recommend having three near-death experiences to inspire these realizations of transcendent being and interconnection, but believe me, it will definitely inform your personal opinion.

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