Near-death experiences are known from all parts of the world, various times and numerous cultural backgrounds. This universality suggests they may have a biological origin and purpose, but exactly what this could be has been largely unexplored.
A new study conducted jointly by the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and the University of Liege (Belgium) and published in Brain Communications shows how near-death experiences in humans may have arisen from evolutionary mechanisms.
“Adhering to a preregistered protocol, we investigated the hypothesis that thanatosis is the evolutionary origin of near-death experiences”, says Daniel Kondziella, a neurologist from Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen University Hospital.
When attacked by a predator, as a last resort defense mechanism, animals can feign death to improve their chances of survival, one example being the opossum. This phenomenon is termed thanatosis, also known as death-feigning or tonic immobility. “As a survival strategy,” Daniel Kondziella adds, “thanatosis is probably as old as the fight-or-flight response.”
Charlotte Martial, neuropsychologist from the Coma Science Group at ULiège explains: “We first show that thanatosis is a highly preserved survival strategy occurring at all major nodes in a cladogram ranging from insects to fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans. We then show that humans under attack by big animals such as lions or grizzly bears, human predators such as sexual offenders, and ‘modern’ predators such as cars in traffic accidents can experience both thanatosis and near-death experiences. Furthermore, we show that the phenomenology and the effects of thanatosis and near-death experiences overlap.”
That whole thanatosis thing aside, I suspect that when we have a near death experience our long held and well established reification of the world around us may fall apart leaving us to slip into what Joanna Macy refers to in her book, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory as “immaculate perception”.
Interesting article, which tries to approach the phenomenon of near death experiences from a evolutionary, functional point of view.
Perhaps there really is a functional aspect to the phenomenon but I doubt that that is all to it.
A friend of mine who had a near death experience after a motorcycle accident, described his experience as leaving the body, hovering a couple of meters above the scene and resting in a blissful state before being pulled back into the body.
Some parts of this could be functionally explained as a pain-avoidance strategy at time of trauma.
But why do so many report blissful states (a neutral state would suffice for pain avoidance), why do so many hover above the scene and can later report details of things said by others or visual details although they were „knocked out“ or even brain dead?
Why do so many report a bright light and the wish to follow it but then having to return to their bodies?
How do these things fit into a mere survival mechanism which only would have the purpose to make sure that their bodies seem to be dead for several minutes? Why not just black out like in stage 4 NREM sleep - that would be simple and effective?
There are reasonable answers to all of your questions, but for now I’ll just point out that among other things the human mind is an excellent sense-making process (think about how good we are at finding patterns in pure chaos), that bodies and components of same are often used for multiple purposes, and that evolution elaborates on mechanisms that already exist, rather than starting from scratch all the time.
If I continue to exist in a post-mortal state I’ll be delighted, but I’m not going to count on it. Although I suspect awareness or consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of existence like gravity or magnetism, I also suspect that my “individual,” “separate” (illusions, both) consciousness will probably melt into nothing/everythingness when I die.
“I wonder what form I’ll be reincarnated into,” thought the snowflake as it dissolved blissfully into the ocean of awareness and completely and forever ceased to exist as a temporarily/seemingly separate entity.
I came across this passage in Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines by W. E. Evans-Wentz that seems germane to this discussion.
"According to the esoteric symbology of the Tibetan gurus, the process of death is compared to that of a lamp dying for lack of oil. By similar symbolism, they explain esoterically the various apparitional phenomena, such as the radiances, sounds, and forms, perceived by the by the one dying and in the after death state.
I read all of the Big Think articles and it seems to me that most, if not all, are written from a very definite materialist perspective. Within that perspective, the brain produces consciousness and thus when the brain stops functioning…consciousness ceases as well.
I just picked up a copy of “Consciousness Unbound” and the first chapter, which I will be getting into today, is entitled, “Near-Death Experiences”. I’ll report back on any insights.
Perhaps materialistic, but there is an interesting point here, that when taking psychedelic drugs people sometime report religious-type experiences and thus an explanation for a possible link of these naturally occurring drugs to NDEs is an interesting one.
This does not explain all of the phenomena of near death experiences. For instance there are cases where people died in hospitals (and were later revived) and could see things sitting on top of shelves that they couldn’t see from the perspective of the hospital bed where they were lying. They could accurately tell people what was on top of those shelves.
I was particularly intrigued by the statement “‘modern’ predators such as cars in traffic accidents” having experienced one recently. The experience was peculiar in that i felt time had split in one i saw the moment it occurred when i thought i had a choice to follow any one of the numerous time lines. In other i had no choice but to suffer the trauma of a damaged car but physically be intact. Then as i continued the replay i stepped back to the moments prior to the accident. I am not sure if i blacked out or fell asleep and reified the incident in a waking dream. I remain grateful to my karma that no other vehicle was involved.
A true freeze response is not a choice. The conscious mind doesn’t chose it. It’s a response of the autonomic nervous system to a threat that appears to be too big to fight or run from (the fight or flight response of the sympathetic nervous system). The dorsal branch of the vagus nerve will then instigate the freeze response. If you are not moving, or appear dead, a predator will often loose interest. Also I don’t think this has anything to do with near death experiences as these occur during a period when the body shows all of the signs of death. There will be no heart beat or respiration, etc. If you find a oppossum who has gone into freeze mode, you can still measure a heart rate and respiration, even if it is slowed down considerably.