Is there any explanation for a near-death experience?

That question is about vague, light-in-the-tunnel near death experiences (NDEs). This question is about very specific claims I've heard advanced by Dr. Gary Habermas, a Christian apologist, who uses them in debates to argue for the existence of an afterlife/soul. See his website for more.

Here are three examples of the extraordinary claims made by Dr. Habermas:

  • A debate involving Arif Ahmed:

    There are some [NDE] cases that are so evidential -- this doesn't make them true, this doesn't force them -- but they've been written up in from (sic) 10 to 20 different peer-reviewed medical journals have covered these cases.

  • In Part III of a debate posted on Habermas' website, he says:

    I know of a case where a guy who had no activity, who was clinically dead. [...] They resuscitated him at the hospital, the guy says, "Hey, I was watching you do all this," and he explained things. [...] He said "I noticed there was a number on top of your ambulance. This is the number."

  • In this video, Habermas presents the story of a girl who was underwater for 19 minutes, taken to the hospital with no eye movement and no brain activity, and put in the ICU. Three days later she spontaneously awoke and claimed to have watched the doctors working on her, was able to describe the ER (that she was no longer in), said an angel allowed her to look into her home, and reported details from home such as a song that came on the radio and what her mom made for dinner. Habermas reports that the story was written up in the Journal of Pediatrics and another journal.

My questions:

  • Are there many of these "evidential cases" about NDEs written u pin peer-reviewed medical journals as Habermas claims?
  • Are there examples where specific things someone reports to have seen were shown to be true or false? In other words, are there any specific cases describing a definitive resolution with evidence vs. word of mouth stories?

EDIT as a fun and related counterexample, here is a fantastic clip from James Randi in which he describes his own out of body experience in which he saw vivid, specific details about the room: the color of the bedspread and where they cat was laying. When he recounted the event upon waking, others pointed out that the bedspread was in the laundry and that the cat had been outside all night long.

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    Aside from just videos of this guy talking, do those articles in journals actually exist? He keeps stating "it was written in a journal" but the lack of those actual articles is worrisome. People lying to make their point is not a new phenomenon (liarsforjesus.com is a website even because it's so common). Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 21:51
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    @Larian: I had a paragraph which I removed for length that was pretty much what you just said -- he keeps saying "lots of journals" and "hundreds of cases" but won't say "Journal of Psychiatry, November 2009" for example, which makes it really tough to track down. But that's why I'm asking. I'm sure creationists cite scientists or maybe even use blanket statements about the literature as well -- I'm hoping this site will help confirm/deny.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 22:00
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    I just emailed Dr. Habermas and requested his list.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 22:11

3 Answers 3


Edit: I've looked into this and am updating it to the full answer. Here goes...

Re. Habermas and his claims in particular

I emailed the source of these claims, Dr. Habermas, to try and obtain the "list of over one-hundred evidential cases" he refers to in his debates/talks. He did not have such a list (I can provide the exact email if requested). He suggested checking out his book, Beyond Death and other articles/interviews/etc. for more sources.

I followed up with a request for a reference to the girl who was underwater for 19 minutes (mentioned in the question, with a video link). He provided a reference to the journal in which the article appeared, the journal, Current Problems in Pediatrics and Adolescent Heath Care.

I tracked down the article, available from Dr. Morse's (the author) SITE, available for download HERE. The mention of that case is, indeed, very short and disappointing, which surprised me if Habermas' account of the same girl is correct; compare the amazing story in my question by Habermas with Morse's account here:

I reported the first pediatric NDE, a 7-year-old girl who was without spontaneous heartbeat for 19 minutes and had fixed and dilated pupils. She recovered to give a detailed description of her own resuscitation including hearing pieces of conversations in the emergency room, accurately describing her own resuscitation with details such as nasal intubation and being placed in a CT scanner. This was followed by a spiritual journey with a spirit guide through a dark tunnel to a heavenly realm and a decision to return to consciousness.

No mention of seeing her mother/brothers at their home some distance away and recalling details which were all verified to be true. The fact that she recounted details about what was happening to her own body are far less impressive, at least to me. The paper cited for this short summary is HERE and I don't have access, so I admit the possibility that far more details are present in the original paper.

I will note that Morse's site (linked above) is absolutely filled with references to religion (Jesus/Christianity in particular), a spirit/soul, etc. While these details don't establish anything by themselves, I'm simply noting that he may have a particular interest in these experiences leaning in one particular direction.

Lastly, I'll note that Morse believes he can successfully remote view. The religious motivations are one thing, but belief in remote viewing abilities are another.

  • HERE Morse presents a document showing how he successfully remote viewed (cough)
  • HERE, Morse performs a remote viewing live on video. I noted that his adjective list includes about everything one can imagine in describing what he's "seeing," many of them seeming like antonyms: lights, darks, flat, etched...

Near Death Experiences in general

To close up, I'll list some interesting material I found on NDEs in general.

  • THIS is an absolutely outstanding summary (fairly up to date as well) of NDE studies by Keith Augustine, including specific cases, references, and all. Just wonderful. Notable statements include:
    • HERE is a section showing that non-Western NDEs have almost none of the features of "prototypical Western NDEs," decreasing the probability that an NDE is a snapshot into an objective, universal post-death reality by the NDEr
    • HERE, Augustine presents essentially what I was looking for in a section called, "Veridical Paranormal Perception During OBEs?" He takes several cases and shows that there need be nothing "paranormal" about patients' recollection of details. He also states that no conclusive studies have cleared the air about whether any details have been 1) impossible to know without "leaving" the body and 2) verified conclusively:

But at the end of the day, we are left with no compelling evidence that NDErs have actually been able to obtain information from remote locations, and we have clear evidence that NDErs sometimes have false perceptions of the physical world during their experiences.

  • THIS paper examines near death experiences in cardiac arrest patients and makes this statement:

It is not clear whether the experiences of patients, who report that they have ‘left their bodies’ and viewed their own resuscitation procedures are veridical or are hallucinations. Some patients do appear to have obtained information which they could not have obtained during unconsciousness. If this is so, it would suggest that some element of human consciousness is capable of separating from the body and obtaining information at a distance. However, it is also possible that the information that they report may have been gained from ordinary sensory sources. In this study, no out of body experiences occurred. The authors know of no prospective studies which have helped clarify this point.

  • Not necessarily related, but THIS study shows that Catholics, Muslims, and atheists experience NDEs at approximately the same rate of occurrence (NDEs per survived cardiac arrest patient).

So, it seems that at least two investigators familiar with the area of inquiry (Augustine's full article displaying an extremely long list of sources) have concluded that there are no known instances in which a patient knew of details that were later verified to be true and could not be learned by any method other than leaving the body.

As an entertaining piece of dessert, I recalled James Randi's own Out of Body Experience, found HERE. He "floated" out of his body one night and recounted vivid details to his step-son the next morning (color of bed spread, where his cat was on the bed, and what the cat's eyes looked like), only to find that the specific bedspread was in the laundry and that the cat had been outside all night. Not an NDE, but in listening to him, it sounds like such a "typical" OBE, and it's just so fantastic that Randi of all people experienced it and then learned it was not real.

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    Prepare for more vague waffling. But good effort on your part!
    – Lagerbaer
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 16:31
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    @AndyT thanks for the input. Feel free to edit at will! I guess my 7yr ago self who was very active here wrote in substandard ways and it took this long for anyone to mention it. At this point, I no longer participate here and my general motivation to fix this is low. Additionally, of all questions I've interacted with here, this is very close to the unanswerable side of the spectrum vs. others that have a shot at being more conclusive.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:03
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    @AndyT I just edited the question. Is that better? Also, in doing so, part of the reason I may have done it like that is that all of the sources were video/audio. Take a look at my 3rd bullet summary, then listen to this and imagine transcribing the rambly, jumbled way the guy tells stories. As a counterpoint, I think my summaries, as long as the reader trusts me, waste way less time than reading through his actual words (edit: and still give an accurate understanding without having to go look).
    – Hendy
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:49
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    @Hendy - The question reads much better now, thanks.
    – AndyT
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:55
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    @AndyT thanks for the feedback! I can't improve without having these things pointed out :) I'll take a stab at this answer at some point. Honestly I swear a bunch of other bloggers I read around this era used the capped link format and I just adopted it. Indeed, it now looks "Windows 95" to me, but I swear it seemed completely normal at the time.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 16:00

Michael Shermer, editor in chief of Skeptic magazine, recounts an out of body experience he had experienced himself in his book Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.

If memory serves, he had driven himself into a hallucinatory state while on an endurance bicycle ride and believed that his support team who caught and cared for him were abducting aliens. Shermer's point was that even a well trained skeptic can readily cast himself into a state of confusion such that ordinary activities are interpreted as wildly counterfactual. Thus, the subjective "evidence" of a percipient is useless and isn't evidence in any meaningful sense.

Even if the events reported by Habermas were properly cited, they all rely on the percept of a compromised mind. No matter how reliable the journal, they are citing self-reported anecdotes that simply are not subject to empirical verification.

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    Well, that's the difference -- Habermas is supposedly bring an event to the table that can't be explained by self-delusion and that are subject to empirical verification. I suspect if I can actually find them, they will be less reliable than he claims, but someone seeing the number on top of an ambulance (assuming it's not also on the side) is pretty interesting. I have less than 10% confidence that the literature will portray anything like that, though. In any case, I don't consider confusion to be the same as what this supposedly is.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 22:55
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    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. Accepting the number on the ambulance roof would be far more compelling if there were no other indications of that number. Indeed, I would expect that there are all sorts of audio and visual indications of exactly that number plastered all over the vehicle and in speech and radio. It is not difficult to then imagine the number on top. I was once firmly convinced that I could see my hand as I manipulated it with my eyes closed. Unsurprisingly, I couldn't see my friend's hand though. Kinesthesis and imagination were much better explanans.
    – msw
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 23:38
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    I don't doubt it -- hence I want the articles. All I'm saying is that I want whatever the ruling is to land there based on verified facts -- finding out that the number was, in fact, on the side or is mentioned all the time in speech. I don't buy the stories, either, but having conclusive evidence against them is far more forceful than our collective speculation. This might also help put a stop to people off-handedly referring to these things and getting away with it.
    – Hendy
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 23:55
  • Understood. I admire your optimism in persuading people who want to believe otherwise that a phenomenon doesn't exist because there is no evidence for it.
    – msw
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 23:39

Scientists at Southampton University have found evidence that 'awareness continue for at least several minutes after clinical death' which was previously thought impossible.

The following study has been published in 2014 in the Official Journal of European Resuscitation Council by a team at Southampton University in the UK:

The results revealed that 40% of those who survived a cardiac arrest were aware during the time that they were clinically dead and before their hearts were restarted.Bioethics

In the Abstract we can also read:

This supports other recent studies that have indicated consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness.

The Daily Mail featured an interview with Dr. Sam Parnia who said:

This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating.

Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.

Read also: Results of world's largest Near Death Experiences study published.

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