Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”

I’ve been reading Tanya Luhrmann’s best-selling book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Relationship with God, which describes her four years of association with an evangelical Christian sect. (You should read it!) Luhrmann is an anthropologist, and sought to understand how these people forge such a close relationship with God.  One of her many conclusions is that for these Christians, a personal relationship with God arises through practice: constant prayer, various acts that people in the church undergo (being prayed for while crying, for instance), and endless striving to hear God’s voice. Eventually, the practice pays off: people suddenly realize that God is “speaking to them,” and from then on their faith is strong and immovable. (Luhrmann is not overtly religious, I think, and doesn’t endorse the sect’s views as providing evidence for God.) What struck me is the amount of hard work the Christians need to get to this state, though the importance of “personal revelation” in sustaining faith also reminded me of William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

While reading the book, I pondered what kind of neurological and biochemical changes these people were inducing in themselves through their “practice,” for of course I don’t believe they’re getting in touch with God at all.  But my question has been partially answered in a new piece by psychiatrist Oliver Sacks in The Atlantic:Seeing God in the third millenium.”  Sacks explains how near-death- and out-of-body experiences can arise as the byproduct of accidents, traumas, diseases, or manipulation of the brain by experimenters.  He totally debunks the “heaven” experience of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who’s gotten wealthy with his new book Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.  (I swear, it’s easy to get rich these days: just have an experience of Heaven when you’re ill or unconscious.)

Alexander, you may recall, says that he must really have seen Heaven because during his bout with meningitis, which put him in a coma, his cerebral cortex was shut down. His book is of course taken by credulous Americans as proof of God. But Sacks points out the fallacy with that:

It is not so easy, however, to dismiss neurological processes. Dr. Alexander presents himself as emerging from his coma suddenly: “My eyes opened … my brain … had just kicked back to life.” But one almost always emerges gradually from coma; there are intermediate stages of consciousness. It is in these transitional stages, where consciousness of a sort has returned, but not yet fully lucid consciousness, that NDEs [near-death experiences] tend to occur.

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

Coincidentally, and felicitously, Sacks takes up Luhrmann’s observations, concluding (as I did), that these people are, through their “practice,” eventually inducing the hallucination that they’re talking to God:

Sooner or later, with this intensive practice, for some of the congregants, the mind may leap from imagination to hallucination, and the congregant hears God, sees God, feels God walking beside them. These yearned-for voices and visions have the reality of perception, and this is because they activate the perceptual systems of the brain, as all hallucinations do. These visions, voices, and feelings of “presence” are accompanied by intense emotion — emotions of joy, peace, awe, revelation. Some evangelicals may have many such experiences; others only a single one — but even a single experience of God, imbued with the overwhelming force of actual perception, can be enough to sustain a lifetime of faith. (For those who are not religiously inclined, such experiences may occur with meditation or intense concentration on an artistic or intellectual or emotional plane, whether this is falling in love or listening to Bach, observing the intricacies of a fern, or cracking a scientific problem.)

In the last decade or two, there has been increasingly active research in the field of “spiritual neurosciences.” There are special difficulties in this research, for religious experiences cannot be summoned at will; they come, if at all, in their own time and way — the religious would say in God’s time and way. Nonetheless, researchers have been able to demonstrate physiological changes not only in pathological states like seizures, OBEs, and NDEs, but also in positive states like prayer and meditation. Typically these changes are quite widespread, involving not only primary sensory areas in the brain, but limbic (emotional) systems, hippocampal (memory) systems, and the prefrontal cortex, where intentionality and judgement reside.

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience.

As a palliative against this kind of religious and out-of-body woo, Sacks recommends a debunking book by Kevin Nelson, The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain: A Neurologist’s Search for the God Experience. (Get it–it’s only $3.64 in hardback on Amazon!)

Good for Sacks, who calls himself an “old Jewish atheist”! Although Luhrmann affords the Christians her respect (she is, after all, an anthropologist who had to report on their community by joining it), I don’t think she talks about how the “practice” of these Christians could induce the religious experience as a neurological phenomenon. But I’m only halfway through the book.

h/t: the many readers who called this piece to my attention


  1. Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    Luhrmann’s account sounds like my experience of evangelical culture. I never really got to that experience of the presence of God (or not much, or often) — I think I am by nature too introspective, too aware of my internal monolog, and therefore aware of how easy it is to fake things even to yourself.

  2. Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Luhrmann’s book is enlightening; what was striking to me was how confirmation bias reinforces the perceived experience of God. People at the church she attended, who were striving to experience God, sought the advice of other more “experienced” church members, or the pastor, to determine if what they were experiencing was God or not. And of course those people’s advice centered around whether the experience was consistent with what they “knew” about God’s voice. It is no surprise, then, that everyone seems to coalesce on the same experience of God. It was like artificial selection for a God experience!

  3. Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Well, he would pooh-pooh it all, wouldn´t he, Jerry?

    Just like you have to… and have to be seen to, also, eh?

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, James, for implying that we “have” to think a certain way. I suggest that you go over to the Uncommon Descent website, where you’ll find like-minded people.

      It is comments like these that try my rule not to insult fellow commenters.

      • Stephen Williams
        Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

        Hello, Jerry. I see Grandmaster Plaskett has found his way over here. He is certainly a very strong chess player,although nowhere near Bobby Fischer’s standard except in fruitcakiness. I think I just made that word up but it will serve. It is presumptuous of me to give you advice, but I suggest you just ignore him. I most strongly sympathise with your difficulty. (He gets around rather a lot…)

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Sacks is stating the facts as current research suggests them. How is that “pooh-poohing” anything?

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      …and have to be seen to, also, eh?

      Whereas believers, I suppose, are perfectly content to keep their beliefs quietly to themselves. They don’t, for instance, hold weekly meetings to pat each other on the back, or insist on praying aloud at public events, or ostentatiously proclaim their love for Jesus when running for political office.

      Or make it a point of pride to defend their beliefs on skeptical websites.

      Do they?

      • DV
        Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Of course Christians heed the words of Jesus:

        Matthew 6:5-6
        “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

        That’s why I have never seen a true Christian pray. But I’ve seen a lot of hypocrites pray.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

        Not only that but what’s a better ending for a hospital stay than a best-selling book? This will probably launch a new career for the doc, or maybe he’ll be a two-career guy, just like Michael Creighton — or is it Robin Cook? — whoever it is who’s both a doc & a novelist.

  4. gbjames
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Permalink


    • jimroberts
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink


  5. Kevin
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    “I swear, it’s easy to get rich these days: just have an experience of Heaven when you’re ill or unconscious.”

    Alternatively, you can exercise your liberal First Amendment rights and launch a dirty magazine.

    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, but that would take actual work and investment, like hiring models and competent photographers and studio space, and writing and layout, and coming up with something new for every issue. But make up some story about a weird experience, sprinkle it with details that slant it towards your target market (Christian vs. New Age vs. generic theist vs….?), shop it to the appropriate publishers, and wait for the royalties to roll in…..

  6. Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    On acting ‘As If’, from Richard Wiseman, and praxis in religion: http://ronmurp.net/2012/10/11/the-dangers-of-praxis-acting-as-if/

  7. Thomas Beck
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    Some of this “seeing God” must surely be plain old-fashioned wish-fulfillment – if you look for something long enough, you’re likely to find it. I wonder, though, about people desperate seeking God through long practice who DON’T succeed in having even one such vision. They must be devastated and blame themselves rather than accept the hard (to them) truth that what they’ve been looking for so hard and so long simply doesn’t exist. Who is sadder – the successful hallucinator or the unsuccessful one?

    • Marella
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

      Interesting point. I also wonder how many of them just make it up to fit in.

      • Icneumonid
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:35 am | Permalink

        Mother Teresa a case in point. Never had a single answer in decades of praying. Yet she still believed.


        Even negative reinforcement is enough if you believe enough.

        • John Scanlon, FCD
          Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:31 am | Permalink

          ‘still believed’ – highly questionable, from what she wrote.

          Still pretended to believe, certainly.

          • ichneumonid
            Posted December 14, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink

            I stand corrected – ‘pretend belief’ would describe it best!

  8. Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    There has been so much documentation of the “near-death” experience over so many years that I doubt any one person could “de-bunk” it. Certainly, everyone has their own opinion about what is happening, but when this many people risk derision in order to share what is virtually the same experience, it looks to me like something that is worth paying attention to.

    • steve oberski
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think anybody says the experience isn’t real.

      But it’s a real internal and subjective experience.

      And while it may provide insight into the workings of the mind of the subject it tells us nothing about how the universe functions and it most certainly is not evidence of the supernatural.

      And I would disagree with your claim that it is “virtually the same experience” for all that experience it.

      Studies have shown that what the subjects report is influenced by the culture that they belong to, for example xtians report experiencing an xtian heaven (which for some reason always seems to resemble a tacky game show) and Hindus incorporate Hindu mythology into their experiences.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

        Yes, “virtually the same experience” was an over-statement. I was thinking of the light, the tunnel, the feelings experienced, etc. I am impressed by the number of similarities through time and in different cultures/belief systems, despite the very real differences.

        I don’t see this as evidence of the “supernatural,” and I hope I didn’t give that impression. In my book there is no such thing – only things we don’t understand yet.

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

          When you think about it, people who’ve experienced NDEs all have the same kind of brain, so it shouldn’t be too surprising to find cross-cultural similarities in its near-death failure modes.

        • Posted December 14, 2012 at 2:17 am | Permalink

          Yes, I’m amazed at how when I’m on a train that goes through a tunnel so many other people have the same experience of going through a tunnel.

          It further amazes me that I sometimes dream about falling and other people do too. We must really be falling mustn’t we.

          Several people I know and I have dreamt we won the lottery, only to wake we found we hadn’t. It must be a government conspiracy, because whatever goes on in my head, and in other peoples, must be true mustn’t it. It can’t just be coincidence that we all dream similar stuff.

          I am impressed by the number of similarities through time and in different cultures/belief systems, despite the very real differences.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      And Sacks is paying attention to it, as are some neuroscience researchers.

      • Scott near Berkeley
        Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

        Actually, there has been much study on this, the near-death experience, for decades. The problem is, the results invariably debunk “eternal life”, so they get far far less play than “Proof!! You are ETERNAL!”-type books. Of course, most everyone sees themselves as special and worthy of keeping around forever. So 92% of the human population embrace “confirmation bias” on this topic.

        How often does one comb the various scientific journals, looking for near-death research?

        Add in here the various studies, done by pro-Christian doctors, regarding the efficacy of “prayer”. Always disappointing, always quickly discarded, invariably subsumed.

    • Sastra
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      Of course it’s something worth paying attention to: that’s what neurologists and other scientists are doing. The superficial, naive, take-the-first-assumption view that there must be a REAL supernatural realm is shallow, and fails to take the phenomenon seriously.

      And please don’t kid yourself that the “risk of derision” for claiming to have had an encounter with God is not heavily outweighed by the approval, attention, and positive reinforcement from the faithful. And the social approval is only icing on the cake of personal validation.

      Want to really “risk derision?” Try advancing a reasonable, rational, well-supported natural explanation in a room filled with people accepting a miracle tale.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink


      That’s the whole point of the article. OOBs and NDEs have already been debunked.

      They’re brain quirks. Not real. Hallucinations. Repeatable by experiment (seriously, you can look this literature up on the thing call “the internet”). BTW: You can do peyote and get the same experience, just in case you don’t want a neurologist sticking electrical probes in your brain.

      To the people who experience them, they seem real. And they are phenomenologically real in the sense that the people who experience them aren’t lying.

      But they aren’t leaving their bodies. Nor are they going down a long tunnel and meeting loved ones or Jesus. That’s 100% hallucination.

      Everything that happens is contained within the brain of the person having the hallucination.

      • Posted December 13, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

        Speaking of hallucinatory experiences, I just saw Sam Harris talking about psychodelic experiences with a radio interviewer on another website this afternoon.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          IIRC Harris and Joe Rogan were discussing the endogenous neruotransitter DMT (which Rogan loves).

          Harris suggests that DMT was locally concentrated in Alexander’s brain, accounting for the details of Alexander’s experience.

          JC’s post about believers “working” at prayer would suggest something similar is going on.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:04 am | Permalink

        Umm, do we have two Kevins posting to this notablog? We seem to have Kevin of the green icon whose comments are borderline trolling (e.g. #5 upthread) and Kevin of the brown icon who appears to be sensibly sceptical as in this comment above.

        I ask because ‘Kevin’ has caused me some surprise and puzzlement with out-of-character comments before now…

      • suwise3
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 7:53 am | Permalink

        You don’t even have to go as far as an NDE, you can get choked out in a jujitsu class (for a few seconds). Many people experience visions, dreams, whatever. When I did it, I got… nothing. So I eventually did it again and got an acceptable vision. But no one in the class ever though they had developed magical powers or were communing with god.

  9. truthspeaker
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Permalink


  10. corio37
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    The good news: you have to work really hard to be this deluded. The bad news: some people will do it anyway.

  11. jose
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    The hallucination part resonates a lot. Salvia is more of a pantheist drug (fusion of identity with the rest of the room and the universe after that), but the distortion in the perception of time is there as well, 15 minutes feel like forever.

    It’s perfectly factible for you not only to see God but to feel connected to God in a way that has little to do with regular daily experience if you tickle the brain the right way.

    This is why first hand experience isn’t reliable and why replication and controls are so important in scientific studies.

  12. marcusa1971
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    There is also a talk by Oliver Sacks on Hallucinations available via Richard Dawkins’ website:

  13. Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I once agreed to attend an Alpha Course with my wife. The AC is a church-sponsored weekly series of “big questions” designed to bring fence-sitters into Christianity.

    The centerpiece of the whole thing is a weekend retreat where we all went to the New Hampshire woods to spend an absolutely exhausting day listening to DVD sermons. There were also small group talks, a Q&A session, and a hike in the forest. In the evening, they built up the expectation of the “Holy Spirit’s” arrival to a fever pitch.

    I was thunderstruck by how the whole day was choreographed to tire people out and drive up anticipation for the moment when someone would pray to Jesus for them. The people who received prayers were visibly moved. And all the fence-sitters became Christian.

    I, never a Christian to begin with, not only didn’t become a Christian but rather got ticked off that people were abandoning themselves off for nothing more than a theatre experience.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Some Christian youth camps do that too.

    • splendidmonkey
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      “Cursillo Movement” is also pretty much the same thing. They wear you down emotionally and then throw you this love fest. I now find it embarrassing to admit that I was pulled into it as a younger man.

    • NoAstronomer
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Sounds like the approach marine corps boot camp takes.


  14. Alex Shuffell
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    I see these people jumping and screaming, sometimes helped with drugs, snakes, hypnosis etc. and it looks like their doing it for the same effect, the same spiritual needs. Maybe those American tribes of Evangelicals have got confused, calling Shango Jesus.

    Is there any difference between the rituals of evangelical christians and tribal rituals of Africa or South America?

    • KDK1
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the African and South American rituals work much better, and pretty much work for everyone. Benny Shanon did a fairly in-depth study(see The Antipodes of the Mind), and he did it first hand, so he’s probably the foremost academic authority in the world.

      • Alex Shuffell
        Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for the title, it’s an expensive book. It’s in my basket. I’ve been very curious about Ayahuasca for a while now.
        It gives me warm feelings inside when I see the reliance of these rituals on getting to know religion. It adds more evidence to gods being nothing but what we imagine.

        • KDK1
          Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

          I should caution you that Shanon takes more of a third-way than that, and even then you can see him wrestling a bit with what he has experienced to bring it down to that level. There are a few videos of him kicking about as well.

  15. neil344
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    A Jewish atheist, eh? Ah well, we all believe in the same non-god.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

      No, we all disbelieve in the same non-god.

  16. Sastra
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Psychologist John Schumaker compares religious belief to a sort of self-hypnotism. You work yourself into a state where you can believe two opposing things at once.

    It’s interesting. I’ve seen religious believers actually advocate a fairly blatant and obvious type of self-hypnotism or brainwashing, telling people who “want to believe” to play little mental tricks on themselves like pretending they hear a voice or saying ‘thank you’ over and over throughout the day. Fake it till you make it — and they STILL don’t see how manipulative and dishonest this type of induced delusion is.

    No, that’s just how we prepare ourselves to be receptive to God.

    • jose
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Modern day western religious are only subtler with it, like you’ll be told to pray the rosary or this or that litany, which are invariably super monotonous and repetitive, like shamanic drums. Breathing incense might help but I’m not sure it actually does anything. It stinks like hell, though.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:37 am | Permalink

      That stuff is just Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises with a fundy twist, isn’t it?

  17. nickswearsky
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Lurhmann is well-know for her study of psychiatry. There are probably more than a few similarities between psychiatry and the Christian group described here. I wonder whether she and Sacks would agree on best approaches to treating mental illness.

  18. eric
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I find it somewhat funny how believers in NDEs don’t think the entire afterlife consists of a single tunnel.

    I mean, shouldn’t you? So you think a lot of people have visited the afterlife. You believe their experiences. So, what experiences are those? Alone in a tunnel. Alone in a tunnel. Alone in a tunnel. Alone in a tunnel. Ad nauseum.

    From this, you conclude that the afterlife is….bright fields, glorious buildings, angels, being reunited with dead friends and loved ones, etc. Huh? What about experience A leads you to conclude B? How does that work?

    • KDK1
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      I think it’s what they experience once they exit the tunnel that is being described in this way. I.e, angels, deceased loved ones, fields etc.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        Yeah, but all of that angels/loved-ones stuff is obviously just made up.

        The tunnel though, who’d make that up? It’s got to be real.

        Maybe not all the same tunnel. There may be several different ones.

    • Apashiol
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

      There are Indian beliefs shared by Hindus and Jains that souls leave through different exits of the body. Elevated souls leave through the suture of the skull while sinful souls leave through lower orifices.

      Tales of NDEs that describe passing through a tunnel were often gloated over, a kind of spiritual schadenfreude, as signifying that that particular person had been exiting the body by way of the anus.

      A conclusion that confirms that most people are destined for lower births, which they already knew because that’s what the gurus and scripures told them.

      • js
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

        Well, my soul is definitely leaving through my arse then.
        Would that make it an arse-soul?

        • gbjames
          Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Permalink


    • gbjames
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:43 am | Permalink

      I think that’s the tunnel in the opening credits of Doctor Who.

  19. NoAstronomer
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    “a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer.”

    Is it even possible to prove that these are experiences and not just memories of something that never even happened, not even internally?


    • Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      I’m really not sure, although I find hypotheses involving hypoxia-related “tunnel-vision” compelling. I suppose something like that would imply recall of a direct experience (if the brain is capable of forming memories of such an experience).

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      I’m not sure what you mean by “not even internally”. Clearly something must happen internally, some fragmentary series of spurious perceptions or whatever, to cause those memories to be laid down. But as Sacks says, it doesn’t count as experience until the mind begins to regain consciousness and is able to interpret it as such.

    • eric
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 6:02 am | Permalink

      I am not sure what the ‘not even internally’ thing means, but I believe memory research from the past decade shows that false memories trigger and use the same pathways as real ones. PTSD from an alien abduction is just as real as PTSD from military combat. Literally so, in that the brain uses the exact same structures and pathways in both cases. You do not have/use separate areas or neurons for real memories vs. false ones; to your brain, its all just memory.

      So I would guess that it is impossible to determine, based on looking at brain activity, whether they are remembering a real experience or not. You have to look at external cues. For OBEs, for example, you ask whether they could know something from the out of body perspective they could not have known otherwise. Turns out, they can’t. So that external cue gives us reason to believe the OBE state is internal and the person experiencing it is not literally floating out of their body.

  20. darrelle
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    I neglected to make a record of it and can’t seem to find it, but a few years ago I saw a study about inducing religious like experiences at will in a lab setting.

    I did come across this from the Artificial Religious Experience section of philosophyofrelgion.info while searching for it, which describes the gist of what I was looking for.

    “The device (transcranial magnetic stimulator) can, for some people, be used to create religious experiences. Using the transcranial magnetic stimulator to apply a magnetic field to the temporal lobes can cause people to experience God. This phenomenon is not limited only to believers; even atheists can be caused to have religious experiences using the transcranial magnetic stimulator.

    The fact that this works for some people suggests that the temporal lobes play a role in religious experience. This is supported by the fact that some sufferers of temporal lobe epilepsy, a condition that consists in having seizures centred around intense electrical activity in the temporal lobes, report that during seizures they have profound religious experiences. V S Ramachandran describes this:

    “Most remarkable of all are those patients who have deeply moving spiritual experiences, including a feeling of divine presence and the sense that they are in direct communication with God. Everything around them is imbued with cosmic significance. They may say, ‘I finally understand what it’s all about. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life. Suddenly it all makes sense.’ Or, ‘Finally I have insight into the true nature of the cosmos.’ … God has vouchsafed for us ‘normal’ people only occasional glimpses of a deeper truth… but these patients enjoy the unique privilege of gazing directly into God’s eyes every time they have a seizure.” [V S Ramachandran & Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain, Fourth Estate Limited (1998), p179]

    We have learned to control god!

    Regarding NDEs, myself and most other people I’ve asked about it have experienced something very similar to the opening scene of your typical NDE experience simply from fainting. Basically, tunnel vision with bright almost zero contrast vision in the center of your field of view. Muh brain ain’t workin like it supposed to.

  21. HaggisForBrains
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    You should watch this video from UK Channel 4 showing how easily an atheist can be convinced she has had a “conversion to god” experience. I’m not sure if this link will work outside the UK so you may need to use a proxy, and it is apparently only available for another two days. For those of you not in the UK, Derren Brown is a kind of British equivalent of James Randi. The programme lasts an hour, and there is no easy way to cut it down, as the relevant demonstration is spread throughout the programme.

    Give it a go – you’ll be impressed, and scared!

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      OK I give up trying to be cleaver with html:

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink


        • Zwirko
          Posted December 14, 2012 at 3:51 am | Permalink

          That was a fascinating piece – thanks for linking to it. WEIT readers should really make a point of watching it.

          I hope that woman has no long lasting negative side effects from that experience.

  22. Leigh Jackson
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    There is no reason to doubt that what Alexander experienced occurred in his brain.

    To show that it occurred only in his brain we need to know more about the brain. We need to be able to manipulate the brain so as to produce specified experiences to order.

    • Kevin
      Posted December 13, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

      We’re already doing that. We already know which part of the brain to enervate in order to induce an OOB.

  23. Zwirko
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Almost every night I “see” a growing white light as I fall asleep; I’d even say it’s somewhat tunnel-like. When it starts to appear I know that I will be asleep within 60 seconds or so unless I do something to stop myself drifting off.

    Anyone else have that sort of experience, or am I having a nightly NDE?

  24. bernardhurley
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    Stightly O/T, but Pope Pius IX prayed every day that he should be granted the “gift of visions.” He was honest enough to say that none were forthcoming. I don’t know if this is actually true but this is what I was told as a teenager by a Catholic priest, who thought it showed how deep Pius IX’s faith was. It struck me at the time that it more likely showed the opposite.

  25. josgeluk
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    A very good novel, which both debunks NDE research and gives an interesting new explanation, is “Passage” by Connie Willis.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Yes, she’s a very clever writer.

      I don’t think the ‘explanation’ is to be taken as more than a plot device (after you exit the novel, that is), because very similar situations occur in a number of her other books (which I re-read frequently).

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        Getting pretty far off topic, but I find Willis exasperating because while her characters and dramatic dilemmas are usually quite astutely drawn, the plot hooks on which she hangs them are often downright silly (as in Passage).

        And she seems unable to resist the urge to inject slapstick humor into her books, even when it’s wildly inappropriate (as in Doomsday Book).

        Bottom line is that she writes very compelling stories that, when you think seriously about their plot underpinnings, don’t make a whole lot of sense.

  26. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Sam Harris eviscerated Alexander’s account twice, check his website.

    • frank sellout
      Posted December 14, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

      Yes, Sam Harris did an amazing job dismantling Alexander’s arguments, proving that a nerosurgeon doesn’t necessarily understand how the brain works! Harris wrote it a couple of months ago, so it may be back a bit on his blog.


  27. Posted December 13, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Permalink


    Sacks’ book, “Hallucinations”, is a fascinating read as well.

    A book you may also find interesting, Jerry, is “How God Changes Your Brain”, by Andrew Newberg.


    As the piece indicates, the title is somewhat sensationalist – it should be “How Meditation/Belief/Faith Changes Your Brain”.

    It will certainly help explain the “neurological and biochemical changes” that are occurring during the above experiences.

    Kindest regards,


  28. gravelinspector
    Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Sacks also does an interesting “job” in one of his books on “amusia” – the utter incomprehension of music – as a neurological phenomenon.
    As I mentioned in recent posts, I strongly suspect that I have a significant degree of “amusia.” I saw (or heard) some hints in that book, or in the associated “puff” to try to drum up sales, hints of some research programmes to try to use “amusia” as a tool for probing how various parts of the brain work and interconnect. however, I didn’t consider the question interesting enough to expend more than trivial effort upon it.
    No, I don’t consider “amusia” to be a “problem” or a “handicap”. I’ve got some friends who are gay, and they’ve got a similar degree of disinterest in questions of reproduction. It’s simply not an important question. Some reproductive (or “musical”) people seem to find such comprehensive disinterest to be threatening.

  29. ladyatheist
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    I just borrowed his latest book, Hallucinations, from the library!

    I grew up with a schizophrenic mom, who had friends she met in the nut house, and eventually married one, and one of my brothers has schizophrenia also.

    Once you’ve been around people with serious mental illness, the “revelations” of the Bible are clearly merely neurological events (assuming they happened at all).

    At the risk of self-promotion, I write about this kind of thing on my blog. For what it’s worth: Mental Illness and the Main Characters of the Bible and Magical People Amongst Us, You do NOT have a Personal Relationship with God.

    Sacks’ new book goes into much more detail on the varieties of hallucinatory experience. Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain is pretty good too, though I hope to get more out of Sacks’ book.

  30. Posted December 14, 2012 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the excellent review on a topic I thought was settled years ago. Like a tenacious parasite hidden in the body, the “back from death” or “near death” experience survives and is reborn again and again. This demonstrates the lack of any real evidence of a deity and a need to find some.

  31. gbjames
    Posted December 14, 2012 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Did I just hallucinate david r?

  32. Andrew Fredriksen
    Posted December 16, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    I have had two out-of-body experiences in my life. The first one was more than 40 years ago which I still vividly remember. I have also had a number of intensely ecstatic and if I didn’t know better I would call “religious” experiences. One especially I remember, I was walking along the beach and I felt as if I was losing myself, dissolving into the universe. It freaked-me out so much I struggled to drag myself back to consciousness. At one time I attributed these experiences to an external connection with a spiritual force in the universe but I have since learned, especially through mediation practice – where I can easily achieve these “spiritual” states of being – that it’s all caused by, what I call, brain dope. Had I known that I could make some money off this stuff…, but then again, I don’t have a PhD, no credentials whatsoever; no one would take me seriously.

    • bernardhurley
      Posted December 17, 2012 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      Yes, but you only need to say you have a PhD, you don’t actually have to have one to mske money out of this sort of thing.

  33. truthspeaker
    Posted December 17, 2012 at 7:43 pm | Permalink


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/12/13/oliver-sacks-debunks-near-death-and-out-of-body-e… […]

  2. […] Jerry A. Coyne, Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, and author of Why Evolution is True, presents a critical examination of Dr. Eben Alexander’s recent book, Proof of Heaven. The critique draws on Oliver Sacks article for Slone discussing the nature of NDE’s, out of body experiences, and hallucination. (Why Evolution is True) […]

  3. […] From WEIT: Oliver Sacks debunks near-death and out-of-body experiences, as well as religious “revelations”. Interesting post that includes some good […]

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