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10/23/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are Near Death Experiences Scientific or Folklore?

Are Near Death Experiences real?: originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

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Answer by Paul King, Computational Neuroscientist, Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) taken at face value do not make sense within the Western scientific framework and yet there is greater than zero evidence for them, which puts them in a somewhat paradoxical category.

No one disputes that people report these experiences. It is also possible that they have them as well, although theoretically people can have a memory of an experience that they never actually experienced.

What is unclear is whether what the person believe happened actually happened, for example hovering above an operating table and looking down on themselves.

NDEs are one among many "transpersonal experience" reports that conflict with the Western scientific framework. Others include past-life experiences, ESP, alien visitations, and astrology. The scientific view says these are impossible, and yet people report them.

Some see NDEs as evidence of a spiritual afterlife [1], whereas neurological accounts tend to explain them in terms of altered states of consciousness. [2]

It is often said that people are "clinically dead" when they have NDEs, but what does that mean? Their heart may have stopped, but no one records EEGs on patients during these episodes, so what was going on in the brain is unknown. It is also unknown the degree to which the memory of the experience was reconstructed from whatever might have gone on in the brain during the episode. In other words, what was remembered might not be what actually happened, and the person might not have actually been "clinically dead" at the time.

NDEs will probably remain an unsolved mystery until science comes to a deeper understanding of how consciousness, episodic memory, and subjective experience work in the brain.

[1] Near Death Experience website with a pro-afterlife view

[2] French CC (2005). Near Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest Survivors. Progress in Brain Research [presents a skeptical view]

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