Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin didn’t grow up in a particularly religious home, so it’s not like he thought much about the afterlife—or even the notion that when people die, they might become angels. So when, as a young boy, he drew a picture of someone with a halo, his mom asked where he had come up with the idea. Ben had no clue.
Mitchell-Yellin received his PhD at Cal-Riverside, where he did his post-doc work with renowned philosopher John Martin Fischer on The Immortality Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation
Fischer and Mitchell-Yellin co-authored the book Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions of the Afterlife (Oxford University Press, 2016).
ORBITER was anxious to hear more—we were going to say we were dying to talk to him, but resisted—so we called Mitchell-Yellin for a conversation.
ORBITER: What was The Immortality Project?
Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin: It was based on a $5 million grant, from 2012 to 2015, from the Templeton Foundation. The basic idea was to fund research on two fronts—on empirical topics related to immortality, and on philosophical and theological research on immortality. There were about 34 projects, there were conferences, a younger scholars workshop, and a website describing it all.
The description of your book about NDEs says “the authors provide a blueprint for a science-based explanation.”
First of all, near-death experiences are not simply “brushes with death,” where someone is pronounced clinically dead due to a heart attack or something, or they had an experience where they thought they were going to die. A near-death experience is when they have some characteristic features like pleasant feelings, floating outside their bodies, traveling to other realms, seeing their life flash before their eyes or a light at the end of a tunnel, things like that. They are special states of consciousness experienced when the person is either clinically dead, or their brain isn’t functioning.
When we hear about these experiences, we wonder what’s going on. Explanations fall into two broad camps—in the book, we label them supernaturalism and physicalism.
Many people claim that NDEs either prove that supernaturalism is true, or give us good reason to abandon physicalism and adopt supernaturalism. We don’t agree. Even if there isn’t a specific physical explanation for every NDE, we argue that given the progress of science and the complexity of the human brain and of consciousness, we can still give you a blueprint for providing physical explanations. The details might need to be filled in differently for different experiences, but it’s basically a blueprint.
What are the details of that blueprint?
It has three parts. The first is to provide an explanation for how the person reporting this experience acquired the information. For example, if somebody reports they were floating above their body and seeing themselves receiving CPR, you want to explain how they acquired the information about those details. The second step is to explain why these particular details would be included in an NDE—is it some sort of coping function, or something that we associate with death in the afterlife?
The third part of the blueprint is the timing: When did they have the experience? Our understanding of when we think we had an experience doesn’t always match when we actually had it. The best example is dreams. You might wake up and think, Man, I had the craziest dream and it lasted so long. But we know from the science that it didn’t really last that long. It just seemed that way.
Is it hard to walk the line between being a scientist seeking physical, naturalistic explanations while not dismissing the supernatural or debunking people of faith, who see a lot of meaning in these experiences?
It’s difficult in two respects. In one respect, scientists need the basic decency and intellectual humility to not disregard people’s reports of what they’ve gone through. You can’t just toss them out just because they don’t seem plausible, or they don’t fit your preconceptions. Scientists are usually quick to dismiss those things, but you can’t do that in this type of research, even if you think eventually you’ll be able to explain an NDE in purely physical terms.
On the other hand, depending on whom you’re talking to, it can be hard to treat these things with the subtlety they deserve. I’ve had conversations with people who seem to have an agenda, like they want confirmation of something that they believe is true. They would either get frustrated with me because I wasn’t telling them what they wanted to hear, or they would get excited because I was telling what they wanted to hear and then they would take it further than I wanted.
We think some people fabricate stories of NDEs in order to sell books or something. But we don’t think everybody is doing that, or even most people. It’s plausible that most people who report NDEs are completely genuine—they actually had some experience like this. Research suggests these experiences can transform people in positive ways—make them more compassionate, loving, empathic. So if you go around telling people they are hallucinating, you run the danger of undermining these transformative effects. We wouldn’t want to do that. Yes, we want to seek the truth, but we want to handle these conversations and this research delicately.
Bottom line: John and I argue that NDEs do not pose a fatal challenge for physicalism, and we don’t think that you need to adopt supernatural interpretations.
NDEs seem to be a different category than people who claim to be abducted by aliens or that they’ve seen Sasquatch, things that make rational people roll their eyes.
There are people who believe all sorts of things that I don’t believe. I know of a guy who says he was kidnapped by an alien. He may have had some kind of experience that seemed to him like he was being kidnapped by aliens, but who knows what caused it? Could have been a dream, or hallucination, or who knows what.
There is another distinction that John and I have invoked in this context—a distinction between two senses of “real.” You might say that your experience represented reality, that it matched how things really are. This is what happens when I see a tree outside my window: “Look at that tree. Its leaves are changing color.” And you look out the window and agree. That’s pretty good confirmation that there’s actually a tree out there, that my visual experience accurately represents reality.
But other experiences are “real” in a different sense. They might not accurately represent reality, but the experience might actually be occurring—as with hallucinations. I say, “Hey, I see a pink elephant in the room”—but you don’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t see it; I might actually be having that visual experience. But it’s a hallucination, because it doesn’t capture reality.
Another example: some people hear ringing in their ears even though there’s nothing ringing. That’s an auditory experience that’s real in one person but not in the other.
False memories are like this. Somebody might recall having experienced something that they never actually experienced. It doesn’t mean that they don’t actually re-experience something when they “remember” it. It’s just that what they’re experiencing in recalling the memory just never actually happened. So it’s “real” in one sense but not the other.
Do NDEs more likely come from people of faith, or at least believe in an afterlife, versus people who don’t believe in an afterlife? Do atheists have these experiences, or people who don’t believe there is anything after death?
People have been having NDEs for a very long time, all across the globe. It’s not just a phenomenon that arose with the rise of a particular faith. Some people have NDEs even though they are not religious. So, the answer is yes to all of your questions; all types of people have NDEs.
But then, are people who are already spiritual or religious more likely to record their experience because they’re more comfortable with it? Are they more likely to be around people who would be accepting of their explanation? There’s the question of who’s having these experiences, and then there’s another question of who’s recording them.
You might think that religiosity would affect the recording of the events, but it doesn’t seem to affect who has them. If fact, some of the prominent cases out there are people who were “converted” through NDE. They’re like, “I wasn’t particularly religious at all until I had this experience, and now I’m really religious.” That’s a common thing.
Can you give me an example?
One famous example is Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who wrote a couple of best-selling books—Proof of Heaven and The Map of Heaven. His basic narrative is that though he was raised nominally Christian, he wasn’t a believer as an adult. Then, while in a [meningitis-induced] coma, he had this crazy wonderful experience that basically debunked much of the science he had bought into as a neurosurgeon. He believes that a deeper reality was revealed to him in his near-death experience. It’s a powerful story and it’s typical in some ways.
Are all near-death experiences positive, with glimpses of paradise and heaven? Does anyone get a glimpse of hell or anything awful?
There are reports of negative NDEs, but for pretty understandable reasons they’re not the ones the media or the general public tends to focus on. They’re less uplifting. Look, if someone has a heart attack, and they visit heaven while they’re being resuscitated, and they realize that’s where they go when they die, when they come back they tend to tell us about it. But if you have a heart attack and visit hell and realize that’s where you’re going to end up, you might be a little less enthusiastic about sharing that. People are more likely to share positive NDEs than negative ones. So it’s hard to know what the actual ratios are.
Could a negative NDE spark someone to turn their life around, sort of like Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by the ghosts?
That can happen in a life review, when you see your life flash before your eyes. One man had an NDE where he saw the different relationships in his life, from a kind of detached third person perspective. He realized he had been a jerk in his relationships, and it really made him change how he behaved interpersonally going forward.
Has anyone ever happened to have electrodes or scanning devices connected when they had an NDE? Can we see anything physically happening in the brain?
I can think of two answers to that. One is about rats and the other is about virtual reality.
A 2013 study at the University of Michigan on rats showed that around the time of death, there was a spike of brain activity, not just in specific regions, but all over the brain. So rather than going out with a whimper, the brain goes out with a bang. This might suggest that the same thing might happen in humans when we die.
The second thing was a virtual reality project in Barcelona, funded through the Immortality Project. One of the researchers specialized in immersive virtual reality—where you put on suits and goggles, you have sensors on your body so you can induce tactile stimulation that corresponds with the visual stimulation. The other researcher was a neuroscientist. Their project looked at what happens in the brain when you are virtually simulating NDE, an out-of-body experience.
[Note: ORBITER covered that Barcelona study here.]
So, you know of no brain scans during an actual NDE?
No. If you’re trying to do experiments in, say, a cardiac ward, where’s there’s a likelihood of an NDE, you’d be diverting resources from saving people, and that would be problematic. Or if you’re delaying resuscitation because you need to hook up the electrodes, that would also be problematic. Anyway, you’d skew the study. If you tell someone, “Hey, you’re probably going to have a heart attack soon, and roughly one in five people who have a heart attack report an NDE, so we’re going to hook you up and then ask you if you had one,” well, you’ve already primed them for having one.
The movie Flatliners explored ethically questionable methods of research—like inducing cardiac arrest just to have an NDE experience. Nobody wants that kind of mad scientist lab. But where does the research go from here?
It’s a nice question. I’m always on the lookout for research of the type we’ve been talking about. My kind of research as a philosopher is different from that of an experimental scientist. I’m not trained to go out there and hook up electrodes. Rather, I’m interested in teasing out the implications of a subject, like our views about the relationship between the mind and the body, more traditionally philosophical angles.
I hear you teach classes about death.
Yes. One course I teach every term is the Philosophy of Death and Dying. We do a unit in that class on NDEs, and it’s always really fun. Students always have interesting things to say. Often I have students in the class who have either had an NDE or know somebody who did.
One student had an NDE as a young child, like 3 or 4. He was resuscitated after almost drowning. If I recall correctly, he had an out-of-body experience, and may have had the experience of visiting deceased people he knew. It was interesting because in talking about these things in class, he went back and talked to his mom about what he had seen and had experienced. It reopened some stuff he hadn’t thought about in a while.
It’s surprising how often you’ll meet people who have had these experiences.
Watch Mitchell-Yellin and Fischer describe The Immortality Project here: