Brain Basis of “Religious” OBE/NDE

Over at the Atlantic, Oliver Sacks expertly discusses the neurology of out of body experiences (OBE) and near death experiences (NDE). While some people interpret these experiences as religious, these interpretations are highly dependent on cultural milieu and personal proclivity. It is a fascinating fact that those who interpret these brain-states as religious nearly always claim to have an experience relevant to the religion that is dominant in their culture or life.

I’ve come across numerous accounts of OBE/NDE type experiences in the Native American ethnohistoric record, and these always mirror dominant cultural percepts. Around the world, there is a near perfect correlation between culture and interpretation: Americans who interpret OBE/NDEs as religious express Christian themes. Indians interpret them as Hindu, Thais interpret them as Buddhist, Indonesians interpret them as Muslim, etc.

If people were truly experiencing something real or ultimate outside of their heads, we might expect these interpretations to be more uniform, universal, or consistent. The common theme seems to be that the culture in which one is immersed massively conditions the experience and its subsequent interpretation.


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2 thoughts on “Brain Basis of “Religious” OBE/NDE

  1. Kevin

    I think the word “massive” is a bit of misnomer. Certainly, as I have read in reports of the NDE’s of far Eastern cultures, there is a great deal of variation in terms of imagery, but the meta-narrative of the person being dead and heading toward the next life is strange. I am not saying there is not a natural explanation for this, and given the relative paucity of serious research on NDE’s from a scientific community that views them by default as hallucinatory I can scarcely say we know much about the phenomenon even if it is brain-based – but I have wondered, when compared to my own dreams, which are always fragmented, irrational, and which we seem to be compelled to forget by the software of our minds, why do NDE’s seem to subconsciously encourage those who have them to think of them as significant, as for example seems to have happened to A.J. Ayers.

    In any case, I will be very interested to see the results of Sam Parnia’s study on NDE’s.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’m not sure massively is the wrong adjective. I’ve never read a study (or report) in which people have NDE experiences that don’t comport with the surrounding culture or their beliefs. For those who report “religious” NDEs there is a near perfect correlation between their personal beliefs or the dominant religion in the surrounding culture. This is a “massive” or highly significant statistical effect. People who don’t report a religious-type NDE often have similar experiences, which is just what we would expect given the commonality of the underlying neurological condition.

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