A Critique of Susan Blackmore's Dying to Live and her Dying Brain Hypothesis
By Greg Stone
In my dialogue with skeptics, I often encounter the claim that Susan Blackmore has provided scientific proof that the Near Death Experience results from a dying brain. Skeptics typically argue that her work on NDEs presented in "Dying to Live" disproves the existence of the spirit and an afterlife.
These claims prompted me to read Blackmore's "Dying to Live." The following is a brief critique of the first eight chapters. I should mention that I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the subject of NDEs who has encountered the skeptical viewpoint. The book itself is a testament to just how shaky the skeptics' argument really is....
In the preface, Susan Blackmore makes her prejudices clear. She assumes the viewpoint of the biased skeptic. Though skeptics claim she's an unbiased researcher, her own words belie this claim. She writes:
"It is no wonder that we like to deny death. Whole religions are based on that denial. Turn to religion and you may be assured of eternal life. ...."
"Of course, this comforting thought conflicts with science. Science tells us that death is the end and, as so often, finds itself opposing religion."
Her bias and mischaracterization of both religion and science is apparent. Let us inspect her comment: "whole religions are based upon a denial of death." Religion, at its most basic, concerns the spirit and its relationship to the universe. Some religions posit a God, others don't. Some prefer the term (and practice) of spiritualism to religion, as it strips away dogma that might obfuscate the core issue -- the spirit. The premise of almost all religious practice is that man is in essence a spirit or soul that lives beyond body death. This is not a denial of death, as Blackmore suggests, but rather a focus on the life of the spirit which is not subject to body death. No one I know denies the existence of death. The body dies. That is death. The life of the spirit is another matter.
Blackmore assumes there's no spirit and cynically reduces the subject to a denial of death. Of course, if spirit exists and transcends body death (as one of the two hypotheses she's considering postulates), then Susan Blackmore, not religion, is in denial.
On page one, she makes it clear she doesn't intend to explore the subject of NDEs (and the survival of the spirit) with a scientific mind. It is obvious her prejudice, not the research, will dictate her conclusions.
We see further evidence of bias in her statement that belief in life after death conflicts with science, as though "science" were a monolithic authority that decrees "what is" rather than a method of inquiry.
She makes the unsupported statement that "science" tells us death is the end. Of course, this is blatantly false. She may personally believe death is the end, but "science" makes no such statement. Later in the book, we find many researchers with scientific credentials take the opposite position -- science is showing we survive body death.
Certainly I find it appropriate for Blackmore to state her personal belief that we do not survive body death. Presuming to state the position of "science," however, reflects her skeptical bias and diminishes her scientific credibility. "Dying to Live" ends up being a personal argument for the skeptical viewpoint, not scientific proof. It is first and foremost a statement of Blackmore's personal opinion.
Later in the preface, we find another illogical statement that points up her agenda and lack of scientific orientation:
"The problem with evolution is, and has always been, that it leaves little room either for a grand purpose to life or for an individual soul."
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If a soul or spirit survives body death, as NDE researchers claim, then that spirit has nothing to do with evolution. The spirit is not an evolving bio-organism. The body is an evolving bio-organism, the spirit is not. She uses a biological argument to dismiss a non-biological premise, showing her intention is to dismiss the evidence a priori and substitute her personal biases which lie squarely within the field of evolutionary psychology -- the "man-is-an-animal" school of thought.
Susan Blackmore, in the text that follows, not only fails utterly to provide scientific proof, she fails to even approach the research in a scientific manner. This is greatest failing of "Dying to Live."
Skeptics who claim she is nonbiased are proven wrong, and skeptics who claim she provides scientific proof are shown to be in error.
Susan Blackmore puts forth two competing hypotheses: The Afterlife Hypothesis versus The Dying Brain Hypothesis. The Afterlife Hypothesis assumes spirit survives body death. The Dying Brain Hypothesis assumes the NDE is an artifact of brain chemistry. According to the "dying brain" hypothesis, there is no spirit which survives body death.
The remainder of the book supposedly concerns the arguments for these two conflicting hypotheses. But it doesn't. Blackmore never really presents the Afterlife Hypothesis. She only presents a version intended to be refuted. So much for the skeptics' claim she is unbiased.
When she lists four arguments for the Afterlife Hypothesis, she omits the most important argument (though later in the book she comes to it in passing). This primary argument is the experience of separation of spirit (and its consciousness) from the body. As this is the primary and most basic tenet of the Afterlife Hypothesis, that spirit is different from the body and survives body death, it deserves front-and-center attention. Instead, Blackmore first addresses tangential arguments. I'm not sure to what degree this is intentional.
She fails to formulate a clear and concise statement of what must be proved for each hypothesis. This is the function of a hypothesis -- to present clear statements postulating specific assumptions that can then be inspected. Blackmore leaves the hypothesis statements hazy and ends up concluding that neither has proof, but states her feeling is the Dying Brain Hypothesis must be right, so she assumes it is.
Opinion has value. Conjecture has value. But only when opinion and conjecture are not mistakenly presented as "scientific proof." This IS the skeptics' argument. Yet they quote Blackmore as Scientific Proof when she offers only opinion. By the skeptics' criteria alone, the work does not provide the proof they claim it does.
In NDEer quotes in the first chapter, we find specific references to the experiencer being "outside his/her body." We learn NDEs include the observation of actual proceedings, such as operations, from unusual vantage points. This very salient point is passed over for the time being. One can only guess why she chooses to leave the very essence of the Afterlife Hypothesis out of the picture at this early stage.
Particularly annoying is a brief passage regarding Tibetan Buddhism. In her references to Buddhism, she fails to acknowledge the primary activity of Tibetan Buddhism is to train its initiates to be outside their bodies. Without this understanding, which obviously involves the existence of a spirit separate from body, her passages are misleading and ill-informed to the extreme.
For example, regarding Buddhism, she states:
"The difference between these teachings and the folk-tales we have been considering -- and it is a very big difference -- is that in Buddhism these experiences are not meant to be taken literally..."
Blackmore could not be more wrong. (Perhaps they ban psychologists from visiting monasteries?) Tibetan Buddhism definitely holds to the Afterlife Hypothesis. Even readers with only passing familiarity with Tibetan Buddhism are aware they search for their reincarnated leaders and reinstate them in the monastery. It's quite obvious they take life beyond death very literally. Blackmore misappropriates Buddhist concepts with no understanding that Buddhist practices disprove her Dying Brain Hypothesis!
She provides convincing stories of the tradition of NDEs in Buddhist and Native American circles, then shows their similarity to modern day NDEs. She notes:
"Zaleski sums up the similarities and differences she found between modern and medieval accounts of people who died and were revived again. In both, the first step is a kind of dualistic parting of body and soul, with the separated spirit looking down on its former dwelling place..."
Thus, she arrives at the essence of the Afterlife Hypothesis, the separation of spirit and body. However, she chooses to ignore its significance. (More on this later when we come to her late-in-the-book brush off of this most critical aspect of the Afterlife Hypothesis.)
Her dismissal of the key issue casts doubt on the integrity of her work. She simply cops out with the following:
"Western philosophers and scientists have long argued cogently and powerfully against this dualist view and the few who still defend it ... are in a tiny minority amongst academics."
This is what skeptics call scientific proof? The opinion of a select few, who are not even experts on the subject? In an earlier passage, she notes that well over half the public surveyed believe in life after death, some seventy per cent, then dismisses "popularity" as a criteria. Now she turns around and uses the same "popularity" criteria for her argument.
She goes on to give her personal opinion:
"The dualist temptation is so great. Just as we do not like to imagine that we will one day die, so we do not like to think of ourselves as just an ever-changing and perishable body..."
Of course, one could counter that people do not like to think of themselves as an immaterial being. They like to think of themselves as good old solid stuff. Makes them queasy to think of not being a body.
Blackmore does not present scientific proof, she presents her opinion that people don't like to think they're just a body, without stopping to consider they may not like to think of themselves as anything but a body. She presents amateur psychology in lieu of "proof." Her opinion does not determine whether spirit departs the body, it only explains her personal psychology.
Later in the chapter, she again misses the crux of the issue:
"Some have argued that there is a kind of core experience that is common to all people and to all cultures but which is overlaid with cultural differences. .... It is tempting to think that if we could somehow delve beneath the surface of the accounts people give we would find the invariant, true NDE underneath. But this is a vain hope."
But there IS an invariant core to the Afterlife Hypothesis -- the separation of spirit from body. This is obvious. This is the very hypothesis we're considering.
What the spirit perceives while separate is a different question. This should be obvious to Blackmore, but apparently it isn't. She spends most of the book disputing differences in perceptual or experiential content, rather than looking at the core of the hypothesis.
To illustrate the point, let's say you ask people in various lands to take a Sunday afternoon stroll and report their experience. We recognize the similarities -- the mobility of the body through the environment with the senses taking in the environment. And we're not surprised to find a walk through Manhattan produces content that differs from a stroll through the bush country of Kenya. Likewise, when we investigate NDEs, we need to distinguish underlying factors (like separation from body) from the varied content of perception. This critical difference is overlooked, intentionally or unintentionally, in "Dying to Live." This undermines the validity of her work.
In this chapter, Blackmore introduces drugs into the equation and reveals her personal experiences with NDE-like phenomena occurred under the effect of controlled substances. She notes some differences in NDEs when they occur as a result of drug use, then uses this to "disprove" the invariance hypothesis (the hypothesis that these experiences should have commonality):
"My own interpretation is that the invariance hypothesis is not supported. The NDE varies according to the conditions that set it off and the person having it."
As previously mentioned, she errors by looking at differences in content, not in the basic factor underlying the Afterlife Hypothesis -- the greater or lesser separation of spirit from the body. In the example provided earlier, we saw that just because the scenery in Kenya differs from the scenery of Manhattan does not mean we can say one stroller did not take a walk because their report varied. We could also have a situation where the stroller in Manhattan has ingested drugs and turns in a report that seems bizarre and surrealistic. This does not mean he did not stroll through the environment as requested, only that his perceptions varied due to his condition. Thus we see the use of the "invariance hypothesis" must be done with great care or it leads to false conclusions.
In misapplying the invariance hypothesis, Blackmore fails to take into account, 1) the varying conditions of spirits when they separate (to varying degrees) from the body and, 2) the varied perceptual and cognitive content that could be expected to occur, depending upon the circumstances of separation. Blackmore attempts to reduce a complex human and spiritual experience into machine-like simplicity. When it comes to the study of humans, such reductionism often results in absurd conclusions.
This error underlies the theoretical turn she takes which colors the remainder of the book:
"Do you have to be near death to have an NDE? One motivation for asking this question is the 'just like hallucinations' argument. According to this view, NDEs, drug-induced hallucinations, out-of-body experiences occurring under normal conditions and other kinds of hallucinations are all related."
In other words, she notes there are related experiences, the NDE is not an isolated phenomenon. What she misses is that the common link between NDE and these other experiences is the spirit being released to a greater or lesser extent from the body. This is the link that should be investigated. Her real question here should not be: "Do you have to be near death to have an NDE?" But rather do you have to be near death for the spirit to separate from the body? The answer is NO. The spirit can and does leave the body in any number of situations, including those in which it is trained to do so without drugs or trauma. This is exactly what one would expect to find if the Afterlife Hypothesis is true. If one postulates spirit surviving body death, one also postulates spirit being different and separate from the body it inhabits. Thus, the Afterlife Hypothesis predicts spirit being capable of separating from the body under conditions other than impending death. The evidence Blackmore cites thus directly supports the Afterlife Hypothesis.
Instead of recognizing that she has identified a common link and has supported the Afterlife Hypothesis, Blackmore makes a drastic mistake:
"This might lend support to theories trying to explain the features of the NDE in medical, psychological, or physiological terms and go against theories involving a spirit or soul or heavenly realm."
She fails to see an obvious link and instead leaps to an unwarranted and unsupported assumption. How she arrives at this unwarranted and unsupported conclusion is not clear as she doesn't make the case for how she arrives at it. She fails to support her reasoning. Apparently she assumes, incorrectly, that the non-NDE phenomena are purely medical, psychological, or physiological and have no spiritual component.
Throughout the book, one finds this pattern. She presents evidence that clearly supports the Afterlife Hypothesis then leaps, without explanation, to the opposite conclusion.
She lends further support to the Afterlife Hypothesis in the sentences that directly follow:
"There is lots of evidence for NDE-type experiences in people who are not close to dying. The experience of leaving the body has a long history and surveys show that something like 10-20 per cent of people have this experience at some time during their life."
Thus, reports of other NDE-type experiences support the Afterlife Hypothesis, but Blackmore goes on to recount stories of drugs causing out-of-body experiences and feels justified in her conclusion that it is a purely medical phenomenon. She fails to even consider the link between drugs and the spirit's connection to the body. She fails to ask how these powerful hallucinogens and anesthetics affect a spirit's ability to remain connected. She fails to ask in what ways the toxic effects of drugs bring one close to body death. In other words, she fails to take the Afterlife Hypothesis into account as she presents these phenomena. One can only assume her bias is so strong that it prevents her from asking even the most common sense questions.
She goes on to discuss drugs including her own experience:
"Under conditions of extreme tiredness and smoking hashish I had an NDE-type experience complete with the tunnel and light, out-of-body travels, expansion and contraction of size, timelessness, a mystical experience and the decision to return..."
I shall return to this important passage when, later in the book, she uses her drug-induced experiences as the basis for her conclusions. I shall argue that Blackmore's confusion on the subject of NDEs is the result of her own drug-induced confusion -- which is not an uncommon occurrence.
What becomes critical for understanding is to consider how drugs affect the interface between spirit, mind, and body. And how drugs affect the condition of the spirit when it separates and when it returns. Drugs are a major source of confusion, both with the individual experiencer and within the scope of the NDE inquiry.
Near the end of the chapter, she reviews research that suggests the spirit separates from the body in other than death situations, which, of course, supports the Afterlife hypothesis. She notes:
"The argument used by others reporting on this research goes like this: if the brain is responsible for thinking, then when it is dying one would expect thinking to become disordered or less clear. The evidence that it becomes clearer therefore implies that the brain is not responsible; that the soul or spirit is experiencing the clarity and may go on doing so after death."
Again we see the consistency between the Afterlife Hypothesis and the evidence reported. Blackmore, however, stands before the evidence and engages in incredible denial:
"This is one possible interpretation of the evidence, but it is not the only one. It is not obvious that the dying brain must produce either more or less clear perceptions and thoughts. An alternative is that as the brain dies, less thoughts are possible and so the few that remain seem clearer and simpler by comparison."
That a dying brain or brain that shows no activity at all, should function in this manner is absurd, and totally unsupported by any brain research.
Blackmore reviews the literature and ends up presenting a consistent, well-supported case for the Afterlife Hypothesis, then puts forth an absurd and unsubstantiated position. Her bias and prejudices unfortunately undermine her scholarship.
She ends the chapter with an unwarranted conclusion, unsupported by anything that has preceded:
"Our next step is now clear, if not easy; to try to understand what happens in the dying brain."
The evidence points strongly to a spiritual being that separates from the body. Understanding the details of how this happens and what it means is our logical next step. Blackmore instead suggests our next step is to understand the dying brain, an assertion motivated by bias, not the evidence at hand. We see how her prejudices, stated in the preface, begin to erode and damage the quality of her work.
This chapter opens with Blackmore presenting a claim that a person under the effects of nitrous oxide was able to view from outside his body. She then reaches a totally non-sequitur conclusion:
"I think this illustrates the reluctance we have to accept that our experience, especially profound and personally meaningful experience, comes from our brain's activity and nothing else."
In other words, because someone reported an experience of being out of body, he demonstrated a reluctance to admit it was his brain at work? How "scientific" is that? With no discussion of any facts that would contradict the purported event, with no discussion of the possible variables at work, without a shred of contrary data, she concludes the person made up the account because saying he was out of his body "made a better story." Blackmore's non-sequitur conclusions diminish her case. She states the evidence for A, then concludes B.
Later in the chapter, she states:
"Are these profound experiences a direct correlate of changes in the brain's activity and nothing more, or are they experiences of a separate mind, soul, astral body, or spirit? ....The general assumption of today's science says one thing yet people...say another -- especially people who have had NDEs. Scientists for the most part assume some form of materialism; that mental phenomena depend upon, or are an aspect of, brain events." (emphasis added)
Skeptics must be squirming in their chairs. What is she doing? She is not presenting scientific proof, she is saying we have an assumption. That scientists assume. Exactly what skeptics criticize. She favors the assumptions of scientists over the firsthand experience. If skeptics were honest, they would state "Susan Blackmore assumes..." and that would be the end of the debate. Instead, they misrepresent her work as scientific proof.
"As we have seen, the very occurrence of NDEs is not proof either way."
With a wave of her pen she dismisses the evidence she has previously presented, which supports the Afterlife Hypothesis, and asks us to accept her contrary non-sequitur assumptions. But we should be wary. The NDE, with its out of body phenomena, goes a long way toward proving the spirit is separate from the body.
Later, she says:
"If the Afterlife Hypothesis can answer them best then I shall accept that and work with that as well as I can. If the dying brain hypothesis does better than I shall work with that."
But, as we have already seen, she has no intention of considering the Afterlife Hypothesis. So far, even in Dying to Live, the Afterlife Hypothesis best fits the evidence, but she doesn't consider the Afterlife Hypothesis. I would have far less trouble with her work if she would admit her prejudices up front. Instead, she pretends to be unbiased and pretends to consider the two hypotheses on their merits, but does not do so. Skeptics use this white lie to support their argument that "she studied both and the evidence prevailed." We see the opposite. When evidence points to the Afterlife Hypothesis, she blatantly ignores it.
Next, she takes up the ever popular "cerebral anoxia" argument. The loss-of-oxygen-to-the-brain scenario. She presents four reasons researchers argue anoxia cannot be responsible. It is only necessary for us to consider the first:
"1. NDEs can occur in people who obviously do not have anoxia."
"This is certainly true but is not a sound argument at all. As we have seen, there is clearly no one cause of the NDE. .... The fact that NDEs can occur without anoxia is no argument against it sometimes being responsible for them."
She agrees anoxia does NOT explain the NDE experience. It is only one among many possible factors. So the obvious thing is to ask what do ALL the factors have in common?
We find, 1) trauma to the body which can be seen to interrupt the connection between the spirit and the body -- drugs, lack of oxygen, physical trauma, anticipation of great bodily harm or anticipation of death. All factors which serve to disconnect or separate the functioning of spirit and body. All completely and entirely consistent with the Afterlife Hypothesis. What requires research and explanation is HOW the spirit interfaces with the body and WHAT causes an interruption or severance of this connection?
And, 2) Experiences not involving drugs or trauma but involving a decision on the part of the spirit to separate from the body, either as a demonstration of natural ability, or as a result of acquiring such skills. For example, Tibetan Buddhism or other training.
Thus, we have, 1) "accidental" separation and, 2) "intentional" separation. The key factor is separation.
Blackmore recounts the story of a volunteer in high G force experiments, who, while outside his body, "went home and saw his mother and brother." Again and again we have examples that cry out for explanation in terms of the Afterlife Hypothesis, but Blackmore does not even consider the Afterlife Hypothesis. She states evidence for it, then dodges with:
"The invariance hypothesis is not sustainable. The NDE is not always the same and we need to try to understand its different elements in different ways."
She fails to consider the very basis of the Afterlife Hypothesis, that the spirit separates from the body. And instead uses the difference of content as an excuse to ignore the very profound, consistent, core of the NDE and associated experiences -- the separation of spirit from body.
She fails to ever ask what is the nature of spirit? What are its perceptual and cognitive abilities when it separates? Without at least an inquiry into such matters, she isn't capable of beginning to consider the Afterlife Hypothesis. Her bias toward materialism does not allow her to even consider the alternative hypothesis.
Without considering the profound ramifications for the Afterlife Hypothesis, she goes on to ask how anoxia affects the brain even though we know anoxia is NOT the common element. She states anoxia is not a common invariant factor of the NDE, then goes ahead anyway and attempts to explain the NDE on the basis of anoxia. She fails to ask what condition does anoxia cause that is the same as other NDE causes.
Without entering this question into the mix, we have a one-sided and incomplete analysis based entirely upon her intended bias toward a brain explanation. The Afterlife Hypothesis is merely trotted out in this work as a straw figure to be knocked down.
It's very apparent Blackmore does not provide anything at all like the scientific proof skeptics claim.