Why out-of-body and near-death experiences don’t prove God

May 22, 2011 • 9:32 am

Alex Lickerman is a physician at the University of Chicago who, until recently, was in charge of all primary care doctors at the hospital (he’s now head of student health).  He’s also a secular Buddhist who writes about medicine and matters “spiritual” at his website, “Happiness in this world.” (Alex also helped bring Sam Harris here for his recent talk on morality.)

This week, in “The neurology of near-death experiences“, Alex debunks the religious trappings that attach to the “out-of-body” and similar experiences that occur in conjunction with operations and medical episodes.  In particular, he shows that experiencees such as dreamlike states, tunnel vision, and leaving and returning to one’s body are all phenomena that have well-understood medical causes.  Some of them can even be reproduced by stimulating people’s brains.

The most telling argument against these phenomena being real out-of body-experiences, however, are the tests conducted to see if people really left their bodies.  This is one example of how religious assertions (or assertions about the supernatural; take your pick) can actually be scientifically tested and falsified.  For surely the claim that we have souls that can leave our body, and observe things, is a claim about the supernatural.

One test involves putting pictures face up on the ceilings of emergency rooms, to determine if cardiac-arrest patients who report floating above their bodies can actually identify the pictures.  (One study is being conducted by Sam Parnia in the UK, but the results apparently haven’t been reported yet. I’d bet a few thousand bucks on the results being negative.)

The other set of tests deal with non-medical out-of-body experiences.  As Alex describes:

Neurologists have since recognized that the temporoparietal region of the brain is responsible for maintaining our body schema representation.  When external current is applied to this region, it ceases to function normally and our body schema “floats.”  Further evidence that this phenomenon is an illusion comes from experiments in which people who’ve had out-of-body experiences when transitioning from sleep to wakefulness were unable to identify objects placed in the room after they’d fallen asleep, strongly suggesting the picture they viewed of themselves sleeping in their beds was reconstructed from memory.

I haven’t been able to locate the studies mentioned here, but I’ll add them to this post when I do.

65 thoughts on “Why out-of-body and near-death experiences don’t prove God

  1. I quite often have lucid dreams, in a dream but fully conscious of the fact. Having learned to control them they are all quite pleasant.
    I even had one where god took my soul out of my body and took me on a tour of the universe. It looks exactly like the Hubble telescope pictures. Who’d a thought?
    Then he said ‘Now you believe’ not a question, a statement.
    I said ‘Say that in Swahili’
    ‘Swahili. You can’t can you?’
    ‘I’ve shown you the beginning and end of time, the vastness of existence, the….’
    ‘You haven’t shown me anything that I can’t imagine. I can’t understand Swahili. Try that or else tell me something I don’t know like where are my car keys.’
    Then I woke up.

      1. My all time (every time?) favourite dream is when the angel of mercy comes, and I do too. Out of body experience indeed!

  2. I’m happy that supernatural claims can be *tested*, but I don’t see how any claims for the supernatural could be *accepted*.

    If hundreds of NDE tests showed that somehow people could identify the pictures on the ceilings, how would we establish that as evidence for the supernatural, rather than just a strange natural phenomenon? People *claiming* they’re supernatural is clearly insufficient.

    1. That’s basically the doubt I have about this “if you showed me real evidence then I would accept it was God” idea. I have a very hard time figuring out how one would rule out the “this is something we didn’t know about before” alternative.

      1. I have a very hard time figuring out how one would rule out the “this is something we didn’t know about before” alternative.

        At what point would it matter? If some agency were able to do the things that a god claims to be able to do, does the label hold any significance?

        It doesn’t follow, IMO, that we need to worship this agency, even if the abilities were supernatural in origin, whatever that means. Even if I thought the Judeo-Christian god existed, I wouldn’t go to church on Sundays and sing praises to him. Yuck.

    2. There’s that, and there’s also the fact that people can’t identify the pictures on the ceilings, and prayer doesn’t restore limbs, and statues don’t weep blood, and on and on and on and on.

      There comes a point when such hypothetical “What if?” games are no more meaningful when played by adults than by children, and we reached that point with Christianity and astral projections and dowsing and Sasquatch and Roswell and on and on and on and on ages ago.



  3. One test involves putting pictures face up on the ceilings of emergency rooms, to determine if cardiac-arrest patients who report floating above their bodies can actually identify the pictures.

    I would prefer something controlled well enough to prevent cheating by well-meaning hospital employees. The history of experimental parapsychology is filled with cheating by participants and cheating by experimenters.


    This is the most convincing out-of-body report ever:
    Brain probe triggers out-of-body experiences
    Surgeons were prepping a woman for brain surgery to treat epilepsy. When they inserted an electric probe into her right angular gyrus, they triggered an out-of-body experience. The woman’s lower body appeared to her as if she was seeing them from above, but she could not see anything that would have actually been in her field of vision from above. I.e. it was clearly a perceptual illusion rather than an actual out-of-body experience. I say this is the most convincing report ever not because of the outcome, but because the woman was fully conscious, so the experimenters could get immediate feedback and repeatability.

    1. Ah, yes, Susan Blackmore (see below) noted that OOB experiences had been deliberately triggered by researchers electrically stimulating the brain. Maybe those experiments followed on from this incident.

      1. Beautiful ending to that article:

        Blanke said the work on inducing these experiences artificially proved that they were nothing more than a brain malfunction. “Instead of it being a spiritual thing, it is the brain being confused,” he said. “Why do we think that it is spiritual when we don’t think a phantom limb when one is lost is an example of the paranormal?”

  4. Susan Blackmore, in her excellent talk at TAM London, described this kind of experiment, among others.

    She has done research here, inspired by her own OOB experience.

    See here.


    1. Yes, and her book Dying to Live describes in great detail the possible physical causes for most if not all of the various experiences that people with NDEs and OBEs have.

  5. The one thing common to all near-death experiences is that the people who report them haven’t actually died in any irrevocable sense. Why then should we give them any credence as evidence of what happens after death? At best they’re evidence of what a distressed brain feels like from the inside. But they can shed no light on the quesion of what (if anything) it feels like to exist without a brain at all. Nobody in a position to know about that is talking.

  6. I’ve had several OBE’s, however there has always been some kind of detail wrong, such as it’s dark outside, but when I come back to, it’s light, or something is missplaced, etc… And one time my whole apartment was completely different, yet I was as aware as when awake, but I didn’t see anything wrong until I woke up.

  7. I have no problems discounting white tunnels, heavenly visits, seeing dead loved ones etc etc.

    However, when near death experiences have people actually claiming to LEAVE THEIR BODIES, and watching resuscitation efforts by others on themselves, sharing very pointed and SPECIFIC DETAILS about what happened to them (accounts including little children at times), that are ALSO fully corroborated by numerous EYE WITNESSES who just happened to BE THERE at the same time, in the same room, then such accounts have a very strong measure of credibility to them.

    How else can you explain the details they say they saw and which are supported by other eye witness including doctors and nurses?

    Are all of these folks just lying?

    And what do they ALL possibly have to gain by doing so?

    Sorry, but some folks are just flat out in denial. I apologize if these accounts pop your world-view bubbles. Just telling you how it is.

    An excerpt from US NEWS found here:


    “Cheating Death goes off medicine’s beaten path into near-death experiences and suspended animation. Is it time to up the credibility and profile of these fields?

    The nice thing about writing a book like this is you don’t always know what you’re going to get when you’re heading in. I’ve been working on this book for several years. When I was first talking about this book and getting other people’s thoughts on it, near-death experiences came up a lot. What happens at the time of death to the individual, what are they experiencing? I thought it was a fair question. After exploring so many near-death experiences, I thought I could explain away most of what happens, but I can’t explain it all. I’ve got one of two branch points from there. Either at some point science is going to explain it all, or it’s OK not to know everything. It’s OK for there to be places in our society where there is an intersection of science and spirituality. If you’re someone who’s curious about those intersections, this may be one place to look.”

    And how about this one too:


    Thousands of documented accounts:




    Just the tip of the iceberg here folks…


    1. Reginald Selkirk:
      “I would prefer something controlled well enough to prevent cheating by well-meaning hospital employees. The history of experimental parapsychology is filled with cheating by participants and cheating by experimenters.”
      Accurately describes how the details people experiencing NDEs and OOBs are supported by other eye witnesses, even doctors and nurses.

      You are begging the question. Over and over.
      What do they have to gain? Notoriety, money, and fame just to name a few things someone would gain by lying or exaggerating any claims like these.

      Personally, i don’t care how many people claim to see or experience similar phenomenon… if it cannot be replicated in an unbiased manner it is just assertion.

      1. Fame and fortune indeed! A six-year-old boy (son of a minister) claimed to meet god and angels while undergoing an operation. Now, he’s been interviewed on TV about heaven, his father wrote a book selling massive amounts….what’s not to compel??

    2. Wow. Everyone run, Vinny here has popped our ‘world-view bubbles’ with articles by the credulous Sanjay Gupta and Dinesh D’Zousa, then a large catalog of NDE descriptions (without any skeptical analysis, naturally), along with some more ‘evidence’ and what passes for analysis by the likes of Ian Stevenson, John Edward and Sylvia Browne.

      Vinny, do you know what the plural of anecdotes is not?

    3. Are all of these folks just lying?

      And what do they ALL possibly have to gain by doing so?

      I suggest reading The Invisible Gorilla, which explains quite well how and why people can relate memories and recollections of events that are just not true, and are not from any particular motive. Some will not be lying, but are mis-remembering. These mental artefacts just come from the way the brain develops a mental model of what is happening now, and how it relates to what it remembers the past.

      Also, people can quite easily integrate other peoples’ stories into their own memories, so there is the appearance of corroboration. Without objective, independently recorded data, just going on peoples recollections is inadequate.

    4. Vinny, if someone undergoing life-saving treatment can later give an accurate account of that treatment, that doesn’t mean they acquired the information by supernatural means. After all, they were physically present during the incident in question, even if unresponsive and apparently unconscious, so the information was in principle available to them via normal sensory channels. The fact that they seemed to experience it from an out-of-body perspective just says that’s how their mind chose to integrate it under those difficult circumstances.

      If I fall asleep at a party and incorporate some of the conversation around me into my dream, that doesn’t make the dream true. To demonstrate a real out-of-body experience, you need to show that the dreamer somehow acquired verifiable information they could not have got by ordinary sensory means.

      1. poor exampmle as to physicians report there is absolutely no brain activity during many of these cases. Maybe it is some other unexplained phenomena, but not the same as your “fall asleep at a party” example.

    5. “And what do they ALL possibly have to gain by doing so?”

      A better question would be: What do they have to lose? The answer is of course: Pretty much nothing.

      I think anybody who has ever relaid an experience knows exactly what there is to gain. People love to tell and listen to fascinating, funny, or scary stories. How many times haven’t you exaggerated just a little bit to make a story more interesting? Or made up a few parts because you couldn’t remember the exact details? This happens all the time.

      Eye-witness testimonies are notoriously unreliable – especially when people have very little at stake if they get caught lying.

      1. Another thing to consider is that in situations where, say, a person is having an emergency operation during a medical emergency like a heart attack or traumatic injury they’re typically on extremely strong pain medication, which can cause some very trippy alterations to your perception.

    6. However, when near death experiences have people actually claiming to LEAVE THEIR BODIES, and watching resuscitation efforts by others on themselves

      We understand pretty well how vision works. Light enters the eye, is focused into an image on the retina, stimulating photorecepters which trigger nerve impulses which get sent to the visual cortex of the brain, etc.

      When these people claim to leave their bodies, do they take their eyes with them? Or are the eyes still in the body down there on the operating table? If so, how can these disembodied people see anything at all?

      1. When these people claim to leave their bodies, do they take their eyes with them? Or are the eyes still in the body down there on the operating table? If so, how can these disembodied people see anything at all?

        These sorts of arguments always seem especially pointless to me. After all, we’re essentially arguing against magic. In magic, anything’s possible. Physical limitations matter not.

    7. … sharing very pointed and SPECIFIC DETAILS about what happened to them (accounts including little children at times),

      It’s the old “children never lie” bit. How gullible are you? Do you know any actual children?

  8. If I remember correctly, The Amazing Randi reported an OOB which was disproved when it was pointed out that two objects he saw, his cat and a bed cover, were not actually in his bedroom at the time.

    1. There was a caller on The Atheist Experience who did something similar. He wasn’t sure whether he was having actual OOBEs or not, so he tested it out with a deck of cards in another room. When he couldn’t accurately figure out what card was at the bottom of the stack on his glass coffee table he decided he wasn’t actually having OOBEs.

      1. In Blackmore’s view (and in mine) this is the wrong way to look at it. An “actual” OBE is like an actual hallucination: you really experience those weird perceptions, which seem real to you at the time. It doesn’t get any more actual than that.

        Whether those perceptions have anything to do with external reality is a separate question that doesn’t invalidate the actuality of the experience.

  9. I would venture to guess that these experiences (the neurological, not the supernatural)are not happening during surgery, but rather “remembered” as the patient is trying to become conscious after being put under. It’s an unsettling and confusing happening. I had hernia surgery 2 months ago and was put under. It was absolutely bizarre. One second you’re conscious, hours later, which seems like a mere second later, you’re being forcefully woken up with no sense of time passing, no sense of having had dreams or thoughts. I believe it’s exactly like death – you just…stop. And I’m sure it scares the fuck out of people who want to believe in the afterlife. I know there are rare occasions where one is paralyzed yet conscious during surgery. That would be fucking horrible, but I digress.

    1. In my last anaesthetic I had a bunch of weird experiences and I had a long talk with my anaesthetist about where he explained the difficulties of bringing someone out of it smoothly. The cut over from ‘out’ to ‘awake’ is tricky and if you get it slightly wrong all sorts of things can happen. It’s surprising more people don’t have strange experiences in surgery.

      1. Marella – sorry to hear you had a bad time waking up. I woke up feeling as if I were still being cut and burned (it was open surgery – not laproscopic). It took them about 30 minutes to get my pain to a level that was just barely tolerable. I jokingly asked between tears if I could be put back under – and the nurse was all snotty about it “You have to be in the OR for that. Just calm down.”. Bitch.

      2. Yeah, general anesthetic can have weird effects on you.

        My grandmother had a heart attack about three years ago- she got up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, fell over, and couldn’t stand. According to the EMTs, she was talking with them the whole way to the hospital, but she doesn’t remember anything from going to bed that night to waking up in a hospital room the next morning.

  10. It’s almost as though there were no intrinsic self beyond our brains, no soul. But that would be one of those crazy atheist materialist conclusions, so we can’t have that.

    1. yeah, ‘cos then… um… like uh… god(s) would be irrelevant.

      What’s the incentive to try to believe in god if you aren’t afraid of eternal torment if you don’t?

  11. Can anyone explain what precisely a “secular Buddhist” is? Or indeed a secular Christian?
    Is the equivalent a spiritual atheist? And what does this mean? I’m confused…

    1. Jerry is an example of a secular Jew. Culturally, there’s no question but that he’s Jewish. But he also most emphatically doesn’t buy into any of the religious bullshit.

      Richard Dawkins is a secular Christian. He gets a kick out of Christmas carols and a lot of the rest of the pomp and circumcision, but he no more thinks that Handel’s Messiah is historical than he does Wagner’s Ring cycle is.

      I would expect a secular Buddhist to follow the pattern. Probably meditates; might be a vegetarian; parties appropriately on certain days of the year. Doesn’t believe in reintarnation or think that enlightenment brings superpowers.



  12. Professor of Neurology Steven Laureys is doing research on the neurological basis of NDEs’ at the University of Liège in Belgium. He recently uploaded a video to his uni’s YouTube channel on what they’re doing:

    Dr. Steven Laureys, you may remember, became semi-famous as the doctor of coma patient Rom Houben who supposedly could communicate via so-called facilitated communication (FC). Dr. Laureys later had to admit that his patient, Rom Houben, wasn’t communicating at all and that FC was extremely problematic as a technique.

        1. Dr. Laureys later had to admit that his patient, Rom Houben, wasn’t communicating at all and that FC was extremely problematic as a technique.


          why should we care about Laureys is doing again?

  13. Yeah…

    I had one of the OBE/NDE things when I was 16. I experienced the whole thing: floating over my body, tunnel with a light at the end, the whole 9 yards. I was an atheist before that, I’m still an atheist 20 years later. Those sorts of experiences are only convincing if you already believe, and completely not convincing if you don’t believe.

  14. Good read, and excellent points. OBE’s are just sensations and sub-conscious manifestation of our memory. I like to think of it like our brain trying very hard to click back into a full conscious state but for some reason or another its being prevented. (anesthesia, lack of oxygen in the brain etc) I forget where I read it, but another huge hole in OBE’s being supernatural is the fact that as a soul floating above your body you would not have eyes, thus you would not be converting light into electrical signals and then interpreted those signals with a brain. A soul would surely not “see” what we do here on earth as a human being.

  15. Improbable Joe’s remark is important – anyone claiming that “OBE” and “NDE” show something religious or supernatural has to not cherry pick the data, as there are people who have had them but without the religious overtones. Not surprisingly, these are fairly secular people. My friend Raven told me that she had exactly the classic NDE experience – tunnel of light, the feeling of leaving her body, the feeling impending death, the bliss, everything. Except any religious figures from any religion whatever. Admittedly this is an anecdote, but it is also not as if she wasn’t exposed to (say) Christianity, either – she simply rejects it. So I wonder – as a hypothesis – whether or not beliefs actually affect the content in some way as the NDE is *generated*, not just post-facto interpreted. Could the “belief centers” of the brain be part of what is being distorted? (Of course, in my semi-eliminativist moods, I deny there is or even can be such subsystems, but …)

  16. Even when you’ve had experiences that may be of a supernatural origin, it is good to doubt and put those experiences to the test. But sometimes there will be no resolution. Some who find it impossible to believe in God or any reality outside what they can encompass in a test tube or an equation wouldn’t be able to recognize the numinous when encountered. And there are too many examples of credulous followers of religion that are unable to deal with rational thought or the scientific method.

    As a theist, I’ve no problem seeing ample evidence for evolution. It doesn’t weaken my faith in God. One may look at a garden spider and see the work of a Master Designer, or a beautiful statistical and probabilistic accident. I see the emergence of the Universe out of nothing and my very existence as being confirmation of the miraculous. For others, these facts are the results of an inevitable vacuum fluctuation. I worship the God of gravity while Stephen Hawking looks to a gravity as god.

    But while I’ll defer to Hawking on the math and physics of the Universe, he’s failed to persuade me on either the meaning or meaninglessness of this convincing dream. For theology, that which speaks to my heart is Christ through the Sermon on the Mount, and the examples of a Mother Theresa or Dietrich Bonhoeffer speak to the truth of those words as lives lived following Him.

    For those who’d want to hear from near-death experiencers who might at least give one pause before dismissing the phenomena as so much neurological jazz or fabrications, there are several examples – for instance, Howard Storm (Christian) and Alon Anava (Jewish).

    1. Alon Anava claims to have seen Jesus in a very bad place.

      Alon Anava · Subscribe · Public Speaker at Alon Anava – Life after death · 189 subscribers
      Roselyn L Ojasalo – When i was “going up…” – they showed me everything, I saw thousands of universes and worlds. They showed me the whole history of the world. They also showed me ALL of the Jewish nation haters and individuals that harmed in a direct way and in an indirect way the Jews. They showed me where they are now….

      You do not want to see this place!

      Do you get what i’m saying??
      Reply · Like · February 3 at 3:37am

      By the law of noncontradiction, Mr. Storm’s and Mr. Anava’s testimonies cannot both be correct, at the very least, on this point. I stick with common sense and St. John of the Cross–namely, don’t trust in this kind of stuff unless you’ve got very, very good reason to do so. I see no compelling evidence to support these NDEs.

  17. Why would one form of a hallucination be more convincing than another? If I didn’t buy the ‘burning bush’ or ‘faith healing’ stuff, why would I buy the ‘well when my brain was failing I saw angels and shit which I feel you should be much more convinced by than if I experienced it when I was asleep; when my brain was acting /normally’.

  18. Most people are probably curious about what lies ahead after death, beyond the border of death. This may be a reason why they seek knowledge from spiritism sessions or books that discuss this issue. Many have also had personal close-to-death experiences – i.e., experiences when their heart has stopped in the hospital or in connection with an accident and when they may have seen themselves as if from the outside; they may have seen the operations done to them or the entire operating room. Some may have also seen in connection with their experiences a being of light that seems to be full of ‘love and compassion’.
    The major topic as comes to this conversation is indeed generally connected with the question of whether all near death experiences are positive and will everybody end up fine beyond the border in spite of the way they have lived on the Earth. Many researchers want to believe this but is it true? We are going to study this issue below. Several observations and examples seem to indicate that not everyone will necessarily end up well.

    The source: http://www.jariiivanainen.net/Border_of_death_experiences.html

  19. My name is fernando. I live in west texas and have worked as an oilfield hand for many years. I had always believed nde’s and other experiences like it were bs. I dont agree with you but I understand why you are saying what you are saying. In nov of 2008 obama was kicking the pooh out of mccain and I started to have a heart attack. I ended up having a triple bypass. A few days later I started developing fluid rapidly in my lungs and increasingly got worse. I knew and the dr.s knew I was dying slowly. I experienced an event that had me falling through darkness and falling hard on a stone surface. I saw what appeared to be a prison,iron bars,and it appeared to be in a massive chasm. An incredible bright light brought me up and I was back in my bed. I am not here to argue your points you seem to be well informed and educated. But I will ask you this. If God isnt real why does the bible describe the things that I saw? I wish the good Lord had let me take a video. Lol!! We know alot about our world but not as much as we we claim. Also,why do people attack others when we tell them of these events. Believe it or not I have spoken to church congregations that thought I was crazy. Church people!! We cant cure most diseases,we dont really know all there is to know about our world but we can attack something we dont understand if it doesnt fit our agenda. I am not just saying atheism but everyone. I wish they knew what its like to have this happen and have to carry it around. Peace.

    1. When having NDEs, people see things that they know about. People don’t have visions of things they’re not familiar with.

      Prisons, iron bars, and gaping chasms aren’t exactly unknown things and the Bible is hardly the only place that you could learn about them.

  20. The problem with putting pictures on the ceiling is this : Most people who have NDEs don’t look up at the ceiling. Usually their focus is on the body they just left. Seems logical to think the ceiling would be the last thing they are looking at.

  21. Even in our waking state we dont ‘see’/register/perceive EVERYTHING. Yes we see some things without doubt but not all. I suppose a good example is the testimonies of separate eyewitnesses to a crime. Some elements of the crime will tallly on but there’ll be disagreenents about others.

    In the wakened state the brain is programmed to select/reject loads of sensory informaiton otherwise it would be overwhelmend by all of it;it just couldnt handle all that ‘traffic’. So if the brain is programmed to reject information in the full waking state it’s asking a lot of it to report EVERYTHINg when the eyes are firmly shut, the brain activity flat-lined, and the body close to death into the bargain?

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