Tuesday, April 12, 2011
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
We’ve all heard about near death experiences and the sensation of going towards the light, via a dark tunnel. The experience seems to be nearly ubiquitous regardless of culture or ethnicity. Along the way, people have reported that they see their lives flash before them; we may revisit our first birthday, a memorable moment on a trip to Cancun, holding hands with the love of our life, our child’s first step and even events that haven’t happened yet, like having grandchildren. There are at least two explanations often offered for this event: A) it’s the natural consequences of a dying brain, or B) this is just the gateway to another dimension, heaven perhaps.
On the one hand, it seems rather depressing that the brain gives us this amazing calmness and drawing toward the light--mammals are naturally drawn to light--but, apparently, the event is merely the process of cell death. These primitive parts of the brain located closer and closer to the brain stem and within it remain active long enough for this last experience to occur. The visual cortex or the superior colliculus, when activated, produce the “vision” of light. Just imagine it, many of these events and people that have so much meaning to you cascade before you one last time, and then the curtain suddenly closes right before you see what’s at the end of the tunnel. It’s like it was all just some dream and then you die.
The other possibility is that it’s a tunnel which leads to heaven, and many Christians are probably thinking that they are well on their way as they travel down the tunnel. Can you imagine what that means for a Christian when the lights go out just before they are about to reach the pearly gates? Some Christians spend their entire lives dedicated to the notion that they are going to go to heaven, and I’m sure people like William Lane Craig will be laughing at all those stupid atheists while in route.
One of the more reasonable explanations for this phenomenon was actually captured by Air Force pilots going through centrifuge training. The pilot would pass out due to a lack of oxygen to the brain, and the whole experience of going down a tunnel of light and seeing loved ones was captured. Far from being dead, these pilots just passed out momentarily and came back to their senses briefly afterword. If this is a supernatural phenomenon based on the events experienced immediately after death, god has a very loose and peculiar habit of manifesting this phenomenon regardless of you actually being clinically dead or not.
Then, there’s this whole notion of out of body experiences that often occur when a person is on the brink of death during, for example, a emergency surgery. The person is seeing people even though they are completely unconscious, and their eyes may even be taped shut. Furthermore, they may have never laid eyes on the surgeons before but have a detailed description of them just from the out of body experience. The person may be able to see what is going on during a surgical operation and even what kind of shoes the surgeon was wearing during the operation. All we can do at the moment is speculate on what’s going on here. We can say “I don’t know” and be fine with that because, as Lawrence Krauss often says, that’s how we learn. But, if we simply put god as the answer than we really haven’t answered anything. We have discovered time and time again that things which were once explained by god(s) really have rational natural explanations. We can speculate for the time that perhaps the 1st law of thermodynamics plays a role in the fact that energy cannot be created nor destroyed. Some believe that consciousness is a form of energy that may persist after death. We could also just say that these are nothing more than unverifiable hoaxes or lies, that would be more parsimonious. This is something that only time, and science can bright to “light”.