Susan Blackmore

Dying to Live

Science and the near-death experience

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

Susan Blackmore is an academic psychologist, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England. She began her career as a parapsychologist, but eventually she concluded that she could find little valid evidence to support the existence of the alleged paranormal phenomena she was supposed to be studying and so she ceased to work on the subject. In this book she considers the near-death experience (NDE), with the aim of deciding whether it does, as many people suppose, provide evidence for our survival of physical death, or is wholly explicable within a natural context. Her approach is based partly on published accounts of NDEs and partly on accounts from experients which she has collected and analysed.

She discusses the various arguments that have gone on about the origin and nature of the NDE and comes down firmly but fairly on the side of a fully naturalistic explanation. Although she is fully aware of the importance of the NDE for those who have had it, she concludes that there is no good evidence for the claim that it really gives us a glimpse of what happens after death. Indeed, she does not believe that there is an afterlife in this sense. However, her argument is not merely negative; she puts forward an interesting, and to me convincing, theory of why these experiences occur. At the centre of the theory is her contention that the "self" is a mental construct or model, but that this is an illusion. And during the NDE, she suggests, the self model begins to disintegrate, and this is what gives rise to the dramatic experience: "the NDE brings about a breakdown of the model of self along with the breakdown of the brain's normal processes". The feeling of insight into profound truths which the experience often provides occurs just because of this temporary loss of the ordinary illusion of self. Blackmore's view of the self as a model has obvious affinities with the Buddhist notion of no-self, and this is no accident, for she has indeed done Buddhist meditation and regards it as an alternative way of disrupting and ultimately destroying the illusion of self.

Many people who have had NDEs say that they are sure that Blackmore must be wrong because they have been there and they know. To this, however, she has an answer, for she too has had an out-of-the-body experience which had many of the features of an NDE, so that she is able to say: "I have experienced it too and I have come to a different conclusion from you."

This is one of the best books on the NDE that I've read; it's strongly recommended.

%T Dying to Live
%S Science and the near-death experience
%A Blackmore, Susan
%I Grafton
%C London
%D 1993
%G ISBN 0 586 09212 9
%P xii + 291 pp
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