Three entries for the Oxford Companion to the Body (2001)
Eds C. Blakemore and S. Jennett, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Near-death experiences


Spiritualism began in the mid-nineteenth century and rapidly spread, until by the 1890s spiritualist seances were being held in major cities all across America and Europe. In the most dramatic seances, mediums not only transmitted messages from the dead, but generated ‘physical phenomena’ such as levitating tables, speech through trumpets, direct voices from the dead (i.e. without any trumpet or other instrument), and even full-body materialisation of spirit forms.

The question then arose of how the dead could influence the physical world, and one answer was that they used a substance called ectoplasm. Ectoplasm was produced only by the most accomplished mediums, and was said to depend on their special physiological make-up. This white or grey fluid substance could sometimes be seen emerging from a medium’s mouth, although it was said to come from other orifices as well. Usually ectoplasm was described as cold to the touch and rubbery or leathery, but sometimes it was said to be fluid and slimy, or gauzy and wet. Often it began by flowing out of the body and later hardened into a solid.

There are several photographs of well-known mediums producing ectoplasm. For example, in the 1930s, photographs of Jack Webber show him producing long ribbons of a white material that seem to grip on to tables or trumpets and lift them physically in the air, while he is seen bound to the arms of a chair on which he is seated. Eva C was photographed with a strange gauzy substance stretched across her naked chest, and Helen Duncan with a mass of white cloth-like ectoplasm pouring from her mouth. Perhaps the oddest experiments were conducted by Dr W.J.Crawford in the 1910s. The medium, Kathleen Goligher, apparently produced ‘psychic structures’ made of ectoplasm which emerged from the several orifices of her body and were strong enough to lift tables, register on weighing scales and make impressions on specially positioned trays of sand. She was searched and provided with clean underwear before experiments, and special dye was used to trace the route of the ectoplasm back into her body.

Ectoplasm normally appeared only in total darkness. Light was said to damage the delicate substance, and even harm the mediums who were producing it. So, although it was occasionally photographed by flash, investigators wanting proof were usually disappointed. In the archives of the Society for Psychical Research in London, there is still a piece of Helen Duncan’s ectoplasm. This looks very much like a large piece of fine muslin and even has stitching around the edges. Although, like most other mediums, she was regularly searched before seances, many believe she swallowed and later regurgitated the material.

Ectoplasm has rarely been reported since the 1930s. Indeed the advent of infra-red photography and other methods of recording in the dark, seem to have coincided with the end of the truly dramatic physical phenomena of spiritualism, including the once popular ectoplasm.


The term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any kind of behaviour that is passed from person to person by imitation. Like genes, memes are units of replication. That is, they are information that varies and is selectively copied. While genes compete to get copied when plants and animals reproduce, memes compete to get stored in our memories and passed on to someone else.

On this view our minds and culture are moulded by the competition between memes, just as the biological world has been designed by natural selection acting on genes. Familiar memes include words, phrases and stories, TV and radio programmes, chess, bridge and computer games, famous symphonies and mindless jingles, the habit of driving on the left (or the right), eating with a knife and fork, wearing clothes, and shaking hands. These are all different kinds of information that have successfully been copied from person to person. Without them we would not be fully human.

The idea of memes is highly controversial. Critics argue that memes have not been proved to exist, cannot be identified with any chemical or physical structure as genes can, cannot be divided into meaningful units, provide no better understanding of culture than existing theories, and undermine the important notions of free will and personal responsibility. Proponents respond that memes obviously exist, since humans imitate widely and memes are simply defined as whatever they imitate. Also, the demand for a physical basis is premature. The structure of DNA was not discovered until a century after Darwin, so we may be in the equivalent of the pre-DNA phase in ‘memetics’. The question of units is tricky for genes too, and we can study memes by using whatever unit is replicated in any given situation – which may be anything from a few notes to an entire symphony, or a few words to a whole story.

More important is whether memetics really can provide new insights into human behaviour or culture. One example is Dawkins’s idea of religions as viruses of the mind. A biological virus is a small package of information that uses someone else’s copying machinery for its own replication. An equivalent in memes might be a chain letter or e-mail virus. For example, you might receive an e-mail message that says “A deadly virus called ‘Happy Birthday’ is circulating by e-mail. IBM and Microsoft warn that it is powerful and untreatable. It will destroy all the information in your computer. Pass this warning on to all your friends immediately”. This little piece of information is a complete lie but by using threats (to your computer), promises (you can help your friends), and an instruction to pass it on, it thrives. Religions, argues Dawkins, have a similar structure. They use threats (hell, damnation and horrible punishments), promises (heaven, salvation, and God’s love), and instructions to pass them on (teach your children, read the texts, pray and sing in public). Moreover, they use other tricks to protect themselves from scepticism. A child who asks why she can’t see God is told to have faith, not doubt.

This approach also explains something that is inexplicable in biological terms – the celibate priest. A true celibate cannot pass on his genes, but having no children means he can devote his time and resources to spreading more memes. So the meme for celibacy succeeds. Apart from religions, other viral memes include alternative therapies that don’t work, new age fads and cults, and astrology, which is immensely popular even though most of its claims have been tested and found to be false.

Of course not all memes are viruses. Indeed the vast majority are the foundation of our lives and cultures, including all of the arts and sports, transport and communications systems, political and monetary systems, and science. And note that science has a very different structure from religion. Both are ‘memeplexes’ (groups of memes that work together), and science certainly contains viral memes such as false theories and fraudulent claims, but the very basis of science is the method of testing all claims. This means that science eventually throws out ideas that prove useless or false.

Language is another important example. Although humans appear to have an innate tendency to learn language, the words we use are learned by imitation (i.e. they are memes). Blackmore has argued that once early humans became capable of imitating sounds, memetic evolution drove the gradual improvement of language, and with it the restructuring of our brains to be especially good at learning language. In a similar way she argues that our big brains were driven by, and for, the memes. Any of our early ancestors who had slightly bigger brains and were therefore slightly better at imitation would have been at an advantage because they could pick up and use the latest memes – whether these were ways of hunting, cooking food, wearing clothes, or dancing and singing. These people would therefore have attracted more mates and had more offspring. So, as the memes spread, so did genes for having big brains capable of spreading them, and (perhaps more important) selecting which memes to copy and which to reject. If this is so, the whole of human evolution has been shaped by the successful memes of the past, and we are products of two replicators, memes and genes, not just one.

There are several mysteries about human nature that might potentially yield to a memetic explanation. Humans are far more cooperative and altruistic than any other species. Indeed, in those cultures with the best communications and hence the most memes, many altruistic ideas thrive – such as pacifism, vegetarianism, charity work, recycling, the Green movement, and the caring professions. Many people put enormous efforts into helping others who are not their relatives (i.e. do not share their genes) and who are unlikely or unable to reciprocate in the future. In other words these behaviour are hard to explain in biological terms. The memetic approach is to ask why these particular memes spread. Perhaps we spend more time with the most altruistic people and so their memes get more chances to spread, including their altruistic memes. These are testable ideas which might, in the future, allow memetics to be found useful or to be rejected.

Human consciousness is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. According to the American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, humans are a particular sort of ape infested with memes, and human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes. He argues that the brain builds multiple drafts of what is happening at any time, and one of these drafts is the story we tell ourselves about a self who is in charge. In other words the self is a kind of ‘benign user illusion’ of the human brain. Blackmore suggests it is not benign at all. On her view the self is the root of human suffering, yet it is a collection of memes that have come together for their own mutual protection and propagation. Ideas that become ‘my’ beliefs or ‘my’ hopes or intentions, are at an advantage and survive. They then carry with them the idea of a self that not only has beliefs and opinions, but free will and consciousness. All this, argues Blackmore, is illusion. Our actions are the result of memes and genes competing to be copied in a complex environment, not of a self with free will. On this view human consciousness is distorted by the false idea of a self, and can be changed by practices like meditation, which undermine it.

This is where the moral objections of critics come to the fore. They argue that without a sense of self with free will and personal responsibility, we could not have effective legal systems and could not expect people to behave morally and cooperatively. Memetics clearly strikes at the heart of human nature. Yet if the theory of memes is right we cannot reject it on those grounds and we may have to rethink many of our most precious ideas.

According to memetics that rethinking is urgent. Communications systems are rapidly expanding to spread more memes. Satellite systems, mobile telephones and e-mail mean that everyone spreads more memes than ever before, even if this does not necessarily improve their lives and may burden them with information overload. The Internet is a vast playground for memes, many of which will propagate round the world without any human having control over them or even noticing them. If we are to understand this rapid change, we may need a much better theory of memetics.

Further reading

Blackmore,S.J. (1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford, Oxford University Press (new edition with additional material, 1989)

Dennett,D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, Penguin


Near-Death Experience

People who come close to death and survive often report remarkable experiences. Feelings of peace, happiness and even joy, are common, which seems paradoxical in the circumstances. Many survivors report having rushed down a dark tunnel towards a bright light – although the tunnel itself can look like anything from tiny stars or spirals of light, to the inside of a sewer pipe or an underground cave. In one study, about a third of near-death survivors reported OUT-OF-BODY-EXPERIENCES, in which they seemed to leave their body and were able to watch what was happening from a distance, as though as an impartial observer. Less often they recalled leaving the scene of (near) death and travelling elsewhere. Finally, some people report wonderful heavenly scenes, peopled with angels, spiritual beings, or deceased friends and relatives. Less commonly they arrive at some kind of barrier and have to decide to return, or not. A small proportion report a ‘life review’ in which scenes from their life flash before their inner eyes, often all at once, or with no sense of passing time. This life review is sometimes remembered as an ordeal, with religious figures making judgements in a great book, but it can be purely personal, leading to calm acceptance and a re-evaluation of one’s life and deeds.

After a near-death experience many people report that their whole attitude to life is changed. They are less concerned with material things and more interested in helping others. Research confirms these changes but it is not clear whether they are a consequence of the subjective experience itself or just of knowing that they had been so close to death.

Not all near-death experiences are blissful, and recent research has discovered an increasing number of hellish experiences – although just how many is hard to estimate since people may be less likely to report them, and more anxious to forget. In many religions suicide is treated as a sin, so believers might expect those who attempt suicide to be especially likely to have hellish experiences. In fact they mostly report blissful or peaceful feelings, and the effect, far from encouraging another suicide attempt, seems to be a renewed enthusiasm for life.

The term ‘near-death experience’ became popular only after Raymond Moody’s best-selling collection of accounts in 1975. However, similar reports had previously been collected from people who subsequently did die (i.e. death-bed experiences). In fact, reports of such experiences are widespread in many ages and cultures, and in literature, art and film. Plato describes one in the Republic, Tibetan Buddhist literature includes the ‘returned from the dead’ writings, and there are myths from as far apart as ancient Greece, nineteenth-century native Americans, and Lithuanian folklore. In contemporary research, similar reports have been collected from Iceland, Britain, America and India. In these accounts the basic features tend to be similar (including tunnels, lights, out-of-body excursions and visions) but the details vary. For example, religious figures are often seen but usually of the person’s own religion. No Hindu is known to have seen Jesus and no Christian to have seen Hindu gods.

A few sceptics attribute the experiences to either wishful thinking or taking drugs. This seems most unlikely given the cross-cultural findings, and research showing that most drugs tend to reduce the clarity and complexity of near-death experiences. The important question is therefore why these experiences occur in a similar form all across the world.

The main contenders are either that near-death experiences are a glimpse of life after death, or that they are the effect of changes in an almost dying brain. The after-death hypothesis cannot be proven. If there is life after death, these experiences may tell us what it is like, but since none of the people concerned actually died we can never be sure. The closest we come to evidence is the claim that during the experience, some people were able to see events at a distance that they could not possibly have known about or guessed. These claims are few, and none is substantiated by independent witnesses or physical evidence, although the best examples are probably those in which patients were able to describe complex medical procedures that occurred while they were comatose or even clinically dead.

There are several theories to explain how coming close to death can give rise to near-death experiences. Lack of oxygen is often implicated, although many near-death experiences occur when people are not deprived of oxygen, as in falls from mountains, suicide attempts by jumping from heights, or after accidents. In such situations, however, the production and actions of various hormones and neurotransmitters may be affected. There are theories based on stimulation of receptors in nerve cell membranes called NMDA receptors, on the effects of the neurotransmitter serotonin, and on the level of endorphins (the brain’s own morphine-like chemicals). Endorphins are known to produce positive emotions and reduction of pain and may be responsible for the blissful feelings in the midst of pain and fear. Disruption of the brain’s neurotransmitters can produce random or excessive firing of neurons and this, depending on where it occurs, may produce the other experiences. For example, electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe of the cerebral hemispheres can produce life reviews and sensations of floating or flying, while random firing in the parts of the visual cortex (which also occurs with drugs such as LSD) causes the perception of lights, tunnels and spirals.

These physiological explanations can account for much of near-death experiences, and may in time provide a complete account. Even so, they can never disprove the possibility of life after death. Some people may still prefer to believe that the experience is a glimpse of the next world rather than the product of the dying brain.

Further reading

Bailey,L.W. and Yates,J  (Eds) (1996) The Near-Death Experience: A Reader. New York and London, Routledge.

Blackmore,S.J. 1993 Dying to Live: Science and the Near Death Experience. Buffalo, N.Y., Prometheus

Moody,R.A. 1975 Life after Life Atlanta, Ga, Mockingbird.

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