Near Death Experiences
Is there a life after death?

"Almost Brainless" and Terminal Lucidity

©G.M. Woerlee, 2005–2023

An article written by Rudolf Smit in a 2011 edition of the Journal of Near-Death Studies recently caught my eye (Smit 2011). It has the catching title, "Almost Brainless - Yet Lucid and Intelligent: Implications for Understanding NDEs and Consciousness". The suggestive content of this article in combination with those of other articles exclusively discussing the phenomenon of terminal lucidity (TL) by Nahm (2009), and by Nahm & Greyson (2009), is such that many people unschooled in medical reasoning find the suggestive conclusion to be proven by accepted medical fact. However, the incautious and almost triumphantly incorrect conclusion in the article by Rudolf Smit is such that a reply outside the slow processes of the Journal of Near-Death Studies is required. So what was this conclusion?

The above case "anecdotes" of terminal lucidity, which can hardly be denied, as well as the fact that some virtually brainless people can be highly intelligent and social, lead to an almost unavoidable conclusion: that consciousness is not a product of the brain. Rather, consciousness will make use of the brain, or won't even use a brain in case of the brain's virtual absence, but will then express itself through other - as yet unexplained - pathways.
Parnia [Sam Parnia - another NDE researcher] spoke of an illusion. Yes, there is an illusion: that the brain produces OBEs and NDEs. However, given the above facts, it seems far more likely that consciousness acts separately from the brain and that NDEs and OBEs are manifestations of that separately acting consciousness.
(pages 485-486 in Smit 2011)

Almost no brain and yet intelligent

But why is this claim incorrect? During any discussion of the relationship between mind and brain with persons believing in dualism, or the extracorporeal nature of the human mind, someone almost inevitably comes up with the statement that: "Intelligence is not a property of the brain, because some super-intelligent university students have been found with only a thin shell of brain in a head otherwise filled with only water…" Many will refer to the website of a New Zealander who refers to articles discussing this topic (Flatrock Website). The more well-read persons will proceed to cite an articles by Lewin (1980), or by Eugene Berger (Berger 1983) in which a neurologist called John Lorber remarked upon one of his study persons.

Professor John Lorber speaks of the CT scan of a hydrocephalic brain. "When we did a brain scan we saw that instead of the normal 4.5 centimeter thickness of brain tissue between the ventricles and the cortical surface, there was just a thin layer of mantle measuring a millimeter or so. His cranium is filled with cerebrospinal fluid". Can you imagine being alive with a brain 1/450th of normal? That's no brain at all. But there is more. The brain scan with a 1 millimeter rim of cerebrum was that of a young student at Sheffield University who had an IQ of 126, gained a first class honors degree in mathematics, and was socially completely normal. The student's physician at the university noticed that the youth had a slightly larger than normal head and so referred him to Dr. Lorber, simply out of interest. Can you imagine an IQ of 126 and no brain? That does not fit my idea of the way this universe works. (Berger 1983)

This was a spectacular case. Yet there are other similar persons with minimal amounts of brain tissue who function well within society and even go to college or university. CT-scans of two such persons reveal a spectacular absence of all but a relatively thin shell of brain tissue, the rest of the skull being filled with cerebrospinal fluid (for the images click on the links to these articles below: Feuillet 2007, Woods 2007).

These are typical cases of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) which was present from birth. The fact such persons could hold normal jobs, function in society, and even go to university did not correspond with the world-view of Berger (1983), nor does it correspond with the world-view of many other people. Some people even regard these, and similar cases as positive proof of the reality of the mind-model of dualism, because here are examples of persons with normal mental function despite possessing almost no brain (Smit 2011). Yet both Berger (1983) and Smit (2011), as well as other believers in the mind-model of dualism display a curious blind spot in their thinking, as well as ignoring a number of very relevant and proven medical facts.

Chris Carter and the mind-model of dualism

At this time, one of the popular proponents of the mind-model of dualism is a certain Chris Carter. As Chris Carter quite correctly points out in his book Science and the Near-Death Experience (Carter 2010), the evidence presented for the mind-models of dualism and materialism adequately explains the physical experimental results and subjective experiences currently presented for both these belief systems. Carter quoted the psychologist Cyril Burt in this regard.

The brain is not an organ that generates consciousness, but rather an instrument evolved to transmit and limit the processes of consciousness and of conscious attention so as to restrict them to those aspects of the material environment which at any moment are crucial for the terrestrial success of the individual. In that case such phenomena as telepathy and clairvoyance would be merely instances in which some of the limitations were removed. (page 18 in Carter 2010)

Carter proceeds throughout his book to wholeheartedly agree with the ideas expressed by this quotation (in chapters 1,2 and 3 of Carter 2010). The same ideas are propounded in other books discussing near-death experiences and their relation to theories of mind,e.g. see page 228 in Holden (2009), pages 307 and onwards in Lommel (2010), pages 603-609 in Kelly (2007). So how do Berger (1983), and Smit (2011) fare in respect to this quotation and the mind-model of dualism?

Faulty logic and ignoring medical fact

The logic of dualism regards the human body much as we regard the relationship between an automobile and its driver. The driver exercises control over the automobile through the mechanisms of the automobile: the steering mechanisms, brake mechanisms, accelerator mechanisms, gear train and transmission. So if the steering mechanisms fail, the driver cannot steer the automobile: if the brake mechanisms fail, the driver cannot stop the automobile: if something happens to the gear train and transmission fail, the car does not move at all.

Likewise, more than one hundred years of neurological studies and experience teach that the mind can only express itself on this world through the mechanisms of the physical body. And the control mechanisms needed for the mind to manifest speech, personality, emotions, movements, actions, and deeds by the physical body reside in the physical brain. This is fact proven by more than a century of medical studies, and by looking around us at the world in which we live. Diseases, injury, or damage to parts of the brain or body cause effects known to us all.

All these things clearly demonstrate that the mechanisms of the brain are required to express personality, emotion, speech, behaviors, actions, and deeds through the mechanisms of the physical body. In fact to claim that intelligent hydrocephalics prove the extracorporeal nature of the mind is to contradict all that modern guru's of dualism claim in chapters 1,2 and 3 of Carter (2010), page 228 in Holden (2009), pages 307 and onwards in Lommel (2010), pages 603-609 in Kelly (2007). Persons with congenital hydrocephalus are not known to have any special celestial dispensation exempting them from this requirement. Accordingly, the argument that the brain is superfluous to the expression of the properties of the mind by the physical body is patently foolish. So how is it possible for people with born with hydrocephalus (congenital hydrocephalus) to function normally?

Reasons for intelligence in hydrocephalics

The true reasons by which such persons with pronounced hydrocephalus can be intelligent was suggested many years ago, and incorrectly attributed to Lorber

Lorber (1980) advanced several explanations for the preserved mental function in these patients One possibility is increased subcortical participation in cognition, since subcortical nuclei are less altered than the cortex and adjacent white matter by hydrocephalus Another is that spare capacity is built into the cortical circuits of the normal brain, so that a great deal of diffuse damage may result in only mild impairments in cortical functioning. Finally, it is possible that the slow changes that occur in congenital hydrocephalus, mainly the demyelination of periventricular white matter, can be compensated by functional or structural reorganization in the developing brain. (page 202 in Woods 1987)

The Lober (1980) reference referred to another article with the title, "Is your brain really necessary?", written by Lewin (1980) in which the studies of Lorber were discussed, and commented upon by another group who performed studies of hydrocephalus.

Speaking for the group, Fred Epstein says the following: "Hydrocephalus is principally a disease of the white matter. As the ventricles enlarge the layers of fibers above them begin to be stretched and very quickly they are disrupted, with the axons and the myelin sheaths surrounding them breaking down. Even in severe and extended hydrocephalus, however, the nerve cells in the gray matter were remarkably spared, though eventually there began to be a loss here too." The sparing of the gray matter even in severe hydrocephalus could go some way to explaining the remarkable retention of many normal functions in severely affected individuals. (page 1233 in Lewin 1980)

The juvenile human brain has considerable reserve capacity. Provided sufficient functional nervous tissue is spared by the condition causing the hydrocephalus, as well as being spared by the effects of the hydrocephalus, the brains of surviving children born with hydrocephalus adapt over many months and years by shifting functions to other regions of adequately functioning brain tissue, and compensating for the absence of other functions by enhancing compensatory functions. Subsequent neurological studies have repeatedly confirmed these proposals - proposals which are entirely in accordance with the logic of the mind-model of dualism as well as of materialism. But such a degree of adaptation to loss of brain tissue does not occur in adults. This is why when brain tissue is destroyed in adults, those functions controlled by the destroyed brain tissue are usually lost forever.

Terminal Lucidity

Terminal Lucidity is a rare phenomenon sometimes reported as occurring in deeply demented or quite mad persons. Shortly before death some of these person become quite rational, whereas before they were either so insane, or so demented that there was no question of any normal brain function. In fact, the brains of some of these persons when examined after death were found to be abnormal and diseased as in this example cited by Nahm (2009).

a mad and very violent ex-lieutenant of the Royal Navy, who also suffered from severe memory loss to the extent he did not even remember his own first name. On the day before his death, he became rational and asked for a clergyman. With him, the patient conversed attentively and expressed his hope that God would have mercy on his soul. An autopsy revealed that his cranium was filled with a straw-colored water to a degree that it widened parts of the brain, whereas the brain matter itself and the origin of the nerves were uncommonly firm, the olfactory nerves displaying an almost fibrose appearance. (pages 92-93 in Nahm 2009)

There are many other similar accounts. Nahm, Greyson, and Smit were unable to explain this phenomenon in their articles. Smit (2011) even considered this phenomenon as definitive proof of the extracorporeal nature of the human mind. Nonetheless the same considerations apply as for hydrocephalus: the mechanisms of the brain are required to express personality, emotion, speech, behaviors, actions, and deeds through the mechanisms of the physical body. Furthermore, just as in the situation of hydrocephalus, demented and brain damaged persons are also not known to have any special celestial dispensation exempting them from this requirement.

Concluding remarks

Rudolf Smit (2011) claims that intelligence in persons with congenital hydrocephaly and Terminal Lucidity are proof of the extracorporeal nature of the mind. But basic medical fact, and the logic of the mind-model of dualism reveals this claim to be ingenuous and totally unfounded, as well as to directly contradict some of the basic tenets of the dualistic mind-model as proposed by himself, Carter (2010), Holden (2009), Lommel (2010), and Kelly (2007). Smit, Nahm, and Greyson combine this faulty logic with "cherry picking" of medical facts to the exclusion of others, while almost totally ignoring neurological reality. This is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the articles of Nahm (2009), Nahm & Greyson (2009), Smit (2011), as well as websites (Flatrock website), claiming Terminal Lucidity and intelligent hydrocephalics to be proof of the extracorporeal nature of the mind.


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