Science or Pseudoscience? Investigating the Afterlife

Olivia Seitz

Image: Shutterstock

About This Quiz

While no one can prove the existence of the afterlife, there are plenty of scientists (and pseudoscientists!) ready to weigh in on such a juicy topic. Do you know how much we know about the afterlife? Find out when you take this quiz!

What syndrome causes patients to believe that they're dead, even though they're still alive?

Patients suffering from Cotard's syndrome may think their flesh is decaying, that their souls have already departed the world, or that parts of their bodies are fake. Fortunately, many patients are able to recover with medical treatment.

When will a doctor declare brain death?

A typical evaluation includes checking for pain reactions, brain stem reflexes and any signs of brain activity. If all three are absent, doctors consider the patient to be dead, even while hooked up to mechanical support.

How many Americans say they've had a near-death experience?

A study conducted by Gallup revealed that approximately eight million Americans believe they've had a near-death experience in which they saw some part of the afterlife.

If out-of-body experiences are not just brain-generated phenomena, which of the following is a logical conclusion about human consciousness?

If an out-of-body experience can occur and be remembered with no input from the brain, then one may conclude that human consciousness does not depend solely on the brain. It would not be sufficient evidence to prove the existence of the afterlife, however.

Who said the following? "I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can."

The author, neuroscientist Eben Alexander, was convinced by his near-death experience that an afterlife exists. Because he still had brain activity during his coma, there is no incontrovertible proof that his experience wasn't a hallucination.

Psychiatrist Karl Jansen wrote a book about which recreational drug that mimics out-of-body experiences?

Ketamine, a drug initially used as a tranquilizer, was shown to induce many aspects of out-of-body experiences, such as feelings of awe, strong hallucinations and tunnel vision.

Which of the following people recovered after receiving a brain death diagnosis?

While it's rare, some people have recovered after being declared brain dead. Sometimes it's a simple misdiagnosis; other times, doctors can't explain exactly how their patients recovered. All three of these people have amazing stories of survival!

Which famous figure from the early 1900s worked to debunk psychics and other afterlife-related phenomena?

Houdini, the master of tricks, frequently campaigned against the frauds of his time. In 1926, he even went before Congress in the hopes of outlawing paid fortune-telling!

During a study conducted at the University of Southampton, what percentage of people who survived cardiac arrest reported some awareness of their surroundings during resuscitation?

Respondents reported many similar phenomena - seeing a bright light or experiencing a higher level of peacefulness than usual was common, and 13% felt separated from their bodies. One man reported seeing what happened in the operating room, and was accurately able to describe what happened during the three minutes his heart was stopped!

How quickly does the brain begin to shut down after the heart stops?

While the exact time can vary greatly from patient to patient, brain activity can be greatly reduced to non-existent in most patients after thirty seconds.

What can inhibit recall of a near-death experience?

In studies like the one conducted at University of Southampton, researchers note that the type of brain injury, the administration of sedatives or the administration of painkillers may prevent patients from remembering near death experiences.

What kind of detector is popular with ghost hunters?

Most ghost hunters who claim to be scientific in their investigations use all three methods to attempt to find evidence of ghosts. The EMF detector measures electromagnetic fields, the Geiger counter measures radiation and the infrared detector theoretically detects ghostly activity.

Which singer was able to describe in detail the brain surgery she underwent in the '90s, despite having her eyes and ears completely covered?

During the procedure, she was placed in the deepest coma medically possible. Her doctors were shocked when she described exiting her body and recounted what they said and did.

Sometimes, patients suffering from dementia or other similar disorders experience profound clarity of thought in the moments before death. What is this phenomenon called?

In terminal lucidity cases, people who seemed to have lost all memory of who they were or who their families were suddenly have a moment of clarity before dying. The phenomenon puzzles doctors and some take it as evidence of a soul.

Which of the following has been put forward to explain near-death experiences from a biological point of view?

There are many theories as to what causes the phenomena associated with near-death experiences. Many aspects, such as tunnel vision and watching your life flash before your eyes, are due to your brain's chemical chaos in a life-threatening moment.

In which movie from the '90s did medical students attempt to recreate near-death experiences?

In "Flatliners," four medical students experiment by having their hearts stopped and restarted again. The portrayal of near-death experiences is intense, but mostly unrealistic.

Which of the following is a skeptic who is famous for attempting to debunk popular near-death experience stories?

Gerald Woerlee wrote "Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near Death Experiences" in an attempt to debunk near-death experience narratives and propose alternative explanations for what patients observe.

What near-death experience is categorized as a "Peak in Darien" case?

Some near-death experiences include meeting relatives who are dead, but the person experiencing the vision hasn't been told of the death. For example, one 9-year-old boy, Eddie Cuomo, saw his older sister, Teresa, who had died in an accident the night before; the family learned of her death after her brother mentioned seeing her.

Maurice Rowlings recounted a story of a patient who, after a near-death experience, was able to identify what person?

Despite never having seen a photo of his biological mother, who died a little over a year after giving birth, the man was able to identify her in a photograph. His father, who had quickly remarried, was shocked at the revelation.

Name the author of this quote: "The idea of an afterlife where you can be reunited with loved ones can be immensely consoling - though not to me."

This shot at believers in the afterlife comes from biologist Richard Dawkins, who is very outspoken about his disbelief in God or the afterlife.

What frequently happens to patients who have near-death experiences?

Interestingly, many people who have near-death experiences are more likely to believe in the afterlife, are less likely to fear death, and are more likely to be at peace with their lives.

What process did ancient Egyptians think would help them pass into the afterlife?

The ancient Egyptians practiced mummification to preserve their bodies, in the hopes of gaining eternal life. While there's no reason to connect mummies to success in reaching the afterlife, the mummification process was pretty scientific!

What fascinating group of people is included in some of Dr. Jeffrey Long's studies of near-death experiences?

Dr. Long investigated hundreds of cases in which people blind from birth are able to describe visions and objects using the correct color. The question becomes: how can the brain of a blind person hallucinate colors that it has never seen?

According to a 2005 Gallup Poll, what percentage of Americans believe in house hauntings?

37% of Americans from the first decade of the century believed houses could be haunted, either by ghosts or by some other supernatural being.

Do most neuroscientists think that out-of-body experiences can be explained purely with biology?

Neuroscientists are hardly in agreement as to whether out-of-body experiences can be explained by biology alone, but scientists from both camps can agree that not all out-of-body experiences have supernatural origins.

Which of the following is not a problem with overnight haunted house stake-outs?

False positives can happen just as easily during daylight or during the night, but establishing a baseline to obtain truly objective data is difficult when investigators only have one or two nights. Things such as weather conditions are also hard to take into account over such a short span of time.

What happens to a person's energy upon death?

Some people think that, since energy is neither created nor destroyed, the energy from a living person could be transferred to that person's ghost after death. This theory doesn't make sense, however, because the energy stored in bodies is released as heat, etc.

Which of the following has provided conclusive evidence of a ghost?

There is no proof that currently popular ghost-hunting technology works. Often, random fluctuations in the equipment or poor calibration can lead to a false positive that enthusiasts believe is evidence of a haunting.

Which famous scientist professed his belief in some form of afterlife?

Wallace independently discovered some of the basic principles of Darwinian evolution and was a prominent biologist in his time. He claimed that, after considering the evidence, he felt the souls of the deceased survived after death.

Which scientist wrote the following? "I have found there is a wonderful harmony in the complementary truths of science and faith."

Collins, who served as the head of the human genome project, does believe in the afterlife. He documented his reasons for abandoning atheism in the book, "The Language of God."

How did alchemists seek to circumvent the afterlife?

Alchemists were notorious for trying to turn everything into gold, and for trying to unlock the secret of immortality by creating the elusive elixir of life. These medieval pseudoscientists never succeeded (as far as we know), but they did act as forerunners for the field of chemistry.

What object did a woman named Maria spot on a ledge outside her hospital during a near-death experience?

Maria's observation of the tennis shoe was verified by hospital staff after she recounted her experience. The shoe was on the third floor of the building and could not be seen from the ground!

What term did psychologists Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper coin to describe what patients sense during near-death experiences?

The pair coined the term to describe the ability of patients to assimilate sensory data despite their bodies' incapacitation. It was especially relevant for disabled patients whose disabilities disappeared during near-death experiences.

What is one research tool used to learn about near-death experience memories from patients?

The Memory Characteristics Questionnaire compares memory recall of the near-death experience with other, normal memories. It's one of many tools researchers use to try to understand what causes near-death experiences.

What interesting fact about near-death experiences did skeptic Dr. Steven Laureys and his team discover?

Over time, most memories undergo slight alterations or are forgotten completely. Dr. Laureys' research revealed that near-death experiences frequently do not decay in the patient's memory.

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