Today@Sam Article

Professor Explores Near-Death Experiences In New Book

Oct. 3, 2016
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

This article was written by Tammy Parrett. 

Mitchell-Yellin teaching
Assistant professor of philosophy Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin examined one of life's many mysteries, death, in a new book on "understanding visions of the afterlife." The book has been reviewed and discussed in a number of media outlets since its publication. —Photos by Michael Ray

One of the earliest reports of a near-death experience came from the famed Greek philosopher Plato, in his book “Republic.” 

Plato recounts the story of Er, a soldier who awoke after being dead for 12 days to share his account of the journey to the afterlife.

To this day, near-death experiences are a phenomenon that leaves many with a number of questions: How many people have had near-death experiences? Why doesn’t everyone have them? Why do people have different experiences? Is this proof that there is an afterlife?

These are questions that Benjamin Mitchell-Yellin, assistant professor of philosophy at Sam Houston State University, explores in his new book, “Near-Death Experiences: Understanding Visions Of The Afterlife,” co-authored by John Martin Fischer, distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of California-Riverside. The book was published with Oxford University Press in June. 

“A small percentage of people who go into cardiac arrest undergo some especially vivid experiences with certain characteristics, such as seeing a tunnel and light, watching their bodies receive CPR from above, visiting with deceased relatives in a place they describe as heaven, or a life review, which is like watching your life flash before your eyes,” said Mitchell-Yellin. “These are all typical characteristics of near-death experiences.”

The book stems from their work on The Immortality Project, a $5.1 million research project funded by the John Templeton Foundation and housed at the University of California-Riverside, through which teams of researchers explored diverse topics related to immortality from the perspective of science, theology and philosophy.

Mitchell-Yellin also teaches the philosophy course "Death and Dying" at SHSU. 

“Working on the Immortality Project really piqued my interest in near-death experiences,” Mitchell-Yellin said. “In one of the projects we funded, the research team was able to induce out-of-body experiences using virtual reality. Participants would wear the virtual reality mask and a body suit with sensors on it, and through a series of tests, the researchers were able to get participants to identify with the virtual body and create the same effects in the virtual world as in near-death experiences.”

Certain surprising characteristics have been found to be true of individuals who reported having near-death experiences, many of which they discuss in the book.

“It really changes people,” Mitchell-Yellin said. “If two people had heart attacks, with one experiencing a near-death experience and the other having none, it has been found that the one who experienced a near-death experience is more likely to undergo a profound transformation. They might experience more spirituality, a lack of fear of death or more acceptance of the love of others.”

The increase in popularity of these accounts are no doubt attributed to popular books such as “Heaven is For Real,” which tells the story of Colton Burpo, who claimed to have experienced an NDE at the age of 3.

In their book, Mitchell-Yellin and Fischer argue that “out-of-body experiences” do not prove that the mind–or consciousness–is not produced by the brain. And while the duo argues that NDEs do not prove that heaven is real, they do acknowledge that they are not trying to degrade any religious belief or belief in the afterlife.

“We do want to take each of these reported instances seriously,” Mitchell-Yellin said. “Each experience is significant to that person, and we would never try to belittle it or the meaning that they took away from it.”

In addition to the book, Mitchell-Yellin also explores NDEs in his “Death and Dying” course–PHIL 4371–at SHSU.

“I teach a unit on near-death experiences and some really great discussions normally come out of that,” he said. “We also touch on some of the other areas I’ve done research on. We look at the question of whether it is reasonable to want to be immortal. There are a few people in Silicon Valley dedicating large sums of money to the research of ‘aging,’ as if it were a disease.”

But in doing so, Mitchell-Yellin believes that researchers have to look at the different types of immortality. 

“There are different ways of thinking about living forever,” he said. “For example, there’s a difference between the type of living forever that people associate with the afterlife, where you are going to live literally forever, versus life extension, which would involve living for 1,000 years or perhaps even until the sun eats up the Earth.” 

Mitchell-Yellin said that students have expressed apprehension that the course would be “boring” because it doesn’t directly address religion or religious beliefs; however, he believes that this should make the course more interesting to them.

“If you believe in heaven, I think the question of how to conceive of immortality is very important,” he said. “The content of the course is something that all students can relate to. In a way, it’s one of the few courses that applies to each student, regardless of major. Not everyone on Earth speaks English, but at this point at least, everyone will die.”

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