Personally, I obviously believe in the afterlife - However I am ambivalent as to whether NDEs are proof or not of this.
I found this recent peer reviewed paper:
Near-Death Experience: Out-of-Body and Out-of-Brain?
Department of General Psychology, University of Padova
Christian Agrillo, Department of General Psychology, University of Padova, via Venezia 8, I-35131 Padova, Italy email@example.com
Submission August 14, 2010. Revision September 14, 2010. Accepted October 25, 2010.
The study of NDEs represents one of the main challenges of modern neuroscience, given the high scientific, theological and philosophical implications related to this topic. Many popular books on NDEs have become best-sellers, probably because a large number of people wants to believe that immortality is scientifically possible, so lessening and making more tolerable our fear of death. From a traditional scientific perspective, the occurrence of these experiences might initially be considered improbable or paradoxical. However, the incidence of the phenomenon and the partially similar features reported among cultures have raised some questions regarding the biological/psychological interpretations of NDEs, as well as the nature of human consciousness and its relationship with the brain.
Even adopting a rigorous scientific methodology, the theoretical debate is largely open and, to date, it is not possible to draw any firm conclusions about the origin of such experiences. According to out-of-brain theorists, the mind might be separable from the brain and therefore survive even after body death; others (in-brain theorists) suggest that these experiences may be mainly a by-product of biological processes or psychological reactions to death. Lights and tunnels would merely be hallucinations or final visions produced by a dying brain (see Table 3 for a short summary about the two perspectives).
We have to hope that physicians and other caregivers will be more and more aware of these experiences and advise patients accordingly. In general, more research involving cooperation among several hospitals and research groups is welcome in the effort to provide more exhaustive explanations of the occurrence and content of NDEs. In 2008 a new international project called AWARE—“AWAreness during REsuscitation”—was launched, with the purpose of studying the relationship between the brain and the mind during clinical death. This project, recruiting over 1,000 cardiac arrest survivors, is the first multidisciplinary study using both cerebral monitoring techniques and planning innovative tests. In one of these, for example, it is planned to install a small picture shelf above patients' beds. This shelf will not be visible from the floor and it might be possible to have a glimpse of the picture only by “floating.” Researchers will try to see whether patients who report out-of-body experiences will be able to recall seeing the picture during the intermittent state. This would surely represent compelling evidence for the out-of-brain hypothesis, even though we would have to record that a null result (no recall of the picture) would not necessarily imply the absence of the phenomenon. Why would a dying individual have to focus attention on this nonrelevant cue when seeing his or her body from above and living such an unknown experience?
It is worth noting that most of the recurring features are visual experiences (seeing a light, seeing a tunnel, deceased people, or heavenly or hellish landscapes). This raises an interesting question: why would an out-of-body mind still perceive the reality mainly driven by visual information? Visual modality is the most important one used by humans to perceive the world. Nonetheless, there is no reason to believe that the same preference for visual inputs should be observed after biological death. For instance fewer accounts on tactile or kinaesthetic information seem to be reported. This may be interpreted as indirect evidence of a mind still “trapped” in the brain. However, the problem may simply rely on the verbal account of patients. Indeed, when people have to describe a landscape, in general they tend to use words evoking images instead of tactile information or gustative information; therefore it becomes complicated to disentangle the effect of language (usually imagine-biased) and the real nature of perception in NDEs (that is supposed to be modality independent).
Even assuming the most intriguing hypothesis that NDEs are evidence of life after death, it would be unclear whether NDEs really support the belief in what we may call “maximal” life after death (immortality) or merely in a “minimal” life after death, a sort of limited consciousness for some time after death (Dell'Olio, 2009). Experiences themselves are a matter of minutes. As the brain can still survive for a few minutes in the absence of blood support, it is theoretically possible that the human mind might really be dissociable to the brain, but cannot survive for long in the absence of neuroanatomical structures.
Regardless of these speculations, it is undeniable that NDEs can help us to deepen our comprehension of human consciousness. It has been argued that consciousness is the result of interaction among large neural networks (Fenwick, 2000). This is supported by neuroimaging studies where, using functional MRI and PET, specific brain areas have been found to be active in response to a thought or feeling (Frackowiak, Friston, Frith, Dolan, & Mazziotta, 2003). However, those studies do not necessarily imply that neurons also produce consciousness; neuronal networks may be considered as a sort of an intermediary for the manifestation of consciousness. As outlined by Parnia and Fenwick (2002), direct evidence of how neural circuits can assess the subjective essence of the mind is currently lacking, and provides one of the biggest challenges to neuroscience. Gestalt theories have widely demonstrated that our ways to perceive reality are surely based on single elements of the whole scene but are not the mere sum of them. Similarly, the human mind is supported by neural networks but may not be only the sum of the single parts. The mind and the brain might not be related by one-to-one correspondence. The claims made by the out-of-brain theorists should not be underestimated by cognitive neuroscientists: if true, this would imply a new relation between the brain and consciousness.
In 1996 Blackmore said: “it is probably a matter of personal preference whether to interpret the NDE as a glimpse of the life beyond or the product of the dying brain” (p. 75). Unfortunately, even though more biological correlates have been reported during the last 14 years, we are far from solving the question. In the absence of a more adequate explanatory framework for NDEs, it will be useful to remain open to both interpretations.
All in all a pretty fair paper and without the clear bias of the article for a sceptics website by Braithwaite. From this paper - Yes this is a issue that is taken seriously by scientists - very seriously because if the "out of brain" hypothesis is proven beyond reasonable doubt then this is a game changer. Rather than debunking, the "in brain" hypothesese arguments are just as unproven positions - this is agreed by Blackmore above - a major player in the dying brain hypothesis. Note this paper is from a psychologist who studies the mind - a neuroscientist, like Braithwaite is far more likely to be a "in brainer" because they study the brain.