The Facts on Near-Death Experiences

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About a dozen prospective studies have been published, several of them in recent years. In these, researchers typically arrange for every consenting patient who survives a specific medical emergency such as a cardiac arrest at a hospital to be interviewed as soon as possible thereafter. The patients are asked open-ended questions about what, if anything, they experienced while doctors were trying to revive them.

If they report anything unusual, the researchers check their medical records and the accounts of people who treated them, looking for things that might explain the experience or show that their brain was shut down at the relevant time.

All told, these studies have collected the near-death experiences of just under people. As the only stage in an NDE that involves perceiving the physical rather than the spiritual world, an out-of-body experience has the most potential to convince skeptics.

If you could prove that someone saw or heard things that brain science says they could not have seen or heard, you would have, at the very least, evidence that our understanding of the brain is even more incomplete than we thought, and at most, a sign that a conscious mind can exist apart from a living body. As a result, reports of veridical perception have a totemic significance among NDErs. She later told her social worker that while doctors were resuscitating her, she found herself floating outside the hospital building and saw a tennis shoe on a third-floor window ledge, which she described in some detail.

The social worker went to the window Maria had indicated, and not only found the shoe but said that the way it was placed meant there was no way Maria could have seen all the details she described from inside her hospital room.


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That social worker, Kimberly Clark Sharp, is now a bubbly something with a shock of frizzy hair who acted as my informal press officer during the conference. A few years after being treated, Maria disappeared, and nobody was able to track her down to further confirm her story. A case with a lot more evidence is that of Pam Reynolds, a singer-songwriter. In Reynolds, then 35, underwent surgery to remove a huge aneurysm at the base of her brain. The cooling would prevent her cells from dying while deprived of oxygen.

When the doctors restarted her heart and warmed her body back up, she would, in effect, be rebooted. If any part of her mind was working, that insistent clicking would show up as electrical signals in the brain stem, which the surgeons were monitoring on an electroencephalogram.

Scientific interpretations

The machine confirmed that for a number of minutes Reynolds was effectively dead in both brain and body. For the near-death-experience community, Reynolds is Exhibit A. They all took place before or after, when she was under anesthetic but very much alive. In , a year after Reynolds died of heart failure , the Journal of Near-Death Studies devoted an entire issue to a debate about her case, in which a skeptic and two believers argued over such minutiae as the duration of the noise played by the speakers in her ears, the way bone conducts sound, and esoteric theories of how exactly a nonphysical mind might be able to perceive physical stimuli.

Other cases of apparent veridical perception are, at the very least, intriguing—but there are surprisingly few. For a chapter she wrote in The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences , Holden scoured the literature in search of such accounts. Only 35 included accounts of details that the authors were able to verify as fully accurate with a source other than the experiencer.

There was not a single clincher—an absolutely inarguable case of someone seeing something that only a disembodied spirit could have seen. Which is why a few studies have tried to take advantage of the unique circumstances under which NDEs tend to happen, to create a foolproof method for testing veridical perception. To get the kind of evidence for a disembodied consciousness that would satisfy a scientist, you need a good study protocol.

In The Handbook , Janice Holden outlines it:. To date, six studies have tried some form of this method, mostly on cardiac-arrest patients, and all have failed to find an ironclad case of veridical perception. All involved placing some stimulus—a picture or a symbol on, say, a piece of paper or an electronic display—in a high location, visible only if you were floating near the ceiling. The research designers did their best to make sure that nobody—not the doctors or nurses, not the patient, and not whoever interviewed the patient afterward—would know what the stimulus was until after the interviews were over.

In it, 15 participating hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria installed shelves bearing a variety of images in rooms where cardiac-arrest patients were likely to need reviving.

Over four years, the study recorded a total of 2, cardiac arrests. Of those patients, survived, of whom were judged well enough to be interviewed and agreed to participate. Of those two, one became too ill to interview further.

Dr. Gary Habermas - Near Death Experiences

That one case is tantalizing. The patient, a year-old man, described floating up to a corner of the room, seeing medical staff work on him, and watching himself be defibrillated. If true, that would be remarkable. On an EEG, the brain typically flatlines within about 20 seconds of the heart stopping. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation gets enough blood flowing to slow cell death, but not enough to fire up the brain.

Still, the clinching evidence remains elusive. There is no shortage of scientific theories about what causes near-death experiences—or at least, what might—but they are cold, unappealing, and incomplete by comparison with what NDErs say happened to them. A glitch at the temporoparietal junction, a part of the brain that acts as a kind of integrator of data from all your senses and organs and plays an important role in assembling them into your overall perception of your body, can produce an out-of-body experience. Neurochemicals might play a part in triggering hallucinations or creating a sense of peace.

And so on. Sam Parnia, Pim van Lommel, and others devote lengthy sections in their books to them. Many NDEs happen without one or another of the above scientifically measurable conditions. And those conditions often happen without an NDE. A Slovenian prospective study published in , which did find a correlation between NDEs and hypercarbia in heart-attack patients—though no correlation with hypoxia—had only 52 patients in the sample, and only 11 of them reported NDEs.

There is one newish bit of research that the materialist camp has seized on. A study at the University of Michigan, published in , took anesthetized rats and stopped their hearts. If humans experience the same death spike as rats, it may mean that the brain goes into a final, hyperactive spasm when its oxygen supply is cut as it tries to figure out what is happening.

If so, that heightened activity might explain why people who say they had an NDE report that what they experienced seemed more real than the physical world.

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Near-death experience - Wikipedia

If researchers like Parnia can convincingly show that a patient like the man in the Aware study can have flashes of conscious awareness minutes or more after the heart stops, the whole debate will flare up again. For now, the death spike remains just one more disjointed piece of the NDE puzzle, which we have not yet figured out how to assemble. So where next for the science of near-death experiences?

After having her own powerful out-of-body experience as a young woman, she started investigating paranormal claims, and devoted much of her career to scientifically explaining them. As far as Blackmore is concerned, the mystery has mostly been solved. We already know, she says, that a hyperactive brain under the stress of approaching death can trigger any or all of the above phenomena.

The big remaining question, she wrote in an e-mail, is this:. It would also help us understand why NDEs have such a profound effect on those who experience them. One of the speakers at the conference, Alana Karran, an executive coach who led a guided meditation that retraced the steps of a typical NDE, helped me understand the significance of that sequence. The quest underlies just about every form of storytelling, from religious myth to Greek epic to Hollywood blockbuster to personal memoir.

In this structure, a protagonist is shaken out of his normal way of life by some disturbance and—often reluctantly at first, but at the urging of some kind of mentor or wise figure—strikes out on a journey to an unfamiliar realm. There he faces tests, battles enemies, questions the loyalty of friends and allies, withstands a climactic ordeal, teeters on the brink of failure or death, and ultimately returns to where he began, victorious but in some way transformed.

They are often called spiritually transformative, conversion, mystical, or transpersonal experiences. One-fourth of the people who have submitted their experiences to the IANDS online survey reported they were not close to death or dead at the time. Instead, they were in emotionally intense situations, meditating, sleeping or in ordinary states of consciousness when this phenomenon occurred.

Seventy-five percent had a subjective sense of being close to death, were in a life-threatening situation or felt they were clinically dead.

Heaven and near-death experiences: Separating fact from fiction

An NDE may include only one or two of these elements, and, in a few cases, all of them. The trauma of an NDE may also signal the brain to release that opioid euphoria. The sensation of traveling through a tunnel may be related to oxygen and blood depletion to the eyes, as can happen when one is near death. A study in in a medical journal, Clinical Care, looked at 52 people who had suffered heart attacks and survived. Of these, 11 reported NDEs, and the researchers found that those patients had higher levels of carbon dioxide in their blood.

Revealed: The truth about near-death experiences

Higher CO2 levels in blood are known to cause hallucinations , much like mountain climbers report after suffering from altitude sickness. Apparently, an NDE is not all it is cracked up to be. Of the subjects surveyed, 81 percent of women and 87 percent of men had a negative sentiment regarding their experience. Eighteen percent of women and 12 percent of men had a positive feeling about their NDE. Despite the common conception that an NDE triggers a spiritual awakening, only 20 percent of the survey subjects reported a religious awakening due to their experience.

Two percent said it did not change anything, and the vast majority, 78 percent, were uncertain that they felt any different. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed said they made changes in how they lived their lives after their NDE.

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