What happens when we die?
Last February, Dr. Sam Parnia, an intensive care physician who has been researching near-death experiences for the past 15 years, published his new book ‘Erasing death: The Science That is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death’. Following the release of that book, Dr. Parnia was interviewed on National Public Radio in the US. It wasn’t so much this interview that sparked my interest, as much as the comments that followed. “It’s hard to believe that this guy is actually a doctor based on the junk he presents here,” commenter ‘Joe MARTYN’ says. And another user, ‘Steven Kay’, adds: “Oh, please.. Not this guy again. Why not interview the last person who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary?”
To be fair, many other commenters did appreciate the interview and the work that Dr. Parnia had done. But still, the virulent dismissiveness related to this subject baffled me. Why is research on near-death experiences received with such hostility?
Defining the near-death experience
Before we can focus on the background debate that goes on in near-death experience (NDE) research, let’s start with what has been studied so far. A near-death experience is defined as a set of personal experiences that derive from impending death. Although the experience differs from person to person, there are some universal traits, such as the ‘going through a dark tunnel’, ‘seeing a bright light’, experiencing ‘intense euphoria’, and ‘the feeling to have left the body’.
IN DEPTH | Features of the near-death experience
Intense, pure bright light – Sometimes this intense (but not painful) light fills the room. In other cases, the subject sees a light that they feel represents either heaven or God.
Out-of-body experiences (OBE) – The subject feels that they have left their body and are aware of being dead. The individual can look down and see it, often describing the sight of doctors working on him. In some cases, the subject’s “spirit” then flies out of the room, into the sky and sometimes into space.
Entering into another realm or dimension – Depending on the subject’s religious beliefs and the nature of the experience, they may perceive this realm as heaven or, in rare cases, as hell. Subjects have described this dimension as a beautifully colored landscape; some of them report hearing music as well.
Spirit beings – During the OBE, the subject encounters “beings of light,” or other representations of spiritual entities. They may perceive these as deceased loved ones, angels, saints or God.
The tunnel – Many NDE subjects find themselves in a tunnel with a light at its end. They may encounter spirit beings as they pass through the tunnel.
Communication with spirits – Before the NDE ends, many subjects report some form of communication with a spirit being or deceased loved one. Some subjects report being told to choose between going into the light and returning to their earthly body. Others feel they have been compelled to return to their body by a voiceless command, possibly coming from God.
Life review – This trait is also called “the panoramic life review.” The subject sees his entire life in a flashback. These can be very detailed or very brief. The subject may also perceive some form of judgment by nearby spirit entities.
Near-death experiences have been reported by people that – from a clinical point of view – were not near death at all, but instead suffered from conditions such as severe depression or experienced a near-fatal car accident. However, the most important medical research in the field was conducted with patients who had suffered a cardiac arrest; meaning they were, at some point, clinically dead.
Although recollections of NDEs are as old as time, research has only been going on for a few decades. The main reason for this is that the medical knowledge to actually bring someone back to life, to reverse a cardiac arrest, has not been around for that long. The landmark study that opened new doors in this field was published in 2001, in medical journal The Lancet. What set this research apart from other studies was that it was a prospective study instead of a retrospective study. For retrospective research, the researcher would, for example, post an ad saying “please respond if you have survived cardiac arrest in the past” to attract participants. The problem here is that after many years, it is much harder to find the exact medical circumstances that respondents refer to. Also, some people who did experience a NDE might not want to respond and therefore cannot be included in the research. In a prospective study, which in this case was conducted in collaboration with several hospitals, patients who had survived cardiac arrest were asked to participate almost immediately after they recovered.
For this study, Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel interviewed 344 patients who had suffered a cardiac arrest, 62 of which reported a NDE. Most importantly, through these interviews Dr. van Lommel was able to rule out certain possible explanations for the occurrence of an NDE: neither psychological factors (for example fear of death), physiological factors (deprivation of oxygen in the brain) or pharmaceutical factors (the administering of medication) could be attributed as the cause of the NDEs.
Questioning the source of consciousness
It was this study that forced even the most outspoken sceptics to consider the fact that NDE accounts could not simply be dismissed as subjective and anecdotal – that there was, in fact, something going on. How can a memory be formed when there is no brain activity? There’s no way to answer this question, unless somehow it can be determined when this memory forms; when the NDE occurs. Does it happen, as people who have experienced a NDE believe, during their cardiac arrest – or does it happen before or afterwards?
It is this question that keeps stirring up the debate; which separates the “believers” from the “sceptics”, or the post-materialists from the materialists. If there were to be found any proof that the NDE does, in fact, happen while there is no brain activity, this means consciousness does not necessarily derive from the brain. Although mainstream science does acknowledge it hasn’t found the biological basis of consciousness yet, opening up to the possibility there is no biological bias touches upon fundamental frameworks of knowledge. As Dr. van Lommel, an ardent crusader for this post-materialist perspective puts it: “We have to change our ideas about where consciousness comes from. For me, the brain has the function of a transceiver; it receives information from consciousness, and it sends information from our senses and body to our consciousness – it’s an interface. So the brain facilitates the experience of consciousness, but consciousness itself is not localized in the body and the brain. It’s non-local.”
One of the main arguments to support this theory of enhanced consciousness during cardiac arrest comes from personal accounts of out-of-body experiences that occurred during the moment of cardiac arrest. The patients who experienced this reported to have “seen” themselves during resuscitation, and more interestingly, were able to recall certain details that they could not have known if they had been unconscious.
There have been various cases that demonstrate this situation. Pam Reynolds for example, who had a NDE during brain surgery, recalled very specific details from that moment: she could describe the instrument used to open her skull “it looked like a toothbrush” and heard one of the nurses saying that “her arteries were too small” to connect her to the heart-lung machine, which was later confirmed by the doctors and nurses in the operating room. NDE researcher Dr. Jan Holden, who wrote an article/chapter for ‘The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences’, describes 93 cases of people who had an out-of-body experience during their NDE. She found that about 90 percent of their accounts were completely accurate, 8 percent contained some minor errors, and only two percent were completely erroneous.
IN DEPTH | Materialist perspective
Skeptics argue that the post-materialist approach to NDEs is based on the false idea that the brain of a patient is inactive during a NDE. They believe the phenomenon is caused by biological or chemical processes in the brain, that we simply do not fully understand yet.
There are two main arguments skeptics use to defend their position:
* The near-death experience could have occurred before or after any state resembling brain death. There is no way to verify the timing of memory formation in the brain when the patient is not conscious.
*It is very difficult to verify that there was in fact no measurable brain activity. The common methods of measuring brain activity (CT scan, fMRI, PET and EEG) cannot be used during emergency resuscitation.
Testing veridicality claims: hidden target research
Baffling as these accounts may be, that these experiences actually happened during the moment of cardiac arrest has not yet been proven in a scientifically controlled setting. Over the last two decades, a few attempts have been made to put these claims to the test. NDE-researchers such as Sam Parnia and Jan Holden have designed an experiment in which hidden targets where placed in operating rooms, only visible from a ceiling perspective. Their basic idea: if some people with an NDE do in fact “leave their bodies” and are able to see the room from above, they should also be able to notice these signs. So far, these hidden target studies were unable to either prove or disprove the validity of these experiences; there simply were not enough patients who had experienced both an NDE experience and reported an out-of-body experience.
The extreme difficulty of carrying out an experiment is one of the main obstacles of hidden target studies. If, as data from Van Lommel’s study suggests, only 24 percent of all NDEs result in an out-of-body-experience, many cases are needed to be able to draw some valid conclusions. Dr. Parnia is confronted with this same issue.
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In an interview with Skeptiko.com he explained: “If you only have one or two percent of the people having out-of-body experiences and you start out with 10,000 patients who survived, of course you’re not going to have more than about 10 or 20 people who claim to have had an out-of-body experience. Then you have the problem of were they in the right position?
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From my research into this phenomenon, people have different experiences. Some of them will tell you, ‘I was six inches out of my body,’ others will say, ‘I was in the corner of the room looking straight out at my body.’ Then you still have others who will say, ‘I went straight through the ceiling. I didn’t want to wait.’ So then you have all these other confounding variables that will come into it.”
Another question that hidden target studies raise is ‘will these people even notice these targets when having an out-of-body experience?’ Dr. van Lommel doesn’t think so. “To be honest, I think there is little chance that someone who experiences an out-of-body experience during a NDE is perceptive to such hidden targets. The reason for this is a phenomenon, better known as inattentional blindness, is when one is not able to notice an unexpected stimulus when other stimuli demand attention. Most people who had an out-of-body experience during a NDE told me they were totally overwhelmed by the experience: the emotions, the light, and their own bodies on the operating table. I don’t think it’s fair to expect these people to thoroughly examine the operation room and find hidden targets while they experience something so unique and beautiful.”
Towards a new paradigm?
Although Dr. van Lommel supports more research on NDEs, he does believe the current studies have reached the limit of what is ethically possible. “It would be very interesting to measure a patient’s brain activity during cardiac arrest, but this would simply be unethical – during a cardiac arrest all focus should be on saving the patient’s life.” However, repeating the existing studies to increase the number of NDE accounts would also be recommended. But just collecting more of these accounts would not do the trick. As Dr. Van Lommel warns, “The sceptics will always dismiss these results as being anecdotal. If we have five of these accounts, they tell us it should be at least ten. If we have ten, we need a hundred. Without being able to accept the fact that they may be wrong, they will always somehow reason away our results.”
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Few topics in science have been met with the same fascination and hostility as the near-death experience. This is because it questions one of the most fundamental assumptions in science: that consciousness cannot exist without the brain. Dr. Pim van Lommel clearly made up his mind some time ago: consciousness can exist without the brain, and the NDE proves this.
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The reason why many other scientists do not agree with his view cannot be resolved through research, he believes, but only by time. “The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough information – we do. The problem is that the whole scientific paradigm needs to be changed.”
Quantum theorist and Nobel Prize winner Max Planck once said: “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: What does happen is that the opponents gradually die out.” Van Lommel believes this to be true. “The older generation of hard-lined materialist scientists needs to be replaced with a younger one, a generation which in my opinion is more open-minded. And that shift is happening. About ten years ago, 90 percent of the neuroscientists considered themselves to be materialist, compared to 10 percent who thought of themselves as post-materialist. Currently, the division is more or less 50/50. So I am still an optimist. Pursue science by asking questions with an open mind, and the rest will follow naturally.”
van Lommel P, van Wees R, Meyers V, & Elfferich I (2001). Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358 (9298), 2039-45 PMID: 11755611
Holden, J. M. “Veridical perception in near-death experiences.” In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, and D. James, eds., The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO, 2009; pp. 185–211.
This article originally appeared in the issue Death and Taxes
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