Near-death experience

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A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience associated with impending death, encompassing multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light.[1][2] 38%-50% of the American Adult population who come close to clinical death have had a near-death experience.[3]

Explanatory models for the NDE can be divided into several broad categories, including psychological, physiological, and transcendental explanations.[4][5][6] Research from neuroscience explains the NDE in terms of various physiological and psychological factors,[7] while some NDE researchers in the field of near-death studies advocate for a transcendental explanation.[8][9]

Characteristics[edit]

Ascent of the Blessed by Hieronymus Bosch is associated by some NDE researchers with aspects of the NDE.[10][11]

The equivalent French term expérience de mort imminente (experience of imminent death) was proposed by the French psychologist and epistemologist Victor Egger as a result of discussions in the 1890s among philosophers and psychologists concerning climbers' stories of the panoramic life review during falls.[12][13] In 1968 Celia Green published an analysis of 400 first-hand accounts of out-of-body experiences.[14] This represented the first attempt to provide a taxonomy of such experiences, viewed simply as anomalous perceptual experiences, or hallucinations. These experiences were popularized by the work of psychiatrist Raymond Moody in 1975 as the near-death experience (NDE).

Researchers have identified the common elements that define near-death experiences.[15] Bruce Greyson argues that the general features of the experience include impressions of being outside one's physical body, visions of deceased relatives and religious figures, and transcendence of egotic and spatiotemporal boundaries.[16] Many common elements have been reported, although the person's interpretation of these events often corresponds with the cultural, philosophical, or religious beliefs of the person experiencing it.

Another common element in near-death experiences is angels. 46% of Americans believe in angels, and have claimed to see them during their NDE's. This is particularly true for patients in a clinical setting.[3]

Even though no single feature is found in every NDE, the traits that have been reported by NDErs are as follows:

  • A sense/awareness of being dead.[15][17]
  • A sense of peace, well-being and painlessness. Positive emotions. A sense of removal from the world.[15][17][18]
  • An out-of-body experience. A perception of one's body from an outside position. Sometimes observing doctors and nurses performing medical resuscitation efforts.[15][17][18][19]
  • A "tunnel experience" or entering a darkness. A sense of moving up, or through, a passageway or staircase.[15][17][19]
  • A rapid movement toward and/or sudden immersion in a powerful light (or "Being of Light") which communicates with the person.[17][18]
  • An intense feeling of unconditional love and acceptance.[18]
  • Encountering "Beings of Light", "Beings dressed in white", or similar. Also, the possibility of being reunited with deceased loved ones.[15][18][19]
  • Receiving a life review, commonly referred to as "seeing one's life flash before one's eyes".[15][17][18]
  • Receiving knowledge about one's life and the nature of the universe.[18]
  • Approaching a border,[17] or a decision by oneself or others to return to one's body, often accompanied by a reluctance to return.[15][18][19]
  • Suddenly finding oneself back inside one's body.[20]

Kenneth Ring (1980) subdivided the NDE on a five-stage continuum. The subdivisions were:[21]

  1. Peace
  2. Body separation
  3. Entering darkness
  4. Seeing the light
  5. Entering the light

He stated that 60% experienced stage 1 (feelings of peace and contentment), but only 10% experienced stage 5 ("entering the light").[22]

Clinical circumstances associated with near-death experiences include cardiac arrest in myocardial infarction (clinical death); shock in postpartum loss of blood or in perioperative complications; septic or anaphylactic shock; electrocution; coma resulting from traumatic brain damage; intracerebral hemorrhage or cerebral infarction; attempted suicide; near-drowning or asphyxia; apnea; and serious depression.[23] In contrast to common belief, Kenneth Ring argues that attempted suicides do not lead more often to unpleasant NDEs than unintended near-death situations.[24]

NDE variants[edit]

Some NDEs have elements that bear little resemblance to the "typical" near-death experience. Anywhere from one percent (according to a 1982 Gallup poll) to 20 percent of subjects may have distressing experiences and feel terrified or uneasy as various parts of the NDE occur, they visit or view dark and depressing areas or are accosted by what seem to be hostile or oppositional forces or presences.[25]

Persons having bad experiences were not marked by more religiosity or suicidal background. According to one study (Greyson 2006) there is little association between NDEs and prior psychiatric treatment, prior suicidal behavior, or family history of suicidal behavior. There was also little association between NDEs and religiosity, or prior brushes with death, suggesting the occurrence of NDEs is not influenced by psychopathology, by religious denomination or religiosity, or by experiencers' prior expectations of a pleasant dying process or continued postmortem existence.[26] Greyson (2007) also found that the long term recall of NDE incidents was stable and did not change due to embellishment over time.[27]

Bush (2012), a counselor, and board member and former Executive Director to the International Association for Near-Death Studies, holds that not all negative NDE accounts are reported by people with a religious background.[28] Suicide attempters, who should be expected to have a higher rate of psychopathology according to Greyson (1991) did not show much difference from non-suicides in the frequency of NDEs.[29]

Research[edit]

Introduction[edit]

Because the study of NDEs is a topic that addresses multiple possible feelings, sensations and their origins, research on NDE should be conducted primarily by researchers with credentials in cognitive neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience addresses the questions of how psychological functions (for example, human feelings and sensations) are produced by neural circuitry (including the human brain). Modern contributions to the research on near-death experiences, however, have come from several academic disciplines that generally do not include neuroscience. There are multiple reasons for this trend.[30] For example, brain activity scans are not typically performed when a patient is undergoing attempts at emergency resuscitation.[31] Claiming that there is no measurable brain activity without having a variety of different EEG, catSCAN, FMRI, etc. is not considered a good scientific practice.[30][31]

Existing research is mainly in the disciplines of medicine, psychology and psychiatry. Heightened brain activity has been recorded in experimental rats directly following cardiac arrest, though there has been no similar research in humans.[32][33][34][35] Individual cases of NDEs in literature have been identified into ancient times.[36] In the 19th century a few efforts moved beyond studying individual cases - one privately done by the Mormons and one in Switzerland. Up to 2005, 95% of world cultures have been documented making some mention of NDEs.[36]

Contemporary interest in this field of study was originally spurred by the writings of Raymond Moody's book Life After Life, which was released in 1975, brought public attention to the topic of NDEs. This was soon to be followed by the establishment of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in 1981. IANDS is an international organization that encourages scientific research and education on the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual nature and ramifications of near-death experiences. Among its publications are the peer-reviewed Journal of Near-Death Studies and the quarterly newsletter Vital Signs.[37]

Bruce Greyson (psychiatrist), Kenneth Ring (psychologist), and Michael Sabom (cardiologist), helped to launch the field of near-death studies and introduced the study of near-death experiences to the academic setting. From 1975 to 2005, some 2500 self reported individuals in the US had been reviewed in retrospective studies of the phenomena[36] with an additional 600 outside the US in the West,[36] and 70 in Asia.[36] Prospective studies, reviewing groups of individuals and then finding who had an NDE after some time and costing more to do, had identified 270 individuals.[36] In all close to 3500 individual cases between 1975 and 2005 had been reviewed in one or another study. All these studies were carried out by some 55 researchers or teams of researchers.[36] The medical community has been reluctant to address the phenomenon of NDEs, and grant money for research has been scarce.[37] Nevertheless, both Greyson and Ring developed tools usable in a clinical setting. Major contributions to the field include Ring's construction of a "Weighted Core Experience Index"[38] to measure the depth of the near-death experience, and Greyson's construction of the "Near-death experience scale"[39] to differentiate between subjects that are more or less likely to have experienced an NDE. The latter scale is also, according to its author, clinically useful in differentiating NDEs from organic brain syndromes and non-specific stress responses.[39] The NDE-scale was later found to fit the Rasch rating scale model.[40] Greyson[41] has also brought attention to the near-death experience as a focus of clinical attention, while Melvin Morse, head of the Institute for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and colleagues[19][42] have investigated near-death experiences in a pediatric population.

Neurobiological factors in the experience have been investigated by researchers in the field of medical science and psychiatry.[43] Among the researchers and commentators who tend to emphasize a naturalistic and neurological base for the experience are the British psychologist Susan Blackmore (1993), with her "dying brain hypothesis",[44] and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, Michael Shermer (1998). More recently, cognitive neuroscientists Jason Braithwaite (2008)[45] from the University of Birmingham and Sebastian Dieguez (2008)[46] and Olaf Blanke (2009)[47] from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland have published accounts presenting evidence for a brain-based explanation of near-death experiences.

In September 2008, it was announced that 25 U.K. and U.S. hospitals would examine near-death experiences in 1,500 heart attack patient-survivors. The three-year study, coordinated by Sam Parnia at Southampton University, hopes to determine if people without heartbeat or brain activity can have an out-of-body experience with veridical visual perceptions.[48] This study follows on from an earlier 18-month pilot project.[49] The results of the study were published in the journal Resuscitation on October 6, 2014.

The top peer-reviewed journals in neuroscience, such as Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Brain Research Reviews, Biological Psychiatry, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience are generally not publishing research on NDEs. Among the scientific and academic journals that have published, or are regularly publishing, new research on the subject of NDEs are Journal of Near-Death Studies, Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, British Journal of Psychology, American Journal of Disease of Children, Resuscitation, The Lancet, Death Studies, and the Journal of Advanced Nursing.

Variance in NDE studies[edit]

The prevalence of NDEs has been variable in the studies that have been performed. According to the Gallup and Proctor survey in 1980-1981, of a representative sample of the American population, data showed that 15% had an NDE.[50] Knoblauch in 2001 performed a more selective study in Germany and found that 4% of the sample population had an NDE.[51] The information gathered from these studies may nevertheless be subject to the broad timeframe and location of the investigation.

Perera et al., in 2005, conducted a telephone survey of a representative sample of the Australian population, as part of the Roy Morgan Catibus Survey, and concluded that 8.9% of the population had an NDE.[52] In a clinical setting, van Lommel et al. (2001), a cardiologist from Netherlands, studied a group of patients who had suffered cardiac arrests and who were successfully revived. They found that 62 patients (18%) had an NDE, of whom 41 (12%, or 66% of those who had an NDE) described a core experience.

According to Martens[53] the only satisfying method to address the NDE-issue would be an international multi-centric data collection within the framework for standardized reporting of cardiac arrest events. The use of cardiac-arrest criteria as a basis for NDE research has been a common approach among the European branch of the research field.[54][55]

Neurobiological and psychological analysis[edit]

Psychologist Chris French has summarized psychological and physiological theories that provide a physical explanation for NDEs. One psychological theory proposes that the NDE is a dissociative defense mechanism that occurs in times of extreme danger. A wide range of physiological theories of the NDE has been put forward including those based upon cerebral hypoxia, anoxia, and hypercarbia; endorphins and other neurotransmitters; and abnormal activity in the temporal lobes.[56]

In the 1970s professor of psychiatry Russell Noyes and clinical psychologist Roy Kletti suggested the NDE is a form of depersonalization experienced under emotional conditions such as life-threatening danger and that the NDE can best be understood as a fantasy based hallucination.[57][58][59][60]

In the early 1980s the neuropsychologist Daniel Carr proposed that the NDE has characteristics suggestive of a limbic lobe syndrome and that the NDE can be explained by the release of endorphins and enkephalins in the brain.[61][62] Judson and Wiltshaw (1983) noted how the release of endorphins can lead to blissful or emotional NDEs, whilst naloxone can produce "hellish" NDEs.[63] The first formal neurobiological model for NDE was presented in 1987 by Chilean scientists Juan Sebastián Gómez-Jeria (who holds a PhD in Molecular Physical Chemistry) and Juan Carlos Saavedra-Aguilar (M.D.) from the University of Chile. Their model included endorphins, neurotransmitters of the limbic system, the temporal lobe and other parts of the brain.[64] Extensions and variations of their model came from other scientists such as Louis Appleby (1989) and Karl Jansen (1990).[65][66]

Morse et al. 1989 proposed a neurophysiological model in which serotonin has an important role to play in generating NDEs.[67]

Ketamine by intravenous injection can reproduce all the features of the NDE.

The research of Karl Jansen has revealed how the effects of an NDE can be induced by ketamine. In 1996 he published a paper on the subject which concluded "mounting evidence suggests that the reproduction/induction of NDE's by ketamine is not simply an interesting coincidence... ketamine administered by intravenous injection, in appropriate dosage, is capable of reproducing all of the features of the NDE which have been commonly described in the most cited works in this field."[68]

Whinnery (1997) revealed the similarities between NDEs and G-LOC episodes.[69] Based on the observations of G-LOC, Whinnery noted how the experiences often involved "tunnel vision and bright lights, floating sensations, automatic movement, autoscopy, OBEs, not wanting to be disturbed, paralysis, vivid dreamlets of beautiful places, pleasurable sensations, psychological alterations of euphoria and dissociation, inclusion of friends and family, inclusion of prior memories and thoughts, the experience being very memorable (when it can be remembered), confabulation, and a strong urge to understand the experience."[69]

In the 1990s, Rick Strassman conducted research on the psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT) at the University of New Mexico. Strassman advanced the hypothesis that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death or near-death was the cause of the near-death experience phenomenon. Only two of his test subjects reported NDE-like aural or visual hallucinations, although many reported feeling as though they had entered a state similar to the classical NDE. His explanation for this was the possible lack of panic involved in the clinical setting and possible dosage differences between those administered and those encountered in actual NDE cases. All subjects in the study were also very experienced users of DMT or other psychedelic/entheogenic agents.[70][71][72]

Chris French (2001) stated that at least some reports of NDEs might be based upon false memories.[73]

According to Engmann (2008) near-death experiences of people who are clinically dead are psychopathological symptoms caused by a severe malfunction of the brain resulting from the cessation of cerebral blood circulation.[74] An important question is whether it is possible to "translate" the bloomy experiences of the reanimated survivors into psychopathologically basic phenomena, e.g. acoasms, central narrowing of the visual field, autoscopia, visual hallucinations, activation of limbic and memory structures according to Moody's stages. The symptoms suppose a primary affliction of the occipital and temporal cortices under clinical death. This basis could be congruent with the thesis of pathoclisis—the inclination of special parts of the brain to be the first to be damaged in case of disease, lack of oxygen, or malnutrition—established eighty years ago by Cécile and Oskar Vogt.[75]

Research has shown that hypercarbia can induce NDE symptoms such as lights, visions and mystical experiences.[76] Professor of neurology Terence Hines (2003) claimed that near-death experiences are hallucinations caused by cerebral anoxia, drugs, or brain damage.[77] A 2006 study by Lempert et al. induced syncopes in 42 healthy subjects using cardiovascular manipulations. They found that the subjects reported NDE experiences such as seeing lights, tunnels, meeting deceased family members and visiting other worlds.[78]

Neuroscientists Olaf Blanke and Sebastian Dieguez (2009) have written that NDE experiences can best be explained by different brain functions and mechanisms without recourse to the paranormal. They suggest that damage to the bilateral occipital cortex and the optic radiation may lead to visual features of NDEs such as seeing a tunnel or lights, and interference with the hippocampus may lead to emotional experiences, memory flashbacks or a life review. They concluded that future neuroscientific studies are likely to reveal the neuroanatomical basis of the NDE which will lead to the demystification of the subject.[79]

Vanhaudenhuyse et al. 2009 reported that recent studies employing deep brain stimulation and neuroimaging have demonstrated that out-of-body experiences result from a deficient multisensory integration at the temporoparietal junction and that ongoing studies aim to further identify the functional neuroanatomy of near-death experiences by means of standardized EEG recordings."[80]

Lakhmir Chawla, an Associate Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine and Medicine at George Washington University medical centre argued that near-death experiences are caused by a surge of electrical activity as the brain runs out of oxygen before death.[81] Levels of brain activity were similar to those seen in fully conscious people, even though blood pressure was so low as to be undetectable. The gradual loss of brain activity had occurred in the approximate hour before death, and was interrupted by a brief spurt of action, lasting from 30 seconds to three minutes. Chawla and colleagues from a case series of seven patients wrote "increase in electrical activity occurred when there was no discernable blood pressure, patients who suffer "near death" experiences may be recalling the aggregate memory of the synaptic activity associated with this terminal but potentially reversible hypoxemia."[81]

Research released in 2010 by University of Maribor, Slovenia had put near-death experiences down to high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood altering the chemical balance of the brain and tricking it into 'seeing' things.[82] Of the 52 patients, 11 reported NDEs.[83][84]

Animation of the human left temporal lobe

NDE subjects have increased activity in the left temporal lobe.[2] Stimulation of the temporal lobe is known to induce hallucinations, out-of-body experiences and memory flashbacks.[85] In an experiment with one patient, electrical stimulation at the left temporoparietal junction lead to an illusion of another person being close to her.[86][87] Chris French has written that the "temporal lobe is almost certain to be involved in NDEs, given that both damage to and direct cortical stimulation of this area are known to produce a number of experiences corresponding to those of the NDE, including OBEs, hallucinations, and memory flashbacks."[56]

In 2011, Alexander Wutzler and his colleagues at the Charité University of Medicine in Berlin, Germany suggested that near-death experiences may be triggered by an increase of serotonin in the brain.[88][89] Charles Q. Choi in an article for the Scientific American concluded "scientific evidence suggests that all features of the near-death experience have some basis in normal brain function gone awry."[90]

A 2012 study led by neuroradiologist Renemane reached the conclusion that the NDE is a state of unconsciousness resembling oneiroid syndrome.[91]

In a 2013 study, Marie Thonnard and colleagues suggested that the memories of NDEs are flashbulb memories of hallucinations.[92] The findings were in accordance with a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.[93]

REM state[edit]

It is suggested that the extreme stress caused by a life-threatening situation triggers brain states similar to REM sleep and that a part of the near death experience is a state similar to dreaming while awake.[94] People who have experienced times when their brains behaved as if they were dreaming while awake are more likely to develop the near death experience.[95]

Lucid dreaming[edit]

Some sleep researchers, such as Timothy J. Green, Lynne Levitan and Stephen LaBerge, have noted that NDEs are similar to many reports of lucid dreaming, in which the individual realizes he is in a dream. Often these states are so realistic as to be barely distinguishable from reality.

In a study of fourteen lucid dreamers performed in 1991, people who perform wake-initiated lucid dreams (WILD) reported experiences consistent with aspects of out-of-body experiences such as floating above their beds and the feeling of leaving their bodies.[96] Due to the phenomenological overlap between lucid dreams, near-death experiences, and out-of-body experiences, researchers say they believe a protocol could be developed to induce a lucid dream similar to a near-death experience in the laboratory.[97]

Computational psychology[edit]

Modeling of NDEs by S. L. Thaler in 1993 [98] using artificial neural networks has shown that many aspects of the core near-death experience can be achieved through simulated neuron death.[99][100][101][102] In the course of such simulations, the essential features of the NDE—life review, novel scenarios (i.e., heaven or hell), and OBE—are observed through the generation of confabulations or false memories, as discussed in Confabulation (neural networks). The key feature contributing to the generation of such confabulatory states are a neural network's inability to differentiate dead from silent neurons.[103] Memories, whether related to direct experience, or not, can be seeded upon arrays of such inactive brain cells.

Effects[edit]

NDEs are also associated with changes in personality and outlook on life.[15] Kenneth Ring (professor of psychology) has identified a consistent set of value and belief changes associated with people who have had a near-death experience. Among these changes one finds a greater appreciation for life, higher self-esteem, greater compassion for others, a heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, desire to learn, elevated spirituality, greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, and a feeling of being more intuitive. Changes may also include increased physical sensitivity; diminished tolerance of light, alcohol, and drugs; a feeling that the brain has been "altered" to encompass more; and a feeling that one is now using the "whole brain" rather than a small part.[15] However, not all after-effects are beneficial[104] and Greyson[105] describes circumstances where changes in attitudes and behavior can lead to psychosocial and psychospiritual problems.[106] Often the problems are those of the adjustment to ordinary life in the wake of the NDE.

Cross-cultural research[edit]

Recent research into afterlife conceptions across cultures by religious studies scholar Gregory Shushan[107] analyzes the afterlife beliefs of five ancient civilizations (Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, Sumerian and Old Babylonian Mesopotamia, Vedic India, pre-Buddhist China, and pre-Columbian Mesoamerica) in light of historical and contemporary reports of near-death experiences, and shamanic afterlife "journeys". It was found that despite numerous culture-specific differences, the nine most frequently recurring NDE elements also recur on a general structural level cross-culturally, which tends to suggest that the authors of these ancient religious texts were familiar with NDEs or similar experiences. Cross-cultural similarity, however, can be used to support both religious and physiological theories, for both rely on demonstrating that the phenomenon is universal.

Studies that have investigated cultural differences in NDEs summarized by (Augustine, 2003) have argued that the content of the experiences do not vary by culture, except for the identity of the figures seen during the experiences. For example, a Christian may see Jesus, while a Hindu may see Yamaraja, the Hindu king of death.[108]

Van Lommel studies[edit]

In 2001, Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist from the Netherlands, and his team conducted a study of near-death experiences (NDEs) in cardiac arrest patients.[54] Of 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, 62 (18%) expressed an intraoperative memory and among these, 41 (12%) experienced core NDEs, which included out-of-body experiences. According to van Lommel, the patients remembered details of their conditions during their cardiac arrest despite being clinically dead with flatlined brain stem activity. Van Lommel concluded that his findings supported the theory that consciousness continued despite lack of neuronal activity in the brain.[54]

Lommel's conclusions have been criticized by various authors, one of them being Jason Braithwaite, a Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Neuroscience in the Behavioral Brain Sciences Centre, University of Birmingham. He issued an in-depth analysis and critique of Lommel's prospective study published in the medical journal The Lancet, concluding that while Lommel's et al. study makes a useful contribution, it contains several factual and logical errors. Among these errors are Lommel's misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the dying-brain hypothesis, misunderstandings over the role of anoxia, misplaced confidence in EEG measurements (a flat electroencephalogram (EEG) reading is not evidence of total brain inactivity), etc. Jason concluded with, "it is difficult to see what one could learn from the paranormal survivalist position which sets out assuming the truth of that which it seeks to establish, makes additional and unnecessary assumptions, misrepresents the current state of knowledge from mainstream science, and appears less than comprehensive in its analysis of the available facts."[45]

AWARE study[edit]

In 2001, Sam Parnia and colleagues investigated out-of-body claims by placing figures on suspended boards facing the ceiling, not visible from the floor. Parnia wrote "anybody who claimed to have left their body and be near the ceiling during resuscitation attempts would be expected to identify those targets. If, however, such perceptions are psychological, then one would obviously not expect the targets to be identified."[109] The philosopher Keith Augustine, who examined Parnia's study, has written that all target identification experiments have produced negative results.[108] Psychologist Chris French wrote regarding the study "unfortunately, and somewhat atypically, none of the survivors in this sample experienced an OBE."[56]

In the autumn of 2008, 25 UK and US hospitals began participation in a study, coordinated by Sam Parnia and Southampton University known as the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation). Following on from the work of Pim van Lommel in the Netherlands, the study aims to examine near-death experiences in 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors and so determine whether people without a heartbeat or brain activity can have documentable out-of-body experiences.[110] As part of the study Parnia and colleagues have investigated out of body claims by using hidden targets placed on shelves that could only be seen from above.[110] Parnia has written "if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories".[110]

In 2014 Parnia issued a statement indicating that the first phase of the project has been completed and the results are undergoing peer review for publication in a medical journal.[111] No subjects saw the images mounted out of sight according to Parnia's early report of the results of the study at an American Heart Association meeting in November 2013. Only two out of the 152 patients reported any visual experiences, and one of them described events that could be verified.[112]

On October 6, 2014 the results of the study were published in the journal Resuscitation. Among those who reported a perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46 per cent experienced a broad range of mental recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with the commonly used term of NDEs. These included fearful and persecutory experiences. Only 9 per cent had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2 per cent exhibited full awareness compatible with OBEs with explicit recall of 'seeing' and 'hearing' events. One case was validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest.[113] According to Dr. Caroline Watt "The one ‘verifiable period of conscious awareness’ that Parnia was able to report did not relate to this objective test. Rather, it was a patient giving a supposedly accurate report of events during his resuscitation. He didn’t identify the pictures, he described the defibrillator machine noise. But that’s not very impressive since many people know what goes on in an emergency room setting from seeing recreations on television."[114][115] And according to clinical neurologist Steven Novella, Parnia is "desperately trying to rescue the study by falling back on simply reporting subjective accounts of what people remember long after the event. This type of information is nothing new, and cannot objectively resolve the debate. The results are also completely unimpressive, perfectly consistent with what we would expect given what is already well documented about human memory."[116]

AWARE II - a two year multicenter observational study of 900-1500 patients experiencing cardiac arrests is currently being prepared, with the closure date set to May 31, 2016.[117]

Afterlife claims and skeptical responses[edit]

Many individuals who experience an NDE see it as a verification of the existence of an afterlife, and some researchers in the field of near-death studies see the NDE as evidence that human consciousness may continue to exist after death. The transcendental (or survivalist) interpretation of the NDE contends that the experience is exactly what it appears to be to the persons having the experience. According to this interpretation, consciousness can become separated from the brain under certain conditions and glimpse the spiritual realm to which souls travel after death.[9][56]

The transcendental model is in some friction with the dominant view from mainstream neuroscience; that consciousness is a product of, and dependent on, the brain.[118] According to the mainstream neuroscientific view, once the brain stops functioning at brain death, consciousness fails to survive and ceases to exist.[119][120][121]

Several NDE researchers have argued that the NDE poses a major challenge to current scientific thinking regarding the relationship between consciousness and the brain, as argued by Van Lommel:

Other NDE researchers such as Parnia, Fenwick[8] and Greyson,[122] have expressed similar questions and concerns.

These arguments raised by several researchers have been criticized by some scientific skeptics and scientists on several grounds. Chris French (2005, 2009) noted that, "it is clear that the argument that recent findings present a major challenge to modern neuroscience hinges upon the claim that the NDE is actually experienced "during a period of clinical death with flat EEG" as claimed". With respect to the former point he pointed out that it is not at all clear that NDEs actually do occur during a period of flat EEG. Assuming that the patients in question entered a period of flat EEG, French argued that the NDE may have occurred as they entered that state or as they slowly recovered from it. Parnia and Fenwick (2001) had rejected the idea that the NDE may have occurred as the patient is becoming unconscious because they argued that this happens too quickly. But French points out that it is unclear how much time would be required to experience an NDE and that a common feature of altered states of consciousness is time distortion. He argued that this is well illustrated by the life review component of the NDE itself which, although involving a review of a person’s entire life, only seems to last a very brief time. And that therefore, "who can say, therefore, that the few seconds of remaining consciousness as an individual enters the state of clinical death is insufficient for the experiences that form the basis of the NDE?".

 photo of Chris French presenting from podium at the World Skeptics Congress 2012 in Berlin
Chris French a notable skeptic of the afterlife claims of NDErs

Parnia and Fenwick (2001) also claimed that the NDE could not occur as a person slowly regains consciousness as this period is characterized by delirium and not by the lucid consciousness reported by NDErs. French again argued that the attribution of confusion is typically made by an outside observer. The subjects themselves may not subjectively feel confused at all. He quoted from an article by Liere and Stickney where they noted that, “Hypoxia quickly affects the higher centers, causing a blunting of the finer sensibilities and a loss of sense of judgment and of self-criticism. The subject feels, however, that his mind is not only quite clear, but unusually keen.”[123] and that the subjective claim of great clarity of thought may therefore well be an illusion. French (2005) also noted that "it should be borne in mind that we are always dealing with reports of experiences rather than with the experiences themselves. Memory is a reconstructive process. It is highly likely the final narrative will be much more coherent after the individual has reflected upon it before telling it to others, given the inherently ineffable nature of the experience itself".

And with respect to the latter point, the survivalists have also been criticized by scientists like French and Braithwaite of placing undue confidence in EEG measures. French (2005, 2009) and Braithwaite (2008) claimed that survivalists generally appear to assume that a flat EEG is indicative of total brain inactivity and that therefore the experience of an NDE during such a flatline period would completely undermine the core assumption of modern neuroscience that any complex experience must be based upon a functioning neural substrate.

Even assuming that NDEs actually occur during such periods, the assumption that isoelectric surface EEG recordings are always indicative of total brain inactivity is according to Braithwaite and French wrong. Braithwaite noted that "unless surgically implanted into the brain directly, the EEG principally measures surface cortical activity. The waveforms seen in cortical EEG are largely regarded to come from the synchronistic firing of cortical pyramidal neurons. As such, it is entirely conceivable that deep sub-cortical brain structures could be firing, and even in seizure, in the absence of any cortical signs of this activity."[45][124][125] Braithwaite also noted that Gloor (1986) reviewed evidence indicating that inter-ictal discharges in the hippocampus or amygdala can produce complex meaningful hallucinations without the involvement of the cerebral cortex.[126]

Another argument which, according to Braithwaite (2008), relies upon misplaced confidence in surface EEG measurement was put forward by Fenwick P. and Fenwick E. (1995).[127] They argued that, in cases where the surface EEG recording was not flat, if the NDE was a hallucinatory experience based upon disinhibition, evidence of this disinhibition should be visible in the surface EEG recorded at the time. However, Braithwaite argued that data from a recent study comparing EEG recorded at the scalp with EEG recorded from electrodes surgically implanted in deep sub-cortical regions show conclusively that high-amplitude seizure activity can be occurring in deep brain regions and yet be completely undetectable in the surface EEG.[128] Even more so, a study comparing surface EEG recordings with the fMRI blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) response showed that the surface EEG could fail to detect seizure activity at the level of the cortex that was detected by the BOLD response.[129]

Another argument made by several NDE researchers such as Parnia and Fenwick (2001) for the transcendental model is that the occurrence of anecdotal reports of patients being able to see and recall detailed events occurring during the cardiac arrest that are afterwards verified by hospital staff supports the argument that such perception sometimes do occur during periods of clinical death. NDE researcher Janice Miner Holden found 107 such anecdotal reports in the NDE literature as of 2009, out of which approximately 91% were accurate.[130]

According to French (2005) and Blackmore (1993), when serious attempts at corroboration are attempted, the evidence often turns out to be nowhere near as impressive as it initially appeared.[131] And such cases can possibly (since they had not been ruled out) be accounted for in terms of non-paranormal factors including, "information available at the time, prior knowledge, fantasy or dreams, lucky guesses, and information from the remaining senses. Then there is selective memory for correct details, incorporation of details learned between the end of the NDE and giving an account of it, and the tendency to tell a good story.”[132]

According to French (2005) a similar claim to the argument from veridical perceptions are the cases of blind people that during NDEs are able to see even though, in some cases, they may have been blind from birth.[133] According to French (2005), "initial readings of such accounts often give the impression that the experience involves seeing events and surroundings in the same way that sighted people do, but closer reflection upon these cases suggests otherwise." French quoted from an article by NDE researcher Ring where he noted that, "as this kind of testimony builds, it seems more and more difficult to claim that the blind simply see what they report. Rather, it is beginning to appear it is more a matter of their knowing, through a still poorly understood mode of generalized awareness, based on a variety of sensory impressions, especially tactile ones, what is happening around them."[134] French (2005) concluded that, "NDEs in the blind are certainly worthy of study but do not merit any special status in terms of evidential support for spiritual explanations of the phenomenon."

Nevertheless, according to French (2005) future research in the near-death experience should focus on devising ways to distinguish between the two main hypotheses relating to when the NDE is occurring. If it really is occurring when some NDE researchers claim that it is, during a period of flat EEG with no cortical activity, then modern neuroscience would require serious revision. This would also be the case if the OBE, either within the NDE or not, could be shown to be veridical. Attempts to test the veridicality of OBEs using hidden targets (e.g., Parnia and Fenwick (2001) should be welcomed.

Personal experiences[edit]

  • Return from Tomorrow by George G. Ritchie with Elizabeth Sherrill (1978). At the age of 20, George Ritchie died in an army hospital. Nine minutes later he returned to life. Ritchie's story was the first contact Raymond Moody (who was studying at the University of Virginia, as an undergraduate in Philosophy, at the time) had with NDEs. It inspired Moody to investigate over 150 cases of near-death experiences, in his book Life After Life, and two other books that followed.
  • Embraced by the Light by Betty Eadie (1992). One of the most detailed near-death experiences on record.
  • Saved by the Light by Dannion Brinkley. Brinkley's experience documents one of the most complete near death experiences, in terms of core experience and additional phenomena from the NDE scale. Brinkley claims to have been clinically dead for 28 minutes and taken to a hospital morgue, but some of his claims are disputed.
  • Placebo by Howard Pittman (1980). A detailed record of Pittman's near-death experience.
  • The Darkness of God by John Wren-Lewis (1985). Bulletin of the Australian Institute for Psychical Research No 5. An account of the effects of his NDE after going through the death process several times in one night.
  • Three have associated their experiences with their decision to join the Bahá'í Faith: Reinee Pasarow, Ricky Bradshaw, and Marie Watson. Pasarow's published her story as early as 1981.[135] At least one extended talk was video taped and is available online in a couple places.[136] There are also extended partial transcripts.[137] Bradshaw's experience has been reviewed in several books.[138][139][140] Watson, author of Two Paths in 1897,[141] says she suffered a car accident in 1890 in Washington DC and reported having a vision and met a guide.[142] She converted to the religion in 1901 and identified the guide as `Abdu'l-Bahá.
  • Dying To Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing by Anita Moorjani, an ethnic Indian woman from Hong Kong, experienced a NDE which has been documented on the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) website as one of the most exceptional accounts on their archives. She had end-stage cancer and on February 2, 2006, doctors told her family that she only had a few hours to live. Following her NDE, Anita experienced a remarkable recovery of her health.[143]
  • Goldie Hawn, while giving a speech at the Buell Theater in Denver, Colorado, reflected upon her near-death experience. When she was younger, and starting out as an actress, she and a group of friends were in a severe car crash together. While she was unconscious, she remembers looking over herself while the paramedics were trying to revive her. She also mentioned seeing a bright light and being told it was not her time soon before she awoke.
  • Kiki Carter, a.k.a. Kimberli Wilson, an environmental activist and singer/songwriter, reported a near-death experience in 1983. The day after the experience, her mother, Priscilla Greenwood, encouraged her to write it down. Priscilla Greenwood published the story in September 1983 in a local metaphysical journal. For 24 hours after the experience, Kimberli had an aftervision which was a catalyst for her interest in quantum physics and holograms.[144]
  • 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, is Piper's account of his own near-death experience. EMTs on the scene determined Piper had been killed instantly after a tractor-trailer had swerved into his lane, crushing his car. Piper survived, however. In the book, he wrote about seeing deceased loved ones and friends as well as magnificent light; he felt a sense of pure peace. Piper had a very difficult and painful recovery, undergoing 34 surgeries.[145]
  • Heaven Is for Real by Todd Burpo, is a father's account of his son, Colton, and Colton's trip to heaven and back. After discovering that then-four-year-old Colton's appendix has ruptured, he was rushed to the hospital. While unconscious, Colton describes having met Jesus, God, his great-grandfather whom he had never met, and his older sister lost in a miscarriage.[146]
  • Parallel Universes, a Memoir from the Edges of Space and Time by Linda Morabito Meyer is a NASA scientist's account of several near death experiences at the hands of her parents and William Franklin Mosley of the Temple of the More Abundant Life in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She explained that during these experiences, she visited Heaven, saw Jesus, and was in the presence of God.[147]
  • Eben Alexander, M.D., born December, 1953, author of Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, which made The New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction.[148] In the book, Alexander describes how he had an intense NDE while in a seven-day coma brought on by an attack of meningitis.
  • The Friend From Mexico, a True Story of Surviving an Intensive Care Unit (2012) by Apostolos Mavrothalassitis is the author's near-death experience account. Following a mid-air collision while participating in the 2009 Paragliding World Championships, he suffered extensive blood loss during surgery and was put under induced coma for two weeks. During these two weeks he lived a different life, and was not aware of his predicament. The experiences during this period are described in the book.[149]
  • Howard Storm. In 1985, Storm travelled to Europe with his wife and university students. After suffering from severe stomach pain, he ended up in a hospital in Paris, where he had a near-death experience.
  • Curtis "Earthquake" Kelley experienced a near death experience after a drug overdose.[150]
  • Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age elaborated on his near-death experience in an interview with Marc Maron in October 2013. He told Maron that he contracted a methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection in 2010, which his immune system could not fight due to stress. Due to unexpected complications during knee surgery, the doctors could not oxygenate his blood, and Josh suffered a near-death experience due to asphyxiation. Doctors eventually had to use a defibrillator to revive him. Following this, he was confined to bed rest for three months. The experience left him weakened and unable to produce music for almost two years.[151]

See also[edit]

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Further reading[edit]

  • James Alcock. (1979). Psychology and Near-Death Experiences. Skeptical Inquirer 3: 25-41.
  • Lee Worth Bailey; Jenny Yates. (1996). The Near-Death Experience: A Reader. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91431-0
  • Susan Blackmore. (1993). Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences. Prometheus Books. ISBN 0-87975-870-8
  • Jimo Borjigina et al. (2013). "Surge of Neurophysiological Coherence and Connectivity in the Dying Brain". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Volume 110, Issue 35. pp. 14432–14437.
  • Birk Engmann.(2014). Near-Death Experiences. Heavenly Insight or Human Illusion? Springer International Publishing. ISBN 978-3-319-03727-1
  • Chris French. (2005). Near-Death Experiences in Cardiac Arrest Survivors. Progress in Brain Research 150: 351-367.
  • Bruce Greyson, Charles Flynn. (1984). The Near-Death Experience: Problems, Prospects, Perspectives. Springfield. ISBN 0-398-05008-2
  • Janice Miner Holden, Bruce Greyson, Debbie James, eds. (2009). The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation. Praeger. ISBN 978-0-313-35865-4
  • Gerd Hövelmann. (1985). Evidence for Survival from Near-Death Experiences? A Critical Appraisal. In Paul Kurtz. A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology. Prometheus Books. pp. 645–684. ISBN 0-87975-300-5
  • Dean Mobbs, Caroline Watt. (2011). There is Nothing Paranormal About Near-Death Experiences: How Neuroscience Can Explain Seeing Bright Lights, Meeting the Dead, or Being Convinced You Are One of Them. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Volume 15, Issue 10. pp. 447–449.
  • Mahendra Perera. (2011). Making Sense of Near-Death Experiences: A Handbook of Clinicians. Jessica Kingsley Pub. ISBN 978-1-84905-149-1
  • Glenn Roberts, John Owen. (1988). The Near-Death Experience. British Journal of Psychiatry 153: 607-617.
  • Gerald Woerlee. (2005). Mortal Minds: The Biology of Near Death Experiences. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-59102-283-5
  • Pim van Lommel. (2010). Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience. HarperOne. ISBN 978-0-06-177725-7
  • Carol Zaleski. (1988). Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-503915-7

External links[edit]