March 23, 2004
Are powerful near-death experiences real or simply New Age fiction? Now a large-scale study aims to find out. Clint Witchalls and Michelle Hamer report.
When Sylvia Cameron was a young mother in the 1970s, she had never heard of near-death experiences and gave little thought to what might happen after death.
But at 29, the Melbourne volunteer trauma counsellor almost bled to death after her uterus ruptured from the complications of an ectopic pregnancy. While doctors struggled to save her life she experienced something she could not explain.
"I remember looking down on my body on the operating table. It was a very hot day and the doctors were in their shorts and sandals with their aprons over them," says Cameron.
"I was surprised at all the blood everywhere and slightly horrified at the conversation going on between the staff.
"The gynaecologist was giving me a heart massage, thumping my chest and saying: 'Don't you die on me now you bitch' and I was quite shocked. I thought, how dare you speak to me like that.
"Then I felt that I was drawn down a vortex or a tunnel and I could see this light at the end of the tunnel and I could see people standing there, but because the light was behind them I couldn't see any faces. It was all very natural, I wasn't frightened.
"I turned my back on these people and said 'I don't want to come yet'. I felt I had too much to do; I felt I wasn't ready for that — whatever it was. When I woke up I was back in the recovery room."
After getting a negative response from the few people she told, she pushed the experience to the back of her mind.
Cameron had a strange, but by no means unique, experience. As many as one in 10 patients who recover from cardiac arrest report a near-death experience (NDE), a term that came into common use in 1975 after the American physician Raymond Moody published the seminal book on NDE, Life after Life. It sold more than 13 million copies. Everyone wanted proof of eternity, and Moody seemed to supply it.
Since then, much of the excitement has waned. People have made up their minds: either they believe NDE to be real or they think it's just New Age mumbo jumbo; opinions have become entrenched.
Nevertheless, serious scientific research has been going on in the US, Britain and the Netherlands.
In Britain, Dr Sam Parnia, of Southampton University, and Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist, are about to embark on a large-scale study that will, among other things, look at the phenomenon of out-of-body experience (or, to use the medical parlance, "veridical perception").
They will place objects out of the line of sight of cardiac patients and ask them to report on what they saw during their out-of-body experience. Smaller studies have so far proved inconclusive.
Parnia and Fenwick's study will cover at least a dozen hospitals in the UK.
Many people who have an NDE have reported similar experiences: a feeling of floating out of the body, a journey through a dark tunnel, a light at the end of the tunnel, feelings of indescribable joy, love and peace.
Sometimes they meet a supernatural being, maybe Jesus or Buddha. There may be a reunion with deceased relatives or friends. There is often a review of their life. At some point on this journey, they get a strong pull to go back because it's not their time yet.
These experiences are fairly consistent, regardless of culture, age or religious conviction.
These people have all been dead, in a clinical sense — in other words, they have no pulse, and their pupils are fixed and don't react to strong light. Of course, they're not brain dead. There's no coming back from brain death. So are they really dead?
This has been a bone of contention throughout the whole NDE field. Surely this is just a dream? An hallucination caused by a brain starved of oxygen and sugar? But Parnia points to studies that have shown that during cardiac arrest and advanced cardiac life support, global brain function ceases.
EEG studies have shown that electrical activity in the brain ceases at least 10 seconds prior to the heart stopping, and doesn't show any activity for up to two hours after the heart has been started again.
Of course, there's nothing to say that these experiences don't happen during the recovery phase. This is one of the arguments Parnia wants to verify by hiding his test objects in places that are only visible from above.
"The key to solving this mystery lies in the accurate timing of the experiences," he says. "If it can be proven that this period of consciousness has indeed taken place during cardiac arrest, it will have huge implications."
But not everyone in the scientific world is prepared to accept that the mind and the brain might be separate entities. After a near-death experience of her own, Dr Susan Blackmore — senior lecturer at the University of the West of England — began studying the phenomenon, but the more she examined NDE, the less convinced she became of a transcendental explanation for it.
Meanwhile, the researchers Stanislav Grof and Joan Halifax have claimed that NDEs are simply the patient reliving their birth experience. Bright light at the end of the tunnel — the opening of the womb. An ineffable being suffused in white light — the midwife. Others have claimed that the experiences are mere hallucination. But why would everyone share the same hallucination on their deathbed?
As Moody says in Life after Life: "People will regard their own orientations as sources of explanations that are intuitively obvious, even when cases are brought up that seem to weigh against that particular explanation. Those who espouse the theories of Freud delight in seeing the being of light as a projection of the subject's father, while Jungians see archetypes of the collective unconsciousness, and so on."
But Blackmore has examined all the arguments and believes she knows what causes these NDE visions. Firstly, the light at the end of the tunnel is simply "noise" in the visual cortex. It is often experienced by epileptics, migraine sufferers and those who meditate. It is not unique to NDE.
The out-of-body experience? Well, if you think about the last time you walked along a beach, for example, where do you see yourself? Probably not through your eyes, but from a vantage point above or to the side of you. Most people have a bird's-eye view of themselves when remembering past events. What Blackmore found in her own studies is that people who dream from a bird's-eye perspective are more likely to have out-of-body experiences.
The American cardiologist Michael Sebom said that some of his patients reported the exact behaviour of needles on monitoring apparatus, even though their eyes had been shut and they had been unconscious. But Blackmore reminds us that the last sense to be lost is our hearing. Isn't it possible that these cardiac arrest survivors are remembering conversations between medical staff?
If Parnia's study shows results, this is exactly the sort of thing that could be ruled out. An unconscious patient, even with their hearing still functioning, couldn't know that there is a red triangle taped to the top of a medical cabinet.
As for the survivors' lives flashing before their eyes, Blackmore says that people who suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy have similar experiences. In fact, "life reviews" have been artificially induced in subjects by stimulating their temporal lobes. And the feel-good factor could simply be a release of endogenous endorphins into the brain during the trauma.
However, Parnia says that these are only theories. Whether these experiences are transcendental, psychological or physiological is still open to debate. What is certain, however, is that NDEs are life changing.
The experience left Sylvia Cameron with no fear of death. She also developed a heightened interest in spiritualty. "I learnt an awful lot from it, although I didn't learn it immediately. I felt rather honoured that I'd had that experience."
She now has a clear idea of what happens when we die. "We don't finish, we pass over to something else," she says.
Blackmore says: "My first near-death experience was more real than ordinary life.You feel as though you've woken up for the first time and that this is real and ordinary life isn't. But good science will explain those experiences to people and help them to value them, without making false leaps into paranormal belief."
So Parnia and Fenwick may never prove that the mind is separate from the brain, but even if they don't, their study could provide other benefits.
"We may also be able to discover the biochemical pathways that convey the sense of joy that accompanies NDEs, and in so doing harness their power to treat patients with severe depression," says Parnia.