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Near Proof for Near-Death?
By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 17, 2001; Page A11
The 44-year-old man who had collapsed in a meadow was brought to a
hospital, unconscious and with no pulse or brain activity. Doctors began
artificial respiration, heart massage and defibrillation.
A nurse trying to feed a tube down the man's throat saw that he was
wearing dentures. The nurse removed them and placed them on a stand
called a "crash car." The patient was moved to the intensive care unit.
A week later, after the patient had recovered, the nurse saw the man
again. The man immediately recognized the nurse as the person who had
removed his dentures and also remembered other details of what had
happened while he was in a deep coma. He said he had perceived the events
from above the hospital bed and watched doctors' efforts to save his life.
This account would be standard fare in a supermarket tabloid, but last
week it was published in the Lancet, a British medical journal. It is the
latest in a long series of efforts to either document or debunk the
existence of "near-death" experiences, something that for the most part
has remained in the realm of the paranormal.
The new study, conducted in the Netherlands, is one of the first
so-called prospective scientific studies. Instead of interviewing people
who reported near-death experiences after the fact, the researchers
simply followed hundreds of patients who were resuscitated after
suffering clinical death as their hearts stopped. The idea was that this
approach might provide more accurate accounts by documenting the
experiences as they happened, rather than basing them on recollections of
the distant past.
About 18 percent of the patients in the study reported some recollection
of the period when they were clinically dead, and 8 percent to 12 percent
reported going through "near-death" experiences, such as seeing lights at
the end of tunnels or "crossing over" and speaking with dead relatives
The researchers say the evidence supports the validity of "near-death"
experiences and suggests that scientists should rethink theories on one
of the ultimate medical mysteries: the nature of human consciousness.
Skeptics, however, maintain that the Dutch researchers had not provided
evidence to buttress any extraordinary claims; certainly nothing as
dramatic as proof that there is an afterlife.
Most neuroscientists believe that consciousness is a byproduct of the
physical brain, that mind arises from matter. But if near-death
experiences are really what those who experience them say they are, does
that mean that people can be conscious of events around them even when
they are physically unconscious, when their brains do not show signs of
How can consciousness be independent of brain function?
"Compare it with a TV" program, said Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist at
the Hospital Rijnstate in the Netherlands and the lead investigator of
the research. "If you open the TV set you will not find the program. The
TV set is a receiver. When you turn off your TV set, the program is still
there but you can't see it. When you put off your brain, your
consciousness is there but you can't feel it in your body."
The study, he said in a telephone interview, suggested that researchers
investigating consciousness "should not look in the cells and molecules
Although the Dutch scientist said the research did not address whether
there was such a thing as the soul or God or the afterlife, many remained
skeptical. In an accompanying article, Christopher French, director of
the Anomalistic Psychology Research unit at Britain's Goldsmiths College,
said that multiple questions persisted.
"We have understandable and natural urges to believe we will survive
bodily death and we will be reunited with our departed loved ones," he
said. "So anything that would support that idea -- reincarnation,
mediums, ghosts -- present evidence of the survival of the soul. It's
something that we would all desperately like to believe is true."
French pointed out that some of those in the study who reported they had
near-death experiences said in follow-up interviews that they had not had
them, while a few who had said they had experienced nothing later said
they now remembered them. He said that this could suggest that false
memories were at play.
"I don't think the study suggests anything beyond the dying process,"
agreed Paul Kurtz, a former professor of philosophy at the State
University of New York in Buffalo and the chairman for the Committee for
the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
"The out-of-body experience and light and traveling down a tunnel and
meeting people on the other side -- in my view these are the
psychological states that people go through as they are dying," he said.
Both pointed out that hearing is the last sense to shut down in the dying
brain and that victims such as the 44-year-old man may have heard some of
the events around them and subconsciously reconstructed the events as
The Dutch researchers tracked 344 patients who had been resuscitated.
They ranged in age from 26 to 92. Three-quarters were men. Most were
interviewed within five days of being resuscitated, and the researchers
followed up with interviews two and eight years later to test the
reliability of the patients' memories.
Patients' demographics, religious beliefs, psychological makeup and
medical treatment were also documented to see who was more likely to
report such experiences.
The researchers found that the experiences did not correlate with any of
the measured psychological, physiological or medical parameters, which
Lommel said meant the experiences were unrelated to processes in the
dying brain. Most patients had excellent recall of the events, he added,
which undermined the theory that the memories were false.
Finally, the people who had such experiences reported marked changes in
their personalities, compared with those who had come near death but not
had the experiences. They seemed to lose fear of death, and they became
more compassionate, altruistic and loving.
Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in
Charlottesville who has also done research in the area, said that science
had neither good explanations nor good rebuttals of the conclusions of
the Dutch researchers.
In experiments underway, he said, tiny signs were placed on the ceilings
of hospital rooms, so that if people were genuinely having out-of-body
experiences and hovering over their beds, they would be able to see the
signs and provide "proof" of the phenomenon.
While it may take a long time for such experiments to uncover a case, he
and others said, because not all patients will be resuscitated in that
room and not all cardiac arrest cases result in near-death experiences,
it could provide evidence to buttress patients' reports.
"Brain chemistry does not explain these phenomena," Greyson said. "I
don't know what the explanation is, but our current understanding of
brain chemistry falls short."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company
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