The Puzzle of Near-Death Experiences

By Steve Taylor, Ph.D., Wake Up World

Near-death experiences: Just the hallucinations of a dying brain or something more mysterious?

Several years ago, I worked with a college tutor called John, who had a heart transplant in 1992. During the operation, he was surprised to suddenly find himself awake and alert, looking down on his own body from above. He could see the surgeon and the nurses performing the procedure, and sensed from their behaviour that there was an emergency — he could see them rushing around, trying to take action to save his life. He was also surprised to find that he could hear classical music in the operating theatre. He felt himself floating further away from his body, into a darkness which felt strangely peaceful and welcoming. Then he encountered his father, who had died a few years earlier. His father seemed surprised to encounter him, and told him, “You shouldn’t be here — it’s not your time yet.” Then John felt himself moving back down towards his body, and lost awareness again. The next thing he knew, he was awake in recovery. Shortly afterwards, he asked the surgeon, “How come you were playing classical music in the operating theatre?” The surgeon was amazed that he knew this, since he had been unconscious when they turned the music on.

Just a month or so ago, the results of an international study (led by Dr. Sam Parnia at the State University of New York) of more than 2000 cardiac arrest patients were published. This found that 40% reported some form of awareness during the time when they were clinically dead, when their hearts had stopped beating and their brains had shut down (1). But how can we be sure that the awareness they reported actually stemmed from the period when they were “dead”? you might ask. Perhaps it was just a kind of hallucination which actually took place just before their brains shut down, or just when they were becoming active again.

However, as was the case with my colleague John, some patients reported a sensation of leaving their bodies and observing their own operations from above. They were able to describe actual events during the procedure – such as the actions of the nurses, or the instruments used by their surgeons, and the sounds of machines — which were later verified. (One man accurately described the appearance of the doctors who attended to him, and also the automated external defibrillator that restarted his heart).

Explaining NDEs

Of course, there have been many other studies of NDEs, with similar findings. Researchers have found that there is a “core” near-death experience which is had by the majority of those who experience a continuation of consciousness. It begins with a feeling of separation from the body (out of body experience), followed by a journey through a dark passage towards a place of light. There is a feeling of serenity and intense well-being, a sense of calmness and wholeness, which is often so pleasant that some people are reluctant to return to their bodies, and even feel disappointed when they regain consciousness. Often people meet deceased relatives or beings of light, and in a smaller proportion of cases, there is a “life-review”, in which the significant events of a person’s life are replayed.

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