Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Story of the Day - Near Death Experiences
A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience that encompasses multiple sensations of detachment from the body, levitation, an ambiance of security and warmth, and the presence of an all-loving being of light, sometimes interpreted as God. Many cultures revere NDEs as a paranormal and spiritual glimpse into the afterlife.
Such cases are usually reported after an individual has been pronounced clinically dead, or otherwise very close to death, hence the entitlement near-death experience. With recent developments in cardiac resuscitation techniques, the number of NDEs reported is continually increasing. The scientific community is very divided on the issue of NDEs, however. Skeptical scientists regard such experiences as hallucinatory:  paranormal scientists claim them to be evidence of an after life. The debate continues.
Popular interest in near-death experiences was initially sparked by Raymond Moody, Jr's 1975 book "Life After Life" and the founding of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) in 1978. According to a Gallup poll, approximately eight million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience. NDEs are among the phenomena studied in the fields of parapsychology, psychology, psychiatry, and hospital medicine.
Near Death Experiences
Effects of near-death experiences
The effects of Near-death experiences are often great for those who have them, their friends and families, and medical workers.
Ring has found that a typical set of values and belief changes often accompany the life of Near-death experiencers. Among these after-effects are changes in personality and outlook on life such as 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, a feeling of being more intuitive (sometimes psychic), increased physical sensitivity, diminished tolerance to 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 just a small part.
Spiritual and psychological after-effects
NDE subjects often report long-term after-effects, and changes in worldview, such as increased interest in spirituality, greater appreciation for life, increased interest in the meaning of life, increased empathic understanding, decrease in fear of death, higher self-esteem, greater compassion for others, heightened sense of purpose and self-understanding, desire to learn, greater ecological sensitivity and planetary concern, a feeling of being more intuitive or psychic. Greyson (2003) notes that Near-death experiences are associated with enhanced purpose in life, appreciation of life and with reduced fear of death, but also with adverse effects, such as posttraumatic stress symptoms. Some subjects also report internal feelings of bodily energy and/or altered states of consciousness similar to those associated with the yogic concept of kundalini.
Greyson (1983) developed The Near-Death Experience Scale in order to measure the after-effects of a near-death experience. Researchers have pointed out that the aftermath of the experience can be associated with both positive and healthy outcomes related to personality and appreciation for life, but also a spectrum of clinical problems in situations where the person has had difficulties with the experience (Orne, 1995). These difficulties are usually connected to the interpretation of the experience and the integration of it into everyday life. The near-death experience as a focus of clinical attention, and the inclusion of a new diagnostic category in the DSM-IV called "Religious or spiritual problem" (American Psychiatric Association, 1994 - Code V62.89), is discussed more closely by Greyson (1997) and Lukoff, Lu & Turner (1998).
Simpson (2001) notes that the number of people that have experienced an NDE might be higher than the number of cases that are actually reported. It is not unusual for near-death experiencers to feel profound insecurity related to how they are going to explain something that the surrounding culture perceives as a strange, paranormal incident.
Near-death experiences have many clinical implications for health professionals, for the dying patient and for family and friends.
Implications for health care professionals
Some believe that health care professionals may often need to analyze their own spiritual beliefs and feelings about death. Dismissing a patient’s vision of the afterlife as “hallucinations” can reflect the caretaker's own religious beliefs and values. It might also be important to recognize that most death-related events are not dramatic visions of an afterlife, but might be simple feelings and intuitions. Patients are often troubled if they don’t have a dramatic vision of another life. It might also be suitable to encourage discussion among family and friends. Often death-related visions and their significance only become evident when several family members report having the same experience at the same time. A professional, being willing to validate the experience as normal and natural, can often give the family permission to trust their instincts and beliefs. Family members often perceive comatose patients as “stuck in the tunnel”. Others want to know why their child or spouse did not “choose” to return to them. These issues must be addressed in an individual manner.
Implications for the dying patient
The near-death experience can restore control and dignity to the process of dying. The implication that the process of dying is not painful or scary, but spiritual and wonderful, can be comforting. Comatose patients often are able to hear and see what is going on around them and can emotionally process conversations. Often they subjectively perceive themselves to be floating on the ceiling and perceive themselves to have a bird's-eye view of their own deathbed or resuscitation. If the dying patient has had spiritual visions, these can be used to interpret the process of dying for them. For patients who have not had death-related visions, guided imagery or fantasy can often serve the same purpose. Knowledge of near-death experiences can reverse the isolation and neglect of the dying. People might want to visit to hear about pre-death visions or to work with guided imagery with the dying. The old-fashioned deathbed scene crowded with friends and relatives who may be resurrected.
Implications for family and friends
Research on near-death experiences validates a variety of death-related visions. The knowledge that NDEs are being studied as "real" phenomena can bring new meaning to a peaceful smile before death, a faraway look in the eyes, or simple and brief statements such as “The Light, the Light” that might otherwise be missed by observers. Frequently, friends and family members have post-death visions and intuitions that can be properly interpreted in the context of this new research. For example, Dr. Therese Rando states that 75% of grieving parents have post death visions of their deceased children. Simply stating that parents may see their child again after death, without using a medical term such as “hallucinations,” can bring comfort. Death related visions can serve to restore to the grieving a sense of control and order, which is particularly important in dealing with untimely deaths or the death of a child. Such visions can also promote healthy grieving and decrease the incidence of pathological grief, by decreasing guilt and a sense of personal responsibility that can interfere with normal grieving. Also, death-related visions generate a sense of meaning for death, even if that meaning is elusive. For example, a pre-death vision of a child’s accidental death can allow parents to feel there is some meaning to the death. This can convert a senseless tragedy to a “senseful” one, which is helpful in preventing pathological grief. Family and friends can find comfort in knowledge that those last moments of life may be serene and peaceful. Knowledge that it is now scientifically possible to entertain the survival hypothesis can give hope for eventually being reunited with the dying. Death-related visions can give survivors the confidence to trust their own spiritual intuitions and reaffirm their religious faith.
How Near-death Experiences Work
near death experiences Links
Scientists validate near-death experiences
When a car plowed into the vehicle in which she was riding, Leslie's chest was crushed, eight bones were broken, and her heart stopped beating for three minutes. Before she was revived, she says she glimpsed the afterlife.
"My next experience was really lying on the ground outside of the car, and it was actually an out-of-body experience that I had," says Leslie. "I was actually floating above my body, and I looked down, and I saw all these men working on this poor girl who was down below, about eight feet below me, and she was struggling."
An estimated 7 million people have reported hauntingly similar "near-death" experiences. And a new study in the British medical journal Lancet gives credence to such accounts, concluding they are valid.
The study looked at 344 patients in the Netherlands who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest in 10 Dutch hospitals. Rather than using data from people reporting past near-death experiences, researchers talked to patients within a week after they had suffered clinical deaths and been resuscitated.
About 18 percent of the patients in the study reported being able to recall some portion of what happened when they were clinically dead. Most had excellent recall of the events, which undermines the theory that the memories are false, the study said.
What was it like?
Half of the patients said they were aware of being dead.
About one in four had an out-of-body experience.
Nearly one in three said they met with deceased persons. More than one in five said they communicated with light.
Nearly a third reported moving through a tunnel.
More than one in 10 said they reviewed their lives.
More than one in four said they saw a celestial landscape.
"I was looking down, and I saw my body, and I saw the doctors," said Jessie Lott, one woman who was resuscitated.
"I had come into this place of brilliant, beautiful life," said another, Dannion Brinkley.
"The feeling of peacefulness, the feeling of utter acceptance, utter … I mean, love … there aren't really good words to describe it," Leslie said.
Diane Morrissey described how she felt she was being pulled toward a giant tunnel. "I couldn't stop it. I was just pulled right through this enormous, infinite tunnel," she said.
Joyce Hawkes, a cell biologist with a PhD, had an accident that forever changed her life—and her view of science. She suffered a concussion from a falling window.
"I think that part of me—that my spirit, my soul—left my body and went to another reality," she said. She was surprised at the experience.
"It just was not part of the paradigm in which I lived as a scientist," Hawkes recalled. "It was a big surprise to me to have this sense of something different than the body—a consciousness different than the body—and to be in this wonderfully healing, peaceful, nurturing place." Hawkes now works as a spiritual healer.
The Dutch researchers found that people who had such experiences reported marked changes in their personalities compared with those who had come near death, but had not had those experiences. They seemed to have lost their fear of death, and they became more compassionate, loving people.
"I can hardly wait to die, and yet I don't have a death wish. I live my life a hundred percent more now because I have such a fine appreciation about what might happen to us and where we might go," said Morrissey.
The research is the most extensive scientific study of the phenomenon. It used the latest medical equipment to confirm no signs of pulse or brain activity in the patients who reported near-death experiences. Researchers say these patients should not have been able to perceive anything, and that their recollections are too structured to be hallucinations. The phenomenon defies normal medical explanation.
The Science of Near-Death Experiences
It was to have been a simple procedure to clear a blockage in an artery of her heart. No need for a general anesthetic, just something to make her drowsy. But when the job was done and Florence Cohen began to feel her senses sharpening, events took a turn for the odd.
Standing next to her bed in Sydney's St. Vincent's Hospital, her cardiologist asked her how she was feeling.
"I feel great," Florence said.
Noting, most likely, changes to her vital signs or coloring, he repeated the question.
"Terrible," came the reply.
A moment later, Florence went into cardiac arrest. She recalls, she says, the sounds of bells and sirens, being in a lift, and someone thumping her chest. But these memories are vague compared to her recollection of a subsequent scene. She was lying in surgery, surrounded by medical staff, yet she was not in her body but up near the ceiling, watching the activity below. She noted that her body on the bed wore a green gown with a split in the middle, and that she was otherwise completely covered. "I was calling out, 'Don't cut me. I'm still awake.' " She saw an incandescent light in the shape of a cone. "Then, boom," she says: her floating self rocketed to the cone's tip and . . . nothing.
That was 20 years ago. "I found it spooky," she says now. "I don't like to talk about it. It was the whitest light you could imagine. It wasn't a dream. It's still very, very vivid."
Florence had what's known as a near-death experience. But as strange as it was, it didn't contain all the elements of a classic NDE. As well as the bright light and out-of-body experience, other people, while clinically dead, see a tunnel, deceased relatives and divine figures. They may be guided by one of these spirits through a life review in which, some report, they feel again every emotion the past events aroused. Though they believe themselves to be dead, this cascade of feelings typically occurs against a prevailing sense of euphoria. At some point, they're told it's not their time and they return to the confinement of their body — most often through the top of the head. There's nothing hazy about the experience. On the contrary, it's reported as seeming more real than real life, whatever that means. Most NDEs change those who have them, dampening or obliterating any fear of death.
The conflict in science over NDEs centers not on whether they happen but on what they are. It's accepted, based on various studies, that between 4% and 18% of people who are resuscitated after cardiac arrest have an NDE. Researchers tend to fall into one of two camps. The first argues that an NDE is a purely physiological phenomenon that occurs within an oxygen-starved brain. "There's nothing mysterious about NDEs," says Mark Mahowald, director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center. "Many people want it to be a religious, paranormal or supernatural phenomenon. The fact that NDEs can be explained scientifically detracts from the mystique."
The second camp is as adamant that no theory based purely on the workings of the brain can account for all elements of an NDE, and that we should consider the mind-bending possibility that consciousness can exist independent of a functioning brain, or at least that consciousness is more complex than we suppose. Though NDEs are driven in part by neurochemistry and psychology, says Auckland psychiatrist Karl Jansen, it has "underlying mechanisms in more mysterious realms that cannot currently be described."
These are the best of times in the NDE field, with research gathering pace and new insights emerging. University of Virginia psychiatrist Bruce Greyson reported recently on a tantalizing investigation into whether the observations people claim to make during an NDE (details of their resuscitation, the color of a nurse's shoes) are in fact accurate. Meanwhile, University of Kentucky neurophysiologist Kevin Nelson theorizes that NDEs are what can happen when a particular sleep state intrudes on the imperiled brain. "I wouldn't say it's definitive," says Nelson. "But it's an intriguing hypothesis that answers a great deal."
Entertaining the idea of mind-body duality invites the scorn of those who regard any attempt to dabble beyond the boundaries of conventional science as a waste of time. But that's the point, say others: NDEs don't fit into our current understanding of the brain. They shouldn't happen, yet they do. The task is to build new models in which they do fit.
At last year's first International Medical Conference on Near-Death Experience, held in Martigues, France, eight participants describing themselves as "a group of dedicated physicians and researchers working in different scientific fields" released a statement. They said that while the NDE is mediated by chemical changes in the brain, "its extremely rich and complex content cannot be reduced to a mere illusion." It is of the "utmost importance," they argued, "that scientists wishing to understand the nature of human consciousness conduct research without prejudice."
So what's so baffling about NDEs? We know that when a person's heart stops, the decline in brain function caused by a cut in blood supply is steep. Simultaneous recording of heart rate and brain output shows that within 11 to 20 secs. of the heart failing, the brain waves go flat. A flat electroencephalogram (EEG) recording doesn't suggest mere impairment. It points to the brain having shut down. Longtime NDE researcher Pim van Lommel, a retired Dutch cardiologist, has likened the brain in this state to a "computer with its power source unplugged and its circuits detached. It couldn't hallucinate. It couldn't do anything at all."
Yet it's in this period, between switch-off and resuscitation, that many researchers believe NDEs occur. "Many near-death experiencers describe heightened perceptions and clear thought processes, and form memories, at a time when the brain is incapable of coordinated activity," says Greyson, director of the University of Virginia's Division of Perceptual Studies. "Our current neurophysiological models can explain NDEs only if one ignores much of the empirical data."
Of the thousands of NDEs reported, none has done more to convince some researchers that the phenomenon's explanation must lie outside the square than the case of Pam Reynolds, an American who underwent brain surgery for an aneurysm in 1991. Preparation for Reynolds' operation included taping her eyes shut, blocking her ears and monitoring her EEG to ensure her brain was functioning at only the most basic level. Yet after coming around, Reynolds described not only a full-blown NDE but the bone saw that had been used to cut her skull.
For many years, says cardiologist van Lommel, he was in the first camp on NDEs, sure their basis was entirely material. His interest having been pricked in the mid-'70s by the first book about NDEs, Life After Life by American doctor Raymond Moody, van Lommel in 1988 began a study that would encompass 344 survivors of cardiac arrest in 10 Dutch hospitals. Van Lommel and his co-authors wrote in The Lancet in 2001 that 18% of subjects reported some recollection of the time of clinical death, and 7% an experience that qualified as a deep NDE.
The Dutch team found little about the NDErs that distinguished them as a group from those for whom clinical death was a blackout. Factors such as psychological profile, medications, religion and previous knowledge about NDEs all appeared to be irrelevant. To this day, Van Lommel can't explain why some people have NDEs and most don't. But the fact the experience isn't universal undermines, to his mind, a purely physiological explanation: if lack of oxygen were the cause of NDEs, then all survivors of cardiac arrest should have one.
A few years ago, Van Lommel retired from cardiology to concentrate on NDE research. "I'm lecturing all over the world," he says. "I know all the skeptical questions and I love to answer them." In trying to account for NDEs, he's challenged ideas residing in the bedrock of science, including that consciousness and memories are localized in the brain. As astounding as it may be, he argues, the implication of NDEs is that consciousness can be experienced in some alternative dimension without our body-linked concepts of time and space. "In my view, the brain is not producing consciousness, but it enables us to experience our consciousness," he says. He compares the brain to a television, which receives programs by decoding information from electromagnetic waves. Likewise, he says, "the brain decodes from only a part of our enhanced consciousness, which we experience as waking consciousness. But our enhanced consciousness is different, and this is what is experienced during an NDE."
The idea that the brain can be retuned to alternative states resonates with psychiatrist Jansen, who's written prolifically on how an NDE (or something closely resembling it) can be induced by an anesthetic drug, ketamine. That NDEs can be induced led him at first to suspect that the spontaneous type was similarly hallucinogenic. Now he's not so sure. Perhaps ketamine and brain stress simply make certain states more accessible. "All our realities are alternative realities," says Jansen. "Nobody sees the world in quite the same way as any other person."
Jansen once wrote: "It's good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out." For many scientists, this scenario might account for the sort of speculation just summarized. While most researchers concede that there's a lot about NDEs we don't know, they reject the push to replace tried-and-tested paradigms with new (largely untestable) ones in an attempt to fill the gaps.
Outside of cardiac arrest and the injection of ketamine, NDE-type phenomena can occur in many circumstances, including fainting spells, serious disease and in the seconds before potentially catastrophic accidents, like falling off a cliff. While that doesn't suck the mystery from the phenomenon, it does suggest that NDEs are a flawed pointer to what might await us in death as opposed to the process of dying or a really hairy moment.
Another, possibly key, point is that NDEs vary across cultures. In a soon-to-be-published review of the literature, a team of Australian researchers reports, for example, that Chinese NDEs are dominated by feelings of bodily estrangement without all the pleasant stuff, and that the Japanese see caves rather than tunnels. For co-author Mahendra Perera, a Melbourne psychiatrist, these differences don't prove that NDEs are hallucinations, only that their "final expression is colored by culture, language and learning."
Science is trying to solidify the brain-based theory of NDEs, which goes something like this: Survival is our most powerful instinct. When the heart stops and oxygen is cut, the brain goes into all-out defense. Torrents of neurotransmitters are randomly generated, releasing countless fragmentary images and feelings from the memory-storing temporal lobes. Perhaps the life review is the brain frantically scanning its memory banks for a way out of this crisis. The images of a bright light and tunnel could be due to impairment at the rear and sides of the brain respectively, while the euphoria may be a neurochemical anti-panic mechanism triggered by extreme danger.
As for perhaps the strangest element of NDEs, the out-of-body experience, studies led by Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke have shed light on what may be going on there. In 2002, Blanke and others reported how they were able to induce OBEs in an epilepsy patient by stimulating the brain's temporoparietal junction (TPJ), thought to play a role in self-perception. In emergencies where blood supply is cut, says Blanke, "the effects are occurring first at the TPJ, which is a classical watershed area of the brain." It's probable, he concludes, that stress in the TPJ causes the dissociation of NDEs — a dissociation that's entirely illusory.
That's a point the University of Virginia's Greyson wanted to settle. Are NDErs up there on the ceiling or aren't they? In 2004, he began a study that he hoped would provide the answer. At the university's electrophysiology clinic, surgeons implant cardioverter-defibrillators in patients at high risk of sudden death. In the process, cardiac arrest is induced. Greyson arranged for a laptop computer, displaying a series of images, to be stationed near the ceiling, where only an elevated being could see the screen. As ingenious as it was, the investigation flopped. Greyson and his team reported last December that while cardiac arrest had been induced in 52 patients, none reported leaving his or her body.
Considering the incidence of NDEs, the result surprised Greyson. "But we can still learn from that failure," he says. "Unexpected findings like those tell us we don't understand NDEs as well as we thought, and that increases my enthusiasm for studying them."
What science has lacked until recently is an overarching theory that might explain why NDEs seem so coherent. In two articles published in Neurology, the second in March, a team of University of Kentucky researchers led by Nelson proposed that NDEs occur in a dream-like state brought on when crisis in the brain trips a predisposition to a type of sleep disorder. It's an hypothesis that's quickly gathered heavyweight support: "I think Dr. Nelson's REM-intrusion theory to explain NDEs is the actual physiologic explanation," says Minnesota sleep expert Mahowald.
His what theory? REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is the relatively active brain state in which most dreaming is thought to occur. REM intrusion is a disorder in which the sleeping person's mind wakes up before his body does. He feels awake, yet the muscle paralysis of REM can remain; he may also hallucinate until mind and body get back in sync. "Lay people think you're either awake or asleep," says Nelson, "but you needn't go directly from one to the other."
Some years ago, while studying first-hand accounts of NDEs, Nelson read the story of a woman whom medical staff had written off as dead and whose attempts to protest were thwarted by paralysis. Paralysis? As happens in REM intrusion! The seed of a new theory — that there was a link between REM and NDEs — grew in Nelson's mind.
He tested it by comparing the frequency of REM intrusion in 55 people who'd had NDEs with 55 controls. The results were striking: 60% of the first group reported some history of REM intrusion; 24% of the second. Nelson postulates that both REM intrusion and NDE involve a glitch in the arousal system that causes some people to experience blended states of consciousness. He stresses that he doesn't consider NDEs to be dreams, rather that the NDEr "engages through the REM mechanism regions of the brain that are also engaged during dreaming" — regions that infuse both dreams and NDEs with emotion, memories and images.
Nelson's theory goes some way toward explaining how NDEs can seem to occur when the brain is down. The sleep/wake switch is in the brainstem, which helps control the body's most basic functions and stays active for longer than the higher brain in cardiac arrest. "It's likely that the transition to brain death is, in fact, gradual," says Mahowald, "and NDEs occur during this transition." As for people reporting accurately on events that went on around them while they were apparently unconscious, Nelson says "they may be seemingly out of it but still processing in a very aberrant way."
Nelson's theory has been picked apart by two veterans of the field who could be said to favor a more spiritual view of NDEs. In a recent issue of the Journal of Near-Death Studies, Americans Jeffrey Long and Janice Miner Holden argue that since 40% of NDErs in Nelson's study denied ever having had an episode of REM intrusion, the idea that it underlies NDEs "seems questionable at best."
Happy to concede that "the brain deals with crisis in ways we don't fully understand," Nelson is keen to test his theory some more. He won't go into details, but it's believed he wants to monitor REM activity in subjects he would expect to have NDE-like symptoms in certain conditions.
Other researchers have their own ideas about how to solve the puzzle. Neuroscientist Blanke calls for "more work with imaging to investigate the brain functioning of large numbers of people who've had an NDE." Says Jansen, who'll soon release work comparing accounts of spontaneous NDEs with ketamine-induced ones: "We're moving on an exciting path. But nobody knows if we've made huge progress or just a little."
On balance, it's almost certain that NDEs happen in the theater of one's mind, and that in the absence of resuscitation, it's the brain's final sound and light show, followed by oblivion. Nonetheless, there's still no definitive explanation. There mightn't be a ghost in the machine. But it's a machine whose complexities remain well beyond our grasp.
'Near death experiences' probed
A doctor in Southampton has been given ethical approval for a large scale trial to investigate what happens when patients have a "near death experience".
A pilot project at the city's general hospital suggested that a small proportion of patients who had a cardiac arrest and survived, reported some kind of unusual experience while they were clinically brain dead.
These ranged from walking down a tunnel towards a bright light to seeing spinning gargoyles.
In addition, a soon-to-be-published opinion poll of 1,000 people, released to BBC Radio 4's PM Programme, found that one in 10 people said they'd had an "out of body experience".
Patrick Tierney's is one case to be examined by the project.
His heart stopped ten years ago. He can't remember how long the cardiac arrest lasted. But what happened while he was unconcious he remembers vividly.
He told the BBC: "I felt what was like a pinch in the chest and the next minute I was in a tunnel similar to a medieval house it had wooden panels, very very dark.
I floated or walked down the tunnel moved in to another tunnel - it wasn't very long - and I stood there and I saw a huge mass of colour.
"Iit could of been a garden, it could have just been colour, but it was beautiful, one of the most wonderful things I've ever seen."
Like many people who believe they've had what's known as a 'near death experience' Patrick has hardly told anyone over the years for fear of the reaction he might get.
"They'd laugh at you they'd think you were making it up. I think I was dying and for some reason my time hadn't come my name had been wiped out of the books and I was sent back."
In a pilot project, Dr Sam Parnia, a registrar at Southampton General Hospital, studied sixty three patients who were resuscitated after cardiac arrests in the casualty department.
All were clinically dead as staff tried to get their heart started again.
They weren't breathing, had no heartbeat and there appeared to be no brain activity.
Yet four of Dr Parnia's patients reported vivid abnormal experiences, journeys down tunnels, or encounters with dead relatives.
None of those involved was particularly religious or had a history of psychiatric problems.
There appeared to be no chance that the drugs administered during resuscitation could have caused the unusual events.
Dr Parnia said: "There are some of those people who are able to recall specific details of the resuscitation attempts, so in other words a form of consciousness has had to have been present for them to come back and tell us what was happening to them.
"This may therefore imply that the mind is a separate entity to the brain."
Dr Parnia is now looking for funding for a much wider study involving 25 hospitals.
He said: "We know very little about the dying process scientifically and therefore, how can we make decisions about euthanasia scientifically when we don't know about the science behind it?"
Dennis Cobell, a confirmed atheist, believes the work done in Southampton is interesting, but unlikely to threaten his beliefs.
He said: "I suppose a lot of us would like to think that life might continue and if you have lost a loved one perhaps you would like the idea that you were going to meet up with that person again.
"But I don't think this research is going to be any proof of life after death."
Near-death experiences linked to sleep oddities
REM intrusions much more prominent in people reporting NDEs, study finds
Experiences you have in the here and now could hint at whether you'll see a light at the end of the tunnel when you're close to the hereafter. A new study finds that people who have had near-death experiences are generally more likely to have difficulty separating sleep from wakefulness.
Researchers surveyed 55 people who'd had a near-death experience (NDE) and 55 who had not. The experience was defined as a life-threatening episode such as a car accident or heart attack when the person experienced a variety of feelings, including:
a sense of unusual peace
being outside their bodies
seeing intense light
For 60 percent of those who had been through an NDE, the rapid-eye movement (REM) state of sleep intrudes into their regular consciousness while awake, the study found. Both before and after their traumatic event, these people had experiences that include waking up and not being able to move, sudden muscle weakness in their legs, and hearing sounds that no one else hears upon waking or falling asleep.
Only 24 percent of people who had not had an NDE report this REM intrusion.
Inside your mind
The human arousal system is activated from the brain stem, a primordial control system that manages other vital functions like heartbeat and breathing. We all have a switch there that regulates between REM sleep and being awake, explained study leader Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. In people who have had an NDE, the switch is more likely to blend those two states.
"These findings suggest that REM-state intrusion contributes to near-death experiences," Nelson said. "People who have near-death experiences may have an arousal system that predisposes them to REM intrusion."
The results are detailed in the April 11 issue of the journal Neurology.
Near-death experiences are seen by some as evidence for the paranormal, as a link to the world beyond. Not everyone who recovers from being near death or declared clinically dead describes the same eerie sensations, however. Nelson says that about 10 percent of cardiac arrest patients who survive had an NDE during the event.
In a Dutch study of 344 cardiac patients who had been resuscitated after clinical death, 62 of them, or 18 percent, reported an NDE.
What's going on
During REM sleep, many body functions are known to change. Muscles lose their tone, for example.
In a crisis, if the REM-state intrudes on an otherwise awake person, the lack of muscle tone "could reinforce a person's sense of being dead and convey the impression of death to other people," Nelson said. "REM-state intrusion during danger and brain impairment from lack of blood flow or oxygen could contribute to the experience of near death."
The intrusion might also explain the vivid scenes described by some NDE survivors, such as seeing their own bodies from above during surgery.
"One of the basic features of REM state is activation of the visual system," Nelson said. "REM-state intrusion could promote the prominent visual phenomena of near-death experience."
NDEs appear not to be dreams, however.
"Most dreaming occurs in REM sleep and despite the possible contribution to NDE by REM-intrusion, NDE and dreams fundamentally differ," Nelson explains. "Near-death experiences are recalled with an intense sense of realness that contrasts sharply to dreams. Furthermore, NDEs lack the bizarre characteristics of dreams."
The new study does not answer the question of whether near-death experiences have a biological rather than paranormal basis, Nelson told LiveScience, but he plans further research in an effort to settle that issue.
For now, there are hints that biology and the paranormal might converge. Our emotions are controlled by the brain's limbic system, which is strongly active during REM sleep.
"REM-state intrusion provides a mechanism for robust activation of the limbic system, which is expected to underlie many of the paranormal, transcendental and emotional aspects of NDE," Nelson said.
Touching Heaven and Hell
One Man's Brush With the Beyond Changes His Life
Matthew Dovel says he calls himself "a hostile witness to heaven and hell."
Dovel is one of the thousands of Americans who have reported what are called near-death experiences. Although science can find no facts to support the notion that people have actually glimpsed the afterlife, many people brought back from the brink of death swear they've been to heaven.
Far fewer report visiting hell, but Dovel believes he's seen both. And he's had a few brushes with death.
Dovel's first near-death experience happened when he was 12 years old and was trying to swim the entire length of a pool underwater. As he surfaced, his friends playfully pushed him back under.
"I was completely out of breath," he said. "The instant that I took the breath of water in, a white light engulfed me. And I flashed back over my life. It was just all these good moments in my life. I was completely happy to be at this place."
In that moment, Dovel says, a "beautiful creature" came out of the light. "It was Jesus Christ and he grabbed me by the wrist, and said you've got to go back," Dovel said. "I'm instantly on the side of the pool, on my back."
'Anger Towards God'
Dovel had been rescued by his friends, but that glimpse into the afterlife left him confused and profoundly depressed. "A rage came over me … an uncontrollable anger towards God that I had to come back."
The next decade became a constant cycle of booze and cocaine-fueled binges, even after he married and had a daughter. "I would drink till I blacked out, and found out that cocaine allowed me to drink more, and stay awake, and not black out," he said.
But the drugs and alcohol never came close to recreating that euphoric boyhood memory of heaven, so he came up with a most unlikely plan to return.
"I just said, 'I can't live like this another day.' And at that moment, I had chosen to commit suicide," Dovel said. "It was like a joy came over me. It would be the answer to all my problems. And the world would be better off without me. And I'd get to go back to heaven."
Dovel bought his favorite gin and three bottles of sleeping pills, and then drove to a remote bird sanctuary near his home in Anchorage, Alaska. He swallowed the pills and drank the gin sitting in the front seat of his car overlooking a marsh. In an instant, he says, he was no longer completely in this world.
"And I get a flash of light and I'm suddenly outside," he said. "And I'm thinking, 'How did I get out here?' And I notice there's no color. Everything's gray. And I put my head back … and the moment I close my eyes, there's another flash … and I'm in mid-free fall into a pit that's pitch-black."
Reliving the Past
Dovel's lifelong wish to return to heaven had ended in a personal vision of hell.
"It was extremely hot and very humid and dense," he said. "Just smoke coming out of the ground." The experience then became extremely painful — not physically, but emotionally.
"I'm living in my past," he said. "And all the people that I had met throughout my life, they would come to me and get within my face and start pushing and screaming … and I would relive a moment that I had caused them pain."
Then, he says, he saw the suffering his death would eventually cause. He still finds it painful to remember after almost 20 years.
"My mother … I was there when she collapsed, finding out I was dead from suicide," he said. Dovel says he experienced all the pain he would cause people in the future from his suicide — like his daughter. Dovel describes the vision he saw of her: "She was 18, and she's sitting on the floor, contemplating suicide, 'cause I wasn't there for her."
But the experience of begging to be released from the pain was the most painful of all. "I was on my hands and face, weeping, weeping. Not just crying but weeping for Jesus to save me," he said.
And Dovel believes that he was eventually saved. "I was pretty much lifted up by the back of my neck, and slowly, very slowly, lifted out of this pit. I remember I was still weeping, and a voice told me, 'You have work to do, and if you continue to live the life you are, this is where you are going to spend eternity.'"
Understanding Near-Death Experiences
Dovel says he woke up a day later back in his apartment. How he got there remains a mystery. Did he actually visit hell? Or was his journey a drug-fueled hallucination? Or a trick played by neurons frantically firing in a dying brain?
Counselor and educator Jan Holden, who has interviewed hundreds of people who are convinced that they've been to the "other side" and back, thinks it's possible it's all a trick of the brain, but that the people who've had these experiences are convinced they have been to another reality.
Holden said, "They've remembered dreams. They've hallucinated, and they can say that their near-death experience was nothing like either of those. They say that it's absolutely real. And that their consciousness is functioning much like it does in the body, except for some sort of additional abilities."
This theory likens the brain to a cell phone or a radio receiving these hellish or heavenly images from some other place. Science can't say for sure, but regardless of the cause, the effect is startling.
Of all those who "die" and return, the vast majority are profoundly changed. Dovel says, "This is something so horrific that when I came out of that, I quit a $1,000-a-week drug habit cold turkey."
Dovel sobered up, moved to Las Vegas and devoted his life to suicide prevention through International Suicide Prevention, his nonprofit organization. He helps people deal with the aftermath of suicides.
Dovel said, "I see horrific things that we do to ourselves … and people say, 'How can you handle that?' It's nothing to me. … It doesn't even come close to what I experienced in hell."
Near Death Experiences