The near-death experience (NDE) is an anomaly that defies the scientific logic of our modern world, and therefore it is often met by skepticism because it makes a case for immortality and the afterlife. This is understandable to me, since before my experience, as an atheist, I would also have been very skeptical of the NDE. If I had known about it then, I would certainly have rejected the reality of the experience on the grounds of lack of solid proof.
A U.S. News & World Report’s poll in 1997 estimated that up to 15 million Americans might have had a near-death experience. The most famous recent case is the near-death experience of ABC anchor, Bob Woodruff, who was almost killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He tells us about his experience that,
“I don’t remember hearing it. I remember that I – I went out for a minute. I saw my body floating below me and [a] kind of whiteness. I don’t have much more information than that, whether it was heaven or something. I still don’t know.”
Most scientific studies are done retrospectively many times years after the experience, but recent prospective studies have shown the experience to be scientifically predictable. In 2001, the first prospective study of near-death experiences was published in the international medical journal The Lancet. The study was lead by cardiologist Pim van Lommel, MD, and set up in ten different hospitals in Holland over a period of 13 years. In this time period, 344 patients who had cardiac arrest were successfully resuscitated and they were then shortly after interviewed about their experience of being near to death. The study found that of the 344 patients, 62 patients or 18 percent reported having a near-death experience.
This prospective study gives strong evidence that near-death experiences are not just stories that people make up, but that something does indeed happen to people who come close to death. Still, many experts remain skeptical. One attempt to explain the near-death phenomenon is that the experience is simply due to hallucinations brought on by the loss of oxygen to the brain, which in medical term is called “anoxia.”
However, this explanation is a bit problematic because as we all know people who collapse or faint usually have total blackout or are at least very confused about what happened to them. But the near-death experiencer has a clear consciousness of the event, remembering the episode acutely for many years. So, the big question for the skeptics is; how can people have clear consciousness in a state of cardiac arrest with no brain activity (flat EEG)? Clearly these cases should not be called near death experiences but life after death experiences because people with cardiac arrest are clearly dead with no breathing or heart beat.
The best documented instance of this paradox is the case of Pam Reynolds. In 1991, Reynolds was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo very complex surgery called “hypothermic cardiac arrest.” This is a procedure where the body temperature is lowered, the heartbeat and breathing stopped, the blood is drained from the body, and the brain waves are totally flat.
From 11:05 a.m. to 12:00 noon, Reynolds was clinically dead with flat EEG during the operation and in this timeframe she had a near-death experience. After coming back she was able to describe the instruments used during the operation and even conversations between the staff in the operating room. Both the instruments used and the conversations was later confirmed by the doctor and nurse.
Furthermore, her ears where plugged with a sound device that would make it impossible for her to hear anything. Dr. Spetzler, who carried out the operation, later said that, “At that stage in the operation, nobody can observe, hear, in that state…I don’t have an explanation for it.” There is no explanation and Pam’s case is one of the strongest signs of life after death that have ever been recorded and monitored by science.
The case of Pam Reynolds is not only a case of clinical death beyond reasonable doubt, but also provides a clear case of “veridical perception,” where things seen or heard by the person during the NDE are later confirmed by others. In the study of veridical perception some studies have shown remarkable results. In one study of 16 cases, 88 percent of perceptions outside the body appeared to be accurate and 31 percent could be confirmed by objective means. In another study involving 93 cases, 92 percent appeared to be completely accurate with 35 percent being confirmed by objective means.
Even with verifiable veridical perception as evidence there will be skeptics, and therefore, I have also examined my own experience from a skeptical point of view. I asked myself whether my episode could not simply be a recreation of input that I had collected subconsciously throughout my life, let us say from movies. But my experience was so real and so far beyond my own sensibilities that I do not see how I could have imagined it.
This is a common conclusion after the experience, and the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) tells us that people usually report that the experience is “hyper-real” and more real than the life we know in this dimension.
Therefore, I have little doubt about the reality of my experience, and researcher Margot Grey confirms that this is typical: “To the near-death survivor there is seldom any uncertainty.” One of her accounts describes this by saying that “there is no doubt in my mind that what I experienced was real.”
In one study, The Southern California Study, “Ninety-six percent considered the experience real and not a dream, claiming that the contents of the experience were unlike anything they’d ever had in a dream.” One more thing to be said again in this relation is that the sense of realness stays with the experiencer. Usually people are able to recall the experience with perfect clarity many years afterward. In contrast, dreams and illusions are easier forgotten and disregarded as unreal.
This sense that the experience was real is born out by the aftereffects of the NDE, which are often deep and strong. P. M. H. Atwater, found that 79 percent were affected in a profound way, where 60 percent “reported significant life changes,” while 19 percent “noted radical shifts-almost as if they had become another person.”
For me, this is certainly true about my experience also. The direction of my life totally changed after my experience to the extent that I would say I was reborn. Do dreams and hallucinations also have this strong life-changing effect? Having had both, and believing I know the difference, the answer is clearly, no.
Another researcher, Dr. Peter Fenwick tells us that, “[Near-death] experiences have a universal quality. If this were a purely psychological experience, one would expect it to be much more culturally influenced than it seems to be.” This is also the conclusion of Margot Grey, who puts the same point in the following way, “What has clearly emerged is that a common pattern of events, involving a sequence of occurrences that seem to be almost universal in their conformity of content.”
In Lessons from the Light by Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino, Ring writes about his research into near-death experiences with blind people. Skeptics sometimes say that the NDE is created by conditioned images, or even that people must have seen the same movie about near-death experiences. It was this argument that Kenneth Ring wanted to investigate when he started to look for near-death experiences among blind people.
Interestingly, not only did he find that people who had poor eyesight could see clearly during the near-death experience, but he also found that some blind people were able to see for the very first time. In his study Ring found that 80 percent out of thirty-one blind people who had a near-death experience were able to see during their experience.
Vicky, one person who had been completely blind from birth and survived two near-death experiences, explained, “Those two experiences were the only time I could ever relate to seeing, and to what light was, because I experienced it. I was able to see.” Another person, Brad, who had also been blind from birth said, “I know I could see and I was supposed to be blind…It was very clear when I was out. I could see details and everything.”
This gets even more interesting when Ring then wanted to compare their eyeless seeing with their dreams. When asked to compare their near-death experiences to their dreams, both Vicky and Brad answered that there were no similarity at all. The big difference is that blind people do not see things in their dreams like sighted people do.
Vicky tells us that, “I have dreams in which I touch things…I taste things, touch things, hear things and smell things-that’s it.” And when asked whether she was able to see anything at all during her dreams she answers, “Nothing. No color, no sight of any sort, no shadows, no light, no nothing.”
Brad explained the same, “I’ve had the very same consciousness level in my dreams as I’ve had in my waking hours. And that would be that all my senses function…except vision. In my dreams, I have no visual perceptions at all.”
Here are examples of two people who have never been able to see, but in their near-death experience are able to see for the first time. How is it possible for these blind people to transcend the sensory restrictions?
Personally, I have no doubt that life continues after death and that consciousness can exist without the body. I think that the reason we cannot get any solid ‘proof’ is that we do not perceive all of reality. From my experience I am convinced that there is much, much more to reality than what meets the eye. Just as the universe continues beyond what we know, I am also convinced that life does.
William A. Tiller, physicist at Stanford University, has given what I believe to be the correct description of the scenario. “Humans see only a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum and hear only a small fraction of the sound spectrum. Perhaps we similarly perceive only a small fraction of a greater reality spectrum.”