Debate and controversy surrounds the occurrence of Near Death Experiences. Do they offer glimpses of human consciousness as a separate entity or are they merely hallucinations induced by physiological changes during the dying process? Eimear Vize talks to Dr Sam Parnia, who is heading up the world’s first and largest scientific study of the brain and human consciousness during clinical death.
What happens when we die?
It’s the biggest mystery of them all, the million dollar question.
Critical care specialist Dr Sam Parnia believes that as many as 10 to 20 percent of us will experience a sublime and lucid consciousness after our bodies die and our brains stop working.
Although his theory tosses all of science’s accepted wisdom out the proverbial window, Dr Parnia says that recent medical studies in cardiac arrest patients have shed light on the controversial phenomenon known as Near Death Experiences (NDEs), providing the first indication that our minds and thoughts may in fact be what remains of us after death.
He has personally documented hundreds of cases of NDEs, as recounted by patients of all ages and from every walk of life, and has also interviewed the attending doctors and nurses. He has written a book about it - What Happens When We Die (Hay House, 2008) - but more importantly, he is now leading the world’s first and largest-ever study on the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death at major medical centres across the United States, Europe and Australia.
His thought provoking hypothesis is that human consciousness may work independently of the brain, perhaps using the grey matter as a mechanism to manifest the thoughts, just as a television set translates waves in the air into picture and sound. Switch off our brain and our mind continues regardless.
A Fellow in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Dr Parnia is acknowledged as one of the world’s experts on the scientific study of death, having researched the state of the human mind-brain and NDEs for more than a decade. He currently divides his time between hospitals in the UK and Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York, from where he spoke to Scope about his deep professional and personal interest in finding out what happens to us when we die.
And he is not alone in this pursuit: an international consortium of scientists and physicians have come together to set up the Human Consciousness Project, based at the University of Southampton, to research the nature of consciousness and its relationship with the brain, as well as the neuronal processes that mediate and correspond to different facets of consciousness.
In September last year the Human Consciousness Project – of which Parnia is Founder and Director - launched the innovative AWARE (AWAreness during Resuscitation) study, which recently completed the first of its three years’ examination of the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death.
“I don’t like the term Near Death Experience, I prefer Actual Death Experience,” Dr Parnia clarifies from the outset. “Because in our research we are trying to understand from a scientific perspective what happens to the mind and consciousness in people who have gone through a cardiac arrest and basically died. They are clinically dead when they have these experiences.
“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment. It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and the brain ceases functioning. During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. We’re looking at the stage before the brain has become irreversibly damaged.
“In a cardiac arrest, there is a period of time, ranging from a few seconds to an hour or longer, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and returning blood to the brain cells while they are still viable, basically reversing the dying process.
“What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process,” he says, his curiosity and enthusiasm palpable.
“There are multiple cases out there of people who have experienced conscious thought while clinically dead; physicians have resuscitated patients who have come back and told them about their experience. That’s exactly what got me interested in this area of research in the first place, I had a number of patients who I took care of who basically had these experiences and I became more fascinated by it.
“Since then, I’ve spent much of my time trying to understand what happens when we die. I think that everything, including the question of what happens to us at the end of life, can be studied through the objectivity of science. And in the last few years, mainstream science has shown an interest in investigating these very issues. This is a very new area of science and may at first appear somewhat unconventional, yet I genuinely think that there’s no other area of research as potentially rewarding for all of humankind.”
A number of recent scientific studies carried out by independent researchers have demonstrated that 10-20 per cent of people who go through cardiac arrest and clinical death report lucid, well structured thought processes, reasoning, memories, and sometimes detailed recall of events during their encounter with death.
“The remarkable point about these experiences,” according to Dr Parnia, “is that while studies of the brain during cardiac arrest have consistently shown that there is no measurable brain activity, these subjects have reported detailed perceptions that indicate the contrary—namely, a high level of consciousness in the absence of detectable brain activity. If we can objectively verify these claims, the results would bear profound implications not only for the scientific community, but for the way in which we understand and relate to life and death as a society.” he remarks in a quiet and plainspoken manner that belies the magnitude of his words.
Under Parnia’s direction, the AWARE team aim to recruit 1,500 cardiac arrest survivors. So far, about 20 medical centres in the UK, the US and Australia have signed up. And Dr Parnia tells Scope that he would welcome hearing from other hospitals willing to participate in the trial, including interested centres in Ireland. “We haven’t approach Irish doctors yet, it’s something we should have done but we haven’t had time to do it yet. Perhaps if you write your article you could mention that we would be very interested to hear from doctors or hospitals in Ireland?” he suggests.
During the study, researchers will give patients’ specific auditory stimuli and their ability to recall this information will be tested after recovery. In addition, in order to test the claims of visual consciousness (out of body experiences), hidden images will be strategically placed in the resuscitation areas so that they are only visible from the ceiling above and not from the ground below. These simple methods will thereby independently test claims of conscious awareness and out of body experiences.
The patients recall of the images and auditory stimuli will be related to cerebral function as measured using portable EEG, as the key to solving this mystery lies in the accurate timing of the experiences.
“If it can be proven that this period of consciousness had indeed taken place during the cardiac arrest, rather than a period before or after, this will have huge implications for the scientific discovery of consciousness and will support the concept that human consciousness is a separate, yet undiscovered scientific entity as proposed by some researchers,” Dr Parnia proposed in a paper published in Medical Hypothesis (2007), in which he outlined his theory and study design.
Now 12 months into their 36-month project, has he or his team members recorded any interesting phenomenon? “You have to be patient with us,” Parnia insists. “We don’t have any results to reveal right now. It’s important for us to collect all the data first before we start making any sort of announcement.”
However, Parnia and his colleague Dr Peter Fenwick at the medical and coronary care units of Southampton General Hospital made some surprising discoveries in their 18-month pilot study – the precursor to the AWARE research – that was conducted at several hospitals in the UK and involved 63 cardiac arrest survivors. Their findings, published in the journal 'Resuscitation' in 2002, demonstrated that approximately 6-10 per cent of people with cardiac arrest have NDEs and out of body experiences. They also revealed no evidence to support the role of drugs, oxygen or carbon dioxide (as measured from the blood) in causing the experiences.
The patients said they remembered feelings of peace, joy and harmony. For some, time sped up, senses heightened and they lost awareness of their bodies. They also reported seeing a bright light, entering another realm and communicating with dead relatives. One, who called himself a lapsed Catholic and Pagan, reported a close encounter with a mystical being.
Similar reports were documented in another important study by Dutch cardiologist Dr Pim van Lommel (Lancet, 2001), in which 344 cardiac arrest survivors from 10 hospitals were interviewed over a two-year period – 18 per cent experienced "classic" NDE's, which included out-of-body experiences. Patients with NDEs were then followed up for a further eight years following the event and reported less fear of death and a more spiritual outlook on life.
Dr Parnia maintains that there is no known common thread that links those patients who experience NDEs; they are old and young; religious and atheist; men and women. What is startlingly similar, however, is the experience itself. Just about every description of an NDE is beautiful. People feel connected, calm and care free. They experience unconditional love. They report seeing a bright light, frequently accompanied by the awareness of a presence in that light. Some report experiencing an instantaneous, panoramic review of their lives.
“Everyone has these experiences. Children younger than three have had these experiences and what’s incredible is that they are too young to have a concept of death or the afterlife,” Dr Parnia points out.
He recalls one very young patient who was two and a half years old when he had a seizure and his heart stopped. His parents contacted Parnia after they noticed their son was repeatedly drawing a picture of himself as if out of his body looking down at himself. It was drawn as if there was a balloon stuck to him. When they asked what the balloon was he said, 'When you die you see a bright light and you are connected to a cord.' “He wasn't even three when had the experience,'' Dr Parnia stresses. “But six months after the incident he was still drawing the same picture.”
He adds: “We don’t know how long this consciousness after clinical death continues, but we hope we may find out by the end of this study. It appears that, at least for the time within which we can resuscitate, which is up to about an hour or so, that it’s going on.”
Dr Parnia pauses for a moment, considering his next remark, then says: “The key thing here is, are these experiences real, or is it some sort of illusion? If no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories. But if we get a series of 200 or 300 people who all were clinically dead, and yet they're able to come back and tell us what we were doing and were able see those pictures, that confirms consciousness really was continuing even though the brain wasn't functioning. It allows for the possibility that consciousness is a separate entity.
“There have only been theories out there so far, no one has tested them on a large scale like this. AWARE is the first comprehensive study systematically examining the mind, brain, and consciousness during cardiac arrest. Is our consciousness produced from electrical activity of the brain or not? Our study should answer this one way or another, but it’s a very important undertaking because we are all conscious, thinking beings and yet we have no idea how our thoughts come or how they relate to the brain. Our research will potentially provide a huge step forward. It may open up a whole new field of science.”
The emergence of a new science of consciousness?
Naturally, there is some resistance from mainstream science to studies like Parnia’s because they are pushing through the boundaries of science, working against assumptions and perceptions that have been fixed. Conventional neurobiological theories propose that the subjective sense of consciousness and the human mind are products of the brain, even though it is accepted that no one yet knows ‘how’ cerebral activity may give rise to consciousness and the mind.
The assumption that the mind and brain is the same thing holds true in 99 percent of circumstances, we can't separate the mind and brain; they work at exactly the same time, explains Dr Sam Parnia, but then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that this assumption is brought into question.
“Today, the problems facing researchers into understanding the nature of consciousness are similar to the problems faced by physicists at the turn of the 20th century where it was discovered that classical physics cannot account for the observations made at the subatomic level,” he remarks. This then led to the eventual discovery of quantum physics.
“In a similar way, current conventional neuro-scientific models involving neuronal processing and plasticity cannot account for the observations being made as regards human consciousness.”
Consequently, he says that “a new science might be needed to account for the nature of consciousness” and large-scale studies of human consciousness during cardiac arrest, such as the AWARE trial, may in fact provide “the first key discovery” as regards the nature of human consciousness and its relation with the brain.
What Science Says:
Four published prospective studies of cardiac arrest survivors have demonstrated that paradoxically human mind and consciousness may continue to function during cardiac arrest. This is despite the well demonstrated finding that cerebral functioning as measured by electrical activity of the brain ceases during cardiac arrest.
The first clinical study of NDE's in this patient group was published in 2001 by cardiologist Dr Pim van Lommel and his team from the Netherlands. Of 344 patients who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest, approximately 18 percent experienced "classic" NDE's, which included out-of-body experiences. (Lancet 2001;358:2039-2045)
In the same year, Dr Sam Parnia published his initial analysis of NDEs in cardiac arrest survivors. He reported that 11.1 percent of 63 survivors reported memories, the majority with features of NDEs. Parnia penned another review of this phenomenon for the same journal in 2007 (Resuscitation 2007;74(2):215-21).
Professor of Psychiatry, Bruce Greyson, of the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville, led a 30-month survey to identify NDEs in a tertiary care centre cardiac inpatient service. Just over 110 of the 1595 admissions were in cardiac arrest, and of these patients 10 percent later reported NDEs. (Gen Hosp Psychiat 2003;25:269–76)
A prospective evaluation of all patients who suffered a cardiac arrest at Barnes-Jewish Hospital from April 1991 through February 1994 revealed that 23 percent had a NDE. “The results suggest that NDEs are fairly common in cardiac arrest survivors,” the authors suggested. (J Near Death Experiences 2002;20(4))
Other Doctors encounters with NDEs:
At the age of twenty, American psychiatrist Dr George Ritchie died of pneumonia in an army hospital in 1943. Nine minutes later, miraculously and unaccountably, he returned to life to tell of his amazing near-death experience in the afterlife - one of the most profound near-death experiences ever documented. His book “Return from Tomorrow” tells of his out-of-the-body experiences, encounter with other non-physical beings, his travel through different dimensions of time and space, and ultimately, his transforming meeting with Jesus. How this encounter influenced his life is detailed in his follow-up book “Order to Return: My Life After Dying”.
In 1975, Dr Raymond Moody's best-selling book entitled “Life After Life” focused public attention on the near-death experience like never before. In fact, the US Psychiatrist provided some of the first descriptions of NDEs, recounting cases of people who had come close to death for various reasons. He has since published several books on the subject. In 1998, Moody was appointed chair in "consciousness studies" at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Dr Michael Sabom is an American cardiologist whose latest book, "Light and Death", includes a detailed medical and scientific analysis of an amazing near-death experience of a woman who underwent surgery for an aneurysm. The woman reported an out-of-body experience that she claimed continued through a brief period of the absence of any EEG activity.