The Science of Near-Death Experiences: Empirically investigating brushes with the afterlife

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Near-death experiences have gotten a lot of attention lately. The 2014 movie Heaven Is for Real, about a young boy who told his parents he had visited heaven while he was having emergency surgery, grossed a respectable $91 million in the United States. The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Two recent books by doctors—Proof of Heaven, by Eben Alexander, who writes about a near-death experience he had while in a week-long coma brought on by meningitis, and To Heaven and Back, by Mary C. Neal, who had her NDE while submerged in a river after a kayaking accident—have spent 94 and 36 weeks, respectively, on the list. (The subject of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, published in 2010, recently admitted that he made it all up.)

Their stories are similar to those told in dozens if not hundreds of books and in thousands of interviews with “NDErs,” or “experiencers,” as they call themselves, in the past few decades. Though details and descriptions vary across cultures, the overall tenor of the experience is remarkably similar. Western near-death experiences are the most studied. Many of these stories relate the sensation of floating up and viewing the scene around one’s unconscious body; spending time in a beautiful, otherworldly realm; meeting spiritual beings (some call them angels) and a loving presence that some call God; encountering long-lost relatives or friends; recalling scenes from one’s life; feeling a sense of connectedness to all creation as well as a sense of overwhelming, transcendent love; and finally being called, reluctantly, away from the magical realm and back into one’s own body. Many NDErs report that their experience did not feel like a dream or a hallucination but was, as they often describe it, “more real than real life.” They are profoundly changed afterward, and tend to have trouble fitting back into everyday life. Some embark on radical career shifts or leave their spouses.

Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also, commensurately, grown. The causes posited include an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma. NDErs dismiss these explanations as inadequate. The medical conditions under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians, describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions. Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study, involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October. And the recent books by Mary Neal and Eben Alexander recounting their own NDEs have lent the spiritual view of them a new outward respectability. Mary Neal was, a few years before her NDE, the director of spinal surgery at the University of Southern California (she is now in private practice). Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who taught and practiced at several prestigious hospitals and medical schools, including Brigham and Women’s and Harvard.

It was Alexander who really upped the scientific stakes. He studied his own medical charts and came to the conclusion that he was in such a deep coma during his NDE, and his brain was so completely shut down, that the only way to explain what he felt and saw was that his soul had indeed detached from his body and gone on a trip to another world, and that angels, God, and the afterlife are all as real as can be.

Alexander has not published his medical findings about himself in any peer-reviewed journal, and a 2013 investigative article in Esquire questioned several details of his account, among them the crucial claim that his experience took place while his brain was incapable of any activity. To the skeptics, his story and the recent recanting of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven are just further evidence that NDEs rank right up there with alien abductions, psychic powers, and poltergeists as fodder for charlatans looking to gull the ignorant and suggestible.Yet even these skeptics rarely accuse experiencers of inventing their stories from whole cloth. Though some of these stories may be fabrications, and more no doubt become embellished in the retelling, they’re too numerous and well documented to be dismissed altogether. It’s also hard to ignore the accounts by respected physicians with professional reputations to protect. Even if the afterlife isn’t real, the sensations of having been there certainly are.

There is something about NDEs that makes them scientifically intriguing. While you can’t rely on an alien abduction or a spiritual visitation taking place just when you’ve got recording instruments handy, many NDEs happen when a person is surrounded by an arsenal of devices designed to measure every single thing about the body that human ingenuity has made us capable of measuring.

What’s more, as medical technology continues to improve, it’s bringing people back from ever closer to the brink of death. A small, lucky handful of people have made full or nearly full recoveries after spending hours with no breath or pulse, buried in snow or submerged in very cold water. Surgeons sometimes create these conditions intentionally, chilling patients’ bodies or stopping their hearts in order to perform complex, dangerous operations; recently they have begun trying out such techniques on severely injured trauma victims, keeping them between life and death until their wounds can be repaired.

All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we have a chance of investigating in a truly thorough, scientific way. It makes them a vehicle for exploring the ancient human belief that we are more than meat. And it makes them a lens through which to peer at the workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence, even for the most resolute materialist.Which is how I found myself last summer in Newport Beach, California, at the annual conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (iands), which has been a formal organization since 1981. I wanted to know: What makes a person start believing that he has truly seen the other side? Why does one person’s other side look so similar to so many other people’s? And is there a way for science to get at what’s really going on?

The conference had the joyous, clubby atmosphere of a reunion; many of the people had clearly known one another for years. Attendees wore strips of ribbon in different colors bearing legends such as speakerpanelist, volunteer, and, for those who have had a near-death experience, experiencer. The program included panels and workshops on everything from “What Medical Neuroscience Can Learn From NDEs” to “Sacred Geometry Dance: Creating a Vortex to Open to the Divine” and “Group Past-Life Regression.”

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