It’s a story that has been told so many times that it has passed into archetype and cliché. You are cleaning a gutter and fall off your ladder. Ha! You’re so totally clumsy! Or no, you start choking on a piece of meat at a barbecue. Seriously, how embarrassing for you. Or better yet, you are about to be in a car crash.
Between the instant you realize that you can’t alter course and the moment of impact, time seems to stretch out like a rubber band. Your whole life flashes before your eyes. Perhaps it’s because your brain stops filtering information, even previous memories, in an effort to give you every last aspect of the situation so you might be able to change it. You’re used to receiving sensory information at a certain rate and with this vast amount of perceptive detail flooding in, it suddenly feels as though this whole business is taking forever. You can read the entirety of the other car’s license plate!
Then the sudden earthquake of sound, the ripple of shining metal, the cymbals of shattered glass and your fragile head hits the airbag too hard. ‘How do airbags inflate that fast?’ you wonder, as the lights snap out. A woman, who was on her way to pick her son up from Little League, standing in the middle of the street, is almost in hysterics on the phone to 911. A fellow in a Atlanta Falcons hat is leaning in through the window, looking at your face and trying to remember the first aid training he received 12 years ago. A bus inches by in the next lane over and the passengers press their faces to the windows, gasp and think about what they saw for the rest of the week.
Then the stretcher. The ambulance. The emergency room and voices shouting about vital signs. Then you see yourself! You are clearly looking down at your own body on the operating table and they’re going at you with scapels and needles and suction tubes and then the defibrillators. You can see everything as clear as a bell. “Clear!”
Such peace. A sense of euphoria. Perhaps it’s hypoxia or the lack of blood flow. Who cares? Who cares about anything? You’ve never felt so light. All the heavy robes of worry fall away. True otherworldly peace. A sublimation of all those mortal years. Then the lights dim to darkness as they do before a movie or a play.
Then a tunnel. More, the sense of rising and the vague shape of a tunnel. You are traveling in an upward direction through a hollow of some sort. And at the end of the tunnel there is a light. “Haha!,” you’d normally think. “How cliché! How passé!” But you don’t. You’re perfectly amazed. And if you had a voice, you wouldn’t be able to find it. The light is a beautiful thing to look at. As it grows and begins to take on color and shapes, you are enveloped in really, really good music and the emergency room physician applies the defibrillator to your chest for a third time. You are sucked back into your body through a straw. You were clinically dead for almost a minute and a half.
In the medical community, this is not an uncommon story. Based on certain studies, between 4% and 10% of folk have experienced this to varying degrees (I’m inclined to think it’s actually a lower percentage, but who knows?). In fact, the similarity of various post mortem accounts is so similar that it has led to a number of physiological, neurological and psychological inquiries.
For example, in 2003, 25 U.K. and U.S. hospitals took part in a three-year study to examine the experiences of 1,500 patients who had suffered cardiac arrest, had technically died, and had been successfully resuscitated. In a July 28, 2010 interview, Dr. Sam Parnia of Southampton University, one of the lead researchers, asserts that “evidence is now suggesting that mental and cognitive processes may continue for a period of time after a death has started” and describes the process of death as “essentially a global stroke of the brain. Therefore like any stroke process one would not expect the entity of mind / consciousness to be lost immediately”. He also expresses his disagreement with the term ‘near death experiences’ because “the patients that we study are not near death, they have actually died and more over it conjures up a lot of imprecise scientific notions, due to the fact that [death] itself is a very imprecise term.”
So firstly, these people aren’t “near death,” they are straight up DEAD and are brought back to life. Secondly, just as we legally and philosophically have some amount of trouble determining exactly when life begins, we also are not so good at figuring out exactly when it ends. There is an enormous grey area. There is a “middle place.”
Many scientists, because they are scientists, say that these fairly universal experiences are based on very specific chemical and neurological conditions in which the brain is dying and trying to figure out how to deal with that. Other scientists say that any religious connotations are imposed in retrospect when a resuscitated person tries to interpret their experience. That’s fine. I actually think scientists are pretty awesome and often hilarious but I am also comforted by the fact that they do not, and never will, know EVERYTHING.
Here is a very admirable scientific fellow saying very scientifically, ‘we just don’t know everything.’ Dr. Bruce Greyson, who is one of the top researchers in the field of near-death experiences, says this: “No one physiological or psychological model by itself explains all the common features of NDE [Near Death Experience]. The paradoxical occurrence of heightened, lucid awareness and logical thought processes during a period of impaired cerebral perfusion raises particular perplexing questions for our current understanding of consciousness and its relation to brain function. A clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.”
I would encourage you to read that last sentence again. And this is not some wacky old codger who got his “Degree” from a traveling snake oil salesman. Dr. Greyson is the Chester F. Carlson Professor of Psychiatry and the director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia. He is also a Professor of Psychiatric Medicine, Division of Outpatient Psychiatry, at the University of Virginia. Greyson has worked with other researchers such as Kenneth Ring, Michael Sabom, Raymond Moody, Jr., Russel Noyes and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and their empirical studies into the phenomenon of Near Death Experiences have lead to some conclusions that are flat out mind blowing!
Remember when you were floating above the operating table, looking down at your own body? That particular form of out of body experience has a scientific name, Autoscopy (from the Greek “Self” and “Watcher). Doctors at the Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience at University Hospital in Geneva have studied this and have suggested that “autoscopies are due to functional disintegration of lower-level multisensory processing and abnormal higher-level self-processing at the temporo-parietal junction.” See! Now it all makes total sense! Hahaha. Scientists! … am I right or what?
Basically the suggestion is that our brain perceives a visual idea of our self. This perception is helpful in allowing us to negotiate space even when we’re not consciously watching our own body. This body-image kicks in, especially when the brain is trying to create a mental overview of this very dire, possibly fatal situation. Furthermore, our brains have trouble differentiating neurons that are not firing from neurons that are damaged or actually dead.
English psychologist Susan Blackmore (who considers herself a “skeptic” as regards an afterlife) suggests that these experiences occur when someone is conscious but separated from their senses. Thus, we retain the illusion of having a body even though it cannot be confirmed through our senses. This has been shown in numerous sensory deprivation experiments. We may perceive a world similar to the one we usually inhabit but this is not confirmed by our senses either. Thus, our minds create fully vivid worlds, even in the absence of sensory information, much like they do for us in every dream we’ve ever had. However, most people who report having a near-death experience describe it as being much more vivid than even the most lucid dreams.
Many scientists have suggested that lack of oxygen or a surge in electrical activity may be at the root of these experiences. Or perhaps it is the cessation of cerebral blood flow and the resulting levels of carbon dioxide. Others have advanced the theory that a massive release of dimethyltryptamine from the pineal gland prior to death induces hallucinations possibly similar to those of a near-death experience. In 2006, Dr. Richard Kinseher suggested that the experience of death causes the brain to perform a scan of the entire episodic memory, even prenatal experiences, in order to find a stored experience comparable to the information of death. Dr. Birk Engmann argues that the symptoms such as autoscopia, visual hallucinations, acogasms (auditory hallucinations) and the central narrowing of the visual field are due to a primary affliction of the occipital and temporal cortices.
These are all very smart ideas. But there’s a problem. The recent study of 1,500 cases by Dr. Sam Parnia suggests that such patients are “effectively dead,” having no neural activity of those necessary for dreaming or hallucination. Additionally, to rule out the possibility that near-death experiences resulted from lack of oxygen, Parnia rigorously monitored the concentrations thereof in the patients’ blood, and found that none of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen. He was also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case of his study, regardless of whether they had a near-death experience or not. Parnia says, “Death starts when the heart stops beating, but we can intervene and bring people back to life, sometimes even after three to four hours when they are kept very cold. It could be that a far higher proportion of people have near-death experiences but don’t remember them.”
Three to four hours!? Why, that’s four episodes of Mad Men! That’s eight episodes of Family Guy! That’s… sadly… how long it took me to replace my driver’s license at the DMV.
Now and again, this long period of death is purposefully induced for medical reasons. It’s called “Cardiac Stand-still.” Such was the case with Pam Reynolds, a music producer who has recorded the likes of Springsteen, Pearl Jam and REM. Because of an aneurism, they had to put her on ice, tape her eyes shut and drain the blood from her head “like oil from a car engine.” They also had headphones playing really loud asymmetric beats so they could measure brain activity. When she came back from her near-death experience, she reported everything that she “saw,” down to things doctors had said, the number of people in the room, the music they were playing during the surgery and the look of their surgical instruments. Her brain surgeon, Dr. Robert Spetzler at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona was freaked out. “From a scientific perspective,” he says, “I have absolutely no explanation about how it could have happened.”
Of course, there are plenty of doctors who disagree but you can listen here for yourself. It’s a ten-minute NPR story about this very event.
One of the main problems is that, as with many psychological occurrences, the primary source of data is the qualitative, self-reporting of people who have undergone the experience. It is not something that you can test, unless you want to go all Flatliners and experiment with actually killing people. And just because someone says something, it doesn’t necessarily make it true. Take, for example, one of the funniest videos ever to grace the Internet. It is a news story about a Leprechaun spotted in Mobile, Alabama. Obviously, people think some pretty dumb things sometimes but oh man! I love me that “amateur sketch!” Hahaha!
That said, there have been cross-cultural studies by scholar Gregory Shushan and others that have confirmed a large number of similarities in the death narratives of many different cultures. However, the universality of elements of the story can fuel both those who believe in an afterlife and those who believe that near-death experiences are simply physiological in nature. If you believe in an afterlife, you would say that this happens across cultures because it is a real destination. If you believe that these experiences are entirely rooted in neurology, you would say that these stories are similar cross-culturally because everyone has the same biological makeup. Regardless, it’s pretty clear that something is happening after the heart stops. We’re just not quite sure what.
Dr. Parnia says, “Arch skeptics will always attack our work. I’m content with that. That’s how science progresses. What is clear is that something profound is happening. The mind- the thing that is ‘you’ – your ‘soul’ if you will – carries on after conventional science says it should have drifted into nothingness.”
Some day though, your mind won’t be wrenched back into your corporeal body. Some day you’ll keep drifting down the tunnel toward the light and it won’t occur to you to look back. Maybe something will be waiting for you there. Maybe nothing. Maybe figures clothed in light. Maybe every memory replayed forever. Maybe an absence of memory like before you were born. Maybe you will still be yourself. Maybe you will become something else. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe. It’s maybe my favorite word.