Sunday, 2 August 2009

near death experiences - could they be real?

We've all heard of them - people who are clinically dead for a while but are then revived, and who report experiencing things which their dormant brain should not be able to experience. There seem to be two main types of these near death experiences (NDEs):

1. People report travelling down a tunnel of light to a peaceful place, where they are met by a loved one who has died or a religious figure such as Jesus. After a short time in this blessed environment, they are reluctantly sent back to "real life", are revived from clinical death, and remember the experience.

For example, in 1964 famous comedian and actor Peter Sellers had a series of heart attacks. While his doctor tried to revive him, Sellers reports that he saw an "incredibly beautiful bright loving white light above me". "I know there was love, real love, on the other side of the light which was attracting me so much. It was kind and loving and I remember thinking That's God."

Sellers saw a hand reach through the light, and then a voice said: "It's not time. Go back and finish. It's not time." He felt himself return to his body and he woke up.

2. People can report details of what was happening while they were unconscious and clinically dead. Sometimes they observe the room from above, as if they were floating near the ceiling.

A famous example of this is Pam Reynolds, whose story is particularly amazing. Pam had a brain operation that entailed the doctors inducing cardiac arrest, her eyes taped shut and 95 decibel speakers placed in her ear canals, and the blood drained from her head. Despite all this, Pam was subsequently able to recall many minor details of what occurred while she was in this state, including conversations by the staff and the music being played in the theatre. These details were all confirmed by medical staff.

are these experiences real?

There are of course both believers and sceptics. The sceptics say that these experiences cannot possibly be real; either the stories are unreliable, or the people weren't really dead, or the experiences are the result of lack of oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in the brain.

On the other hand, researchers such as Drs Edward and Emily Kelly of the University of Virginia and Sam Parnia of the Weill Cornell Medical Centre have investigated many reports and say that the sceptics' explanations are quite inadequate.

so ..... ?

It seems to me that we might more easily dismiss the stories of visits to "heaven" to meet God or dead loved ones. These stories are generally unverifiable, they often reveal very different and contradictory aspects of the after-life and God, and the sceptical explanations may be more plausible. Even so, it is impossible to totally dismiss them.

However the stories where patients are known to be clinically dead (as far as modern medical science can determine) and their accounts of events in the operating theatre can be verified, are not easily dismissed, and the sceptical "explanations" so far seem weak.

So, perhaps these accounts "prove" there is life after death, but more likely they show that we still don't understand the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Perhaps there is indeed more to consciousness than what physical science so far understands.

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