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Near-Death Experiences: What Can We Learn?

Jimmy Akin

The subject of Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) came to public attention with the release of Raymond Moody’s book Life After Life.

In it, he recounted numerous incidents from people who were on the brink of death or who had even clinically died.

They reported things like leaving their bodies, looking down and seeing doctors and nurses working on them, traveling through a tunnel, encountering a bright light, meeting dead loved ones and religious figures, experiencing a review of their entire life, glimpsing a beautiful realm, feeling peace and joy, and ultimately being told that they needed to return to their bodies.

Since Moody’s groundbreaking work, other researchers have continued to look into NDEs. One of them is British doctor Sam Parnia, who now works in New York.

Between 2008 and 2012, he led what is known as the AWARE study (for AWAreness during REsuscitation), which examined the Near-Death Experiences of people who had undergone cardiac arrest and were in the process of being brought back.

More recently, he led a follow-up study called AWARE-II, and the results were recently published in the journal Resuscitation.

AWARE-II studied the cases of 567 people who experienced cardiac arrest. Unfortunately, only 53 of them survived, and only 28 completed interviews, so the sample size was small. Of the interviewees, 6 of them (21%) recalled transcendent experiences that have commonly been called NDEs. This is broadly in line with previous studies.

When the study was published, press accounts misleadingly claimed that it suggested dying people access “new dimensions of reality,” which without context would suggest other planes of existence.

Dying people may do that, but this isn’t what the authors of the study meant. They meant something more mundane and named the “other dimensions” as “including people’s deeper consciousness—all memories, thoughts, intentions and actions towards others from a moral and ethical perspective.” In other words, as part of the “life review” that NDErs commonly report, they are accessing other dimensions of themselves as they look at the events of their lives from a moral perspective.

Among the things that the study did find is evidence that consciousness persists even when it is not detectable, which the authors pointed out has broader implications, such as for people in “persistent vegetative states.”

They also found that substantial brain activity could resume as long as 60 minutes into cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), challenging the idea that irreversible brain damage occurs by 10 minutes after the heart stops.

The surprising lucidity of the patients’ transcendent experiences—such as their detailed life reviews—suggested that a form of “disinhibition” occurs that allows them to access long-dormant memories.

When it comes to the nature of consciousness—whether it is generated by the brain or by a separate entity (i.e., soul) that interacts with the brain, the authors concluded:

Although systematic studies have not been able to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness in relation to death, it has been impossible to disclaim them either. The recalled experience surrounding death now merits further genuine empirical investigation without prejudice.

However, they also noted that “the paradoxical finding of lucidity and heightened reality when brain function is severely disordered, or has ceased, raises the need to consider alternatives to” the idea that consciousness is generated by the brain.

Hopefully, future studies of NDEs will further clarify matters and provide additional evidence that consciousness is not generated by the brain and thus provide scientific data supporting the existence of the soul.

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