Is there life after death? The near-death experience phenomenon

At some point in our lives, we have all wondered what happens to us when we die.  We have all wondered whether there is life after death.  For some, death is something to be feared.  For others, death may be a welcome release from the tortures of life.  For most, death is a mystery.  We know it will occur at some point, although we are unsure how, when or why. 

Western medical wisdom believes that death, defined as a time when circulation and breath have stopped, is the end of our existence.  However, with advances in modern medicine and new techniques of resuscitation, there is a growing occurrence of patients recovering from a near-death experience.  This phenomenon has raised a number of questions about the connection between physical death and consciousness. 

The growing occurrence of near-death experiences could have profound implications on modern medical ethics involving the care of comatose patients, euthanasia, and the removal of organs for transplantation from patients who have been pronounced brain dead, but who still have a beating heart.

While current medical wisdom argues that it is not possible to experience consciousness during cardiac arrest, a study by Pim van Lommel called “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness” argues that the growing incidence of near-death experiences in patients suffering from cardiac arrest should give us cause to pause and re-examine our thinking about death and consciousness.

Patients who have experienced cardiac arrest (termed clinical death in western medicine), shock after a loss of blood, traumatic brain injury or intra-cerebral haemorrhage, near-drowning or asphyxia often report having a near-death experience in which they are consciously aware of leaving their physical body.  Given that these near-death experiences occurred while the patient was clinically dead, how then can we say that consciousness ceases to exist if the patients were obviously conscious enough to remember the experience after resuscitation?

A near-death experience is defined as the reported memory during a special state of consciousness.  While some patients have reported having an out of body experience – the feeling that they have taken off their body like an overcoat and have experienced perceptions, emotions and a clear consciousness outside their physical body; others have reported having a life review – often reported as one’s whole life flashing before their eyes as though in a slideshow.  Others have reported seeing a tunnel, a light, or having met deceased relatives. 

Some patients can recall how they returned to their body.  Most describe the return to consciousness as passing through the top of their head after they had come to understand that it wasn’t their time yet, or that they still had a task to fulfill.  The return to one’s body is often described as an unpleasant and oppressive experience.  Once the patient regains consciousness in their body, they experience a loss of the feeling of unconditional love and acceptance that embraced them in their near-death experience.  They often report feeling trapped in their own body, realizing that they now have to live through the pain and restriction of their disease.

Most interesting to this study, patients who have experienced a near-death experience report having a clear consciousness.  Their cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity and memory of early childhood was clear, as well as a perception of being outside of their “dead” body”.

One can imagine such an experience is transformational, causing profound changes in life insight and often, the loss of the fear of death. 

In the medical world, near-death experiences are inexplicable phenomenons and are often ignored, but Pim van Lommel’s study highlights the consequences of ignoring these occurrences.

The study discusses the possibility of conscious experience when a comatose patient has been declared clinically dead by physicians.  It questions whether brain death really means “death” and whether is there still consciousness during this period.

The 1988 study examined 344 survivors of cardiac arrest in ten Dutch hostpitals.  Cardiac arrest is a well-known life threatening medical situation, where patients will ultimately die from irreversible damage to the brain if CPR is not initiated within 5-10 minutes of the attack. 

The aim of the study was to investigate the frequency, cause and content of near-death experiences.  Van Lommel’s team of researchers conducted short interviews with recovered patients within a few days of their resuscitation and asked whether they could remember the period of unconsciousness and what they recalled from this time.

62 patients (18%) reported some recollection of their period of clinical death.  About 50% of the patients who reported having a near-death experience recalled an awareness of being dead, or had positive emotions.  30% recalled moving through a tunnel, an observation of a celestial landscape or a meeting with a deceased relative.  About 25% of the patients with a near-death experience had an out-of-body experience, had communicated with “the light” or observed colours.  13% reported experiencing a life review, or their “life flashing before their eyes”, and 8% experienced a border.

Van Lommel was also interested in whether a near-death experience could cause survivors to have a changed attitude towards life and death.  A longitudinal study was conducted with survivors who had reported a near-death experience two and eight years after their cardiac arrest, along with a control group consisting of survivors of cardiac arrest who had not experienced a near death experience. 

The research unveiled a significant difference in changed life views between patients in the two groups.  Patients who had experienced a near-death experience did not show a fear of death.  They strongly believed in the afterlife and their insight into the factors that are important in life had significantly changed.  They reported feeling a greater appreciation and understanding of the cosmic law that everything one does to others will ultimately be returned to oneself. 

How, then, can we explain near-death experiences? What causes these experiences to occur?

Modern western medicine believes that thoughts, or consciousness, are produced by large groups of neurons, called neuronal networks.  It is believed that consciousness and memories are located and produced only in the brain. It should stand to reason, therefore, that consciousness and memories should disappear with physical death.  However, during a near-death experience, patients reported experiencing the continuity of their consciousness and recalled memories as far back as childhood.  During a period in which the brain no longer functions, a period of clinical death with a flat EEG, how could a clear consciousness outside one’s body be experienced?

The patients in van Lommel’s study experienced a near-death experience during a period in which the functions of the cortex and the brainstem had stopped.  How then could a clear consciousness outside one’s body be experienced if the brain was no longer functioning?  This would be analogous to trying to turn on a computer without a power source.

Pim van Lommel argues that consciousness can be experienced in another dimension without our conventional body-linked concept of time and space.  Quantam physics can help to explain this concept further.

Quantam physics says that particles propagate like waves.  Electromagnetic fields allow for the exchange of information.  Electronic devices such as the radio, television, cellular phones and laptop computers react to electromagnetic waves.  Van Lommel compares the human brain to a television, which receives electromagnetic waves and transforms them into images and sound.  In this concept, consciousness is not physically rooted.  Consciousness, rather, has an aspect of waves as well as particles, and there is a permanent interaction between these two aspects of consciousness. 

During cardiac arrest, the functioning of the brain and other cells in our body stops.  The electromagnetic fields of our neurons and other cells disappear, and the interface between consciousness and physical body, is interrupted.  These waves however, continue to exist, allowing near-death experiences to occur.   

This concept that consciousness can be experienced independently of brain function changes our notion about death.  At the time of physical death, consciousness can continue to be experienced in another dimension, an invisible and immaterial world. 

It may be true that death is simply a mere passing from one state of consciousness to another.

Source: Pim van Lommel, “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness”.  In: Brain Death and Disorders of Consciousness.  Machado, C and Shewmon, D.A., Eds. New York, Boston, Dordrecht, London, Moscow: Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers, Advances in Experimental Biology Adv Exp Med Biol.  2004; 550: 115-132.