After years of ridicule and denial, scientists and doctors are finally beginning to take near death experiences (NDEs) seriously, as shown by a report in the December 15 issue of the respected English medical journal The Lancet.

In a recent study conducted in the Netherlands, Dr. Pim van Lommel and colleagues studied 62 patients who said they had a near-death experience after going into cardiac arrest. They found that factors such as medication and the duration of unconsciousness did not explain the phenomenon. ?Our results show that medical factors cannot account for occurrence of near-death experiences,? says van Lommel.

A small number of people who survive life-threatening circumstances report having had ?an extraordinary experience,? says van Lommel. These experiences often involve visions of a light or a deceased relative, flashbacks of life events or an out-of-body sensation.

Researchers in the past have dismissed these experiences as being caused by brain cells dying from lack of oxygen. Others point to psychological factors such as fear of death, or to the changing state of consciousness people may go through in a life-threatening condition.

NDE researchers usually ask survivors to tell them about the events long after they occurred. The investigators tried to overcome this problem by interviewing cardiac-arrest survivors within days of being resuscitated and again 2 and 8 years later. In the first interviews, 62 of 344 survivors (18%) reported near-death experiences. All 344 had been clinically dead, meaning they were unconscious due to a lack of blood and oxygen to the brain.

The patients? near-death experiences varied, with 41 having a deeper experience and the rest reporting more superficial events. Two years later, 6 out of the second group decided they had not had a NDE. But the patients who did have one were able to recall it ?almost exactly? 8 years later, the researchers found. In contrast with cardiac arrest survivors who did not have a NDE, they were less afraid of death and had a stronger belief in an after-life. They also were more interested in the meaning of life and in showing love and acceptance to others. However, getting through their hospital experience was much more complicated for NDE patients. Their positive changes were more obvious after eight years than they were after two years.

?The long-lasting transformational effects of an experience that lasts for only a few minutes of cardiac arrest is a surprising and unexpected finding,? says van Lommel. ?Society?s negative response to NDE … leads individuals to deny or suppress their experience for fear of rejection or ridicule. Thus social conditioning causes NDE to be traumatic, although in itself it is not a psychotraumatic experience…Only gradually and with difficulty is an NDE accepted and integrated.?

A nurse said that one patient was in a coma when she removed his dentures. Later the patient identified her as the person who knew where to find his dentures, and he accurately described where they were– in the drawer of a medical cart. He said he had seen the events from above the hospital bed and watched doctors? efforts to save his life.

Half the patients said they were aware of being dead, and about one in four had an out-of-body experience. Nearly one in three said they met deceased people. More than one in five said they communicated with light, and nearly a third reported moving through a tunnel. More than one in 10 said they reviewed their lives, and more than one in four said they saw a celestial landscape.

The researchers could not find any clear explanation for why a small percentage of patients had a near-death experience while most did not. If ?purely physiological factors? like a cutoff of oxygen to the brain were the cause, most of the study patients should have had an NDE. ?We did not show that psychological, neurophysiological, or physiological factors caused these experiences after cardiac arrest,? the researchers say.

Most neuroscientists believe that consciousness is a byproduct of the physical brain, that mind arises from matter. But if near-death experiences are real, this means that people can be conscious of events around them even when they are physically unconscious and their brains do not show signs of electrical activity. How can consciousness be independent of brain function?

?Compare it with a TV? program, says van Lommel. ?If you open the TV set you will not find the program. The TV set is a receiver. When you turn off your TV set, the program is still there but you can?t see it. When you [turn] off your brain, your consciousness is there but you can?t feel it in your body.? He says his study suggests that researchers investigating consciousness ?should not look in the cells and molecules alone.? Dr. Christopher C. French of the University of London thinks NDEs could be false memories and says, “Recent psychological studies have shown conclusively that simply imagining that one has had experiences that had in fact never been encountered will lead to the development of false memories for those experiences.? He suggests that this may happen due to patients? natural tendency to try to fill in gaps in their memory caused by their brush with death.

?We have understandable and natural urges to believe we will survive bodily death and we will be reunited with our departed loved ones,? French says. ?So anything that would support that idea — reincarnation, mediums, ghosts — presents evidence of the survival of the soul. It?s something that we would all desperately like to believe is true.?

Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, says that current experiments are being done in which tiny signs are placed on the ceilings of hospital rooms, so that if people are genuinely having out-of-body experiences and hovering over their beds, they will be able to see the signs and provide proof of the phenomenon. ?Brain chemistry does not explain these phenomena,? he says. ?I don?t know what the explanation is, but our current understanding of brain chemistry falls short.?

For a discussion of the near-death experience and ?life between lives,? listen to the December 22 Dreamland archive and read ?Destiny of Souls? by Michael Newton. For more information,click here.

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