One of the great frontiers of human experience and the unknown is that of what happens to us when we inevitably die. It is perhaps the final frontier we face, and certainly the most mysterious. What happens to us when we pass on? Do we simply blink out of existence? Are we reborn into new bodies? Does our soul transfer to another plane of existence? Do we even have a “soul” as we like to think of it at all? These are some of the many questions concerning the afterlife which mankind has pondered since time unremembered. The realm of death is a complete cipher to us, a place into which we can only make a one way journey and which lies in an obscured, unexplored territory more inaccessible than the highest mountain or deepest undersea abyss, indeed more remote than the furthest edges of the solar system and even the edge of the universe as we know it. What becomes of us after death remains a complete mystery to us which we have long been frustratingly unable to explore to any appreciable degree without making that one way journey for ourselves.
Yet, with the advent of science and technology, and our increasing abilities to explore the outer fringes of our understanding, there has arisen a new question: can we scientifically prove and verify what happens to us after death? Can we use our advanced knowledge and technology to settle the age old debate of scientists, philosophers, and lay men alike once and for all? In this era of discovery, where we are ever relentlessly unlocking the secrets to our planet and the universe, pushing out into the boundaries past all that was known before, there have indeed been attempts to scientifically study what lies beyond our demise. These are the efforts of those who would penetrate that last frontier and come back with the answers we seek.
Those who would scientifically attempt to delve into the afterlife have long been plagued by dogma, ridicule, and misunderstanding. In one 1982 poll, it was found that a mere 16% of top scientists from various fields questioned believed that there was an afterlife at all, and only 4% thought we would ever be able to conclusively prove it. This general dismissive attitude and air of disinterest by the scientific community has hampered efforts for those who would seriously try to study the afterlife, as funding is rarely granted for such projects and those who pursue this avenue of research risk ridicule and derisive scorn from their peers. Interestingly, the rate of belief in an afterlife among medical doctors is significantly higher, with a 2005 poll showing that 59% of American medical doctors believed in an afterlife, which is a dramatically higher percentage than any other scientific profession.
Perhaps this stronger belief in something going on beyond the domain of life has to do with medical doctors’ experiences dealing with those who have experienced what are called near death experiences, or NDEs. These are reports by people who have claimed that after clinical death they have retained some form of awareness, no matter how tenuous, and have often reported similar phenomena in this state, regardless of religion or whether they believe in any kind of afterlife or not. These experiences are reported by a staggering number of people, around an estimated 200,000 people per year in the United States alone and untold millions worldwide. Commonly reported NDE experiences include leaving one’s body to observe the room and their own form, seeing a bright light, a feeling of peace or love, or even meeting long dead friends or relatives.
Although reports of NDEs may seem to be wholly subjective and the result of mere hallucinations, the remarkable similarities between them, as well as the sheer number of people who report them hint at an underlying phenomena with elements that may be possible to be objectively and scientifically measured and quantified. One serious study conducted by a team of scientists led by a Dr Berthold Ackermann collected reports of NDEs from hundreds of patients and came to the conclusion that the uncanny parallels between a vast number of accounts from people of all walks of life claiming to have retained consciousness after death suggested that the phenomenon was worth further study. Ackerman said of these similarities:
Most common memories include a feeling of detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of an overwhelming light.
The presence of these visions in people who were clinically dead, and which remained fairly consistent across faiths and ideals, has convinced some groups of researchers that there is something going on beyond current paradigms, and that it could possibly even point to the existence of some currently unknown duality between the physical brain and consciousness itself, or at the very least some physical process which we have yet to understand. This points squarely at a scientifically provable answer that merely lies beyond our grasp and current tools to fully quantify.
Many of the studies that have delved into observing and objectifying NDEs, and therefore understanding more about life after death, have relied on investigating victims of cardiac arrest. After all, these are people who are at the mercy of a fully controllable environment, and stand a chance of being pulled from the clutches of death. One such study conducted by lead researcher Pim van Lommel, of the Hospital Rijnstate in the Netherlands, in 2001 and published in the British medical journal Lancet, focused on 344 patients who had suffered heart attacks to the point of being clinically dead, and then being successfully resuscitated. The study meticulously and methodically questioned patients within a week of dying and being brought back to life, and found that 18% of these patients were able to describe some form of awareness from the time when they were declared clinically dead, meaning that their brain had completely shut down due to lack of blood flow and therefore making it technically not physically possible for them to be conscious of anything. 12 percent of those in the study reported classical NDE experiences such as tunnels of light or seeing dead friends and relatives. The extremely sharp, lucid, vivid, and detailed recall of these events seemed to point at factors other than that they were some sort of hallucination or false memories.
Although the study did not make any concrete proclamations of the existence of an actual soul or an afterlife, nor does it lay out a precise way to measure the existence of a life after death, it does suggest that something very strange is going on. The people in the study had been technically brain dead, meaning that they should not have had any memories of anything at all, and if the phenomena had been caused by a purely physical effect, such as cerebral hypoxia, also called anoxia, which is damage to the brain caused by prolonged lack of oxygen, then it should have been reported by a higher percentage of patients in the study, if not all of them. This convinced van Lommel that there was perhaps something more going on than a purely physical or cellular effect, saying of these NDEs in a Washington Post interview:
Compare it with a TV program. 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 put off your brain, your consciousness is still there but you can’t feel it in your body.
Another similar study was carried out in 2003 by a Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuro-psychiatrist and senior lecturer at at King’s College, London, who investigated the experiences of cardiac arrest patients in England with the Institute of Psychiatry. During the study, over 60 cardiac arrest patients at Southampton General Hospital’s coronary care unit were interviewed about what they had experienced while technically temporarily brain dead. Of these patients, 7 of them recalled having classic NDE experiences, such as out of body experiences, entering a realm of peace and love, meeting lost loved ones, or journeying through a mysterious tunnel of light. In these cases, the patients had been clinically dead for up to several minutes, which hints that these sensations were not the result of mere normal physical processes or tricks of the brain. Fenwick explained the significance of this thus:
After a cardiac arrest you lose consciousness within eight seconds; within 11 seconds the brain’s rhythms become flat, and within 18 seconds there is no possibility of the brain creating a model of the world – so the brain is down.Yet whenever we asked people when their near-death experiences occurred, they said it was during unconsciousness. If that’s true, their experience was occurring when there was no blood flowing through the brain – and consciousness would appear to exist outside the brain.
Fenwick came to the conclusion that there was something unusual going on that went well beyond a purely physical explanation, and even suggested that it could be potential evidence that the mind in some form operates outside of and independent of the physical brain. He likened this connection to a TV playing programs transmitted over airwaves. He said of his findings:
There is now convincing evidence to challenge the current theory that consciousness can only exist inside the brain – and if you can have consciousness without associated brain function, that is enormously important for our understanding of the mind.
Another extremely ambitious scientific study was launched in 2008, and called the AWARE study (“AWAreness during REsuscitation”). Led by Sam Parnia, an assistant professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and frequent collaborator with Dr. Fenwick, the study was aimed at trying to use the unique perspective of those who had stepped over to the other side and come back to tell the tale in order to peak through the window of the unknown to determine the existence of some form of life after death, or at least clues to the true connection between body and mind. The largest study of its kind ever attempted, 2,060 people who had suffered from major cardiac arrest were examined over a period of 4 years at 15 hospitals in the UK, US and Austria. Throughout the whole study, strict scientific methodology was observed as much as was reasonably possible in order to weed out claims that were based merely on impressions and thus insufficient for use as evidence, and to maintain as much objectivity as was possible.
Of the victims surveyed, 40% of those who had been resuscitated and had survived the cardiac arrest reliably reported some form of consciousness after they had been declared technically dead and had ceased to display any clinical signs of being conscious. Despite this complete lack of any measurable brain activity, these patients were reporting a lingering awareness and consciousness, which should have been impossible. The form this consciousness took varied somewhat from individual to individual, with some describing a sense of awareness but no specific memory, while others reported bright lights, the sensation of floating or conversely sinking, or the feeling of being dragged through water, as well as heightened senses and the sense of time slowing down or speeding up. Many of the patients described an overall sense of peacefulness throughout the ordeal. In the more dramatic accounts, patients described the images of animals, family members, or some form of “mystical being.” There appeared to be little measurable difference between ages or genders when it came to these experiences.
Additionally, 13% of those examined claimed to have separated from their bodies during their deaths, with some of these accounts being rather striking. In one case, a 57-year-old social worker reported that he had floated around the room and witnessed hospital staff trying to bring him back to life. So vivid was his recollection of these events that he even keenly remembered the physical appearance of the doctors and nurses, as well as the distinct beeping and noises of the various different types of machines in the room. Interestingly, the man had been declared dead for 3 minutes at the time, which should have made any awareness completely impossible and rule out the possibility that it could have simply been hallucinations, yet during this time the man was apparently well aware of the scene around him from outside his body.
Parnia suspects that although only 40% of the patients reported any sort of after death consciousness, it is quite possible that the others had indeed experienced these phenomena, but were simply not able to remember them due to the effects of sedatives, drugs, or brain damage. Although the study is unable to unequivocally rule out the possibility that the reports were subjective, and not able to concretely prove that these things really happened or what actually caused them, Dr. Parnia believes that the sheer size of the sampling and the findings of the study are significant, have shed light on the phenomenon, and shown that it warrants a need for further investigation. Of the completed study, Dr. Parnia has proclaimed:
The evidence thus far suggests that in the first few minutes after death, consciousness is not annihilated. Whether it fades away afterwards, we do not know, but right after death, consciousness is not lost. We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating. But in this case conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped. This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating.
The presence of a form of consciousness or awareness separate from the physical brain is a recurring theme of such experiments. In another study conducted by a Dr. Alexander Batthyany at the University of Vienna, it was found that in some cases patients with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease briefly returned to a state of complete lucidity just before death, despite suffering symptoms so severe that their brains had been rendered more or less practically incapable of functioning at all. The study covered 227 patients, and in 10% of the cases, people who had up until that point been completely lacking any mental functionality at all had displayed briefly before death a sudden bright flash of awareness and memories from before, which should have been impossible if there was no “soul” that existed beyond simply the physical construct of the brain.
In the future, ever innovative technologies may allow us to not only observe these NDEs and other phenomena, but actually venture forth into the land of the dead, much as astronauts have journeyed into the far reaches of the cosmos. This is a theme that has been covered in popular culture before, most notably the 1990 film Flatliners, in which 5 medical students conduct secret experiments to induce death and explore what lies beyond, along with its mystical near death experiences. Such an outlandish idea is perhaps not so far from reality, and we are on the cusp of technology that may allow us to not only study NDEs, but to experience them for ourselves.
Researchers at the Safar Center for Resuscitation Research at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have developed a revolutionary procedure to put animals in a state of limbo between life and death, a sort of state of suspended animation fluttering over the abyss on the edge of death. In the experiments, dogs are drained of all blood and their veins filled with a frigid saline solution. Their body temperatures lowered to around 7 degrees Celsius (37 F), the animals cease all biological activity and are for all purposes technically dead. After 3 hours in this state, the blood is replaced and a mild shock administered, which jolts them back to the land of the living. The process is not without its problems, as some of the dogs have been reanimated with serious physical or behavioral aberrations, which have caused some critics to accuse the team of creating soulless “zombie dogs.”
Nevertheless, the team has grand plans to one day test the procedure on humans, which could be groundbreaking in the field of putting victims of serious injuries, especially those incurring massive blood loss, into a type of stasis while they await treatment. Such a tool could be invaluable in places like faraway battlefields, or other situations where immediate medical care is not available. Regardless, there have been considerable moral questions raised, such as the idea that any humans subjected to the experiments may wake up without souls, with an essential, key part of them missing. However, the research has mostly been seen as hopeful, with one of the directors saying they are merely pushing back the boundaries of what is considered dead, stating:
The definition of death depends on the technology you have to revive the subject. As medical technology gets better, the limits to being dead are pushed into more extreme physiological states. Death is really when a doctor says: ‘I can’t do any more.
One can most certainly see how such a procedure would be alluring for those who want to research what happens past the veil that separates us from death. Imagine what could be gleaned about the afterlife from someone who spent hours there or even more. We can only wait to see if there is ever a trial on human beings, but one team of psychologists and medical doctors associated with the Technische Universität of Berlin have claimed that they have already done something similar. The researchers have claimed that by using a sophisticated mixture of potent drugs such as epinephrine and dimethyltryptamine, they have managed to induce clinical death in patients for intervals of up to 20 minutes, after which they are revived with a specially designed CPR machine without any ill effects. The process has already been allegedly tested on around 944 volunteers over 4 years, with some people reportedly dead for up to 40 minutes to an hour. It is unclear what sort of NDEs any of these people may have experienced, but it definitely offers an avenue of pursuit for anyone brave enough to try and find out. Are we on the cusp of having the know-how and abilities to allow adventurous souls to make this once one-way journey into realms unknown and allow them to come back, just as astronauts delve into space to plummet back to Earth with wondrous stories to tell? It is an intriguing notion to be sure.
For all of the promising research done on NDEs so far, and all of the potential ways our technology may allow us to further and more deeply explore this mysterious phenomenon in the future, there is still a lot of skepticism aimed at this type of study. For many, the results found so far don’t count because they are adamant that any sort of awareness after death is indicative that the person was never really truly dead at all, despite any measurable amount of brain activity. Michael Shermer, founder of The Skeptics Society, has said of the matter:
There’s a reason that these events are called ‘near’ death experiences. The people who have [near death experiences] are not actually dead. In that murky grey area between life and death, the brain is still functioning on some level and can therefore experience something.
This sentiment has been shared by others, who say that there is very little concrete evidence to suggest that any of the NDEs actually occurred at a point when the brain was fully non-functional. Therefore, they say, the studies of NDEs thus far are deeply flawed. Dr Chris Freeman, consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Royal Edinburgh Hospital has said:
We know that memories are extremely fallible. We are quite good at knowing that something happened, but we are very poor at knowing when it happened. It is quite possible that these experiences happened during the recovery, or just before the cardiac arrest. To say that they happened when the brain was shut down, I think there is little evidence for that at all.
The idea that these experiences are caused by merely a malfunctioning brain has been somewhat corroborated by the discovery in recent years of what has been deemed “The God Spot.” In 2000, Swiss researchers at at the Geneva University Hospital were presented with a 43-year-old woman who was admitted for surgery for profound epileptic seizures. An interesting effect was noticed when electrical stimulation was applied via electrodes to the area of the brain responsible for spatial cognition, called the angular gyrus, found in the right cortex. Neurologist Professor Olaf Blanke and colleagues accidentally found that by stimulating that area of the brain, the woman reported having vivid out of body experiences, in which she reported floating about the room above her own body. Blanke concluded that OBEs, and thereby NDEs in general, could be possibly explained by some malfunctioning of the brain rather than an actual soul leaving the body. It nevertheless shows that OBEs are a very real physical phenomenon that deserves further study, no matter what the cause.
A similar physical induction of classical NDE effects has been shown through the use of the drug ketamine, which affects receptors in the brain for the neurotransmitter glutamate. This uncontrolled, totally legal drug can, in the right doses, produce an altered state of consciousness and many of the reported experiences of NDEs, such as out of body experiences, communing with mystical beings, reliving of life events, and traveling through tunnels of light, to the point that one researcher has deemed the use of ketamine to be “experiments in voluntary death.” This has caused skeptics to conclude that all NDEs must be purely the result of misfrings of brain chemistry, but those who have experienced true NDEs are adamant that this is something more. Regardless of who is right, this is yet another case that shows that NDEs are a real phenomenon worthy of further scientific study and not a complete fabrication.
Skeptics remain convinced that these after life experiences are solely the realm of the physical, some last desperate firing of a dying mind. To them this is just psychedelic dreams and euphoria conjured up by chemicals in the brain during death, to which we give unreasonable spiritual weight if we survive the ordeal to return to life. This could describe all of the events of NDEs, including the ubiquitous tunnels of light, which skeptics say could be caused by frantically firing brain cells reacting to a lack of oxygen. Susan Blackmore, a psychology professor at the University of the West of England in Bristol and notable NDE skeptic says of the phenomenon:
I think what’s happening is that people are trying to validate their experience by making these paranormal claims, but you don’t need to do that. They’re valid experiences in themselves, only they’re happening in the brain and not in the world out there.
Interestingly, some of these skeptics have come around once they experienced life after death for themselves. Cell biologist Joyce Hawkes was once just such a skeptic, and did not put much thought into the possibility of an afterlife, until one fateful accident changed her mind forever. Hawkes fell out of a window and sustained life threatening injuries that put her into a state of clinical death. During this time, she claims that she had an experience that did not fit any of her preconceived paradigms and which she remains at a loss to explain. Hawkes said of the incident:
I think that part of me — that my spirit, my soul — left my body and went to another reality. It just was not part of the paradigm in which I lived as a scientist. It was a big surprise to me to have this sense of something different than the body — a consciousness different than the body — and to be in this wonderfully healing, peaceful, nurturing place.
So is there anything to these NDEs? Is this a peek into realms unknown or merely the physical effects of a gasping, dying brain; our last feverish dreams before slipping into nothingness? What lies beyond the curtain of the death that awaits us all, and will we ever be in a position to scientifically find out waits beyond? It seems in a world in which we are finding ways to detect ever more bizarre and weird phenomena such as quantum physics and the strange particles and inner working of our universe there may soon come a time when we may conquer the answers to the perplexing questions of the afterlife as well. Perhaps at some point we will delve out into these badlands just as we journey out into space or the farthest reaches of the deep blue seas, and embark on a journey that will bring with it wondrous discoveries of the unknown which lie on the fringes of our understanding. Until then, we are confined within these flesh prisons of ours, waiting for it to finally be revealed where that final journey will take us.