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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, October 11, 2014

That Big New “Life After Death” Study in Perspective

This week a scientific paper was published in the journal Resuscitation  announcing results of the long-term AWARE study which was the largest ongoing study on near-death experiences. Let's look at what the study found, and also look at its results in context, putting the study in perspective. The study was co-authored by more than 30 different researchers from more than a dozen colleges and universities.

The AWARE study may well have been motivated by previous accounts of near-death experiences, which first came to public light in the 1970's with the publication of Raymond Moody's book Life After Life. Patching together elements from different accounts, Moody described an archetypal typical near-death experience, while noting that most accounts include only some elements in the described archetype. The archetype NDE included elements such as a sensation of floating out of the body, feelings of peace and joy, a life-review that occurs very quickly or in some altered type of time, a passage through a tunnel, an encounter with a being of light, and seeing deceased relatives.

A previous study on near-death experiences was published in the British medical journal The Lancet in 2001. The study interviewed 344 patients who had a close encounter with death, generally through cardiac arrest. 62 of those reported some kind of near-death experience. 15 reported an out-of-body experience, 19 reported moving through a tunnel, 18 reported observation of a celestial landscape, 20 reported meeting with deceased persons, and 35 reported positive emotions.

near death experience
"Pulled toward the light" -- a typical part of NDE stories

The AWARE in the AWARE study name is an acronym for awareness during resuscitation – the type of resuscitation that takes place when a person has a heart attack (cardiac arrest) and almost dies. The study collected data at 15 different hospitals, and was carried on over the course of four years. The study attempted to gather accounts of people's recollections in hospitals after they had very close encounters with death, typically during a heart attack or cardiac arrest. Over 2000 cardiac arrest cases were studied, and there were only 330 who survived to leave the hospital. Of those 330, only 101 met eligibility requirements, agreed to be interviewed, and also agreed to “stage 2” interviews.

So the study ended up with a group of only 101 persons who had experienced a close encounter with death, generally because of a cardiac arrest. Of this pool of 101 persons, 22% answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you have a feeling of peace or pleasantness?” 13% answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you feel separated from your body?” 13% answered “Yes” to the question, “Were your senses more vivid than usual?” 8% answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you seem to encounter a mystical being or presence, or hear an unidentifiable voice?” 7% answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you seem to enter some other, unearthly world?” Only 3% answered “Yes” to the question, “Did you see deceased or religious spirits?”

These results are corroboration of published accounts of what typically happens in a near-death experience, although the numbers are smaller than those reported in the Lancet study. The AWARE study does quote one respondent who gives an account very much like what has been published in previous books on near-death experiences:

I have comeback from the other side of life. ..God sent (me) back,it was
not (my) time — (I) had many things to do. ..(I traveled) through a tunnel
toward a very strong light, which didn’t dazzle or hurt (my) eyes. ..there
were other people in the tunnel whom (I) did not recognize. When (I)
emerged (I) described a very beautiful crystal city. .. there was a river
that ran through the middle of the city (with) the most crystal clear
waters. There were many people, without faces, who were washing in
the waters. ..the people were very beautiful. .. there was the most
beautiful singing. ..(and I was) moved to tears. (My) next recollection
was looking up at a doctor doing chest compressions.

One very unique feature of the study was its placement of little shelves in various hospital areas where cardiac resuscitation was deemed likely to occur. Each shelf had a unique symbol that could only be identified from someone looking at it from above. The shelves were designed to test previous accounts that patients had floated out of their bodies and looked at their bodies from above – accounts such as the famous Pam Reynolds account I will describe in a moment.

The placement of these shelves was apparently futile. But the study did “hit the jackpot” in regard to one case of a 57-year-old patient who said that he floated out of his body while being revived from his cardiac arrest. The man said that a woman appeared in a high corner of the room, beckoning him to come up to her. He said that despite thinking that was impossible, he found himself up in the high corner of the room, looking down on the medical team trying to revive him. The man described specific details of the revival efforts, including the presence of a bald fat man with a blue hat, a nurse saying, “Dial 444 cardiac arrest,” his blood pressure being taken, a nurse pumping on his chest, a doctor sticking something down his throat, and blood gases and blood sugar levels being taken.

Here is what the scientific paper said in regard to the accuracy of these recollections:

He accurately described people, sounds, and activities from his resuscitation...His medical records corroborated his accounts and specifically supported his descriptions and the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). Based on current AED algorithms, this likely corresponded with up to 3 minutes of conscious awareness during CA [cardiac arrest] and CPR.

So here is a man who had a heart attack, and should have been unconscious during the medical efforts to revive him. Instead he accurately describes the details of what happened. Moreover, he claims that he observed these details while in a position above his body, in the high corner of the medical room.
What we have here is what seems like a good-as-gold vintage “out of the body experience,” one with details that have been verified. This is an example of what is called a veridical near-death experience – one with observations that were subsequently verified.

This is not at all the first time this happened, but merely the first time such a thing has been documented in a peer-reviewed paper co-authored by more than 30 different researchers from a dozen different colleges and universities. There have been several previous similar incidents that have been reported in the relevant literature. The most significant one was the case of Pam Reynolds, which was reported by physician Michael Sabom in his book Light and Death. Reynolds underwent a very drastic brain operation in which the blood was drained from her body, and her body was super-chilled. In such a state, consciousness should have been completely impossible. But Reynolds reported drifting out of her body, and observing the operation from above. She was able to verify details of what had happened during the operation, and described a very specific medical instrument that was used in her brain surgery.

The Reynolds case is discussed in this Salon.com article, which also discusses the case (reported by social worker Kimberly Clark) of a woman named Maria who claimed to have floated out of her body during her operation. The woman claimed that while drifting around out of her body, she saw a particular type of shoe on a particular ledge of the third floor of the hospital. A subsequent check found just such a shoe at such a location.

Then there is the account below of physician Lloyd Rudy who thought that a patient had died. He found himself discussing in a doorway with another doctor what could have been done differently to save the apparently dead patient. But after a while, the faintest signs of life were emitted from the patient. After further medical efforts, the patient was saved, and eventually gained consciousness. The patient then described how he had floated above his body, and watched the two doctors in the doorway discussing his case, and also described details that he should have been completely unable to have observed, because he had no vital signs at the time or even during the previous minute. 

These cases help put the AWARE study in perspective. The AWARE study has given us further evidence to support the conclusion that the human mind, spirit, or soul (call it whatever you want) can continue to exist outside of the body, and make observations at a time when conscious brain activity should have totally ceased.

That does not prove that there is life after death, but it tends to strongly support such an idea. To conclude (as Bazian does in this article) that “overall this study provides no evidence to support the existence of an afterlife” is to stubbornly engage in knee-jerk denialism. Bazian attempts to explain away the study by saying, “It is perfectly plausible that people would continue to have thoughts and experiences while there is still oxygenated blood flowing to the brain.” But that explains nothing, because when a person has cardiac arrest, there isn't oxygenated blood flowing to the brain – that blood flow stops when the heart stops.

Does the AWARE study prove life after death? No, but scientists also don't prove evolution merely by discovering another skull that is halfway between that of a man and an ape. Such a discovery is merely another piece of evidence belonging to a large body of evidence that points to the reality of evolution. Similarly, the AWARE study by itself does not prove life after death, but it is a substantial additional piece of evidence in a large and diverse body of evidence that suggests life after death. To read about more than ten other such types of evidence, read my recently authored book 50 Hints of Cosmic Purpose, which can be purchased through this link for $1.

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