"NO MEDICAL EXPLANATION" FOR NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES
By Emma Young
Friday, December 14, 2001
Medical explanations cannot account for near death experiences (NDEs), according to the results of the biggest prospective study to date of patients who were resuscitated after clinical death. However, patients who reported an NDE were more likely to die soon afterwards.
Pim Van Lommel and his team at Hospital Rijnstate in the Netherlands interviewed 344 patients who were resuscitated after heart failure at 10 hospitals across the country. The patients were questioned as soon as they were well enough.
Eighteen per cent reported an NDE - classed as a memory of "a special state of consciousness, including specific elements such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings and seeing a tunnel."
But the team found no link between NDEs and drugs used to treat the patients, the duration of cardiac arrest or unconsciousness, or the patients' reports of the degree to which they feared death before the incident.
"This was the surprising thing," van Lommel says. "It's always said that NDEs are just a phenomenon relating to the dying brain and the lack of oxygen to the brain cells. But that's not true. If there was a physiological cause, all the patients should have had an NDE."
The patients were mostly elderly, with an average age of 62. Van Lommel found that those that reported an NDE were significantly more likely to die within 30 days.
"There is the idea that people can decide to some extent when they die," says van Lommel. "Perhaps when they had an NDE, their fear of death was over and they could let go."
The team did find that patients who were under 60 and female were more likely to report an NDE. But the causes of the experience remain a mystery, van Lommel says.
His team questioned surviving NDE patients again two years after their resuscitation, and then after eight years. Most of the patients recalled the event in striking detail. And most showed significant psychological changes, the team reports. The 23 NDE patients who were still alive eight years later "had become more emotionally vulnerable and empathic", they write.
Pushing the limit
Van Lommel's team report anecdotal stories of patients recalling events that happened around them during out of body experiences while they were clinically dead. These experiences "push at the limit of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind/brain relationship," Van Lommel says.
Christopher French, at the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, London, says the team's paper is "intriguing", though he notes that van Lommel's team failed to contact the patients for corroboration. He points out that NDEs are impossible to objectively verify - and that out of body experiences have not been proved to exist.
But, in a commentary on the research, he writes: "the out of body component of the NDE offers probably the best hope of launching any kind of attack on current concepts of the relationship between consciousness and brain function."
If researchers could prove that clinically dead patients, with no electrical activity in their cortex, can be aware of events around them and form memories, this would suggest that the brain does not generate consciousness, French and Van Lommel think.
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