Large Study of Near-Death Experiences Finds Surprises
What does a person sense during the transition from life to death? A large new study collected data, but more study is needed.
One can imagine that the transition out of this life might be accompanied by a sensory overload for some who were conscious and aware up to the point of death. The largest study of near-death experiences, named AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscintation) was reported on Science Daily, “Results of the world’s largest medical study of the human mind and consciousness at time of death.” Researchers collected data from 2,060 cardiac arrest cases. There’s still a lot to learn, but there were some interesting findings:
The themes relating to the experience of death appear far broader than what has been understood so far, or what has been described as so called near-death experiences. In some cases of cardiac arrest, memories of visual awareness compatible with so called out-of-body experiences may correspond with actual events. A higher proportion of people may have vivid death experiences, but do not recall them due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory circuits. Widely used yet scientifically imprecise terms such as near-death and out-of-body experiences may not be sufficient to describe the actual experience of death. The recalled experience surrounding death merits a genuine investigation without prejudice.
It’s not always true that subjects experience peace and light. Some get terrified:
Among those who reported a perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46 per cent experienced a broad range of mental recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with the commonly used term of NDE’s. These included fearful and persecutory experiences. Only 9 per cent had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2 per cent exhibited full awareness compatible with OBE’s with explicit recall of ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ events.
In one documented case, a patient was able to recall seeing and hearing things going on around him for 2-3 minutes when there was no heartbeat after cardiac arrest. Scientists would have expected the brain to cease functioning before then:
One case was validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest. Dr Parnia concluded: “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. In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events.
Thus, while it was not possible to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness, (due to the very low incidence (2 per cent) of explicit recall of visual awareness or so called OBE’s), it was impossible to disclaim them either and more work is needed in this area.
The results of the AWARE project were published in the journal Resuscitation.
In a related story on Science Daily, more work has been reported about patients in the so-called “vegetative state.” Work at the University of Cambridge shows that at least some patients are capable of matching the functional MRI (fMRI) scans of conscious subjects when asked to imagine an activity, such as playing tennis. This means not only that the brain can be alive and conscious in a “living dead” person, but it offers hope of finding ways to communicate with them.
Near-death experiences are very difficult for science to study. Obviously, one cannot call on subjects to go through the experience and come back on command; observations have to be serendipitous with trained observers available at the exact time needed, otherwise data will be anecdotal. Nevertheless, everyone dies eventually, so there have been many opportunities to collect clues.
Observations of mental states or reports of experiences can only be gathered with those who were conscious up to the point of death. In the case of my father and mother, both of them were so advanced with Alzheimer’s at their respective passings that there was no hint of emotional change at the transition, because their minds and bodies had progressively deteriorated, and they were for all practical purposes in a coma. The breathing just became progressively more labored and slow, and stopped—no change of facial expression—nothing—even though they were both devout, active Christians in life.
Nevertheless, there have been repeated anecdotal reports by eyewitnesses of dramatic emotional states at death: atheists screaming in terror, godly persons showing expressions of peace and joy. At least one book recorded statements made by eyewitnesses at the passing of famous people. Are they reliable?
The AWARE study mentioned nothing about bright lights and long tunnels of light, or floating above one’s body. Reports we hear on TV about everyone and anyone experiencing lights and peaceful feelings regardless of their spiritual state are not to be trusted. We don’t know if they are hallucinating. They could be lying; their minds could be playing tricks on them after blood starts flowing again; demons could be deceiving them. Their senses could be distorting actual events that were occurring around them. The study showed that imprecise terms like “near death experience” (NDE) and “out of body experience” (OBE) are not sufficient to describe what really happens in a scientifically rigorous way.
We have a reliable source of knowledge superior to any sensory experience (II Peter 1:16-21). We should get our knowledge of the transition to the afterlife from the Word of God, communicated by the only Source who knows. And we have the very best possible witness, Jesus Christ. His experience was not just near death, but through death and back again! What more does anyone need? He also told the story of the rich man and Lazarus, illustrating what he taught on many occasions, that the outcomes are vastly different for the godly and ungodly.
If you have gotten right with your Maker by repenting and trusting in the finished work of Christ (route map), you can rest in the assurance of God, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 116:15). When that day comes, you can quote from memory that ever-beloved Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me.” Having your Maker with you on that journey is all you need, and the only thing you can take with you.