Awareness at Death

david_myers
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Each year, millions of people, including half a million Americans, experience cardiac arrest. With no discernible heartbeat, breathing, or brain activity, they have experienced the medical definition of death, notes Sam Parnia, the NYU Medical Center’s director of cardiopulmonary resuscitation research.

Yet, with CPR, some 10 percent survive. Moreover, in Parnia-led interviews of 2060 survivors, about 1 in 10 recalled a “transformative” death experience, which often involved a peaceful out-of-body experience of being drawn toward a light. Two percent recalled “‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ actual events related to their resuscitation.”

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Anticipating the next steps in his death-experience research, Parnia invited a dozen of us psychological and medical researchers for a day-long research consultation in 2019. There we offered advice regarding his plans for two unprecedented further studies of recalled experiences of death.

In the first study, just published, a cardiac arrest at one of 21 participating hospitals alerted a trained researcher to rush to the patient with a small equipment bag. Without interfering with the resuscitation, the researcher attached an EEG recording cap and headphones, then activated a tablet computer.

Across 567 cardiac arrests—defined as no heartbeat or respiration—53 patients (9.3 percent) survived. Twenty-eight did so with sufficient health to be available for volunteer interviews, yielding three take-home findings.

First, most of the 53 survivors initially flat-lined on the EEG, but, with continued CPR, recovered brain activity up to 60 minutes later. This result not only encourages first responders to persist, it also suggests the possibility of to-be-recalled cognitive activity in comatose patients.

Second, 6 of the 28 interviewed survivors (21 percent) had a “transcendent recalled experience of death.” This roughly accords with prior studies’ finding that 10 to 15 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report a memorable transcendent conscious experience (which Parnia labels a “recalled experience of death” rather than a “near-death experience”). The 6 survivors reported experiences such as:

  • Separation from the body: “I found myself above my body.” “I knew that I had died.” “I felt so light and free.” “I was high up in the ceiling of the ward looking down upon the bed.” “I could see the doctors and nurses working over me.” “I perceived and saw everything around me, like in 360 degrees.”
  • Perception of heading toward a destination: “I experienced going down a tunnel towards a huge bright shining light.”
  • Reviewing and reevaluating life: “I saw my entire life in great detail.” “I felt so warm, safe, protected and deeply loved.” “My body was dead for two minutes; for me, the time passed as if it were many years.”

Third, the study enabled an unprecedented objective test of survivors’ recall accuracy. Many have wondered: Have those who recall death experiences—even of happenings during the resuscitation—experienced hallucinations, such as commonly reported with oxygen deprivation or psychedelic drugs? Or are their out-of-body reports of cardiac arrest events factual and verifiable?

Parnia and his three dozen collaborators creatively devised and implemented a plan to put claims of death-experience recollections to the test. As patients underwent CPR, a tablet computer displayed one of ten visual images, such as an animal, a person, or a monument. When later interviewed, could the 28 survivors report the image displayed during their death experience? If not, could they, when shown the ten possible images, guess which image had been displayed? The result: “Nobody identified the visual image."

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During 5 minutes of the CPR, patients also were repeatedly exposed through the headphone audio to the names of 3 fruits: apple, pear, banana. When the 28 survivors were later asked to guess the 3 fruits, how many correctly recalled them? One person. (A chance result? When a colleague invited his psychology students to name 3 fruits, a similar 2 of 50 named an apple, pear, and banana.)

Although these new results are not what Parnia might have wished, his reporting models science at its best: proposing novel ideas, putting them to the test, and then, with integrity, placing the results in the public domain. Sometimes, as Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple observed, the outcome is unexpected. “But facts are facts, and if one is proved to be wrong, one must just be humble about it and start again.”

Yet science is a process, and this is but one study, with more to come. At our research consultation, Parnia proposed a second possible method for exposing temporarily brain-dead people to stimuli that might later be recalled. Aortic repair surgery sometimes puts patients under anesthesia, cools the body to 70 degrees, stops the heart, and drains the blood—with flat-lined brain activity for about 40 minutes. Will such functionally dead people sometimes later accurately recall events occurring in the room during their dormancy? What do you think? (Stay tuned: The results of this study are forthcoming, Parnia tells me.)

Parnia knows of credible-seeming reports of resuscitated patients displaying accurate recall. including one Britisher who, after being left for dead, later recovered and recounted associated events. So he would not be surprised at some accurate recall.

I, however, would be stunned, for two reasons:

  • Parapsychology’s null findings. Parnia emphasizes that his scientific exploration of people’s experiences and recollections of death transitions are not parapsychology. Yet parapsychology experiments have also indicated that mind seemingly does not travel out-of-body. Would-be psychics cannot “see” remote happenings, such as cards being drawn in an adjacent room.
  • Brain-mind science. The entirety of cognitive neuroscience links mind to brain. Every mental event is simultaneously a biological event. No brain, no mind.

Nevertheless, the data are not done speaking, and sometimes reality surprises us. As even Miss Marple’s more rationalist counterpart Sherlock Holmes acknowledged, “Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.” Psychological science has offered many surprising—even shocking—findings. And it surely has more to come.

Afterword: Some may wonder, does the assumption and the evidence of embodied minds threaten various religious understandings of human nature and hopes for life after bodily death? Not at all, argue cognitive neuroscientist Malcolm Jeeves (founder of Britain’s top-rated psychology department) and developmental psychologist Thomas Ludwig. They reflect on the deep implications of brain-mind science in their recent book, Psychological Science and Christian Faith, and offer an alternative to a death-denying dualism. A disembodied immortal soul is Plato’s thinking, they argue, and not the assumption of biblical religion.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com or check out his new essay collection, How Do We Know Ourselves?: Curiosities and Marvels of the Human Mind. Follow him on Twitter: @davidgmyers.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).