LONDON — Survivors of close brushes with death recount a common story of the journey that they almost took into the afterlife: The dying person finds himself slipping down a long dark tunnel into a brilliant light, and experiencing there great love, peace and well-being.
Some see their relatives while others recall being welcomed by Jesus Christ, and some even see their lives replayed before them like a giant movie.
And yet for some mysterious reason it is not their time to die and these people come back to this world, passionately convinced they have glimpsed eternal life.
All of this adds up to the classic account of a “Near Death Experience” as explored by Raymond Moody Jr. in his controversial best seller Life After Life, which purported to recount case histories of “Near Death Experiences.”
Until now, scientists have been almost universally skeptical of these claims, which are based on anecdotal evidence and often veer into decidedly flaky New Age realms.
But now two reputable British scientists have subjected these experiences to scientific investigation — and their conclusions are mind-expanding: Human consciousness exists independently of the physical state of the body and brain.
In research due to be published next year in Resuscitation, the journal of the European Resuscitation Council, Peter Fenwick, a consultant neuropsychiatrist of the British Institute of Psychiatry, and Sam Parnia, a clinical research fellow and registrar at University Hospital, Southampton, will announce that consciousness exists independently of the brain, based on their interviews with 63 people who had survived an almost-fatal heart attack.
They discovered that seven had experienced the so-called near death experience. Of those, four qualified under the Grayson scale, the narrowly defined medical criteria for assessing the validity of near-death experiences.
The four survivors, who included three non-practising Anglicans and one lapsed Catholic, recounted feelings of peace and joy, heightened senses, encountering a mystical being and coming to “a point of no return.”
“There is nothing physiological that explains this phenomenon. The only factor in common is that those who had the experience had more oxygen in their brain,” Fenwick told the Register. The presence of high levels of oxygen actually enhances the credibility of the experiences, since some near death skeptics suggest that oxygen deprivation is what produces the effects described by survivors.
Added Fenwick, “The first really interesting point is that all who referred to the experience referred to it taking place during the period of unconsciousness. We know how unconscious they were — they were brain dead according to clinical criteria.”
Fenwick and Parnia argue their research reveals that the mind outlives the brain.
These conclusions are disputed by British psychologist Susan Blackmore, of the University of Western England, Bristol, acknowledged by proponents of near death experiences to be the premier skeptic about claims of life after death.
Blackmore, who says she once had a near death experience herself, has no doubt that the patients experience what they describe. She just disputes their interpretation.
“People have not had an experience of life after death; if anything they have been given an insight into the working of the human mind,” she told the Register.
Arguing that in certain stressful situations chemicals released by the brain trigger the reported feelings and sensations, Blackmore predicted that, “As advances in neurochemistry take place we will get a clearer insight into this experience.”
Blackmore said she used to be a parapsychologist with an interest in the New Age because of her own near death experience, but her research had led her to believe that physiology and psychology are the key to finding the truth about the phenomenon.
But neuropsychiatrist Fenwick is adamant that the mind exists after brain death. “This becomes a really interesting question that owes more to philosophy than to science,” he said.
Ironically, Fenwick comes to his current opinion from the opposite direction to Blackmore. “I used to be sceptical about [near death experiences], but now I believe something is going on,” he said.
The research has also received a guarded endorsement from one of the Catholic Church's foremost theologians on the Resurrection.
Father Gerald O'Collins, professor of systematic theology at the prestigious Gregorian University in Rome, told The Register, “I cautiously treat these experiences as a good thing but not as a major argument for life after death and our belief in the Resurrection — the big thing is Jesus' victory over death.
However, he added, “Some people have quite a big change in their lives for the better after one of these experiences.”
Father O'Collins also sees no reason why theories about near death experiences being a glimpse of the eternal have to be in opposition to those that attribute the effect to chemicals released by the brain.
As he put it, “Who made the brain anyway? God.”
Another priest views the debate from an experiential perspective. Father Steven Scheier, parish priest of Holy Name of Jesus Church in Bushton, Kan., and Holy Trinity Church in Little River, Kan., has no doubt regarding what we will face as we die.
On Oct. 18, 1985, a head-on collision in an automobile accident left him unconscious on the freeway with a broken neck.
“If I had moved my head either way I would have died — the injury is called the hangman's break,” he told the Register.
A nurse who arrived on the scene recognized his injury and prevented anyone from moving his head. As he hovered near death in hospital, a huge prayer effort led by his parishioners and joined by other denominations prayed for his recovery.
Father Scheier had no recollection of the crash or its aftermath. But eight months later, long after having recovering completely, a reading of the passage from Luke's Gospel on the parable of the fig tree suddenly brought memories flooding back into his mind.
“I suddenly remembered back at the rectory a conversation that took place between the Lord and myself,” he said.
There was no tunnel experience or bright shining light, but, as Father Scheier explained, “I did not see him but I heard his voice and he told me I had unconfessed mortal sin on my soul. He said, ‘For 12 years you have been a priest for yourself and you are going to hell.’”
“I knew he was right and I had made my decision and there was nothing I could do about it.”
The Blessed Mother, however, had other ideas. Father Scheier heard a woman's voice plead for a second chance so he could give glory to God. Father Scheier later learned that during this time his parishioners had been praying the rosary.
“I did not actually die, but I would have died had the Lord let me,” said the priest. “In that sense you can call it a near death experience.”
A New Attitude
As for neuropsychiatrist Fenwick, his research findings have not drawn him to Christianity or any formal belief in God, but he said they had started a change in his attitude to spirituality.
“I am not a Christian but I am a spiritual person. I think this research tells us that we have a spirituality,” Fenwick said.
“Science since the 17th century has kept to the idea of an objective external world, arguing that matter is dead, but in the last few decades another view has developed that the material world is not dead and has a consciousness.”
Father Scheier has a far simpler outlook.
“We as Catholics take life after death for granted,” he said. “The experience I had has made me realize that we are accountable to God and that this life is just a shadow world.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.