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The Silly Science of Near-Death Experiences

• November 19, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: WELCOMIA/SHUTTERSTOCK)

There’s no way to prove whether or not someone’s had an out of body experience, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to study the phenomenon.

Al Sullivan, then a 56-year-old truck driver, almost died on January 18, 1998. A few days earlier he had experienced an irregular heartbeat and was rushed to the hospital for diagnostic testing, during which one of his coronary arteries became blocked. Doctors were forced to administer an emergency quadruple bypass surgery. It was at this time that Sullivan felt himself leave his body. In an account two years later, Sullivan would describe what he came to think of as—and some researchers came to label as—his near-death experience, or NDE:

I began my journey in an upward direction and found myself in a very thick, black, billowy smoke-like atmosphere … I rose to an amphitheater like place … I was able to grasp the wall and look over it into the area the wall was blocking. To my amazement, at the lower left-hand side was, of all things, me. I was laying [sic] on a table covered with light blue sheets and I was cut open so as to expose my chest cavity. It was in this cavity that I was able to see my heart on what appeared to be a small glass table.

This beginning, on its own, is a generic-enough surgery scene. It’s one that anyone with a television has likely seen, in high drama and vivid gore, 20 times over. Whether one has had real life experience witnessing (or undergoing) a surgery or not, the stage is set and familiar. Were this all that Sullivan had remembered, it would not be an especially intriguing account. But there was more.

I was able to see my surgeon, who just moments ago had explained to me what he was going to do during my operation. He appeared to be somewhat perplexed. I thought he was flapping his arms as if trying to fly.

Sullivan goes on—his deceased mother and deceased brother-in-law are there, and so is a tunnel lit in a “golden hue,” and so, too, a pervading general sense of euphoria and peace—but, at the risk of sounding callous, it’s that weird part about the arm flapping that really means something. That’s the part that Sullivan, were he as unconscious as one is surely meant to be during a quadruple bypass surgery, should not have been able to see. That was what Sullivan’s surgeon, Dr. Takata, looked like (as he later admitted) before putting on his gloves. He was in the habit of holding his hands to his chest—to keep himself from touching anything—and giving instructions to his assistants, using his elbows to point at various surgical instruments. Try it right now or, if you are embarrassed, picture yourself trying it. However inexplicably, does it not kind of look like you’re trying to fly?

OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCES like the one described by Sullivan are one of the more culturally recognizable elements of what we think about when we think of the phrase “near-death experience,” though by no means are they the only. Bruce Greyson, psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia and, according to many, the “father of research in near-death experiences,” developed a 16-point scale enumerating the traits of a “classic NDE.” In order to “pass the test,” a reported experience typically needs to feature seven or more of the 16 items on the list.

Most of the 16 are familiar, especially to anyone who spent time as a pre-teen in Religion class reading Chicken Soup for the Soul: a sense of being dead is probably the most important qualifier, but there’s also seeing a tunnel, immersion in a powerful light, feeling unconditionally loved, witnessing a review of one’s life, and more. (One unexpected standout on the scale is “the notice of unpleasant sound or noise.” Most researchers find that patients reporting NDEs consider them entirely pleasant, but there have been a few exceptions.) It is a distinctly spiritual-sounding list; unsurprisingly, many people who claim to have experienced an NDE are somewhat religious. Though not all: Former atheist Howard Storm famously wrote about his NDE, and subsequent conversion to the United Church of Christ, in his book My Descent Into Death.

Listen: Don’t think being temporarily dead is necessarily going to excuse you from some academic expecting you to perform like a lab rat.

There are a number of neurobiological and chemical theories that have been put forth as possible and non-supernatural explanations for NDEs: that it has to do with drugs administered during surgery (a theory that fails to account for NDEs in people who haven’t been given anything and may not have even been hospitalized), or the release of endorphins, or anoxia (or oxygen depletion), or temporal lobe stimulation. None has been definitely proven to account for NDEs. And because NDEs are, by definition, accounts given after the fact, it is extremely difficult to consider their potential causes in any meaningful way.

This is not to say it has proved any easier to bolster the more supernatural side of reasoning. In 2000, a group of researchers published the results of a yearlong study of cardiac arrest survivors in Southampton General Hospital. Every survivor of cardiac arrest in the year of study was interviewed in hospital, with researchers evaluating survivors’ memories, using Greyson’s scale to assess whether or not the survivors had undergone NDEs. Of 63 patients, 56 had no memory recall of their unconsciousness. According to the Greyson scale, four of the seven who did remember something met the criteria for an NDE. Still, these were stories given afterward, even if soon. How could it be proven?

The researchers, aiming to test the veracity of any claims of out-of-body experiences, hung a number of boards from the ceilings of the hospital rooms prior to the study. On the sides of the boards facing the ceiling were “various figures” not visible from the floor. The reason, researchers wrote, was that “anybody who claimed to have left their body and be near the ceiling during resuscitation attempts would be expected to identify those targets.” This is great. So charmingly clinical! Listen: Don’t think being temporarily dead is necessarily going to excuse you from some academic expecting you to perform like a lab rat.

Unfortunately, none of the four survivors reported out-of-body experiences as having been part of their NDEs. The boards, meticulously decorated and hung, were for naught.

The good news is that someone else is planning to give a version of this study another go. Sam Parnia, director of resuscitation research at State University of New York at Stony Brook, is the recipient of one of 10 awards given as a part of the “Immortality Project,” a research initiative that aims to answer questions about NDEs as well as other questions pertaining to life after death. For his research design, Parnia plans to project a variety of computerized images and sounds into patients’ hospital rooms and, when they’re conscious again, ask them to tell him what (if anything) they saw and heard. Were there feelings of joy and peace, a vision of your loved ones wearing white robes, and a warm, comforting light that first held you but then let you go? This only matters so much. What will count is if it’s all that plus, say, a rabbit wearing boots dancing to Star Wars’ Imperial March. Then it will be scientific.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

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