Culture

Near-Death Experiences—A New Take on Life, Part 1: Sam Parnia Explains Where the Field Is Leading

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Sam Parnia is one of the world’s leading experts on death—on how people can medically be brought back from the dead, and on what happens to the mind, or soul, or consciousness, after people die.

Of UK origin, Parnia works these days as assistant professor of medicine at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. He is also directing the joint American-Canadian-British AWARE study, which he calls “the world’s largest ever study of mind and brain during cardiac arrest.” And he is the author, most recently (with Josh Young), of Erasing Death, an up-to-date exploration of both of Parnia’s areas of expertise—resuscitation from death, and death itself.

About half of this book focuses on resuscitation science—which, since the 1960s, has been able to bring people back from states of clinical death. What Parnia has to say is interesting and informative, though it is not the reason I got hold of the book; I’m more interested in what could be called the mystical angle.

Basically, in Parnia’s telling, resuscitation science is both making unprecedented advances and not doing that well. Thanks to the new technique of cooling the body of a clinically dead person, cell deterioration in the body can be slowed down, and people can be resuscitated for ever-longer periods after death has occurred. On the other hand, survival rates—the percentages of people who are actually brought back to life—are still low and have not improved since the 1960s. “It’s really amazing,” Parnia says, “but absolutely true.”

What’s needed, Parnia contends, is for the resuscitation field to be much better organized, standardized, and coordinated. At this point, the quality of resuscitation care you get at a hospital—or whether you even get it—is pot luck. Parnia thinks the situation can be drastically improved, which would not only mean bringing a lot more people back to life, but restoring a lot more of them intact instead of in vegetative or brain-damaged states.

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In August 2009 a chauffeur in New York City named Joe Tiralosi had a cardiac arrest and died. He was rushed to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where his body was cooled with ice packs and saline injections. It was then believed that, after ten minutes without a heartbeat, a patient can only be revived in a vegetative state. Joe Tiralosi was revived after forty minutes without a heartbeat. He then died again, was revived again, and eventually returned to his wife and two children in perfect health.

But there was more. “What gripped me,” writes Parnia,

is that he recalled only one detail during the time his heart was not beating, but what he remembered affected him profoundly. He said that he had encountered some sort of spiritual being…. He described encountering a luminous, loving, compassionate being that gave him a loving feeling and warmth…. He couldn’t find the right words to fully describe his sensations. This encounter…had comforted him to know what it would be like when, in his own words, he “goes to the other side.” Because he had experienced this luminous feeling, he said that he was no longer afraid of death. Whatever this being or feeling was, it completely transformed him.

Although such experiences have come to be called near-death experiences (NDEs), Parnia says they should be called actual-death experiences (ADEs). In cases like Tiralosi’s, people who report them have died—fully—according to the standard medical criteria of “no heartbeat, no respiration, and fixed, dilated pupils (which means there is no brain function).” In that regard, Parnia stresses, all cases of death are actually cases of “cardiac arrest.”

Some 10%-20% of revived patients report ADEs; the rest remember nothing. Parnia thinks it may be because the ADE-reporters have “suffered less damage to their brains and specifically the memory circuits in the days and weeks after the cardiac arrest.” But how could memories have formed in the first place at a time when there was no brain function? It may be, Parnia speculates, because the brain is more like a RAM than a hard drive, so that “memories can be stored in our consciousness, psyche, or soul even in the absence of brain function.”

In any case, the patients who do recall ADEs generally emerge in much better shape, profoundly transformed like Joe Tiralosi, than those who do not, who are often disconcerted by the brush with death and may even develop long-term post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Parnia has collected over five hundred ADE cases and says the “transformative and positive” effects are universal; the only exceptions were suicide attempters, who had “traumatic and painful” ADEs.

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It gets still more fascinating. Among Parnia’s over 500 cases, the beautiful ADEs are “described by people irrespective of their religious or cultural background….” Both “religious and nonreligious” people recount “seeing an actual luminous being, a being of light.” They say it is a being of

love, mercy, and compassion, and in their eyes, this being was absolutely perfect. Some people identified the being of light as God; some thought it to be a religious figure such as Jesus, and others interpreted it as a simple, nondenominational being of light…. The love that emanated from the being of light had a far deeper intensity than that which emanated from other people (such as deceased family members) who were encountered during the NDE or anything they had encountered in life up until that point.

What about the skeptics who say these are just hallucinations? Parnia refutes their claims. For instance, the most common claim is that NDEs (or ADEs) result from a cutoff of oxygen to the brain. But as Parnia notes, there are “many problems” with that view.

Least of all, the problem is that people suffer from the effects of a lack of oxygen in emergency rooms every day and don’t have experiences that resemble what people have recalled from a period of cardiac arrest…. In fact, lack of oxygen [as in pneumonia or asthma] leads to delirium, confusion, and coma due to a reduction in oxygen delivery to the brain. However, people with NDEs have lucid, well-structured thought processes with reasoning and memory formation, and they are quite the opposite of delirious.

Or, skeptics say NDEs result from medications given to patients. And yet, “Studies showed that many NDEs took place without any medications even being administered or that people with and without the experiences had the same medications.”

To all that must be added the numerous reports of people in NDEs accurately recalling specific conversations and events that occurred—in and sometimes out of their operating rooms—while they had no brain function. Parnia recounts one case where a new doctor, dealing with a patient in a prolonged cardiac arrest, ate the patient’s lunch. After recovery, the patient described to the doctor a detailed NDE, and finished with: “And you ate my lunch!”

No, the skeptics may not like it, but doctors and their staff are hearing more and more accounts from revived patients like this one, told by a patient to a nurse in Parnia’s AWARE study:

His journey commenced by travelling through a tunnel towards a very strong light, which didn’t dazzle him or hurt his eyes. Interestingly, he said that there were other people in the tunnel, whom he did not recognize. When he emerged he described a very beautiful crystal city and I quote “I have seen nothing more beautiful.” He said there was a river that ran through. There were many people, without faces, who were washing in the waters….

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What’s going on? Some scientists are suggesting, Parnia notes, that “human consciousness or the soul may in fact be an irreducible scientific entity in its own right, similar to many of the concepts in physics, such as mass and gravity, which are also irreducible entities.” If so, then consciousness is not just an epiphenomenon of the brain; it has an independent existence and could survive death. The exhaustive, multiauthored book Irreducible Mind, well-known in the field of mind-brain studies, argues just such positions based on abundant evidence.

One aspect of these joyous ADEs that is not totally pleasant is the life review. Remarkably similar accounts from all over the world speak of a panoramic reprise of all the social interactions in a person’s life, including those where the person caused pain to others; in the life review, however, the person feels the pain from those other people’s perspective. Life reviews have profound implications about the moral meaning of our lives—and are a subject for the next article in this series.