Near-death Experiences are Real and we have the Proof, say Scientists
Dr Parnia has previously studied near-death experiences. Two years ago his work was published in the prestigious medical journal Resuscitation. Dr Parnia’s team rigorously interviewed 63 cardiac arrest patients and discovered that seven had memories of their brief period of ‘death’, although only four passed the Grayson scale, the strict medical criteria for assessing near-death experiences. These four recounted feelings of peace and joy, they lost awareness of their own bodies, time speeded up, they saw a bright light and entered another world, encountered a mystical being and faced a “point of no return”.
According to modern medicine all of these patients were effectively dead. Their brains had shut down and no thoughts or feelings were possible. There was certainly no possibility of the complex brain activity required for dreaming or hallucinating.
Dr Parnia’s initial trial was especially rigorous - he wanted to confound his critics before they could muster their arguments. To rule out the possibility that near-death experiences resulted from hallucinations after the brain had collapsed through lack of oxygen, he rigorously monitored the concentrations of the vital gas in the patients’ blood. Crucially, none of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen.
He was also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case, regardless of whether they had a near-death experience or not.
“Arch sceptics will always attack our work,” says Dr Parnia. “I’m content with that. That’s how science progresses. What is clear is that something profound is happening. The mind – the thing that is ‘you’ – your ‘soul’ if you will - carries on after conventional science says it should have drifted into nothingness.”
Dr Parnia says that every near-death experience is subtly different but that they all share eight or nine key features, whatever the nationality, culture or religion of the patient. These include intense feelings of calmness, traveling down a long dark tunnel, being drawn into an intense loving light, seeing your dead body from above, and meeting long-deceased relatives or friends. A few experience a brief form of ‘hell’ where they are drawn, petrified, into a dark swirling well of bitterness, hatred and fear.
There are cultural differences in these experiences. Tribal people may report paddling in a canoe down a long dark river for three days towards the sun, for example, rather than floating down a tunnel towards the light. The experience, whatever the cultural differences, usually have a deep and long lasting effect. It often leaves behind a legacy of profound spirituality and removes the fear of death.
Cardiac arrest survivors like Patrick are tailor-made for Dr Parnia’s study. Scientists know that within seconds of the heart stopping the brain has shut down completely. The patient is effectively dead and there is no chance of dreams or hallucinations mimicking a near-death experience.
As soon as a patient slips into a cardiac arrest, Dr Parnia’s team will swing into action. The first priority will be to get the patient’s heart beating again. Equipment used during the resuscitation will have symbols placed on top of it in such a way that they can only be seen from above. Other symbols will be placed around the patient’s body.
Surviving patients will then be gently quizzed about their experiences when they regain consciousness. Those that claim to have left their bodies will be questioned in more detail to see if they can identify the symbols.
Dr Parnia has designed the experiments to be bullet-proof. He is only too keenly aware that critics will tear his work apart if he leaves even the slightest doubt about the rigour of his team’s efforts. It will also destroy his career as a scientist. Even the exact experimental details are shrouded in secrecy.
“We can’t run the risk of prejudicing the experiment,” says Dr Parnia. “I won’t even know some of the details. We have a researcher who will be hiding the symbols on the equipment. Somebody else will be doing the interviews with the patients. It’s what’s known as a double-blind trial. It prevents scientists from unconsciously altering the results of their experiments.”
Other scientists acknowledge Dr Parnia’s formidable reputation and the care he takes over his experiments but are still sceptical about his aims.