"No medical explanation" for near death
10:23 14 December 01
Medical explanations cannot account for near death
experiences (NDEs), according to the results of the biggest
prospective study to date of patients who were resuscitated
after clinical death. However, patients who reported an NDE
were more likely to die soon afterwards.
Pim Van Lommel and his team at Hospital Rijnstate in the
Netherlands interviewed 344 patients who were resuscitated
after heart failure at 10 hospitals across the country. The
patients were questioned as soon as they were well enough.
Eighteen per cent reported an NDE - classed as a memory of "a
special state of consciousness, including specific elements
such as out-of-body experience, pleasant feelings and seeing a
But the team found no link between NDEs and drugs used to
treat the patients, the duration of cardiac arrest or
unconsciousness, or the patients' reports of the degree to which
they feared death before the incident.
"This was the surprising thing," van Lommel says. "It's always
said that NDEs are just a phenomenon relating to the dying
brain and the lack of oxygen to the brain cells. But that's not
true. If there was a physiological cause, all the patients should
have had an NDE."
The patients were mostly elderly, with an average age of 62.
Van Lommel found that those that reported an NDE were
significantly more likely to die within 30 days.
"There is the idea that people can decide to some extent when
they die," says van Lommel. "Perhaps when they had an NDE,
their fear of death was over and they could let go."
The team did find that patients who were under 60 and female
were more likely to report an NDE. But the causes of the
experience remain a mystery, van Lommel says.
His team questioned surviving NDE patients again two years
after their resuscitation, and then after eight years. Most of the
patients recalled the event in striking detail. And most showed
significant psychological changes, the team reports. The 23
NDE patients who were still alive eight years later "had become
more emotionally vulnerable and empathic", they write.
Pushing the limit
Van Lommel's team report anecdotal stories of patients
recalling events that happened around them during out of body
experiences while they were clinically dead. These experiences
"push at the limit of medical ideas about the range of human
consciousness and the mind/brain relationship," Van Lommel
Christopher French, at the Anomalistic Psychology Research
Unit at Goldsmiths College, London, says the team's paper is
"intriguing", though he notes that van Lommel's team failed to
contact the patients for corroboration. He points out that NDEs
are impossible to objectively verify - and that out of body
experiences have not been proved to exist.
But, in a commentary on the research, he writes: "the out of
body component of the NDE offers probably the best hope of
launching any kind of attack on current concepts of the
relationship between consciousness and brain function."
If researchers could prove that clinically dead patients, with no
electrical activity in their cortex, can be aware of events around
them and form memories, this would suggest that the brain
does not generate consciousness, French and Van Lommel
Journal reference: The Lancet (vol 358, p 2039)
10:23 14 December 01