Visions of a Dying Brain
A lecture given by Drs Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick at the University of Southampton, 15th May 2001
Most of us will have heard accounts of people who claim to have had a Near Death Experience (NDE). Some of us will have read books on the subject and perhaps will have drawn hope for a blissful afterlife on the basis of such stories. The accounts are fascinating and even moving, as people are reunited with deceased relatives in beautiful settings. The subject has recently come under the scrutiny of science, to see what it might tell us about the nature of consciousness and the mind. The audience for this particular lecture was made up entirely of GPs (apart from myself).
Our first reaction might be to be dismissive about the subject of NDEs. It has become associated with spiritism and the occult, many web sites devoting themselves to the topic with a strong occult bias. I was surprised to see that serious research is being undertaken, and by people with good credentials: Dr. Sam Parnia is Clinical Research Fellow and Honorary Registrar in Medicine at Southampton University. Dr. Peter Fenwick is Consultant Neuro-psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry, London. Their conclusions are that such findings may cause us to rethink our traditional view that the mind is a product of brain processes, and that it will have significance for society as a whole. As the title suggests, the two options seem to be either that these manifestations are entirely natural and are because of the brain shutting down, or else they indicate that consciousness continues after death.
Dr Sam Parnia was the first to speak. He began by outlining the common features of the typical NDE. These include:
- feelings of peace.
- seeing a bright light.
- seeing a tunnel.
- meeting departed relatives.
- arriving at a new heavenly domain.
- looking down on their own bodies.
- a life review.
- encountering a mystical being.
Interestingly, he says that some people have a 'negative NDE'. This is often described as hellish, frightening and nightmarish. Not all NDEs include all the above elements, though some do. It seems the experience is like a 'spiritual journey' culminating in a point of no return. If the final boundary is crossed, there is a conviction that there will be no going back.
One obvious question is, 'Why are these things happening now?' It seems to be a 'new' phenomenon. There have been many books on the subject ever since Ray Moody Jr. published his best seller, 'Life after Life' in 1975, (still advertised as offering 'firm reassurance of life after death'). Dr. Parnia's response is that they are not new. Indeed, there are many historical accounts, including one from Plato in the 'Republic', Carl Jung, and nineteenth century Swiss accident survivors. Some people have seen Hieronymous Bosch's painting 'Ascent to Empyreon' - which depicts people ascending a great tunnel - as depicting their experience quite accurately. Arguably, the improvements in resuscitation methods will increase the amount of anecdotal evidence simply because there are more people returning from the brink of death. In earlier times, there must have been far less.
Parnia points out that the common features seem to cross all boundaries. People from the Far East report similar experiences, as do children.
A problem that Dr. Parnia is very aware of is the fact that the stories don't constitute scientific proof. The two main objections have been that the accounts can be dismissed as hallucinations or fabrications. Also, you never know how close to death the person under investigation actually was. Whether the brain is still functioning or not is going to be a major factor in any study. The three explanations that have been proposed are:
- they can be explained physiologically
- they are psychological
- they are genuinely transcendental
Dr. Parnia's Research
For his research, Dr. Parnia has chosen cardiac arrest survivors. Cardiac arrest, he says, is the closest model of the dying process. The criteria for clinical death are - by definition - invariably reached. There is no pulse or respiratory activity and the EEG readings are flat - that is to say, there is no cortical activity; the brain modules are 'off-line'.
Out of the 63 cardiac arrest survivors that Parnia interviewed, 56 had no memories of any lucid experience. Seven, however, did. Parnia narrowed these down to four who clearly met all the criteria. All four experienced the feelings of peace and all four came to the 'point of no return'. Needless to say, there needs to be more research and a higher population of survivors to develop a better picture. In order to obtain independent evidence, Dr. Parnia has hidden certain objects around the hospital wards that the patients may notice and remember, but this has not brought results yet.
Dr. Peter Fenwick invited Heather to give her story:
Heather experienced a difficult pregnancy in the summer of 1976. She had gone 48 hours without water and later passed out. When in the hospital she had an NDE. It included most of the classic elements. Heather found herself apparently looking at herself joined to her body via a bluey white fragile looking cord. She felt the presence of a 'reassuring person' who seemed to be saying 'come with me'. She found herself surrounded by a light, and then approached a brighter light. Her feeling was one of absolute peace, yet also it was daunting because she felt unworthy of being in the presence of such perfection. 'There was nowhere to hide' she said. A life review took place; Heather could feel the hurt she had caused others. During the experience, her mind was drawn to her 18month old daughter who would need her.
'A decision was made that I could go back' she tells us. On the way back she could see her body; two nurses were with her. Interestingly, she remembers seeing through the ceiling and noticed the cord again.
It is easy to see why an account of this kind could pose problems for a scientific explanation. The experience has a narrative quality that is meaningful for the patient and the patient is lucid throughout. Sometimes they claim that they felt more alive than they ever have done before. Dr. Fenwick finds the scientific explanations unconvincing. Psychological explanations are not applicable for cardiac arrest. He also rules out anoxia and hypercardia. The experiences of patients who have had these are almost always confusional, and they lack the narrative quality of NDEs. Temporal lobe seizure is similarly ruled out for the same reasons. They are not characteristically similar phenomenologically. Hence, Fenwick leans towards the transcendental interpretation. We resist such an interpretation, he says, because of our metaphysical assumptions, namely, that the external world is independent. His research has led him to accept some kind of mind/body dualism.
For me, the biggest question is why no more than a few percent have the experience, given that the circumstances seem to be the same. If I find myself being brought back from the brink of death, the odds are strongly against me having a blissful experience. This fact may make us a little suspicious when hearing grand stories from others. However, I should say that Heather did not strike me as being insincere; and such experiences are supposed to be life changing - understandably so.
It is unlikely that many sceptical scientists will be convinced. The science writer Susan Blackmore has researched the subject, having considered many case histories, but says, 'All things considered, I can see no reason to adopt the afterlife hypothesis ... The dying brain hypothesis, for all its shortcomings, does a better job of accounting for the experiences themselves'. Because we do dream and (sometimes) hallucinate, it might seem hasty to posit an afterlife on the basis of these experiences if there is a simpler explanation.
The 'transcendent' interpretation makes one think of religion. The experiences, however, don't seem to fit nicely into any religious package. It is often stated that the mystical being will be viewed variously according to the religious beliefs of the particular NDE subject; often the being is seen as Christ or Buddha. But there is not a lot that seems distinctively Christian here. I find it hard to even imagine what these experiences are supposed to be like (and I have tried), but they are defined as 'ineffable' by Moody, so short of having the experience there is not much we can say. The encounters with the light and the mystical being don't seem to be encounters with the God of the Bible; rarely do people feel they have encountered a holy God (though love does feature prominently).
Interestingly, our Bible reading today seemed relevant, 'Tell us pleasant things, prophecy illusions ... stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel', Isaiah 30:10-11. It is a nice thought that we will all automatically 'go to heaven' when we die, but it might not be true - it certainly isn't biblical. If we are to take the NDE stories as 'gospel', only 4% might go anywhere at all! And St. Paul warns us that even Satan can disguise himself as an angel of light. It's probably wise to suspend judgement as to the origin of these experiences.
On a personal note, I used to read books on the subject of NDEs, often from very spurious sources but also some scholarly work (Ian Wilson's book, I read several times over). My library, such as it was, consisted mainly of books that would fall under the general term 'New Age'. As fascinated as I was in reading these NDE accounts, they seemed unable to give me any strong convictions about an after-life, nor did they bring any kind of peace or even hope. Becoming a Christian changed all that for me (I seem to remember throwing most of my NDE books in the bin). I have a hope for the after life, but it is not a 'crossed fingers' kind of hope, rather it is a living hope based on trusting in Jesus Christ. The peace of God can be experienced now.
Susan Blackmore, Dying to Live Prometheus Books, 1992
Raymond Moody, Life After Life Bantam Books, 1975
Ian Wilson, The After Death Experience London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987
Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation (NLT) copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.