Important Research Articles

Dr. Peter Fenwick, M.D.: Science and Spirituality


Focusing In On the Near-Death Out-of-Body Experience

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the OBE, and so the NDE, occurs during unconsciousness. There is also anecdotal evidence that it may be veridical. Sabom in 1982 found that some of his research participants gave correct accounts of resuscitation procedures, suggesting that the NDE occurs when the brain is ‘‘down.’’ The case of Pamela Reynolds, for those of you who saw the BBC production The Day I Died (Broome, 2003) or read the account of her case in Sabom’s later book (1998), is also suggestive of that. And, of course, Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper (1997) have described cases of NDEs in blind people who claim to have what they call ‘‘mindsight’’ and are able to ‘‘see’’ the resuscitation room. So, is the OBE truly veridical? That is, does it consist of verifiably accurate perceptions that would have been impossible to perceive from the vantage point of that person’s physical body? This is the cutting edge question in NDE research. So, let us have a look at that. I will just play you this video of one of the people from our study who had a heart attack and an out-of-body experience.

In a respectable London suburb near Hampton Court lives a man who has twice been at death’s door and survived to tell the tale. Derrick Scull, age 66, is married with two children. He’s a retired Army major who now works in a large firm of lawyers.

Well, basically, I pride myself in being a fairly pragmatic, down-to-earth sort of person, but the experience that I underwent in 1978 remains etched in my memory for the last 8 years, and certainly I couldn’t believe my eyes or my senses at the particular time. I had a heart attack, and I found myself in hospital in the intensive care unit on the first day. The hospital medical staff had done everything they could for me. I was lying there in an operation robe with a mask on my face, and obviously I’d received an injection of morphine or some sort of drug to keep me under control. I wasn’t experiencing pain; in fact, I was feeling at peace with the world.

And suddenly, I seemed to take off and float, airborne, I suppose one would describe the word, into the corner of the room where I was able to look back, and I was conscious of lying there, and there was my own body, and I thought, ‘‘Good gracious, what is this?’’ In fact, I sort of, if I can describe it, I was looking at my toes on the ceiling, sort of looking over, and there was my body immediately below me. I was in the corner, left hand corner of the room, looking down on this body, and I had a perfectly good eye view of the bed and the entrance to the ward. And then I was also suddenly conscious that outside the room, there was my wife standing there in a red trouser suit talking to a nurse. I thought, ‘‘My God, what an inappropriate time to arrive. I’m up here, and there’s the body, and what’s going to happen?’’ I thought, ‘‘Something must happen.’’

But the very next thing I was conscious of was, sitting beside me was my wife wearing a bright red trouser suit. And I was there. I’d come down from the ceiling somehow, and there she was. This is why I know it wasn’t a figment of my imagination, because it was so clear. I’ve given you the illustration of exactly what my wife was wearing, that was a red trouser suit, and I couldn’t have seen her at the time. So this absolutely convinced me, and it was certainly cemented after my second heart attack when I went through a totally similar experience, and I am absolutely converted to this theory that something – call it your soul, call it whatever you like – does, in fact, temporally detach itself from your body, goes to a vantage point, and looks back and reviews the situation. And that’s exactly what I felt I did on both occasions.

Now, Major Scull is very clear that his OBE happened during his cardiac arrest. What we need to do is to test this. Sartori, from Morriston hospital in the U.K., did this in a study for her Ph.D. thesis, not yet published. Using a method suggested by Janice Holden (Holden, 1988; Holden and Joesten, 1990), Sartori put randomized cards on top of the monitors displaying the patient’s medical data, which are always present in patient rooms, usually beside the bed. Because the monitors were above eye level of a person standing up, the cards on top of them could not normally be seen by the nurses.

The question is, of course, when people left their bodies, did they see the cards? What would you guess? What are you NDErs going to look at when you leave your bodies? Are you going to look around the room, have a look at the monitors, see if there are any cards hidden there? You are not going to be interested in impersonal cards. The only thing you are interested in is this thing lying on the bed, which is your body, and nothing else. And that is exactly what happened in Sartori’s study. I had thought that people would see the cards, but they did not. Sartori has now had eight patients who reported being out-of-body during their cardiac arrests, and what those people did was look at their bodies. One looked at her body and went out of the window. Another found a tunnel. One simply went back into the body as quickly as she could. Another went out through the wall backwards.

Clearly there is something wrong with this methodology. For if people do leave their bodies and look around the room, they do not gain the sort of information that we want them to gain – at least not through this research protocol. So we are designing a new experiment, very much like the study Greyson and Holden are conducting in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Imagine a cardiac care unit room. In a corner of the ceiling is someone who has left his or her body and is looking back down on the physical body. What we are going to do is to make sure that whatever object we use is something that a patient who leaves the body and looks down at it could not fail to see. One suggestion is thatwe should suspend from the ceiling a display screen between the person who is up at the ceiling and the physical body. The screen would be translucent, and would display some randomly generated image that is not visible from below, so the out-of-body person has actually got to look through the screen to see the physical body. A camera would record the whole of the resuscitation process, so that we can see if, after resuscitation and stabilization, the patient can accurately report what was displayed on the screen while he or she was unconscious and being resuscitated.


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