by Jeffrey Long, MD & Paul Bernstein, PhD.
On December 15, 2001, the highly respected international medical journal, The Lancet, published a 13-year study of NDEs observed in 10 different Dutch hospitals. This is one of the very few NDE studies to be conducted prospectively, meaning that a large group of people experiencing cessation of their heart and/or breathing function were resuscitated during a fixed period of time, and were interviewed. Through those interviews the doctors discovered who had experienced NDEs. The advantage of this type of study is that it gives scientists a matched comparison group of non-NDE patients against which to compare the near-death experiencers, and that in turn gives scientists much more reliable data about the possible causes and consequences of the near-death experience.
For example, in the past some scientists have asserted that the NDE must be simply a hallucination brought on by the loss of oxygen to the brain [called "anoxia"] after the heart has stopped beating. This study casts doubt on that theory, in the words of its chief investigator, cardiologist Pim van Lommel, MD, "Our results show that medical factors cannot account for the occurrence of NDE. All patients had a cardiac arrest, and were clinically dead with unconsciousness resulting from insufficient blood supply to the brain. In those circumstances, the EEG (a measure of brain electrical activity) becomes flat, and if CPR is not started within 5-10 minutes, irreparable damage is done to the brain and the patient will die. According to the theory that NDE is caused by anoxia, all patients in our study should have had an NDE, but only 18% reported having an NDE... There is also a theory that NDE is caused psychologically, by the fear of death. But only a very small percentage of our patients said they had been afraid seconds before their cardiac arrest—it happened too suddenly for them to realize what was occurring. More patients than the frightened ones reported NDEs." Finally, differences in drug treatments during resuscitation did not correlate with the likelihood of patients experiencing NDEs, nor with the depth of their NDEs.
Of the 344 patients tracked by the Dutch team, 18% had some memory from their period of unconsciousness, and 12% (1 out of every 8) had what the physicians called a "core" or "deep" NDE. The researchers defined that as a memory by the patient from their period of unconsciousness which scored six or more points on the scale published by Dr. Ken Ring in his 1980 study, Life at Death: A Scientific Investigation of the Near-Death Experience. This scale includes, among other things, out-of-body perception, moving through a tunnel, communication with light, blissful feelings, observation of a celestial landscape, meeting with deceased persons, life review, and presence of a border. The scientists were surprised that the NDErs recalled their experience with the same degree of detail when interviewed again several years later.
During those follow-up interviews (2 years and 8 years later), the scientists assessed the patients' attitudes about several key issues in life—fear of death, acceptance of others, interest in spirituality, and the like. On 13 such issues they found substantial, statistically significant differences between the NDErs and the non-NDErs. For example, NDErs had become much more empathic and accepting of others since their NDE than had the non-NDErs. And NDErs had become both more appreciative of the ordinary things of life and much less afraid of death than had the non-NDErs.
Dr. van Lommel and his colleagues conducted the entire study without special funding; they volunteered their own time and engaged the volunteer efforts of many IANDS members in Holland (whose group is called Merkawah. Two years ago Dr. van Lommel and his colleagues were visited by Vital Signs columnist PMH Atwater (who described Merkawah's activities in VS Issue #1, 2000, pages 5-8). Following the recent publication of their study in The Lancet, Dr. van Lommel gave the following interview to IANDS' Vice-President Dr. Jeffrey Long.
Dr. Long: The Lancet article received enormous publicity world-wide. For example, here in the US, ABC-TV featured it on their evening news. What reaction did you notice from physicians/scientists? And from the general public?
Dr. van Lommel: There has been an incredible amount of reaction from all over the world, especially in newspapers, but also in journals, radio, and TV. I myself received more than 265 e-mails in just four weeks, including a lot from physicians who wrote to me about their own NDEs! Most of the reactions were positive, but I assume that people who want to ignore the subject would not e-mail me. In our 800-bed teaching hospital there has been a lot of positive reaction by colleagues, but of course they already have known for years that I was interested in NDE.
Dr. Long: Are you planning any further NDE studies?
Dr. van Lommel: I am not planning any research at this moment. I have ideas about a study-design, but at this moment I have no time.
Dr. Long: I understand you helped found Netherlands' only Friends-of-IANDS group. Has the Lancet article affected attendance or interest in NDE?
Dr. van Lommel: Our IANDS-Netherlands group, Merkawah, has more than 400 members, national meetings, local meetings, a quarterly magazine with the name Terugkeer (which means Coming Back), local discussion groups, regional coordinators, and of course a governing board. In 1988 I was one of the founders, but at this moment I am not on the board any more. Also in Belgium and France there are actively operating IANDS organizations. Of course there has been a lot of attention in the newspapers, radio and TV, and that always stimulates reaction, including quite a lot of people who've had an NDE and did not know previously about Merkawah. There were reports about our study in the newspapers of England, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal, and Brazil as far as I am aware of, and of course in the USA. This started a lot of discussion about NDE, in particular about the relationship of consciousness and memories to brain functioning. For me, not only is growing attendance for IANDS important, but more openness and awareness about NDEs by physicians and nurses, and having the scientific approach be taken towards the NDE instead of just a sensationalist approach.
The possibility of consciousness existing outside of the brain, when the brain itself appears to be dead, is for Dr. van Lommel an especially important outcome of this research. As he wrote at the end of The Lancet article, and then added in a letter to Dr. Long:
How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG? . . . Furthermore, blind people have described veridical perception during out-of-body experiences at the time of this experience. NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation. There is a theory that consciousness can be experienced independently from the normal body-linked waking consciousness. The current concept in medical science, however, states that consciousness is the product of the brain. Could the brain be a kind of receiver for consciousness and memories, functioning like a TV, radio or a mobile telephone? What you receive is not generated by the receiver, but rather electromagnetic informational waves (photons) that are always around you and are made visible or audible to you by the brain and your sense organs. In our prospective study of patients that were clinically dead (flat EEG, showing no electrical activity in the cortex, and loss of brain stem function evidenced by fixed dilated pupils and absence of the gag reflex), the patients report a clear consciousness, in which cognitive functioning, emotion, sense of identity, or memory from early childhood occurred, as well as perceptions from a position out and above their "dead" body.
To answer these fundamental questions, research should be focused on specific elements of the NDE, such as out-of-body experiences and other verifiable aspects. Finally, the theory and background of transcendence should be included as a part of an explanatory framework for these experiences.
Such emphasis on transcendent experience is not welcomed by all medical professionals. The Lancet editors included a "Commentary" on Dr. van Lommel's article, which argued that even when patients accurately report events that occur while their brain and heart are not functioning, the cause might not be a true separation of their consciousness from their bodies but rather "prior knowledge, fantasy or dreams, lucky guesses, ...details learned between the NDE and giving an account of it, and...false memories" the mind trying to retrospectively "fill in the gap" after a period of cortical inactivity. 1
The Commentary's author, British psychology professor Christopher French, explained further why he finds it hard to believe these patients' reports of their NDEs. He pointed to the fact that two persons who'd originally told van Lommel's team of no memory that would be categorized as an NDE, later told them in the two-year follow-up interview of experiences in the hospital that the researchers would categorize as core NDEs. Professor French's conclusion was that, "It seems likely that at least some patients, on hearing about other survivors' NDEs, would start to imagine what it would have been like if they had had the same experience.... Recent psychological studies have shown conclusively that simply imagining that one has had experiences that had in fact never been encountered will lead to the development of false memories for those experiences. 1
But psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Greyson, a member of The Lancet's peer review team and a long-time NDE researcher, offered Vital Signs a different explanation. "In my own research with patients hospitalized for attempted suicide, ...there were a few ...who, on follow-up visits, later described NDEs in the course of their initial suicide attempt. They all told me that they simply hadn't trusted me sufficiently in our initial interview to share the NDE. This should not be surprising, because many of them were concerned about being regarded as crazy... There is quite a lot of evidence that NDErs often are unwilling to share their accounts with researchers until they have earned their trust. Unless we have some reason to suspect that NDErs are highly suggestible and have some strong motivation to imagine having had their NDEs, it seems irrational to assume that all NDEs are 'false memories'."
IANDS congratulates Dr. van Lommel for his excellent research.
1. French, Christopher (2001). "Commentary." Lancet 358, pp. 2010-11.