Thursday, May 8, 2014
If you're a frequent reader of this blog, then you know I'm fascinated by near death experiences. I've reviewed some of the most popular non-fiction titles that deal with the phenomenon.
A recent article posted at Salon.com takes on the phenomenon of near death experiences combined with a relatively new treatment protocol-- hypothermic cardiac arrest. The use of hypothermia is gaining acceptance to save brain tissue from anoxic injury-- which means injury as a result of a lack of oxygen. Common ways it is used today is after delivery and after cardiac arrest.
In this case, it was used to intentionally "arrest" a patient for brain surgery.
The story centers around a patient, Pam Reynolds, who had a brain aneurysm that was about to rupture. Leaving it alone was not an option but the surgery to decompress it was equally as risky. To save brain function, her surgeon wanted to cool her body to the point where her brain would no longer be active but would hopefully preserve its function. What's also interesting is that the cooler brain temperature would "soften the vessels" and make them less likely to rupture. This is something I'd not heard of before. After the procedure they would slowly return her body to normal temperature.
At first, while under anesthesia-- she has an out of body experience and is able to describe precise details about the surgery even though her eyes were taped shut and she wore noise producing ear phones-- which evidently were used to re-engage her brainstorm upon reperfusion. When blood flow to the brain stops, measurable EEG waves (which measure brain activity) stops after 10-20 seconds. Despite this, 15% of NDE survivors have memories from the time they were clinically dead.
The crux of the story is what happened when her brain and heart no longer had electrical activity. Tunnel of light. Meeting deceased relatives. A warm and loving light she believed to be God. These aspects are fairly consistent among most NDEs. Another consistent phenomenon of NDEs is the positive life change that happens after the experience.
According to the Salon piece, interest in NDEs resulted from a published book Life after Life by Raymond Moody and I don't think interest has waned considering how often these non-fiction books hit the bestseller lists. There is also an International Association for near-death studies.
The issue from a medical standpoint is independent corroboration of these events. To be of value, statements need to be verified by more than just the individual. This happened with an individual named Maria who was able to describe, very precisely, a shoe that was stuck on a ledge outside her hospital room. Hospital staff retrieved the shoe and the doctor involved in her case was convinced of the NDE.
Still not satisfied, a different group of researchers interviewed people who were blind, some since birth, who reported the same type of experience. This is leading researchers to think something is occurring outside the brain/body.
However, controversy exists and not all scientist are on board with the brain/spirit being serparate from the physical body. A few case studies report out of body experiences (OBEs) during brain surgery for seizures and some view them as momentary brain dysfuction. NDE supporters insist that just because you can induce an OBE like experience using electrodes doesn't mean OBEs are illusions.
Also, in denial of the illusion theory, Parnia reasons . . .
"When oxygen levels decrease markedly, patients whose lungs or hearts do not work properly experience an “acute confusional state,” during which they are highly confused and agitated and have little or no memory recall. In stark contrast, during NDEs people experience lucid consciousness, well-structured thought processes, and clear reasoning. They also have an excellent memory of the NDE, which usually stays with them for several decades. In other respects, Parnia argues that if this hypothesis is correct, then the illusion of seeing a light and tunnel would progressively develop as the patient’s blood oxygen level drops. Medical observations, however, indicate that patients with low oxygen levels do not report seeing a light, a tunnel, or any of the common features of an NDE we discussed earlier."
What is known is that the controversy surrounding NDEs is not going away because, in the end, what would it mean to science if it was proven that the mind/spirit can exist separately from the body? What would it mean regarding our understanding of religion-- particularly when people from different religions have similar NDE experiences?
Only time or death will tell.