Between Life And Death
EXTRAORDINARY ACCOUNTS RAISE QUESTIONS ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH
A woman remembers the calm and peace that she felt as she looked down at her own body in a hospital bed.
A Hamilton hospital orderly is angry when doctors resuscitate him after cardiac arrest. He says that he remembers having a beautiful and comforting experience and asks not to be resuscitated if his heart stops again.
An eight-year-old Seattle girl comes out of a diabetic coma and says that people dressed in white gave her the chance to choose her fate by pushing a button.
Psychiatrist Carl Jung had one. Actress Elizabeth Taylor had one. Even Bart Simpson’s dog had one. Eight million Americans, according to a 1982 Gallup poll, have had one. Researchers estimate that the phenomenon is widespread: one in three people who recover from coming close to death or becoming clinically dead report having had a so-called near-death experience. Usually, according to Kenneth Ring, a psychology professor and a leading researcher in the area at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, a neardeath experience involves a feeling of peace and well-being; a sense of separation from the physical body; a journey into a dark void and tunnel-like area; a panoramic view of one’s life; an encounter with a supernatural personality, and sometimes with dead relations; and a return to the physical body. “Almost always, these people are extremely grateful that it happened,” says Ring, who has conducted three major studies of the near-death phenomenon. “Many say it’s their single greatest experience.”
For most people, fear of the unknown, and especially of dying and death, is a fundamental source of anxiety. Few people go through their lives without wondering—or worrying about—what happens after the body dies. But theories about what happens after death remain in the realm of speculation. Increasingly,
reports of near-death experiences are raising new questions about whether death is really the end of life. Since 1975, when American psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Moody first coined the term “near-death experience” in his book Life After Life, a growing number of researchers in universities and hospitals have devoted themselves to finding the answers—and their work is gradually finding its way into the medical mainstream.
To skeptics, the near-death experience is the brain’s dreamlike response to distress. To claim that near-death experiences are evidence of some form of life after death is, say critics of the theory, wishful thinking. Few researchers are prepared yet to suggest that near-death experiences provide a glimpse of an existence beyond death. Still, they maintain that the evidence they are gathering will help to explain unexplored parts of the consciousness, reli-
gion—and possibly the universe. “This is a tremendously fertile area,” said Dr. Melvin Morse, a pediatrician near Seattle who studies children’s near-death experiences. “I think science will be probing the frontiers of consciousness and whether or not there is a God.” Dreams: Not everyone who comes close to death recalls having had a near-death experience. From the point of view of researchers who believe in the phenomenon, many of those
people may simply repress the experience. Those researchers cite studies showing that people who are able to remember their dreams are more likely to recall a near-death experience. To skeptics, that same research suggests that such experiences are just another form of dream. They maintain that because near-death experiences often contain the cultural and personal marks of those who have them, the phenomenon is merely a jumble of memories
being interpreted by a distraught mind.
Still, researchers provide compelling evidence of people from widely varying backgrounds around the world claiming to have had remarkably similar experiences during a brush with death. Some experts say that accounts of near-death experiences are as old as recorded history. They claim that those accounts are not the product of religious teaching, but the foundation of the concept of heaven and the afterlife. “People will say that belief in life after death is the product of wishful thinking,” said Toronto journalist and broadcaster Tom Harpur, a former Anglican minister and author of the 1991 book Life After Death. “I think it’s the product of meditation on what people have actually experienced” (page 40).
Barbara Harris was 32years old in 1975 when she underwent back surgery. A few days after surgery, Harris began bleeding internally' and her blood pressure started to drop. “I remember screaming, ‘Leave me alone, I want to die, ’ ” she recalled. “And I passed out. ” In the middle of the night, she says, she awoke in the hallway of the hospital. As she entered her room, she realized that she was looking down on her own body in the bed. “I felt calm and peaceful, ” said Harris. The next thing she saw was total blackness and then she felt her grandmother, who had been dead for 14 years, embrace her— “I could feel what she was feeling. ” Harris says that she was then aware of a breeze and a low droning noise that was “beckoning” her. Her next memory is of waking up in the hospital bed. Harris, who lives in Catonsville, Md., and wrote the 1990 book Full Circle: The NearDeath Experience and Beyond, says that her passage made her realize that death was nothing to be feared. “I don’t want to die before my time, but I really do look forward to going back, ” she said. “It feels like home. ”
Whether they are a glimpse of the next life or tricks that the mind is playing during a lifethreatening situation, near-death experiences have a profound and permanent effect on the lives of those who have them (pages 38 and 39). Dr. Bruce Greyson, director of inpatient psychiatry at the University of Connecticut medical school in Farmington, pointed to the results of his new study involving three groups of people: those who have never come close to death; those who have, but who did not have a 2 near-death experience; and those who had the < experience. The results indicated that the o near-death experience transformed the lives of |g those who had them. Both groups who had £ come close to death valued life more than those ^ who had not. But the people who had had neardeath experiences, Greyson said, became, among other things, much more adventurous and started to take more risks. Those who had come close to death but had no memory of it became more cautious and conservative. “The near-deathers are ready to go anytime,” said Greyson. “They tend not to be afraid of death. Paradoxically, the others tend to be afraid of life.”
But the critics say that the near-death expe-
rience is not proof of life after death.
Similar out-of-body sensations or spiritual journeys have been reported during meditation. “The experiences are sufficiently like other states,” said Barry Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., “so it’s better to assume that they are things the brain is capable of generating under certain circumstances.” Beyerstein added:
“And I think it’s probably a bad idea to mix science and religion.”
Changes: But to others, the fact that the experience may occur during meditation raises new issues. “Even in this world, the out-of-body experience suggests at least the possibility of consciousness continuing in the absence of the usual connections to the body,” said Donald Evans, a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in religion and mysticism. According to Evans, it is “puzzling” that people at the point of little or no brain activity can have “such a rich experience, unless the consciousness is, to some extent, independent of brain changes.”
Other researchers say that it is significant that near-death experiences can bring about more personal changes than years of psychotherapy do. In his new book, The Omega Project, which will be published next month, Ring reports on his study of the aftereffects of near-death experiences. Among them, he says, are widespread value changes as people become more spiritually oriented, altruistic and compassionate. Ring also found that people who had near-death passages reported that their neurological systems were functioning differently afterwards. Many said that they have felt flooded by information from another dimension that they cannot absorb. Others said that they have become more intuitive, even psychic. But the experience, for all its richness, may also be a disruptive force on people’s personal lives. “Very often, people come back with a very different concept of what love is,” said Greyson. “They often feel that they love everybody. And that’s real hard for spouses to accept sometimes.” There is also some early evidence indicating that a near-death experience causes physiological changes. Some people, Greyson says, have shown long-term decreased blood pressure and pulse rates after having a near-death experience. In addition, there are those who report a new intolerance for certain smells, sounds or bright lights. Greyson says that some people have reported a sensitivity to electromagnetic fields—“computers go on the fritz when they walk into a room.” He added: “It’s hard to know if you’re dealing with a coincidence or a phenomenon.”
In a Seattle hospital emergency room, eightyear-old Michelle lapsed into a diabetic coma, and remained in it for several days. A few weeks after her recovery, she told researcher
Morse what she remembered:
“All of a sudden, I was floating above my body looking down at myself There were two doctors pushing me on one of those stretchers towards a room. Both were women doctors. I felt funny. I was sick and my head hurt when my mom brought me in, but when I was floating I didn’t feel bad. I felt good. ” During the second part of her experience, she told Morse, she was somewhere with people dressed in white. “In front of me were two buttons, a red one and green one. The people in white kept telling me to push the red button. But I knew I should push the green one because the red button would mean I wouldn’t come back. I pushed the green one instead and woke up from the coma. I don’t know why I knew that the red button was bad. But it was, because I’m still here. ”
Unlike adults’ reports, children’s near-death experiences are rarely laden with cultural embellishments and interpretations. In one study, Morse, who wrote the 1990 book Closer to the Light about children’s experiences, studied 23 children who had fully recovered from cardiac arrest. Of those, he said, 18, including Michelle, reported near-death sensations. While he acknowledged that he had only a small group to study, Morse still was willing to assert that “the experience is integral to the process of dying.” He says that children frequently consider the near-death experience to be a “weird dream.” A fairly standard response, he added, is, “Wow. It was really weird. I thought I was floating. I saw a light and there were a lot of good things in the light.” Said Morse: “They
have the pure essence of the experience. It’s simple, beautiful and told in a very straightforward way.”
But the aftereffects are similar to those for adults. Morse talked to people over 50 who had near-death experiences as children and said that they were profoundly changed by them. Aside from diminished death anxiety, he said, they lived their lives more vigorously, exercised more, gave more money to charity and took better care of themselves than those who had not had a near-death experience. One of Morse’s young patients told him: “Life is for living and the light is for later.”
Hell: Not all near-death passages, however, are reassuring. A few people report being frightened by the experience. According to Nancy Evans Bush, president of the 11-yearold Hartford, Conn.-based International Association for Near-Death Studies, who has spent the past nine years collecting anecdotal information, unpleasant near-death experiences tend to fall into three categories. The first, she says, resembles a positive experience except that the person has interpreted it in a different way and has often been terrified by the sense of losing control. Said Evans Bush: “A person who approaches the light and is so fearful may see it as a reflection of the fires at the gates of hell, instead of seeing it as a radiant light.”
Evans Bush adds that a second group of people experience “a great cosmic nothingness.” Sensations of being caught in a void, with an accompanying sense of abandonment, she adds, frequently lead to long-term despair. Those in the third, and smallest, group claim
that they saw a vision of hell. In some of those accounts, according to Evans Bush, people claim that they have had to observe others being tortured or tormented.
While nurse Michelle Cooper was on duty at Chedoke Hospital in Hamilton in 1977, an orderly suffered cardiac arrest. When doctors resuscitated him, he was angry. He told Cooper that he had had an experience of floating, first through darkness and then over a brightly lit field of clover. There were beautiful smells and music, and a brother who had died was beckoning him. All of a sudden, he felt a terrible pain and found himself in the emergency room. After his experience, he called his lawyer, arranged his finances and requested that he not be resuscitated the next time. Cooper was with him again when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Said Cooper: “You felt OK because you knew he was really ready to pass on and what was waiting for him was something wonderful. ”
It is the emphasis on the spiritual aspects of the experience that concerns many critics. Skeptics do not dispute that near-death experiences occur or that they affect those who have them profoundly. But they reject claims that they reflect a glimpse of life after death. James Alcock, a psychology professor at Toronto’s York University and, he says, “the only skeptic on the board” of the Association for NearDeath Studies’ journal, says that the phenomenon can be explained in scientific terms. Even when a person is unconscious or under anesthesia, says Alcock, there is some degree of consciousness. “What is coming in there is a very distorted perception of reality,” said Alcock. “There may be some things from the world mixed with other material from memory.” He added: “It doesn’t take much exposure to religion to believe it’s real.”
Like Alcock and other doubters, Ronald Siegel, an associate research professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied near-death experiences, contends that they are physiological, rather than spiritual, in origin. In his book Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination, which was published last month, Siegel argues that hallucinations can be triggered by fear, loneliness or isolation. In the same way, he says, when a person is close to death, the brain reacts to the threat to the body in such a way that fantasies and memories of childhood flood the consciousness. That response is not unlike the effects of certain “visionary drugs,” like hashish and LSD, Siegel writes, which “cause cerebral excitation that enables thoughts and memories to become transformed into sensory impressions.” He added: “Just as physiological shock helps keep the body together, the near-death experience keeps potentially disorganizing emotion in check. It’s an adaptive way for us to survive a life-threatening situation.”
Indeed, critics remain convinced that the near-death experience is like a dream or nightmare—and should be treated that way. “We can have very vivid dreams or very vivid nightmares, and what we do with children is
wake them up and say, ‘It’s just a fantasy,’ ” said Alcock. “But we’re totally unprepared for these kinds of experiences. To people who have them, the obvious explanation is that they’re real.” Richard Blacher, a psychiatry professor and lecturer in surgery at Boston’s Tufts University, also dismisses the belief that near-death experiences occur outside the body—and he claims that people who report them were never really dead. “People talk as though people died and came back to life,” said Blacher. “Death is an end point—a state, not a process. You can also say that if a bullet misses your head by an inch, it’s a near-death experience.”
Drugs: Other researchers, including Rev. Albert Moraczewski, chaplain at the Dominican Monastery of Contemplative Nuns in Lufkin, Texas, 200 km northeast of Houston, conclude that the experiences are probably the
result of metabolic changes, such as a temporary oxygen deprivation or a sudden release of hormones in the body. Moraczewski also notes the similarity between near-death experiences and the effects of some hallucinogenic drugs. “It’s much less likely to mean anything of religious significance if you can induce it with a chemical alteration of the brain,” he said. At most, Moraczewski added, the experience may represent an individual’s encounter with his own spirituality. “This may be the means for them to wake up to themselves,” added Moraczewski. “But the church would object to it being seen as an encounter with Christ or God in a direct sense.”
Still, some researchers say that such explanations do not fully account for what happens during a near-death experience. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t a physiological explanation,” said Greyson, “just that we haven’t found one.”
What impresses many scientists is the wide variety of circumstances in which the experiences occur, the personal changes it precipitates—and the failure of any theory to fit all the cases. Said Evans Bush: “There is no human experience of any description that can’t simply be reduced to a biological process, but that in no way offsets the meaning those experiences have for us—whether it’s falling in love, or grieving, or having a baby.”
Despite the growing body of research into near-death experiences, many issues remain unresolved. Morse says that the next step should be to take a large group of people at risk of heart attacks and thoroughly study them. A number of them will eventually suffer cardiac arrest, and some will have near-death experiences. “There are a number of questions to be answered,” said Morse. “Does this experience happen during the process of dying? Or is it a
retrospective falsification after they’ve revived consciousness? Is the physical transformation something real?”
Whether it is scientific curiosity, a desire to believe that life goes on in some form after death or a need for reassurance that dying can be a pleasant process, the mounting interest in near-death experiences is clear evidence of an appetite for more information. “This whole subject is just full of incredible hope for some people and equivalent fear for others,” said Evans Bush. “People are so hungry to know what they can believe about death, what they can believe about dying.” The growing body of knowledge about what happens at death’s door may shed new light on the nature of human consciousness—and, perhaps eventually, on the mysterious realm that may lie beyond death.