|S cience Fact or Science Fiction|
Although most people who have come close to death say they remember nothing, a third or more may later report that "something happened." That "something" might be a near-death experience, an NDE.
No two NDEs are identical, but within a group of experiences a pattern becomes evident. The pattern (and any single experience) includes one or more of these things:
One most extraordinary aspect of NDEs is that the underlying pattern seems unaffected by a person's culture or belief system, religion, race, education, or any other known variable, although the way in which the NDE is described varies according to the person's background and vocabulary. There is no evidence that the type of experience is related to whether the person is conventionally religious or not, or has lived a "good" or "bad" life according to his/her society's standards (although an NDE often strongly affects how life is lived after the experience).
An experience may include the feeling of being out of the physical body, moving through a darkness or tunnel, encountering the presences of deceased loved ones and other entities, and an indescribable light or menacing darkness. Many people say they have glimpsed the pattern and meaning of life and the universe, or have been given information beyond ordinary human capacities. For most people the experience is joyful beyond words, although others tell of unpleasant or terrifying experiences. When adequately understood every type of NDE reveals issues of deep significance to the life of the individual and to humankind in general.
Medical technology may bring survivors, but science is not able to explain what happened in the process. Like all human experiences, the NDE no doubt has a biologically-based trigger; yet its impact is most often felt as a psychological or spiritual event. For people who believe that only physical events can be real, the NDE - or even the idea of such a thing - may be disturbing or seem ludicrous.
Yet the phenomenon cannot be dismissed just because we cannot explain it. A 1982 Gallup Poll estimated that at least eight million adults in the US alone have had an NDE; the figure is now believed to be closer to thirteen million. Experiences have been reported through the centuries, from many cultures and religious traditions.
Whatever the near-death experience is, it is neither recent nor local. Something happens, and it changes peoples lives.
Many people believe that the NDE proves there is life after death in a literal sense. To others, more cautious, the experience is not "proof," but it suggests that some aspect of human consciousness may be independent of the body and may survive physical death. To others, the NDE defines a value system based on care for others, knowledge, and service. Whether one sees the meaning of the NDE as religious or secular, there is much to learn.
Skeptics believe that NDEs can be explained by neurochemistry and are the result of brain states that occur due to a dying brain. For example, "neural noise" and "retino-cortical mapping" explain the common experience of passage down a tunnel from darkness into a bright light. According to Susan Blackmore, vision researcher Dr. Tomasz S. Troscianko of the University of Bristol speculated:
If you started with very little neural noise and it gradually increased, the effect would be of a light at the centre getting larger and larger and hence closer and closer....the tunnel would appear to move as the noise levels increased and the central light got larger and larger....If the whole cortex became so noisy that all the cells were firing fast, the whole area would appear light (Blackmore, 85).
Blackmore attributes the feelings of extreme peacefulness of the NDE to the release of endorphins in response to the extreme stress of the situation. The buzzing or ringing sound is attributed to cerebral anoxia and consequent effects upon the connections between brain cells. [p. 64]
Dr. Karl Jansen has reproduced NDEs with ketamine, a short-acting, hallucinogenic, 'dissociative' anaesthetic.
The anaesthesia is the result of the patient being so 'dissociated' and 'removed from their body' that it is possible to carry out surgical procedures. This is wholly different from the 'unconsciousness' produced by conventional anesthetics, although ketamine is also an excellent analgesic (pain killer) by a different route (i.e. not due to dissociation). Ketamine is related to phencyclidine (PCP). Both drugs are arylcyclohexylamines - they are not opioids and are not related to LSD. In contrast to PCP, ketamine is relatively safe, is much shorter acting, is an uncontrolled drug in most countries, and remains in use as an anaesthetic for children in industrialised countries and all ages in the third world as it is cheap and easy to use. Anaesthetists prevent patients from having NDE's ('emergence phenomena') by the co-administration of sedatives which produce 'true' unconsciousness rather than dissociation.
According to Dr. Jansen, ketamine can reproduce all the main features of the NDE, including travel through a dark tunnel into the light, the feeling that one is dead, communing with God, hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, strange noises, etc. This does not prove that there is no life after death, but it does prove that an NDE is not proof of an afterlife. In any case, the so-called "typical" NDE is not typical of anything, except the tendency of parapsychologists to selectively isolate features of a wide array of experiences and fit them to a paranormal or supernatural hypothesis.