In 2011, a 57 year old man from England was taken to Southampton General Hospital after collapsing at work. Personnel were in the process of inserting a catheter when he went into cardiac arrest. His brain immediately flat-lined. Technically, he was dead.
Using an defibrillator, the staff was able to resuscitate him. When he awoke, he had a story to tell. He said that he had heard a mechanical voice say “shock the patient”. While these orders were being given, he had looked into the back corner of the room to see a strange woman beckoning him from near the ceiling. He “felt that she knew me, I felt that I could trust her, and I felt she was there for a reason [but] I didn’t know what that was. The next second, I was up there, looking down at me, the nurse and another man who had a bald head.”
Hospital records later verified the verbal commands. The patient provided descriptions of those in the room and their actions, despite being unconscious throughout the incident. The event lasted for 3 minutes, and the patient was able to describe what had happened even though he should have had no awareness.
Researchers assumed that when the heart ceases to beat and stops sending vital blood to a person’s brain, all awareness immediately ends. Yet thousands have reported experiences after being legally dead. Doctors typically dismiss these reports as hallucinations, and researchers have been reluctant to delve into the study of near-death experiences. Now that might be changing.
Sam Parnia, a critical care physician and director of resuscitation research at Stony Brook University School of Medicine in New York, along with colleagues from 17 institutions in the US and UK, were willing to conduct a study on near-death. They collected scientific data for four years, analyzing more than 2,000 cardiac arrest events that resulted in legal death. 16% of these cases involved patients that were resuscitated, and Parnia and his colleagues interviewed 101 of them.
A staggering 50% reported having some experience after being declared dead. One of those people reported an out of body experience similar to the story above. The others reported dream-like or hallucinatory scenarios that included:
- Seeing animals or plants
- Bright light
- Violence and persecution
- Seeing family
- Recalling events post-cardiac arrest
Some reported feeling blissful, while others reported being terrified. One said “I had to get through a ceremony … and the ceremony was to get burned. There were four men with me, and whichever lied would die…”
While it is “definitely clear that people do have experience at the time that they’re dead”, Parnia says, different people will see different things based on their pre-existing beliefs or backgrounds. For example, someone from India might return from the dead and say they saw Krishna, whereas someone from the Midwest of the US could experience the same thing but claim to have seen God.
Parnia feels the subject as absolutely worth a deeper dive and that study can find a pattern within what people experience. “Anyone with a relatively objective mind will agree that this is something that should be investigated further,” Parnia says. “We have the means and the technology. Now it’s time to do it.”