Part 1: “Near Death and Out of the Body Experiences”
Today’s post, the first of a two-part article, moves on from exploring ideas on the meaning of the universe to asking another vital question in philosophy and religion – “can consciousness and memory exist independent of a living neuronal network in the brain?”
The argument dates back nearly two and a half thousand years ago to the days of ancient Greece.
Aristotle, like the materialists of the present day, believed that the mind is a product of the brain. Plato, however, held a more metaphysical view and believed in the dualistic idea of the mind being a separate force of nature which can be received, processed and transmitted, but not produced by the physical brain.
This blog argues that the best researched and authenticated cases of near death experiences (NDE) and out-of-body experiences (OBE) provide compelling evidence for the dualistic view that the mind consciousness and memories can exist independently of neuron networks of the brain.
2. Case Studies
Case 1 (Note: The numbers in brackets in these case studies refer to verified events that happened while she was unconscious under the anaesthetic and her brain had flat lined)
Pam Reynolds had been brain dead for an hour, but she had never felt so alive in all the 36 years since her birth. Pam was awake when she was wheeled into the operating room of a Phoenix Hospital on a creaking gurney trolley at 7.15am. Although she was conscious, she did not have a chance to see the surgical instruments which were all covered by white towels to keep the sterile.
Pam felt a ‘loss of time’ as she blanked out when the general anaesthesia took effect. It was then she heard a musical tone which, being a musician, a song writer and singer at a night club in her home city of Atlanta Georgia, she identified as a natural D note. The sound seemed to be drawing her out of her body through the top of her head.
“The further out of my body I got, the clearer the tone became.” She did not notice, as in other OBE reports, an umbilical-like cord attaching her to her physical body lying below her. She did, however, in common with other reports of out-of-body experiences, see a long dark tunnel with a bright light at its end as envisaged by the famous Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch.
From her observation point in the corner near the ceiling of an operating theatre at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, Pam could see neurosurgeon Dr Robert F. Spetzler and his 22-strong support team beginning a highly hazardous operation to remove a ticking time bomb – a ballooning blood vessel (a massive aneurism) near the base of her brain that threatened to burst at any time. In Pam’s words, “I remembered seeing several things in the operating theatre when I looked down – I was more aware than I have ever been in life – brighter and more focused that normal vision.”
In the early stages of the long operation, Pam was given both a general anaesthetic and drugs to stop her normal brain metabolism before her body was cooled to 10-15 degrees centigrade.
During her out-of-body perception, Pam was surprised to ‘see’ that the hair on her head was only partially shaved: she had expected to be bald (1). She was also alarmed to hear a loud drilling sound that reminded her of a dentist’s surgery. She knew Dr Spetzler would use a bone saw to make a small opening in her skull through which he could reach and base of her brain and the site of the aneurism. She was, however, very surprised to see a saw which looked like an electric tooth brush (3) and had a groove near its head into which the rotating blade could be retracted. This was certainly not how she thought a brain saw should look like.
On recovering from the anaesthetic, she also accurately describe a tray with rectangular comportments, like a socket-set storage unit, in which other types of drill bits were stored (4).
After assessing Pam’s aneurysm, Dr Spetzler ordered a hypothermic cardiac arrest procedure. At 10.50am, blood was removed from her body via the femoral artery in her leg, chilled to around 10 degrees centigrade in the reservoir cylinders of the heart-lung machine, and then returned via the femoral vein to her body. As Pam’s core temperature fell, her heartbeat started to fibrillate and then stopped. Her brainwaves became smaller and smaller and then, when her temperature reached 60 Fahrenheit (15.5oC), her brain stem shut down: she was now clinically dead.
During this procedure, Pam was alarmed to see the female anaesthetist beginning to cut into her upper right leg near her groin (5). This must be a terrible mistake she remembered thinking – they’re supposed to be operating on my brain not my leg. “I just knew they weren’t operating in the right place, and to tell you the truth it was terrifying.” Pam clearly heard a female voice say “Her arteries and veins are too small.” (6) To which Dr Spetzler replied “Use the other side.” (7). Pam saw the female anaesthetist open the blood vessels of left side (8) and correctly described the appearance of the heart-lung machine into which her blood was drained. (9)
At 11.25am, the heart-lung machine was turned off and the operating table raised and tilted to one side to allow blood to drain out of the aneurism so the ballooning part of the artery could be safely removed.
At the end of her out-of-body experiences, it was her uncle Gene who told Pam she would have to go back to her body and guided her back down the tube to hover above her unattractive, ice-cold body. At his encouragement, she divided back into her body which was like “jumping into a pool of ice water.”
After the removal of the aneurysm, the heart-lung machine was reactivated and warmed blood reinfused into Pam’s body. First the brain stem, and then cerebral hemispheres of her higher brain, slowly began to show activity as the warming process continued. At noon, the team decided that the heart would not resume beating normally on its own and would need electrical jolts from a defibrillator to shock it back into a normal beat. She heard the first defibrillation attempt and saw the second (10).
Her final surprise after returning to her body before her heart restarted was to hear that music was being played in the operating theatre as Dr Spetzler’s assistants completed the seven hour-long operation. On regaining consciousness, she complained about the song “Hotel California” by the Eagles’ (1977) – “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave.” She thought it was terrible was insensitive, and not an appropriate song to end her operation. (11)
She had been clinically dead for about an hour but at 2.10pm, she was returned to the recovery in a stable condition. On waking, Pam joked with her family and husband about the ‘hallucinations’ she thought she had experienced. Everyone laughed except for the doctors and nurses who looked extremely shocked and uncomfortable. It was then that the medical team told Pam that her recollections of the operation were definitely not hallucinations but a very accurate account of what had happened during the surgical procedure.
Pam lived a healthy life until she died of heart failure at the age of 53 at the Emory University Hospital, Atlanta, in 2010.
Pam’s case is considered to be one of most valid accounts of near-death and out-of-the-body experiences and evidence that the mind can separate from the physical brain because:
· The experiment was conducted under strict medical/scientific protocols and all her vital signs were carefully monitored during her OBE experiences.
· These experiences could be firmly linked to the operations time line when she was not only unconscious, but the EEG recordings confirmed she had flat-lined and there was therefore no electrical activity in her brain.
· The experiences were also related to the surgical and resuscitation team immediately after her regaining consciousness and not days, weeks, or months after the event as is recorded in other case studies.
· The medical personnel involved were of the highest calibre and integrity and had nothing to gain, but possibly a lot to lose, by vouching for the validity of Pam’s experiences.
It is important to emphasize that not only was Pam Reynolds clearly unconscious with no brain activity, but also that her eyes were taped shut will earplugs transmitting low tones to check that her brain stem was unresponsive to sound and flat-lining. In addition to the ear plugs Pam also had ear phones over her plugged ears. There was clearly no way the she could see or hear using normal sense organs and sensory pathways.
As Carl Sagan wisely observed ” “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” This case surely satisfies this requirement.
The Timetable of Death
Before relating a few additional of the most convincing cases of NBE and OBE, it would be helpful to look at the ‘Timetable of Death’ and patient anaesthesia.
During the time Pamela Reynolds reported her experiences during the operation this timeline and her EEG showed that she was clinically dead. This is important because it is often argued by critics that NDE and OBE experiences are illusionary. Some degree of brain electrical activity is clearly necessary for a person to either genuinely experience external events through sensory tunnels or alternatively to have hallucinations.
The following highly simplified diagram attempts to show the stages a patient passes through during a typical operation involving a general anaesthetic.
During the period the anaesthetic is being administered (e.g. at time A) it is possible that the patient may have some awareness of their environment – especially of sounds – hearing is the last sense to disappear at the beginning, and the first sense to be regained during recovery from anaesthesia. Some memories of the environment might also laid down during recovery (e.g. at time B).
Another common explanation given by critics of paranormal experiences during anaesthesia or injury involves anaesthesia awareness when a patient under general anaesthesia becomes aware of, and subsequently recalls, some or all events during a surgical procedure. This can be due to a synthesis of memories from losing/gaining consciousness stages of anaesthesia (e.g. at points A and C on the graph), or when the levels of anaesthesia administered are relatively low. Anaesthesia awareness cannot be the explanation of Pam’s experience since the events she was aware of and remembered occurred at point B when she was clinically brain dead with no electrical activity recorded in her cerebral cortex. A second reason why this explanation is totally invalid is because her eyes were taped shut and ears blocked by plugs and earphones. Critics have suggested that Pam heard the brain saw whilst under the anaesthetic. She could not, however, have ‘physically’ heard the sound because this stimulus, together with the periodic bleeps from her ear plugs would have caused brain waves in the EEG of her brainstem. This was clearly not the case – the EEG recording showed she had flat-lined.
Cases such as Pam’s where a patient’s accurate recollections of events can be shown to have occurred during brain death are referred to as veridical perception – the Holy Grail for studies of the relationship between brain and mind. As numbered in the account of Pam’s case, there were at least eleven events in the operating theatre that she reported accurately, and in the correct sequence to her doctors and nursing staff immediately on her recovery.
- Brainless Consciousness, Blind Sight and Deaf Hearing.
“This life’s dim windows of the soul Distorts the heavens from pole to pole And leads you to believe a lie When you see with, not thro’, the eye.” William Blake, “The Everlasting Gospel” (circa 1818)
The Zen-flavour of this heading emphasizes the surprising evidence that humans do not always need a brain for consciousness, eyes to see, or ears to hear.
A. The No-Brainers.
In the 1980, an article was published in the journal “Science” with the provocative title “Is Your Brain Really Necessary.” The article describes the research of Professor John Lorber of Sheffield University into the case of a former student. Professor Lorber commented that “There’s a young student at this university who has an IQ of 126, has gained a first-class honors degree in mathematics, and is socially completely normal. And yet the boy has virtually no brain.” As shown in the X-ray of his head above, the space in his skull normally occupied by the higher brain (the cerebral hemispheres/cerebral cortex) is empty – it is filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
This is just one of the many cases recorded in the medical literature of cases of abnormal brain development such as hydrocephalus producing a highly abnormal small brain but normal cognitive functions and social behaviour. Such cases remain a challenge for neurologists who believe in the materialistic origins of mind and intelligence.
B. Terminal Lucidity.
Another striking case of an abnormal brain producing normal mind function is seen in terminal lucidity which has been described in the medical literature over the past two hundred years.
Such accounts tell of patients who have suffered from brain damage caused by illness or from intractable psychological problems such as schizophrenia for years regaining full mental cognitive abilities a few days or hours before their death which enabled them to communicate normally for the last time with friends and family. In many of these cases, brain scans, X-rays and post mortem examinations have confirmed series brain damage due to meningitis, strokes and long-standing dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. In spite of their damaged brains, brain function appeared to return to normal close to death.
C. Blind Sight.
The fact that during near-death experiences patients such as Pam Reynolds could ‘see’ without using their eyes or sensory brain circuits seems to be confirmed by NDE cases of individuals who have been blind since birth seeing for the first time.
Case History 2: Vicki Noratuk.
Born prematurely, placed in an incubator with an abnormally high oxygen concentration which destroyed her optic nerve, Vicki Umipeg Noratuk had been blind since birth. Her story begins late at night early in 1973 outside the night club in Seattle, USA where she had a part-time job as a singer. Worried about finding a taxi to take her home that late at night, she reluctantly accepted the offer of a lift by two inebriated customers. After leaving the vicinity of the night club, the drunken driver lost control, and she was thrown out of the van in which she was a backseat passenger fracturing her skull, and injuring her neck, back and one leg. To Vicki’s amazement she found herself looking down on the crashed vehicle from above – the first visual experience she had ever had the twenty-two years of her life up to that time. She remembered nothing of her ambulance trip the Casualty Department of Harborview Medical Centre. Her next recollection was of floating just under the ceiling of an operating theatre above her damaged body being frantically worked on by a team of doctors and nurses. She was alarmed to ‘hear’ their comments such “It’s no good, we cannot bring her back” and “if she survives, the damage to her eardrum might make her deaf.” Unable to communicate with the medical team, she continued floating upwards through the ceiling effortlessly until she was high above the hospital. Later, after resuscitation, she was able to describe the layout of surrounding roads and buildings. She now heard beautiful music that sounded like sublime wind chimes and saw a dark tunnel leading up to a pinpoint of light. Pulled through the tunnel, up into the light, she entered a place carpeted with beautiful grass and inhabited by people clothed with light where she was greeted by two deceased school mates and her grandmother who, although disabled in her life on earth, walked around without difficulty in this spiritual world. Vicki described that world as a font of all knowledge which allowed her to understand foreign languages, mathematics and sciences of which she had little or no knowledge in her earthly life. She wanted to stay in this new place but was told she must return to earth to have the children she wanted. Her final recollection was the pain of returning to her physical body. She fully recovered from her injuries and eventually had three children.
There are many other well-documented cases patients who were blind from birth ‘seeing’ for the first during a near-death experience. Dr Kenneth Ring and Sharon Cooper of the University of Connecticut conducted a study of 31 blind subjects, most of whom had been blind from birth (“Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-the Body Experiences in the Blind” (2008). The subjects reported seeing objects and colours for the first time in their life and reported very accurately the events they “saw” during their resuscitation. In one case, a female patient dying on a gurney with a breathing apparatus entirely covering her face reported seeing her boyfriend and ex-husband standing speechless some distance away down the hallway. Separate interview with the two men supported her story.
These, and many similar case present the most convincing proof that what happens in near-death experiences is more than the hallucinatory phantasmagoria of physiologically impaired brains.
Case History 3: Death Hearing.
Pam Reynolds case suggests that is possible to ‘hear’ without ears or the normal auditory pathways from the brain stem to the auditory cortex of the cerebrum (part of the ‘higher’ fore-brain). An interesting parallel to the congenitally blind seeing for the first time during their near-death experiences, are congenitally deaf subjects. There are recorded cases of the congenitally deaf who heard for the first time during their NDE or OBE episodes. The Mail Online (2019), for example, reported the case of Natasha now aged 33 from Cardiff, Wales in the UK who clearly remembers during an out-of-body experience when she suffered a near fatal severe bout of whooping cough at the age of nine. She was woken up by a bright light when fast asleep. “The light was spilling into the room around the edge of the door and I could hear my name being called – even though I’m profoundly deaf,” she recalled. “I got up to see what the light was, and turned round to see myself still in the bed asleep…… The voice kept calling me, so I opened the bedroom door and it was just this pure brilliant white light. I stepped into it and kept walking towards the voice.” Natasha went on to describe that she found herself in a room and that there was some type of presence behind me. “He put a hand on my shoulder, but told me not to turn around and that I had to go back because I was important and had a job to do. The crisis in Natasha’s illness was over the following day.
- Large Scale Controlled Experiments into Near-Death Experiences.
In his lecture entitled “Is Consciousness Produced by the Brain?” delivered at a conference on “Mind and Matter” at Dharamsala, Northern India attended by the Dalai Lama, Professor Bruce Grey of Virginia University presented a wide range of objective scientific evidence relating to validity of near-death experiences.
Perhaps the strongest evidence presented was not individual case studies, but large scale controlled scientific investigations that provide convincing veridical accounts of near-death experiences. Professor Grey quotes data from the American cardiologist Dr Michael Sabom’s book “Accurate Descriptions of Resuscitations” (1982) in which he asked a large number of patients who had reported near-death experiences during their resuscitation after cardiac arrest to describe in detail their recollections of the events in the emergency room during their treatment. Dr Sabom asked a matched control group of cardiac patients who had not reported such experiences to describe what they imagined had happened around them during their resuscitation. Eighty percent of the control group patients made major errors in reporting what was likely to have happened during their resuscitation, whilst patients in the group who experience OBE made no errors in recalling what they saw happening around them while they were unconscious.
Even more significant were the 19% in the OBE group who accurately recalled specific, unexpected idiosyncratic events that happen during their treatment in the emergency room. One patient reported accurately the confusion that followed the mechanical failure of the first ‘crash cart’ and frantic efforts to obtain a replacement cart. The patient’s recollections included a very accurate description of the ‘comings and goings’ of nursing and technician staff replacing the defective piece of equipment.
This evidence clearly refutes the claims of sceptics that patients reporting OBE experience are hallucinating and recalling facts and images they have seen in hospital dramas and documentaries.
Dr Gray reviewed another large scale survey “The Importance of Veridical Perceptions in Near-Death Experience”, Mays R. and Mays S (2015)” that reported a 92% recall accuracy in patients experiencing OBE episodes during their resuscitation. He also reviewed the ten-year study conducted by the former Intensive Care Nurse, Dr Penny Sartori at Swansea’s Morriston Hospital, South Wales, UK. As well as describing a tunnel leading to a white light and meeting deceased relatives, many of these patients reported accurately what the doctors and nurses were doing around them in the emergency room. Some patients, like other OBE subjects, reported their entire life flashing before them in a few seconds. In one interesting case, a patient reported encountering a dead relative who gave her a message to pass onto another living member of the family. This relative was shocked to receive the message since it contained secrete private information that it was impossible for the patient to have had prior knowledge of. Dr Sartori’s research inspired a Clint Eastwood movie (“Hereafter”, 2010) about life after death.
Meeting the Not-Known Dead.
Professor Grey also confirmed that one of commonest reported experiences during a near-death experience is meeting deceased family and friends who in many cases seem to perfectly fit and cured of illnesses and afflictions they suffered in life. The most interesting of these cases involve meeting a person at the end of the black tunnel who is not known to be dead at the time of the NDE event. Such cases are numerous and have a long history. Back in 1882, a dying woman is delighted to see three of her brothers again who she knew were dead. She was puzzled, however to meet a fourth brother who she, and her family around her, thought was still living in India. Letters arriving from India by sea later proved that her fourth brother had indeed died before the date of her experience.
In another well documented case, Eddie Cuomo, a nine-year-old who was near death due to meningitis and a very high fever, lay in a coma for thirty-six hours. When he awoke, he described the typical NDE experiences in which he met his nineteen-year-old sister who attending a college in Vermont. Eddie’s father had in fact spoken to his daughter two nights earlier. The boy’s story worried his father who rushed back home to telephone the college. It was then he learned devastating news – the college had been frantically trying to contact the college to tell them that the daughter had died in a car accident just after midnight and before the time that Eddie ‘saw’ her in another world.
- A Personal ‘In Life’ Experience.
In these blogs I always like to include, wherever possible, personal experiences and my own investigations. I have never experienced a ‘near-death’, nor an ‘out-of-body experience’, but something similar which I am tempted to describe as an ‘in-body experience’, happened during a stay at a Tibetan monastery in the Himalayas. During a routine, long meditation and ‘prayer’ session in the dimly-lit, incense-ridden shrine room accompanied by rhythmic chanting whose bass notes generated by the Tibetan monks seemed to vibrate everything in the room. Suddenly, with my eyes closed I was transported to what, to use the common description of NDE, a ‘celestial landscape’ of indescribable peace and beauty. Fields of surreal green, swaying grass hedged by flowering trees with shinning vibrant flowers in all spectral colours stretched for what seemed an infinite distance to exquisitely sculptured mountains rearing their snow-capped heads into a sky of the most magnificent intense blue I have ever seen. The soothing sound of breezing through the grass was joined by celestial sound of chiming wind bells and the splashes of water landing in shimmering pools below rainbow-framed waterfalls. I seemed to see colours invisible to my normal eyes. Amazingly it seemed to be possible to taste sound and feel colours as reported by users of hallucinogenic drugs as reported in Aldous Huxley’s influential book “Doors of Perception”. I have never experimented with any form of drugs and when the visions, which seemed more real than my actual worldly surroundings, faded quickly at the end of the chanting, I immediately suspected that the friends that had accompanied me to the monastery had slipped something like LSD or another drug into my food or drink. They vehemently denied this and pointed out that drug-induced states do not just suddenly switch off and return to the prosaic normal. That experience, whatever the cause, confirmed to me that in such states of consciousness, ones senses and perceptions unequalled in our ‘normal’ waking life.
In this first part of my blog “Out of the Body” I have presented a small number of the voluminous cases describing verifiable case of the reality of near-death and out-of-the-body experiences. Such cases, together with perhaps the most extreme case of out-of-body experiences reviewed on this website – reincarnation strongly suggest that consciousness and memory can indeed exist independently of a living neural network in the physical brain. In my blogs, I strongly argued that the sceptic materialist should not look just at single case studies but at the wide spectrum evidence for the existence of the paranormal which perhaps could be describe as the ‘hidden normal’. As Einstein observed, it is important to see the universe as it is and not as we should believe it should look. To quote the theme quote for this websites “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in the materialistic philosophy.”
The last table summarizes the differences in the paradigms of the materialist and the dualist.
If the dualist view is correct and consciousness is not generated by the physical brain, where does this most vital of human experiences come from? Part 2 of this blog looks at the alternative modern ideas on the nature and generation of consciousness that involves quantum physics. We will start by stating the surprising fact that how the vast majority of general anaesthetics work is unknow. In spite of being used clinically for nearly a hundred years, the origins of the brain waves on an ECG trace are also unknown.
In our quest for the origins of consciousness we will have to dive deep into the electron-micrograph structure of the brain neuron and describe the amazing structure and functions of the microtubules – hollow tubes formed from bead-like protein units. I hope you will be able to join me for Part 2 of “Out of the Body.”