The nature of death.
Clinical death occurs when the blood stops circulating and we stop breathing. At this point resuscitation is possible at this point.
On the onset of ‘clinical death’ consciousness is lost within several seconds with ‘measurable’ brain activity stopping within 30 to 40 seconds. During clinical death, all organs undergo steady and gradual ‘injury’. Called ischemic injury it is due totally the restriction or loss of blood flow.
Most organs can survive this kind of injury for a considerable amount of time, but the brain is very sensitive to blood loss. In about 3 minutes, under normal temperatures, the brain in all but the rarest of cases will not escape permanent and lasting damage.
Although this loss of function is rapid it is not as easy to define the specific duration of clinical death at which the injured areas of the brain dies.
The problem then is ‘death’, which used to be defined as the point at which ‘clinical death’ occurred, is a series of biophysical events. It is these events that will eventually lead to ‘brain death’ – the cessation of electrical activity in the brain. It is the death of the brain or brain stem is the ‘marker’ for actual ‘death’.
Now herein lies the issue. Many of NDE reports are from those individuals who have ‘just’ entered into the realms of ‘clinical death’ and of course these may not, especially with medical resuscitation technologies, be life-threatening. Of course, on the flip side, this does mean that much more are coming back from the ‘edge of death’ and reporting experiences that have a degree of commonality.
Near Death Experience reports contain some or most of the following:-
· Receiving messages from some ‘extra-personal’ source
· A sense or awareness of ‘being dead’
· A feeling of being ‘removed’, being ‘out of the body’
· A sense of peace, tranquility and euphoria
· A tunnel-like vision – or the sense of moving up or through ‘the light’
· A feeling of ‘unconditional love’
· A sense of being pulled toward and communicating with ‘the light’
· A sense of ‘light beings’ or of meetings with ‘loved’ ones
· A ‘life review’
· Being given an insight into the way the universe works, divine knowledge
· A decision to ‘return’ to the body – frequently with sadness or at least hesitancy
Whilst many NDE researchers suggest that there are cross cultural similarities in these experiences, save for the specific religious iconography which may become incorporated within the visionary stages of this continuum (as defined by Kenneth Ring 1980 and his five-stage continuum for NDE’s), one study specifically identifies experiences that do not match the above (Yoshi Hata).
So if the experiences are largely common isn’t it easier to suggest that the NDE’s are a function of progressive brain death?
The similarity of aspects of the near death experience to other ‘altered states’, lucid dreaming, REM sleep, and meditation seems to support the idea that we are really looking at states of mind that are the result of changes in respiration, heartbeat, physical relaxation and so on.
Drug induced experiences, which are the result of chemical reactions in the brain, and certain medical conditions (such as epilepsy) also include the sense of ‘being outside’ of self, hearing an omnipotent voice and a sense of euphoria.
Ockhams Razor surely comes into play here. Is there any need to postulate anything more save for the fact that suggesting NDE’s are ‘spiritual in origin’ lend support to one particular metaphysical view – that there is ‘life beyond death’?
Rick Strassman noted in the 1990’s that the psychedelic drug dimethytriptamine (DMT) produced kinesthetic and auditory hallucinations. He postulated that upon the onset of death, the pineal gland released DMT and this was responsible for NDE’s.
Richard Kinseher in 2006 proposed that as ‘death’ was such a “strange paradox” for a living organism that in the unconscious processing of what was happening an NDE would be ‘triggered’ in order to make sense of what was happening. The mind would, in a sense, scan itself and pull information from the memory and perceptual processes generating a ‘meaningful experience’. Remember that it can be said that the key function of the human brain is to make associations and ‘pattern match’ its current ‘experience’ with what it has previously experienced or understood.
If, however, NDE’s are part and parcel of the onset of ‘clinical death’ why are they not reported by everyone who has ‘been there’, in that ‘moment’ prior to revival?
Also, how is it that during an out of the body experience that can be part of the whole NDE there is an awareness of what is happening in the room the subject’s body is in? The reports of those who can describe with ‘accuracy’ what was being done, what was being said and who left and entered the room.
Keeping solely with the ‘natural’ origin of NDE’s then perhaps both of these questions can be answered by the brain’s own ability to confabulate.
Confabulation is, in its simplest sense, results from the brain some creating experiences (which we could call ‘false memories’) and deleting others (confirmation bias as it were).
Now, and this is key.
Perhaps the nature of the experience itself is not the point. If we accept that it cannot be used to ‘prove’ the existence of ‘the afterlife’ we can certainly make the case that many of those who have a near death experience find it to be life changing in some many ways. Surely this is the nature of real mysticism. Having an answer to why an experience is what it rationally needs not detract from the personal meaning we can derive from it. The ‘truth’ maybe is the reality of progressive brain degeneration but the ‘experience’, like any motivational ‘dream’ can inspire self-reflection and personal growth?
Many researchers have reported the profound after-effects of NDE’s in terms of an individual’s outlook on life, changes in personality and reported increased activity within the brains ‘temporal lobe’. Of course, it makes sense that any experience that is explained by or seems to prove spiritual beliefs, will have an influence on attitude and behavior, but the temporal lobe changes, if wide-spread and consistent across cases, is very interesting.
Research into near death experiences is engaging neurologists and psychologists who see this as being one of the areas in which the mind-brain debate, as well as the physical-metaphysical debate, can take place.
In September 2008, a research project involving 25 UK and USA hospitals set out to examine the near death experiences of 1,500 heart attack survivors. This a three-year project and is being coordinated by Southampton University and Dr. Sam Parnia. The study is a follow-up to a previous eighteen-month pilot project and hopes to discover if people without heartbeat or brain activity can have an out of the body experience with a detailed visual recall.
Whilst I have some questions about what is exactly meant by ‘no brain activity’ (where on the brain death continuum are we in this study, as obviously the subjects ‘survived?), the results and conclusions will be interesting.
In 2010 at a summer lecture in Goldsmiths College, Dr Parnia said:
“evidence is now suggesting that mental and cognitive processes may continue for a period of time after a death has started”
He continued by saying that death was “essentially a global stroke of the brain. Therefore like any stroke process, one would not expect the entity of mind/consciousness to be lost immediately”.