Consumer advocates frown on psychics and others who claim to communicate with the dead. But since there's no proof about what happens after we die, anyone can claim just about anything and get by with it.
But now a four-year international study of 2,060 cardiac arrest cases across 15 hospitals sheds a glimmer of light on what has been described as near-death experiences and concludes, not surprisingly, that more research is needed.
Among their findings, the researchers said they found instances when so-called out-of-body experiences corresponded with actual events and suggested that a higher percentage of people may have vivid death experiences but fail to remember them because of the effects of brain damage and the drugs used during resuscitation.
The study began in 2008 and involved patients in the U.S., United Kingdom and Australia. The AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) study, sponsored by the University of Southampton in the UK, examined the broad range of mental experiences in relation to death.
Researchers also tested the validity of conscious experiences using objective markers for the first time in a large study to determine whether claims of awareness compatible with out-of-body experiences correspond with real or hallucinatory events.
Results of the study have been published in the journal Resuscitation.
"In this study we wanted to go beyond the emotionally charged yet poorly defined term of NDEs to explore objectively what happens when we die," said Dr. Sam Parnia, Assistant Professor of Critical Care Medicine and Director of Resuscitation Research at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, and the study's lead author.
Thirty-nine percent of patients who survived cardiac arrest and were able to undergo structured interviews described a perception of awareness, but interestingly did not have any explicit recall of events.
"This suggests more people may have mental activity initially but then lose their memories after recovery, either due to the effects of brain injury or sedative drugs on memory recall," Parnia said.
Among those who reported a perception of awareness and completed further interviews, 46% experienced a broad range of mental recollections in relation to death that were not compatible with the commonly used term of NDE's. These included fearful and persecutory experiences. Only 9% had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2% exhibited full awareness compatible with OBE's with explicit recall of 'seeing' and 'hearing' events.
One case was validated and timed using auditory stimuli during cardiac arrest.
"This is significant, since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions, occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with 'real' events when the heart isn't beating," Parnia said.
"In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat. This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn't resume again until the heart has been restarted. Furthermore, the detailed recollections of visual awareness in this case were consistent with verified events," he said.
The full range of recalled mental and cognitive experiences included: 1) fear; 2) animals/plants; 3) a bright light; 4) violence/persecution; 5) deja-vu; 6) family; 7) recalling events after recovery from cardiac arrest.