Near-death experience? A couple of closer looks

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This past Friday, I listened to an interesting story on National Public Radio about the science of what some considered to be near-death experiences. It focused on the account of one woman, Pam Reynolds, who underwent surgery to remove a leaking aneurysm on her brain stem. Because of its size and location, her surgeon, Robert Spetzler of Barrow Neurological Institute in Arizona, chose to place her in "cardiac standstill" during the operation-- after lowering her body temperature to 60 degrees, she would flat-line, allowing the doctors to drain the blood from her head and remove the aneursym. According to Spetzler, Reynolds was "as deeply comatose as you can be and still be alive."

After being placed unconscious, Reynolds remembers hearing a noise and suddenly feeling like she "popped out of the top of her head." After observing some of the details of her surroundings-- the number of doctors, the instruments they were using, and a conversation about the arteries in her groin-- she noticed a tunnel and a white light, which appeared around the time doctors lowered her body temperature. She then conversed with her dead uncle and grandmother, who later brought her back to her body. Upon re-entry, she heard "Hotel California" playing in the hospital waiting room.

Afterward, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. After all, her eyelids were taped shut the whole time, and speakers had been placed in her ears that made noises as loud as a plane taking off (these allowed surgeons to monitor her brain stem activity).

However, in a discussion with Spetzler years later, she discovered that her hallucination matched his memory of the actual operation. Michael Sabom, a cardiologist who researches near-death experiences, later examined the details of Reynolds' account against hospital records. Again, every detail down to the conversation about her arteries, matched.

So how is this possible, when Reynolds couldn't hear or see? Can a person really be "conscious" outside of their physical body?

According to anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee, the explanation is fairly simple-- anesthesia awareness, a condition in which a person is conscious but cannot move. This is certainly a possibility-- around the time Reynolds was operated on, Woerlee estimates patients experienced anesthesia awareness in one in 2000 operations. This theory assumes that the speakers in Reynolds' ears didn't fit properly, allowing her to hear the sounds of the room. Or, Woerlee suggests, sounds could be transmitted through the operating table.

However, Spetzler and Sabom counter that Reynolds' sluggish brain activity for the length of her operation make it very unlikely she could form or retain memories from the experience. This leaves the door open for consciousness independent of the physical brain, at least in their opinions.

So what do you think? I'm interested to know. I've been stewing about it all weekend, and I think I have to side with the "there has to be some physical, scientific explanation for this" camp. However, the idea that the essence of "me" isn't necessarily dependent on the physical "me" is comforting. And the possibility of being greeted by my grandpa upon dying is really a wonderful thought.

On a related note, this story was the final installment of a five-part NPR series on science and spirituality. To check out the others, click here. I recommend it.

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Comments

I was intrigued by this story too... but there were many unanswered questions:

= Pam seemed to recall things about the operation (what the drill looked like, how her head was shaved, where the anesthesiologist was positioned etc) that are really not so amazing considering this information is commonly passed between hospital staff and curious prospective surgery patients prior to an operation. In fact many hospitals make it a practice to let patients know as much as they want to about the upcoming operation. The part Pam could not have known, the words of the anesthesiologist, was never clearly corroborated in the NPR story.

= Pam's experience was described as "mostly accurate", but you have to wonder why it would have any inaccuracies. If the contention is that these perceptions and memories could not be the result of biological brain activity, but some divine perceptual process and memory retained in the soul, why do they seem to be so subject to the same accuracy limitations as normal biological processes?

= How does Pam, or anyone, know when these memories were formed? Again the contention is that this happened when the brain was "nonfuctional". But someone who was anxious about going into surgery and aware of what the process would entail could experience this while initially under anesthesia, before the brain was "shutdown". Having undergone anesthesia and surgery myself I would not put a lot of stock into an anesthetized patient's sense of when events occur in time.

= Does everyone who undergoes this particular procedure have a "come to the light" near death experience? If not, why not? Is this type of spiritual experience only afforded to some people? This particular proceedure is by necessity very controlled and every patient achieves about the same nearness of death who undergoes it. Why wouldn't they all have this experience?

= Why did Pam wait so long to discuss this with the doctor? This had to be a live altering experience, from the story it seems that years later it seemed to come up as an aside. This would have been a lot more compelling if she had shared it immediately after the surgery, before any kind of after the fact "information gathering" could have happened.

= There are assumptions here about the capabilities of Pam's brain in its "shutdown" state that are not validated by scientific inquiry. What the brain and sensory organs are capable of in this condition is not well understood. So the claim that Pam's brain was incapable of forming memories or receiving sensory input is specultative.

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