Cardiac arrest studies

Some scientists have studied the NDE in terms of current scientific knowledge using new brain mapping technologies. One of these studies was carried out on cardiac arrest survivors by Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and by Sam Parnia, a clinical research Fellow at Southampton General Hospital (Parnia et al. 2001). The group interviewed all survivors (63 individuals) of cardiac arrests that had happened at the Southampton hospital during a period of one year, within one week of their arrest. Seven of them (11 per cent) reported some sort of memories from the period while they were unconscious. These were examined by using a semi-structured questionnaire known as the 'Greyson NDE Scale' (Greyson 1983). Results were quite interesting. Four patients (6 per cent) exceeded the score of seven and thus their reports were accepted as compatible with an NDE. All four sensed a point of no return, three of them reported seeing a bright light, and feelings of peace, pleasantness and joy. 'Two of the four saw deceased relatives, entered a new domain, felt that time had speeded up, lost awareness of their bodies, experienced harmony and had heightened senses' (Parnia et al. 2001: 152). Two of the three remaining patients had some memories, which could be addressed on the Greyson NDE Scale (Greyson 1983), but these were not enough to pass the criterion. The third one had confused memories (Parnia et al. 2001: 153). In this study no out-of-body experience was reported.

Another investigation was carried out in the Netherlands by Pim van Lommel and his colleagues Ruud van Wees, Vincent Meyers and Ingrid Elfferich (van Lommel et al. 2001). They interviewed 344 cardiac arrest survivors in ten different Dutch hospitals; 62 of them (18 per cent) reported some recollection of the time of clinical death. Of these patients, 21 (6 per cent) had a superficial NDE and 41 (12 per cent) had a core experience. These results are very similar to those reported at the Southampton General Hospital (Parnia et al. 2001). While commenting on their research results published in The Lancet (December 2001), Pim van Lommel and his colleagues asked the following question: 'How could a clear consciousness outside one's body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG?' (van Lommel et al. 2001). In a commentary on this article, Chris French, Professor of Psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, replied: 'The truth is that nobody knows when the NDEs reported by these patients actually occurred. Was it really during the period of flat EEG or might they have occurred as the patients rapidly entered or gradually recovered from this state?' (French 2001: 2010). However, according to Sam Parnia and Peter Fenwick: 'It is unlikely that the NDE arises either when the cortical modules are failing, that is, during the process of becoming unconscious, or when the cortical modules are coming back on line, that is when consciousness is returning' (Parnia et al. 2001: 154). They concluded that a possible alternative is that the near-death experiences occur during 'unconsciousness':

This is a surprising conclusion, because when the brain is so dysfunctional that the patient is deeply comatose, the cerebral structures which underpin subjective experience and memory must be severely impaired. Complex experiences such as are reported in the NDE should not arise or be retained in memory. Such patients would be expected to have no subjective experience (as was the case in 88.8% of patients in this study) or at best a confusional state if some brain function is retained. Even if the unconscious brain is flooded by neurotransmitters, this should not produce clear, lucid, remembered experiences, as those cerebral modules which generate conscious experience and underpin memory are impaired by cerebral anoxia. The fact that in a cardiac arrest loss of cortical function precedes the rapid loss of brainstem activity lends further support to this view.

Some of the above observations carry within them an implicit belief in the complete efficacy of the EEG as a mirror of cerebral activity. It is possible that in the future, the EEG may be seen as a rather primitive measure and that more advanced methods may reveal considerable and complex activity during some periods currently described as 'flat line EEG'.9 In this context, it is of interest to note that the phenomenon known as 'night terrors' arises during four well-defined stages of sleep, known as non-REM (NREM) (Rechtschaffen and Kales 1968), when there is relatively little EEG activity, and not during REM sleep (Hobson et al. 2000; Solms 2000). One variety of night terrors involves semi-awaking with the belief that one is in a space with no coordinates and no time, or buried alive, which leads the person to scream very loudly (Hobson et al. 2000; Jansen 2001). The similarities between the space with no coordinates and no time is reminiscent of a negative near-death experience of hell.10

It is of interest to note that the mind, or the minds of some people, appears to be able to experience states which are described as similar to this, while the EEG is relatively bland, as occurs during stage four sleep. The belief that complex mental activity such as dreams only occurs during REM sleep has been disproved in recent years. Evidence of this has been provided by Mark Solms (2000), Professor at the Royal London Hospital, who observed that dreams can also be activated by a variety of non-REM triggers:

The paradigmatic assumption that REM sleep is the physiological equivalent of dreaming is in need of fundamental revision. A mounting body of evidence suggests that dreaming and REM sleep are dissociable states, and that dreaming is controlled by forebrain mechanisms. Recent neuropsychological, radiological and pharmacological findings suggest that the cholinergic brainstem mechanisms which control the REM state can only generate the psychological phenomena of dreaming through the mediation of a second, probably dopaminergic, forebrain mechanism. The latter mechanism (and thus dreaming itself) can also be activated by a variety of non-REM triggers.

(Solms 2000: 127)

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