Near Death Experience:

Glimpse of Immortality or Grand Illusion?

By: Nelson Abreu


Human history is no stranger to accounts of transcendental experiences of traveling through a tunnel into a realm of unbelievably bright light and freedom from physical restriction, often involving an encounter with spiritual guides and loved ones that have passed on.  Near-death experiences (NDE’s), which occur after serious illness or psychological or physical trauma, have been largely disregarded by the medical and scientific community.  However, a number of forthright physicians could not merely overlook the striking observations of their patients: accurate observations of events inside and outside of their rooms that transpired while they were clinically dead.


NDE’s have been brushed aside as a result of hallucination, anesthesia, and endorphins normally produced by the body, the structure and functioning of the brain, the eyes, or other sense organs that reportedly operate during these experiences.  However, millions have had similar experiences in out-of-body phenomena: from a singular spontaneous event to daily, will-induced experiences that allow one to make repeated, posterior confirmations.  Remarkably, as Dr. Kenneth Ring famously revealed, even people who are congenitally blind have had confirmed visual experiences!


At the 2004 Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference (Tucson, Arizona), an attendee spoke for many others in the audience when he asked “what about the near-death experience?” The answer was short and predictable: “anoxia in the brain.”  For many years, reductionist scientists defended that near-death experiences are caused by lack of oxygen in the brain (also referred to as hypoxia or anoxia).  Recent studies have brought this hypothesis into question. 


The December 2001 issue of the internationally acclaimed medical journal The Lancet published research by Dr. Pim Van Lommel et al conducted in 10 dutch hospitals for over 10 years. Patients (n = 334) were resuscitated from heart or breathing failures after a fixed amount of time. This ensured the amount of oxygen depletion would be approximately the same. This prospective study showed anoxia was not a leading cause of NDE’s because the incidence was 12 to 18% rather than almost all or almost none as was expected by skeptics. The majority of NDEr’s felt this was one of the most positively marking experiences of their life, helping them re-prioritize their activities toward more purposeful living, and even improving their personality and interactions with other humans.


Susan Blackmore, who has studied psi phenomena for three decades, is considered one of the leading authorities in the field. However, her direct experience is reportedly limited to a single, drug-induced OBE, having reported no lucid, intentional OBE’s.  At the closing talks in Tucson, four days after the aforementioned comment, Blackmore revealed her frustration with people who still did not consider this a dead issue; but when challenged by the audience, she concede that further tests need to be done to test her speculative rebuttals. Invoking cases of anomalous perception resulting from electrical stimulation of the brain, Blackmore argued, with questionable logic, that OBE’s were clearly illusory perceptions triggered by physical processes alone. 


Many skeptics ascribe NDE perceptions to supposed perceptions of a dying brain.  However, lucid projectors have out-of-body experiences by will without a dying brain condition and can still see “beings of life,” and even perceive the characteristic “tunnel” often associated with NDE’s. More importantly, they are able to make accurate observations of distant physical environments and interact among themselves while projected. For instance, in the van Lommel’s study, one patient recognized the nurse who removed his dentures while he (or rather, his body) was in a coma.  Under Michael Sabom, MD, another prospective study is underway at Dallas Hartford Hospital in Texas employing image targets placed high above the bed. 


Cardiologist Sabom is among physicians who can no longer deny that consciousness can exist in the absence of a functioning brain.  With neurosurgeon Michael Spetzler (Barrow Institute, Phoenix, Arizona), he studied the pivotal Pam Reynold’s case. The 35-year-old was placed on “standstill” – that is, her heart was stopped, brain function ceased, and her eyes and ears were shut – for an intracranial procedure. Reynolds reports she “popped out” of her body through a tunnel experience and was surprised to see her body undergo what looked like a groin operation. Unbeknownst to her, the procedure required the insertion of catheters for a heart-lung machine. “That can’t be right,” she thought before she saw her long-dead grandmother, friends, and other relatives. Eventually, she says, her uncle instructed her to return.  It felt like “plunging into a pool of ice water.”  This case begs the question: “how can one hallucinate without brain function?” Of course, it cannot. Skeptics believe, however, that NDE’s start and end with a dying brain.


The internist Barbara Rommer (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) conducted over six-hundred interviews which, again, described NDE’s as pivotal, life-altering experiences.  “I could see in color, hear, feel emotions like fear, like relief,” said one of the accounts. “So, what was that blue thing lying on the table? It scares me to look at it. But it’s not really me, it’s just my body.”  Another interesting avenue of research are the NDE’s of children, because their accounts are much less likely to be attributed to acculturation or hidden memories (cryptomnesia) from information they may have in their memory from, say, a documentary on NDE. Compared to near-birth experiences and pre-natal out-of-body experiences with posterior confirmations, the Journal of Resuscitation’s report by Southampton General Hospital (UK) does not seem so controversial. It reported that 11% of NDE patients in the study had memories of events during the unconscious period, and that 6% of the resuscitated after cardiac arrest had NDE’s. 


Central to the debate is the kind of worldview scientists adopt.  Consciousness-centered paradigms point out that even though extraordinary experiences can be triggered by electromagnetic pulses, stress (i.e. drowning victim), physical trauma (i.e. head injury), and chemicals, they are also produced spontaneously or by will.  Detected neural activity that is characteristic of such altered states is not necessarily the cause: it is just as logically plausible that it is a concomitant effect.


It is worth remembering that brain wave activity (EEG) is not always a reliable way to know about one’s state of consciousness.  An advanced yogi may be awake but his brain and physiology may be reflective of someone deep asleep (delta waves). While some detractors argue the OBE is an inferior altered state because it does not produce widespread coherence in brain activity, they forget the reason: the consciousness has temporarily left the brain!  However, according to a pilot study by Alegretti, the vibrational state (VS) reportedly does synchronize brain activity.  The VS, which often precedes the OBE, is characterized by sensations of generalized “electricity,” “tingling,” or “vibration.”


The Swiss neuroscientist Olaf Blanke thinks that the OBE is caused by neurophysiological abnormalities, after observing the brains of some patients who reportedly have the experience.  Assuming the experiences are real projections, should the differences be labeled abnormalities or evolutionary outliers?  Could they depart from the average through evolution of the consciousness with some resulting physical changes? After all, it was the same Dr. Blanke who conceded, in a BBC radio debate with IAC president Wagner Alegretti that one of his patients was able to make accurate visual observations while projected that were difficult to account for.  The OBE’s were triggered when her exposed brain’s right angular gyrus was stimulated by electromagnetic pulses.


According to Patricia Sousa, OBE researcher and NDE specialist at the International Academy of Consciousness – Florida, the NDE is a type of projection of the consciousness or out-of-body experience (OBE).  Sousa has had OBE’s since her childhood and has spent over a decade enabling people to become lucid projectors (those who have regular, intentional and conscious OBE’s).  “If one NDE can be so transformational, imagine what several OBE’s can do.”  The Consciousness Development Program and other courses Patricia Sousa teaches aim to train the consciousness to “become, gradually, simultaneously aware of the physical, energetic, and extraphysical levels of reality.” The OBE is not just a curious phenomenon; it helps us overcome the materialistic paradigm and to become more authentic, emotionally mature, intellectually developed, and ethically coherent.


Skeptics attempt to ascribe NDE perceptions to lights and other possible perceptions of a dying brain.  However, lucid projectors have out-of-body experiences by will without a dying brain condition and can still see “beings of light,” and even perceive the characteristic “tunnel” often associated with NDE’s. More importantly, they are able to make accurate observations of distant physical environments and interact among themselves while projected. For instance, in van Lommel’s study, one patient recognized the nurse who removed his dentures while he was in a coma.


Together with Rodrigo Medeiros, Patricia Sousa runs the Image Target Project, an experiment that invites people from all over the world to drop by a locked room in Miami with a computer monitor displaying a picture.  The picture is randomly selected by a computer.  A similar experiment by Wagner Alegretti and Nanci Trivellato brings dozens of projectors together to a ballroom for a weekend of eight OBE attempts.  After several editions, these experiments have captured relatively rare but uncanny OBE and remote viewing observations of photographic precision.


It seems that no matter how the credible and persuasive the experimental evidence, there is no replacement for personal experience. After innumerable experiences outside and inside the body, non-physical reality is self-evident for this author, hundreds of colleagues, and many thousands throughout the world. As they say, proof is in the pudding. Have your own experiences!


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