At the Hour Of Our Death — Printout — TIME

http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1657919,00.html

At the Hour Of Our Death

From the page: “….Of the thousands of NDEs reported, none has done more to convince some researchers that the phenomenon’s explanation must lie outside the square than the case of Pam Reynolds, an American who underwent brain surgery for an aneurysm in 1991. Preparation for Reynolds’ operation included taping her eyes shut, blocking her ears and monitoring her EEG to ensure her brain was functioning at only the most basic level. Yet after coming around, Reynolds described not only a full-blown NDE but the bone saw that had been used to cut her skull.

For many years, says cardiologist van Lommel, he was in the first camp on NDEs, sure their basis was entirely material. His interest having been pricked in the mid-’70s by the first book about NDEs, Life After Life by American doctor Raymond Moody, van Lommel in 1988 began a study that would encompass 344 survivors of cardiac arrest in 10 Dutch hospitals. Van Lommel and his co-authors wrote in The Lancet in 2001 that 18% of subjects reported some recollection of the time of clinical death, and 7% an experience that qualified as a deep NDE.

The Dutch team found little about the NDErs that distinguished them as a group from those for whom clinical death was a blackout. Factors such as psychological profile, medications, religion and previous knowledge about NDEs all appeared to be irrelevant. To this day, Van Lommel can’t explain why some people have NDEs and most don’t. But the fact the experience isn’t universal undermines, to his mind, a purely physiological explanation: if lack of oxygen were the cause of NDEs, then all survivors of cardiac arrest should have one.

A few years ago, Van Lommel retired from cardiology to concentrate on NDE research. “I’m lecturing all over the world,” he says. “I know all the skeptical questions and I love to answer them.” In trying to account for NDEs, he’s challenged ideas residing in the bedrock of science, including that consciousness and memories are localized in the brain. As astounding as it may be, he argues, the implication of NDEs is that consciousness can be experienced in some alternative dimension without our body-linked concepts of time and space. “In my view, the brain is not producing consciousness, but it enables us to experience our consciousness,” he says. He compares the brain to a television, which receives programs by decoding information from electromagnetic waves. Likewise, he says, “the brain decodes from only a part of our enhanced consciousness, which we experience as waking consciousness. But our enhanced consciousness is different, and this is what is experienced during an NDE…”

The idea that the brain can be retuned to alternative states resonates with psychiatrist Jansen, who’s written prolifically on how an NDE (or something closely resembling it) can be induced by an anesthetic drug, ketamine. That NDEs can be induced led him at first to suspect that the spontaneous type was similarly hallucinogenic. Now he’s not so sure. Perhaps ketamine and brain stress simply make certain states more accessible. “All our realities are alternative realities,” says Jansen. “Nobody sees the world in quite the same way as any other person.”

Jansen once wrote: “It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out.” For many scientists, this scenario might account for the sort of speculation just summarized. While most researchers concede that there’s a lot about NDEs we don’t know, they reject the push to replace tried-and-tested paradigms with new (largely untestable) ones in an attempt to fill the gaps.

Outside of cardiac arrest and the injection of ketamine, NDE-type phenomena can occur in many circumstances, including fainting spells, serious disease and in the seconds before potentially catastrophic accidents, like falling off a cliff. While that doesn’t suck the mystery from the phenomenon, it does suggest that NDEs are a flawed pointer to what might await us in death as opposed to the process of dying or a really hairy moment….”

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