Scientists have long rolled their eyes at near-death experiences, chalking them up to the effects of anesthesia, or low oxygen, or religious and spiritual hallucinations.
But it's hard to square that, some argue, with a new 4.5-year study involving 2,060 patients that found what researchers claim may be awareness after the body and brain has shut down. One particularly striking case describes a 57-year-old man whose heart stopped beating for three minutes. After resuscitation, he was able to recount sights and sounds that corresponded to the period when his heart was not beating.
"While it was not possible to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients' experiences and claims of awareness, (due to the very low incidence), it was impossible to disclaim them either and more work is needed in this area," lead researcher and assistant professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook Sam Parnia told Discovery News.
Of the 140 patients who were interviewed for the AWARE study ("AWAreness during REsuscitation"), 9 percent reported near-death experiences according to a scale developed by psychiatrist Bruce Greyson. But Parnia believes the actual percentage may be higher because some experiences are not immediately recalled.
"More people may have conscious awareness than we had anticipated and then lose their memory of it," he said.
Using methods similar to earlier research but on a broader scale, Parnia's team prepped hundreds of rooms with special shelves high on walls in 15 hospitals in the U.K., United States, and Austria where cardiac arrest patients were likely to get placed.
"Each shelf contained one image only visible from above the shelf (these were different and included a combination of nationalistic and religious symbols, people, animals, and major newspaper headlines)," the authors wrote, because so many accounts of near-death experiences "include the perception of being able to observe their own CA (cardiac arrest) resuscitation from a vantage point above."
The team also trained nurses and physicians to interview the subjects who gave consent.
Two of the 140 patients interviewed described visual and auditory happenings consistent with their medical reports, although neither happened to be placed in a room with the shelves.
One of the two grew too ill to continue the follow-up interviews, but the other described events at length:
"I can remember vividly an automated voice saying, 'shock the patient, shock the patient,' and with that, up in (the) corner of the room there was a (woman) beckoning me. . ..and the next second, I was up there, looking down at me, the nurse, and another man who had a bald head. . .I couldn't see his face but I could see the back of his body. He was quite a chunky fella. . .He had blue scrubs on, and he had a blue hat, but I could tell he didn't have any hair, because of where the hat was," the patient recalled.
Those details correspond with about three minutes while the patient's heart was not beating, the authors said.