Let's face it—we're all gonna die. But what is death, exactly? Is it merely a biological process—the cessation of neural and physiological activity—after which comes nothing? Most neuroscientists would say that's exactly what it is, but many people who have suffered cardiac arrest and experienced near-death phenomena disagree with this commonly held perception. Now, Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southampton is in the midst of a three-year research study to determine the validity of near-death experiences and learn more about the nature of death and human consciousness.
According to Parnia, who is also affiliated with the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City, about 10 to 20 percent of hospital patients who experience cardiac arrest and are then successfully resuscitated report having been conscious to some degree when there was no heartbeat or oxygen reaching the brain. Many of these patients report elements of “typical” near-death experiences (NDEs), including moving toward bright lights, meeting with relatives, and communing with spiritual beings. But some NDE patients also claim to have witnessed events that occurred in the hospital rooms while doctors tried to resuscitate them, including details such as which instruments were used and even where their personal items were stored after they were pronounced dead.
Dr. Parnia's study, AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), will investigate whether NDE patients are actually somehow perceiving their environments by placing symbols and images at key locations around operating rooms. Many NDE patients report viewing hospital rooms from above, so these visual cues will be placed in such a way that they are only visible from near the ceiling. If patients are able to accurately describe any of these items, NDEs may gain credibility as scientifically testable phenomena.
Researchers will also use state-of-the-art technology to measure oxygen levels in patients' brains and investigate other indicators of the dying process. Parnia hopes to correlate the information gained through these methods with any NDEs reported by patients, as well as to gather general information on the physical processes of death.
The AWARE study is funded by the United Nations and coordinated by the Human Consciousness Project, and is nearing conclusion of the first of three projected years of gathering data. Clinical institutions in 25 different countries are assisting with the study. More than 15,000 cardiac arrest patients are expected to be included, of whom about 1,500 are expected to be resuscitated and 100-200 to experience an NDE.
Read here for the University of Southampton's online press release.
...And here for information about the Human Consciousness Project.
...And here for reviews of Dr. Parnia's book What Happens When We Die?