Back from Heaven—The Science

20th Century Fox/Everett Collection
Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, 1997

The increasing focus of science today on the study of the brain has spilled over into considerations of what exactly may be happening to people who experience out-of-body and near-death experiences. In Erasing Death, a stimulating book published last year, Dr. Sam Parnia recapitulates recent arguments that there may well be a continuation of consciousness after what we conventionally think of as death. He’s one of a number of physicians and scientists who have been reconsidering the mainstream definition of death, concluding that it isn’t the single event of cardiac arrest but is a process. In other words, the heart stops but the brain doesn’t, so that visions, hallucinations, dreams—or NDEs—may take place after we’re officially labeled dead. In other words, these are in fact ADEs: actual death experiences.

Much of Dr. Parnia’s discussion rests on the extraordinary progress that has been made over the last twenty years in the art of resuscitation—and, as he emphasizes, of post-resuscitation. (He’s been a leader in this field.) The central procedure involved is the use of hypothermia—cooling the body to slow the heart. In a provocative sidelight, he invokes the Titanic. Rewatching James Cameron’s movie after a number of years, he concluded that if the people on the rescue ship Carpathia, which arrived on the scene less than two hours after the disaster, had been aware of the benefits of hypothermia, many of the 1,514 drowned victims found bobbing in the sea might have been brought back to life:

Today we would not have necessarily declared those people dead—at least not in the irreversible and irretrievable sense. Although I agree they were dead, they were nonetheless salvageable. Their bodies would have been largely preserved by the icy cold waters, and two hours is not much time at all. In short, they were potentially completely viable.

Erasing Death takes us through the histories of a number of patients not only “dead” for several minutes or hours but who have existed in years-long comas or other states of unconsciousness before suddenly reviving and even resuming a more or less normal life. (I have direct knowledge of one such case.) These people were not clinically dead, because their hearts were beating, but they were presumed to be brain-dead…until they weren’t. So what is happening to brains in this “dead” or unconscious condition? In what way can they and do they function? Do they retain some level of awareness? Are they dreaming? Are they having near-death experiences? We don’t know.

What adds to the confusion is that the vocabulary in which such things are discussed is (and no doubt has to be) vague: Parnia, among others, refers to consciousness, the self, the mind, the psyche, the soul, as if these things were almost interchangeable.

In his consideration of NDEs, Parnia sets forth…

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