A new near death experience study, widely reported in the media this week, found high levels of brainwaves at the point of death in rats. Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the University of Michigan research discovered in the 30-second period after the rodent's hearts stopped beating, there was a sharp increase in high-frequency brainwaves.
'Near death experience' or NDE research remains a key divide between religion and science - can consciousness function independently of the human body, and therefore, survive bodily death? Could this then prove the existence of a 'soul', and confirm ghosts, plus other paranormal or spiritual phenomena?
A near death experience is defined as unusual recollections associated with a period of unconsciousness during either serious illness or injury, or resuscitation from a cardiac or respiratory arrest. Some people who might have been technically dead, seem to report experiences 'near or beyond death'.
Dean Mobbs from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge and Caroline Watt from the University of Edinburgh Department of Psychology, recently published a paper entitled, There is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or being convinced you are one of them, which vigorously rejects any spiritual account.
Published in the journal 'Trends in Cognitive Sciences', Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt explain that while 3% of Americans declare near-death experiences, such as feeling the soul leaving the body, approaching a bright light and entering another reality, where love and bliss are all encompassing, there are other scientific accounts for all these phenomena.
They report over 50% of those who recount near-death experiences were not in fact in that much mortal danger, so a serious problem for the spiritual account is that, for many experiencers, NDE's aren't revealing what happens near death, but merely what happens when one believes one is in danger of dying.
The lead author of the rat study so widely reported this week, Dr Jimo Borjigin, suggested that the dying brain was also not shutting down as might be expected, but instead, "If anything, it is much more active during the dying process than even the waking state."
Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt also point out that psychiatric phenomena such as 'Cotard' or 'walking corpse' syndrome, named after the French neurologist Jules Cotard, which results in the feeling and conviction of being dead, could explain some of the peculiar sensations reported in Near Death Experiences.
Mobbs and Watt report that in NDEs, 50% experience being dead, 24% said that they had had an out-of-body experience, 31% remembered moving through a tunnel, and 32% reported meeting with deceased people. Mobbs and Watt contend that electrical stimulation of brain regions can result in a sense of presence (i.e. someone is standing behind us). Meeting deceased people could therefore be hallucinations due to compensatory over-activation in brain structures near areas damaged by whatever is causing death.
But other academics vigorously disagree with Mobbs and Watts attempts to explain Near Death Experiences invoking a purely scientific or non-spiritual account.
For example, in a paper entitled Seeing Dead People Not Known to Have Died: "Peak in Darien" Experiences, Bruce Greyson from the Division of Perceptual Studies, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia Health System, argues that in his collection of 665 NDEs, 138 (21%) included a purported meeting with a deceased person, whereas only 25 (4%) included an encounter with a living human.
While this discrepancy might be viewed as evidence of post-mortem survival of the persons seen, it might also be no more than an expression of the dying person's expectations of imminent death.
But Bruce Greyson points out that more troubling for the scientific account of Near Death Experiences is where those on their deathbeds see, and often express surprise at meeting, a recently deceased person, of whose death neither they nor anyone around them had any knowledge. This excludes the possibility that the vision was a hallucination related to the experiencer's expectations.
Such NDEs are termed "Peak in Darien" cases, after a book by that name published in 1882 by Frances Power Cobbe. The title is taken from a John Keats poem describing the shock of the Spaniards, who, after scaling a peak in Darien (in what is now Panama), expect to see a continent, but are confronted instead with another ocean.
Bruce Greyson reports in his paper, published in the academic journal 'Anthropology and Humanism', many examples, including that of Physician K. M. Dale who related the case of 9-year-old Eddie Cuomo, whose fever ﬁnally broke after nearly 36 hours of anxious vigil on the part of his parents and hospital personnel. As soon as he opened his eyes, at 3:00 in the morning, Eddie related that he had been to heaven, where he saw his deceased Grandpa Cuomo, Auntie Rosa, and Uncle Lorenzo. Then Eddie added that he also saw his 19-year-old sister Teresa, who told him he had to go back. His father became agitated, because he had spoken with Teresa, who was attending college in Vermont, just two nights ago. Later that morning, Eddie's parents learned that Teresa had been killed in an automobile accident just after midnight, and that college officials had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Cuomos at their home.
Bruce Greyson relates many other examples, including cases in which the deceased person seen was someone whom the experiencer had never known. For example, Greyson reports cardiologist Maurice Rawlings describing the case of a 48-year-old man who had a cardiac arrest. In a NDE he perceived a gorge full of beautiful colours, where he met both his stepmother and his biological mother, who had died when he was 15 months old. His father had remarried soon after his biological mother's death, and this person had never even seen a photo of her. A few weeks after this episode, his aunt, having heard about this vision, brought a picture of his mother with a number of other people. The man picked his mother out of the group, to the astonishment of his father.
In response to Bruce Greyson's critique that the non-spiritual account of near death experiences ignores difficult to explain phenomena as above, Dean Mobbs points out that such cases Greyson has marshalled are all anecdotal reports, and therefore difficult to rigorously verify.
The spiritual understanding of what happens to us differs from the scientific view because it places greater faith in human experience, and these death-bed stories. Science demands proof that comes from brain scanners, replication and precise measurement.
But because these extraordinary accounts will always exist, does that mean religion will forever survive the onslaught of science?
Or could it be that our first proper glimpse of heaven will instead shortly arrive from a brain scan?