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Bright Light, Tunnel, Life Review

Scientists debate near-death-experiences and what they might teach about dying

Things got a bit testy at the the New York Academy of Sciences last week, as scientists debated whether near-death experiences exist and what they might teach about the process of dying -- and about the possibility of coming back from death.

The term itself is confusing, said Kevin Nelson, a neuroscientist at the University of Kentucky and author of The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (which is also the title of his blog on Psychology Today, which has been dormant for the past couple of years). No one returns from the dead, Nelson said. "These are NEAR-death experiences, these are not return-from-death experiences. Brain death is one thing, but that's not what's happening here. In these cases the brain is very much alive and very much active." When people seem to be returning to life after a near-death experience, he said, they've just reached the brink of clinical death. They haven't crossed over. "There's no coming back from clinical death."

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Yes there is, countered Sam Parnia, chief of resuscitation research at SUNY Stony Brook and author of Erasing Death. "Some people DO go over the edge and are brought back," he said stiffly. "Modern CPR allows physicians to restart the heart in people after they have gone beyond the traditional threshold of death. More and more people are being brought back to life, either because they are very close to death or because they have temporarily gone beyond the traditional threshold." 

The event, co-sponsored by the Nour Foundation and Wisconsin Public Radio's syndicated show "To the Best of Our Knowledge," was the third of a four-part lecture series at the New York Academy of Sciences called "Rethinking Mortality." Also on the panel was Peter Fenwick, a retired neuroscientist from Great Britain who has co-authored several papers with Parnia, as well as his own pop-sci summary of his research on 300 people with near-death experiences, The Truth in the Light. (He is also, though his NYAS bio didn't mention this, president of the Horizon Foundation, which supports research into near-death experiences, including a major study being conducted by Parnia.) Fenwick added some wry British levity to the discussion as he described his research findings. Most of his subjects, he said, go down a tunnel, toward a beam of light and a lovely place where they meet dead relatives and conduct a life review, just reaching some sort of a border before they're sent back. "I like to think of the place they go to as an English country garden," he said.

The fourth panelist, orthopedic surgeon Mary Neal of Jackson Hole, was the only one who got spiritual in her language, as she described her own near-death experience after being submerged in a kayak in a raging river in Chile; she drowned and was without oxygen for maybe 30 minutes, she said. "I felt my spirit peeling away from my body, felt my spirit rising out of the river" and meeting "beings" who were "overjoyed" to see her, she said. "I knew they could take me down this incredibly beautiful pathway toward this great domed structure that I knew was the point of no return --- and I could hardly wait." She said she didn't want to come back to earth, but her friends' resuscitation efforts forced her to.

In the 14 years since her near-death experience, her ideas about death have changed. "My own definition of death," she said, "is when the spirit leaves the body."

To which Kevin Nelson responded:"That's acceptable, but it's not science."

A video of the evening will be posted soon on the Nour Foundation web site, along with videos of the two earlier presentations, "Reversing Death" and "Prolonging Life," can be found on the Nour Foundation web site.


Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?


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