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Who Have More Out-of-Body Near-Death Experiences—Atheists, Catholics, or Muslims?

Can religious belief explain who will have an out-of-body experience?

A 55-year-old man was suddenly stricken by a heart attack. Rushed to the emergency room near death the man felt himself leave his own body and hover above the operating room like a vapor. Peering down on the frantic scene from above the man watched as the cardiovascular surgeon worked feverishly on his limp pale-white body to save his life. Later the staff confirmed that the man's description was an accurate account of the surgical team's behavior.

The dying man described seeing a brilliant light at the end of a dark tunnel. It drew him in with a strong attraction that seemed to emanate from a region of warmth, love, and peace. Approaching the light he met relatives who had long ago diseased. They communicated with him telepathically. His departed relatives urged him to resist the seductive pull and return to his body. After recovering from the heart attack the man felt transformed. The extraordinary experience infused him with an intense desire to help others and to talk about his near-death transcendental encounter with the afterlife awaiting the soul after the death of one's body.

Near-death experiences with this mystical out-of-body nature are not uncommon, and the stories are remarkably similar as reported by individuals who return from the brink. Such powerful spiritual experiences are reported by 23 percent of people who suffer severe heart attacks. They occur in people close to death from other causes or even in situations of intense physical or emotional danger. These experiences share many common elements. Often there is an accelerated review of one's life. Joy, peacefulness, and encounters with mystical entities or deceased persons are common.

Does a person's religious belief affect the likelihood of experiencing such spiritual feelings on the threshold of death? A study by Zalika Klemenc-Ketis and colleagues published in the journal Critical Care investigated this question in a search for possible commonalities among people who have near-death-experiences, and the findings are provocative. Examining medical records of heart attack patients together with detailed questionnaires about the individual's religious beliefs, other personal attributes, and medical data, the researchers found that if a person was an atheist, his or her chances of having an out-of-body experience were the same as for a Catholic or Muslim.

What then can explain who will and who will not see that light at the end of the tunnel on the threshold of death and turn around to tell the world about it? The person's gender made no difference. Age, level of education, fear of death before the cardiac arrest made no difference whatsoever. But they did find a common thread among those who had battled the light and returned to their body.

The common feature among those who had out-of-body experiences was a rise in carbon dioxide levels in their blood above a certain threshold ( 5.7 kPa). None of the other chemical measures of the patients' blood had a significant bearing on who had experienced such a spiritual event. Extreme hyperventilation can do much the same thing to the brain, explaining perhaps why those in extreme danger and near fainting can experience the phenomenon.

The study suggests that by more carefully controlling the blood's acid/base balance during a medical crisis, which becomes upset when blood is overloaded by carbon dioxide, the whole mysterious experience can be prevented.

More from R. Douglas Fields Ph.D.
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