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Is Near-Death Experience a Glimpse of a Portal Into the Hereafter? 

People often tell me that I am too practical and analytical. It is true that I seldom speculate about the mysterious wonders of the world. It doesn’t necessarily follow that I am a disbeliever per say, however, to paraphrase some scientists speaking about spiritual influences in the living world; there just isn’t any conclusive evidence for it. 

This of course does not mean that any given assertion is not true and although I maintain that religion and other spiritual beliefs that may block or control the growth of science and knowledge should be resisted, I do not hold it true that science has liquefied any role for mystery.

The subject of near-death experiences is one that has intrigued me greatly over the years.

There are millions of American adults who say that they have had a near-death experience and those numbers are considered to be rising as resuscitation methods increasingly become more sophisticated. During some of these resuscitations people who have had these near-death experiences often describe leaving their bodies and then watching themselves from above as they are being worked on by medical personnel. Other common near-death experiences, in or out of the emergency room, include going down a dark tunnel toward a bright light, some sort of a life review, and feelings of intense peace and joy. Still other individuals in a near-death state may have encounters with deceased relatives who tell them that it is not their time yet.

As part of a current study researchers are suspending pictures face up from the ceilings in emergency room treatment areas. The purpose of this is to help ascertain whether or not patients brought back to life after cardiac arrest can recall the images after claiming to have an out-of-body experience and hovering from above.

Sam Parnia, a critical-care physician and lead investigator of the study, has indicated that these images have been added as objective markers. Dr. Parnia has said that he anticipates reporting preliminary results next year. This study is one of the latest and largest scientific endeavors to understand the mystery of near-death experiences and is being organized by the Southampton University's School of Medicine in England. The study encompasses treatment centers at 18 hospitals in the United States and the United Kingdom.

One of the aspects of these phenomena that I find most fascinating is that there seems to be a consistency in these stories. Some investigators contend that many of the central parts of these stories are the same among people of all cultures, races, religions and age groups.

Are these incredible experiences truly glimpses of an afterlife? There are certainly other possibilities. British researcher Dr. Susan Blackmore notes that many near-death experiences such as such as euphoria and of moving toward a light are in fact typical symptoms of oxygen deprivation. There has been a link between oxygen deprivation in the brain and near-death experiences suggested for many years.

High blood levels of carbon dioxide have also been associated with bright lights and out-of-body experiences. Other hypotheses contend that life reviews could be due to the random activation of the dying memory centers of the brain and the feeling of peace could be endorphins released during extreme stress.

These less grand alternative suggestions as to the possible causes of near-death experiences also must be considered if we are to truly objectively examine near-death experiences in the years to come. The realistic side to my sensibilities has a tendency to favor these more medical suggestions. That is not to say that there isn’t more to the subject of near-death experiences to tantalize the imagination.

Simply put thanatology is the study of the phenomena of death and of the psychological mechanisms for coping with them. Renowned thanatologist, David Kessler, in his book, "Visions, Trips, and Crowded Rooms," reports that in an associated phenomenon called near-death awareness, hospice patients often describe being visited by a deceased relative or having an out-of-body experience well before death. Although these occurrences are often dismissed as hallucinations, sometimes hospice workers generally report that the patients are otherwise perfectly rational.

My grandmother had a very agonizing death and I spent many hours at her side throughout her final days. In certain stages of those final moments she seemed to act as if my grandfather, who preceded her in death, was in her presence. When my grandmother talked to me during this time her speech was very weak and she was not always coherent. However, when she turned her head and seemingly spoke to my dead grandfather her speech had a renewed purpose and her inflection had the same spirited and argumentative tone that I had heard a thousand times before when they were both alive. This next part may be adding a bit of drama to the scenario but none-the-less during these episodes of my deceased grandfather’s supposed presence both of the cats that I had at the time appeared to be a bit freaked out as they crawled about with bushy tails.

From what I understand in some near-death experiences people report vivid memories, feelings, and thought processes even when there is no measurable brain activity. If this is true I would wonder if there isn’t some life force or energy that is generated by complex living things. I do not have any clue how long these life energies would stay manifested after death or exactly where they would reside. This is pure speculation and I have no scientific basis for it. I am not sure if I would describe what I am referring to as a spiritual proposal, but the concept in general is not new along those terms. The understanding of spiritual energy is illustrated differently depending on the tradition or practice being considered. Life energy has been described in a number of different ways including as a physical sensation similar to the movement of breath in the body, as visible auras, or as tactile vibrations.

The question as to what the awareness that dwells within our consciousness actually is and how it may relate to our existence is a legitimate scientific and philosophical inquiry.

“The self, the soul, the psyche -throughout history, we've never managed to figure out what it is and how it relates to the body," Dr. Parnia says. "This is very important for science and fascinating for humankind."

I will admit that it is uncomfortable for me to step out of my reasoned and analytical world. However, I am not in a big hurry to discount any reasonable possibility. One of my heroes, Albert Einstein, said in part, “Imagination is more important than knowledge...” One of the things we can infer from this is while a novice might be deficient in knowledge; the deficit is made up for by the lack of preconceived notions. There is nothing wrong with questioning the status quo.

I am being a bit facetious here but I will certainly be questioning the status quo if one of the subjects in the study with the face up pictures emerges from a cardiac arrest with the question, “Hey, why is there a face up picture of Marilyn Monroe at the ceiling by the oxygen pipes?” At that point, someone is going to have my undivided attention.


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