Investigating the Light

Science searches for clues to explain near-death experiences.

Excerpted with permission from a longer feature story that ran in City Link Magazine in March, 2003.

Scientists are divided on what-if anything-might cause near-death experiences.

Believers in the supernatural and skeptical scientists seem to agree on only one thing: The near-death experience (NDE) is a remarkable phenomenon. But there's no consensus on what causes it, even among those who point to a range of possible biological factors that could trigger hallucinations.

Indeed, the research on both sides of the NDE debate leaves plenty of unanswered questions. For example, Dutch cardiologist Dr. Pim van Lommel, the researcher who reported in the

British journal The Lancet

that 18 percent of 344 successfully resuscitated patients had had NDEs, concludes, "There is no apparent medical, physiological, pharmacological or psychological factor that causes the NDE. So the existing theories till now have to be abandoned." His research has been seized on by NDE advocates such as Dr. Barbara Rommer and other leaders in the

International Association for Near-Death Studies

(IANDS) as the best evidence to date of the likelihood of an afterlife.

Yet van Lommel himself says, "I do not believe in an afterlife, but I believe that when the body has died, consciousness with memories will continue to be experienced, independent of the dead body." He points to theories of quantum physics-including the ever-shifting nature of matter and energy-as possibly explaining how awareness and memory could survive even when brain activity has ceased.


So what accounts for the full scope of the near-death experience? Usually, it involves a lucid awareness of strange events while a person is temporarily clinically dead - his heart, breathing and, in some cases, brain activity have stopped. The reported experiences include seeing one's own dead body, traveling through a tunnel, encountering a special light and deceased relatives, feeling peaceful emotions, having a life review or seeing celestial landscapes. Not all people who have NDEs recall all these features, but most are common elements of the experience.

Skeptical researchers contend that all these elements can be reproduced and explained through biological means. For instance, electrical stimulation of the temporal lobes of the brain can induce vivid memories and out-of-body experiences, and injection with the anesthetic ketamine (known to clubgoers as Special K) has been shown to create powerful hallucinations, including meetings with angelic figures. Another common explanation is that the deprivation of oxygen to the brain during a near fatality leads to neurological misfirings - and hallucinations.

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Art Levine
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