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Widespread interest in what are nowadays typically called “near-death experiences” can be said to have begun with the publication of Raymond Moody’s bestselling book “Life After Life” in 1975. In fact, Moody has been credited with coining the term “near-death experience” (NDE) itself; at a minimum, he put it into common usage.
Moody had already earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Virginia some years before, and he would receive an M.D. from the Medical College of Georgia the year following publication of his book. His interest in the subject had been awakened when he heard a lecture by the prominent Richmond, Virginia, psychiatrist George Ritchie. Dr. Ritchie recounted a complex experience that he underwent at the age of twenty, during Army basic training in 1943; he said that he had been medically dead for nearly nine minutes, and yet he had not only been conscious but had, he reported, traveled extensively while his body lay inert in a military hospital. Moody dedicated “Life After Life” to Dr. Ritchie, and Ritchie told his own story in “Return from Tomorrow,” published in 1978.
Books and articles of widely-varying quality have continued to appear ever since on the subject of near-death experiences. Unfortunately, the work of Dr. Moody and others has created a template, a kind of checklist or paint-by-numbers instruction manual for would be con-artists or sensationalizers who seek profit from a large, eager, and potentially very lucrative audience. Probably the most obvious example of outright fraud is the 2010 bestseller “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven,” about the story of Alex Malarkey—I’ll resist the temptation to make any obvious jokes about his name—which has since been withdrawn and conceded to be, well, inaccurate.
But there have been some very good books, as well. I would like to briefly mention two of them here.
Dr. Pim van Lommel worked as a cardiologist at Arnhem’s Rijnstate Hospital, in the Netherlands, for 26 years (1977-2003). In 2001, with three co-authors, he published a large-scale study in the prestigious London-based medical journal “The Lancet” on near-death experiences that occur after cardiac arrest. In 2007, the first edition of his eventual bestseller “Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience” appeared in Dutch. In 2010, it was published in English.
His interest in near-death experiences began, though, with a personal story:
“It is 1969. At the coronary care unit the alarm suddenly goes off. The monitor shows that the electrocardiogram of a patient with a myocardial infarction (heart attack) has flatlined. The man has suffered a cardiac arrest. Two nurses hurry over to the patient, who is no longer responsive, and quickly draw the curtains around his bed. One of the nurses starts CPR while the other places a mask over his mouth and administers oxygen. A third nurse rushes over with the resuscitation trolley that contains the defibrillator. The defibrillator is charged, the paddles are covered in gel, the patient’s chest is bared, the medical staff let go of the patient and the bed, and the patient is defibrillated. He receives an electric shock to the chest. It has no effect. Heart massage and artificial respiration are resumed, and, in consultation with the doctor, extra medication is injected into the IV drip. Then the patient is defibrillated for the second time. This time his cardiac rhythm is reestablished, and more than a minute later, after a spell of unconsciousness that lasted about four minutes, the patient regains consciousness, to the great relief of the nursing staff and the attendant doctor.
“That attendant doctor was me. I had started my cardiology training that year.
“Following the successful resuscitation, everybody was pleased — everybody except the patient. He had been successfully revived, yet to everybody’s surprise he was extremely disappointed. He spoke of a tunnel, colors, a light, a beautiful landscape, and music. He was extremely emotional. The term ‘near-death experience’ (NDE) did not yet exist, and I had never heard of people remembering the period of their cardiac arrest. While studying for my degree, I had learned that such a thing is in fact impossible: being unconscious means being unaware — and the same applies to people suffering a cardiac arrest or patients in a coma. At such a moment it is simply impossible to be conscious or to have memories because all brain function has ceased. In the event of a cardiac arrest, a patient is unconscious, is no longer breathing, and has no palpable pulse or blood pressure.”
However, the impossible seemed to have happened. And Dr. Van Lommel has been thinking about it, and about similar reports, ever since.
Likewise, Bruce Greyson’s still-recent book “After: A Doctor Explores What Near-Death Experiences Reveal about Life and Beyond” begins with a motivating personal story. First, though, a bit of background about him:
Dr. Greyson, one of the foremost living authorities on near-death experiences, is Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. (Before joining the faculty at Virginia, he taught at the medical schools of the University of Michigan and the University of Connecticut.) A Distinguished Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Greyson reports that he was not brought up in a religious family, and it’s not at all clear from what he’s written that he’s religious even now, at least in any conventional sense. So the account that he gives in the opening pages of his book – of an episode that launched his decades of research into near-death experiences — is perhaps even more striking than it would otherwise have been:
“Fifty years ago,” he says, “a woman who had just tried to kill herself told me something that challenged what I thought I knew about the mind and the brain, and about who we really are.”
He recalls that he was eating spaghetti in the hospital when his pager went off. It startled him. He was just a few months out of medical school, and he had been deeply immersed in a handbook on emergency psychiatry. In his surprise, he splashed tomato sauce on both his book and his tie. As a new doctor, still just a bit insecure, he was trying hard to seem professional — and this wasn’t the look that he wanted.
The pager was summoning him with regard to a patient in the emergency room who had taken a drug overdose. Holly — that’s the name he assigns to her — was a first-year college student, and she had been brought to the hospital by her roommate. The roommate wanted to talk with him, as well.
Dr. Greyson threw on a white lab coat and buttoned it up in order to hide the embarrassing tomato sauce stain on his tie. He hurried to the emergency room (ER) first, to check on Holly. She was in stable condition but was unconscious. A “sitter” was there, watching her. (This was a routine precaution for psychiatric patients in the ER.) The sitter indicated that she had been “out” the whole time.
After briefly examining her, Dr. Greyson headed down the hall to the family lounge where the roommate was waiting. The room was hot and stuffy, and he soon moved the fan a bit closer and unbuttoned his lab coat.
They spoke for some time, including specific information about drugs and medicines in their apartment, but the roommate needed to get home to work on a college paper. She didn’t know Holly well. When she left, Dr. Greyson buttoned his lab coat up again, so that nobody in the ER would see the tomato stain on his tie. He went back to check on Holly. The sitter was still there, she was still out cold, and the sitter reported that there had been no change. Dr. Greyson went home.
When he returned the next morning at 8 AM, he found that Holly was newly awake, though still drowsy. So he proceeded down the hall to check on her again.
He introduced himself. She replied that no introduction was necessary; she recognized him, she said, from the previous evening.
He was stunned. How was that even remotely possible? She explained that she had seen him in the family lounge, talking with her roommate. (And this, remember, happened during a time when she was unconscious in a hospital bed at the other end of a long hall, under full-time 24/7 watch.). “You were wearing a striped tie that had a red stain on it,” she told him. She was able to relate his conversation with the roommate in great detail, and even recalled his moving the fan.
Concerned about his status as a newly-minted physician, young Dr. Greyson spoke to nobody about what had happened, and he didn’t include it in his report on the case. “I just wanted it to go away,” he recalls,
“As desperately as I wanted to erase from my memory my entire encounter with Holly,” he later writes, “I was by then enough of a scientist to know I couldn’t just ignore it. Pretending something didn’t happen just because we can’t explain it is the exact opposite of science. My quest to find a logical explanation for the riddle of the spaghetti stain led me into a half century of research. It didn’t answer all my questions, but it did lead me to question some of my answers. And it would soon take me into territory I never could have imagined.” (13)
Or, as he reflects even further into the book,
“As psychologist Bob Van de Castle put it, if you get hit by a truck, you knowthat you were hit by a truck, and no amount of skepticism from others will ever convince you that the truck was only imaginary. I haven’t yet been hit by a truck, but I was hit almost a half century ago by Holly’s insistence that she had seen the stain on my tie while she was unconscious in another room. I didn’t know how to make sense of that event, but I couldn’t pretend it never happened, and I couldn’t dismiss it as a misperception or the product of my imagination.” (93)
Not only are these fascinating books, but the biographies of their authors are interesting in and of themselves. Some skeptics have suggested, for example, that only religious people who are predisposed (even pre-programmed) to believe in an afterlife will be persuaded that NDEs reflect objective reality, that they demonstrate a distinction between mind and brain and may even offer a glimpse of the world to come. But this is clearly not true in the case of Professor Greyson. And if there’s any reason to believe that Dr. van Lommel is especially religious or even religious at all, I’m unaware of it.
Have there been false NDE claims? Yes. Are all NDE claims false? Certainly not. But do they describe objective reality? Do they demonstrate that minds are not reducible to physical brains? Do they suggest the possibility that human personality survives death? A strong argument can be made to that effect: Thousands and thousands of NDE accounts have now been collected; several hundred of them include features that seem impossible to explain on the basis of a reductionist, naturalistic, materialist worldview. And if even one of them is true, naturalistic atheism is false.
“If you wish to upset the law that all crows are black,” said the great Harvard philosopher and psychologist William James (d. 1910), who himself had a deep interest in such issues as “extraordinary knowing” and human survival of death, “you mustn’t seek to show that no crows are; it is enough if you prove one single crow to be white.”