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Recent books by Sam Parnia and Pim van Lommel, both physicians, describe studies published in peer-reviewed journals that attempt to pin down what happens during NDEs under controlled experimental conditions.Parnia and his colleagues published results from the latest such study, involving more than 2,000 cardiac-arrest patients, in October.Over time, the scientific literature that attempts to explain NDEs as the result of physical changes in a stressed or dying brain has also, commensurately, grown.The causes posited include an oxygen shortage, imperfect anesthesia, and the body’s neurochemical responses to trauma. The medical conditions under which NDEs happen, they say, are too varied to explain a phenomenon that seems so widespread and consistent.And it makes them a lens through which to peer at the workings of consciousness—one of the great mysteries of human existence, even for the most resolute materialist.Which is how I found myself last summer in Newport Beach, California, at the annual conference of the International Association for Near-Death Studies (, which has been a formal organization since 1981.A small, lucky handful of people have made full or nearly full recoveries after spending hours with no breath or pulse, buried in snow or submerged in very cold water.Surgeons sometimes create these conditions intentionally, chilling patients’ bodies or stopping their hearts in order to perform complex, dangerous operations; recently they have begun trying out such techniques on severely injured trauma victims, keeping them between life and death until their wounds can be repaired.
The book it was based on, published in 2010, has sold some 10 million copies and spent 206 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.While you can’t rely on an alien abduction or a spiritual visitation taking place just when you’ve got recording instruments handy, many NDEs happen when a person is surrounded by an arsenal of devices designed to measure every single thing about the body that human ingenuity has made us capable of measuring.What’s more, as medical technology continues to improve, it’s bringing people back from ever closer to the brink of death.All of this makes NDEs perhaps the only spiritual experience that we have a chance of investigating in a truly thorough, scientific way.
It makes them a vehicle for exploring the ancient human belief that we are more than meat.
And is there a way for science to get at what’s really going on? The program included panels and workshops on everything from “What Medical Neuroscience Can Learn From NDEs” to “Sacred Geometry Dance: Creating a Vortex to Open to the Divine” and “Group Past-Life Regression.”The opening talk, by Diane Corcoran, the association’s president, was clearly for newbies; the main ballroom, which seats about 300 people, was almost empty.