Jan. 8, 2002 -- When a car plowed into the vehicle in which she was riding, Leslie's chest was crushed, eight bones were broken and her heart stopped beating for three minutes. Before she was revived, she says she glimpsed the afterlife.
"My next experience was really lying on the ground outside of the car, and it was actually an out-of-body experience that I had," says Leslie, who declined to give her last name. "I was actually floating above my body, and I looked down, and I saw all these men working on this poor girl who was down below, about eight feet below me, and she was struggling."
An estimated 7 million people have reported hauntingly similar "near-death" experiences. And a new study in the British medical journal Lancet gives credence to such accounts, concluding they are valid.
Scientists Study Near-Death Experiences
ABCNEWS' Medical Editor Dr. Tim Johnson says this study lends more credibility to the possibility that these near-death accounts are accurate because the researchers conducted the interviews soon after the experiences occurred. The study does not provide a way to scientifically measure whether or not there is life after death, however.
The study reported in Lancet looked at 344 patients in the Netherlands who were successfully resuscitated after suffering cardiac arrest in 10 Dutch hospitals.
Rather than using data from people reporting past near-death experiences, researchers talked to patients within a week after they had suffered clinical deaths and been resuscitated. (Clincical death was defined as a period of unconsciousness caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain.)
About 18 percent of the patients in the study reported being able to recall some portion of what happened when they were clinically dead; and 8 to 12 percent reported going through "near-death" experiences, such as seeing lights at the end of tunnels, or being able to speak to dead relatives or friends. Most had excellent recall of the events, which undermines the theory that the memories are false, the study said.
"We don't even begin to have the tools to debate the subject on a rational scientific basis," Johnson told Good Morning America. "I don't think our belief on afterlife is defined on a cause of the brain." Johnson, who serves as assisting minister of the Community Covenant Church in West Peabody, Mass., said belief in the afterlife remains primarily a matter of personal faith.
Brain Down, Consciousness On?
Lead researcher Pim van Lommel of the Hospital Rijnstate in the Netherlands said the study suggests that researchers investigating consciousness should not look in the cells and molecules alone.
Even when the brain is not showing signs of electrical activity, it is possible that a person can still be conscious, he said. In other words, people can be conscious of events around them even when they are physically unconscious.
"Compare it with a TV program," he told The Washington Post. "If you open the TV set you will not find the program. The TV set is a receiver. When you turn off your TV set, the program is still there but you can't see it. When you put off your brain, your consciousness is still there but you can't feel it in your body."
Many people describe seeing their own bodies from a distance, as though watching a movie. Others say they felt their bodies rushing toward a brilliant light.
Some who have had this experience say it's a sign there is a tunnel that leads to eternal life, but researchers do not really know what the visions mean. The study does not address whether there is such a thing as the soul, God or the afterlife.
"I think what's happening is that people are trying to validate their experience by making these paranormal claims, but you don't need to do that," said Susan Blackmore, a psychology professor at the University of the West of England in Bristol. "They're valid experiences in themselves, only they're happening in the brain and not in the world out there."
She believes the experiences are like a movie that our brains run at times of extreme traumatic stress. The brain creates endorphins which can reduce pain, and under extreme stress, these large amounts of endorphins produce a dreamlike state of euphoria.
Life Beyond Death
Some of those who described the experiences to ABCNEWS say they feel they were given the opportunity to explore life beyond death.
"I was looking down, and I saw my body, and I saw the doctors," said Jessie Lott, one woman who was resuscitated.
"I had come into this place of brilliant, beautiful life," said another, Dannion Brinkley.
"The feeling of peacefulness, the feeling of utter acceptance, utter — I mean, love, and it sounds so hokey, and I hate that part of it, because there aren't really good words to describe it," Leslie said.
Another woman described how she felt she was being pulled toward a giant tunnel, a common theme in the near-death experiences.
"I couldn't stop it. I didn't know why I was moving. I was just pulled right through this enormous, infinite tunnel," said Diane Morrissey.
Blackmore says science can also explain those tunnels: Electrical brain scans show that in our last moments, as the brain is deprived of oxygen, cells fire frantically and at random in the part of the brain which govern vision.
"Now, imagine that you've got lots and lots of cells firing in the middle, towards fewer at the outside, what's it going to look like? Bright light in the middle fading off towards dark at the outside," Blackmore said. "I think that's where the tunnel comes from. And as the oxygen level drops, so the bright light becomes bigger and more immediate, and you get this sensation of rushing forward into the light."
Scientist Turned Spiritual Healer
But not all scientists are skeptics when it comes to explaining near-death phenomena, and researchers have debated such issues for years.
Joyce Hawkes, a cell biologist with a PhD, had an accident that forever changed her life — and her view of science. She suffered a concussion from a falling window.
"I think that part of me — that my spirit, my soul — left my body and went to another reality," she said. She was surprised at the experience.
"It just was not part of the paradigm in which I lived as a scientist," Hawkes recalled. "Iit was a big surprise to me to have this sense of something different than the body — a consciousness different than the body — and to be in this wonderfully healing, peaceful, nurturing place."
Hawkes now works as a spiritual healer.
"I think what I learned was that there truly is no death, that there is a change in state from a physical form to a spirit form, and that there's nothing to fear about that passage," she said.
The Dutch researchers found that people who had such experiences reported marked changes in their personalities compared with those who had come near death, but had not had those experiences. They seemed to have lost their fear of death, and became more compassionate, loving people.
"I can hardly wait to die, and yet I don't have a death wish. I live my life a hundred percent more now because I have such a fine appreciation about what might happen to us and where we might go," said Morrissey.