L O S A N G E L E S, June 29, 2001 -- A British scientist studying heart attack patients says he is finding evidence that suggests that consciousness may continue after the brain has stopped functioning and a patient is clinically dead.
The research, presented to scientists last week at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), resurrects the debate over whether there is life after death and whether there is such a thing as the human soul.
"The studies are very significant in that we have a group of people with no brain function … who have well-structured, lucid thought processes with reasoning and memory formation at a time when their brains are shown not to function," Sam Parnia, one of two doctors from Southampton General Hospital in England who have been studying so-called near-death experiences (NDEs), told Reuters in an interview.
"We need to do much larger-scale studies, but the possibility is certainly there" to suggest that consciousness, or the soul, keeps thinking and reasoning even if a person's heart has stopped, he is not breathing and his brain activity is nil, Parnia said.
Promising Data, Say Researchers
He said he and colleagues conducted an initial yearlong study, the results of which appeared in the February issue of the journal Resuscitation. The study was so promising the doctors formed a foundation to fund further research and continue collecting data.
During the initial study, Parnia said, 63 heart attack patients who were deemed clinically dead but were later revived were interviewed within a week of their experiences.
Of those, 56 said they had no recollection of the time they were unconscious and seven reported having memories. Of those, four were labeled NDEs in that they reported lucid memories of thinking, reasoning, moving about and communicating with others after doctors determined their brains were not functioning.
Among other things, the patients reported remembering feelings of peace, joy and harmony. For some, time sped up, senses heightened and they lost awareness of their bodies.
The patients also reported seeing a bright light, entering another realm and communicating with dead relatives. One, who called himself a lapsed Catholic and Pagan, reported a close encounter with a mystical being.
Near-death experiences have been reported for centuries but in Parnia's study none of the patients were found to have received low oxygen levels, which some skeptics believe may contribute to the phenomenon.
When the brain is deprived of oxygen people become totally confused, thrash around and usually have no memories at all, Parnia said. "Here you have a severe insult to the brain but perfect memory."
Skeptics Give Other Explanations
Skeptics have also suggested that patients' memories occurred in the moments they were leaving or returning to consciousness. But Parnia said when a brain is traumatized by a seizure or car wreck a patient generally does not remember moments just before or after losing consciousness.
Rather, there is usually a memory lapse of hours or days. "Talk to them. They'll tell you something like: 'I just remember seeing the car and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital,"' he said.
"With cardiac arrest, the insult to the brain is so severe it stops the brain completely. Therefore, I would expect profound memory loss before and after the incident," he added.
Since the initial experiment, Parnia and his colleagues have found more than 3,500 people with lucid memories that apparently occurred at times they were thought to be clinically dead. Many of the patients, he said, were reluctant to share their experiences fearing they would be thought crazy.
Toddler Describes Experience
One patient was 2½ years old when he had a seizure and his heart stopped. His parents contacted Parnia after the boy "drew a picture of himself as if out of his body looking down at himself. It was drawn like there was a balloon stuck to him. When they asked what the balloon was he said, 'When you die you see a bright light and you are connected to a cord.' He wasn't even 3 when had the experience," Parnia said.
"What his parents noticed was that after he had been discharged from hospital, six months after the incident, he kept drawing the same scene."
The brain function these patients were found to have while unconscious is commonly believed to be incapable of sustaining lucid thought processes or allowing lasting memories to form, Parnia said — pointing to the fact that nobody fully grasps how the brain generates thoughts.
The brain itself is made up of cells, like all the body's organs, and is not really capable of producing the subjective phenomenon of thought that people have, he said.
He speculated that human consciousness may work independently of the brain, using the gray matter as a mechanism to manifest the thoughts, just as a television set translates waves in the air into picture and sound.
"When you damage the brain or lose some of the aspects of mind or personality, that doesn't necessarily mean the mind is being produced by the brain. All it shows is that the apparatus is damaged," Parnia said, adding that further research might reveal the existence of a soul.
"When these people are having experiences they say, 'I had this intense pain in my chest and suddenly I was drifting in the corner of my room and I was so happy, so comfortable. I looked down and realized I was seeing my body and doctors all around me trying to save me and I didn't want to go back.
"The point is they are describing seeing this thing in the room, which is their body. Nobody ever says, 'I had this pain and the next thing I knew my soul left me."'