L O S A N G E L E S, June 29, 2001 -- A British scientiststudying heart attack patients says he is finding evidence thatsuggests that consciousness may continue after the brain hasstopped functioning and a patient is clinically dead.
The research, presented to scientists last week at theCalifornia Institute of Technology (Caltech), resurrects thedebate over whether there is life after death and whether thereis such a thing as the human soul.
"The studies are very significant in that we have a groupof people with no brain function … who have well-structured,lucid thought processes with reasoning and memory formation ata time when their brains are shown not to function," SamParnia, one of two doctors from Southampton General Hospital inEngland who have been studying so-called near-death experiences(NDEs), told Reuters in an interview.
"We need to do much larger-scale studies, but thepossibility is certainly there" to suggest that consciousness,or the soul, keeps thinking and reasoning even if a person'sheart has stopped, he is not breathing and his brain activityis nil, Parnia said.
Promising Data, Say Researchers
He said he and colleagues conducted an initial yearlongstudy, the results of which appeared in the February issue ofthe journal Resuscitation. The study was so promising thedoctors formed a foundation to fund further research andcontinue collecting data.
During the initial study, Parnia said, 63 heart attackpatients who were deemed clinically dead but were later revivedwere interviewed within a week of their experiences.
Of those, 56 said they had no recollection of the time theywere unconscious and seven reported having memories. Of those,four were labeled NDEs in that they reported lucid memories ofthinking, reasoning, moving about and communicating with othersafter doctors determined their brains were not functioning.
Among other things, the patients reported rememberingfeelings 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, enteringanother realm and communicating with dead relatives. One, whocalled himself a lapsed Catholic and Pagan, reported a closeencounter with a mystical being.
Near-death experiences have been reported for centuries butin Parnia's study none of the patients were found to havereceived low oxygen levels, which some skeptics believe maycontribute to the phenomenon.
When the brain is deprived of oxygen people become totallyconfused, thrash around and usually have no memories at all,Parnia said. "Here you have a severe insult to the brain butperfect memory."
Skeptics Give Other Explanations
Skeptics have also suggested that patients' memoriesoccurred in the moments they were leaving or returning toconsciousness. But Parnia said when a brain is traumatized by aseizure or car wreck a patient generally does not remembermoments 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 justremember seeing the car and the next thing I knew I was in thehospital,"' he said.
"With cardiac arrest, the insult to the brain is so severeit stops the brain completely. Therefore, I would expectprofound memory loss before and after the incident," he added.
Since the initial experiment, Parnia and his colleagueshave found more than 3,500 people with lucid memories thatapparently occurred at times they were thought to be clinicallydead. Many of the patients, he said, were reluctant to sharetheir experiences fearing they would be thought crazy.
Toddler Describes Experience
One patient was 2½ years old when he had a seizure andhis heart stopped. His parents contacted Parnia after the boy"drew a picture of himself as if out of his body looking downat himself. It was drawn like there was a balloon stuck to him.When they asked what the balloon was he said, 'When you die yousee a bright light and you are connected to a cord.' He wasn'teven 3 when had the experience," Parnia said.
"What his parents noticed was that after he had beendischarged from hospital, six months after the incident, hekept drawing the same scene."
The brain function these patients were found to have whileunconscious is commonly believed to be incapable of sustaininglucid thought processes or allowing lasting memories to form,Parnia said — pointing to the fact that nobody fully graspshow the brain generates thoughts.
The brain itself is made up of cells, like all the body'sorgans, and is not really capable of producing the subjectivephenomenon of thought that people have, he said.
He speculated that human consciousness may workindependently of the brain, using the gray matter as amechanism to manifest the thoughts, just as a television settranslates waves in the air into picture and sound.
"When you damage the brain or lose some of the aspects ofmind or personality, that doesn't necessarily mean the mind isbeing produced by the brain. All it shows is that the apparatusis damaged," Parnia said, adding that further research mightreveal the existence of a soul.
"When these people are having experiences they say, 'I hadthis intense pain in my chest and suddenly I was drifting inthe corner of my room and I was so happy, so comfortable. Ilooked down and realized I was seeing my body and doctors allaround me trying to save me and I didn't want to go back.
"The point is they are describing seeing this thing in theroom, which is their body. Nobody ever says, 'I had this painand the next thing I knew my soul left me."'