Experiencing near death

The emergence of intensive-care medicine as well as cardiopulmonary resuscitation has enabled people who had passed the traditional “there is no pulse, the heart has stopped” threshold of biological death to come back, kept alive through life-support machines. 

This came to mind because I received a book written by a neurosurgeon and a recent issue of Discover magazine for my birthday, both focusing on reports of near-death experiences.

Humans have been wondering about consciousness, our sleep state, and the possibility of an afterlife since ancient times. Passages in The Book of the Dead, the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Bible confirm this. 

The neurosurgeon’s description of his near-death experience is consistent with other people’s reports of the existence of a wonderful, warm, welcoming, colorful, and embracing world. The doctor’s view is that his experience was an out-of-body, intellectual, and spiritual one foretelling what we might expect after death: we do not die, we transform. 

In contrast, the Discover article proposed various temporary neurophysiological explanations, possibly even an endorphin-like flush or some other chemical response, inducing hallucinations. 

Previously, I had not thought much about near-death phenomena. My problem is not with what is reported as a near-death experience; I have difficulty accepting the observations reported at near-death as experiences to be expected after a real death, and perhaps forever. To me, it’s a bit like trying to observe what it feels like when we fall asleep. I remember a little poem “Sweet dreams” by Ogden Nash about this:

I wonder as into bed I creep
What it feels like to fall asleep.
I’ve told myself stories, I’ve counted sheep,
But I’m always asleep when I fall asleep.
Tonight my eyes I will open keep,
And I’ll stay awake till I fall asleep,
Then I’ll know what it feels like to fall asleep,

Given a standardized definition of what we could declare as “a state of near death,” and with our improved medical resuscitation techniques, researchers could now analyze data from the experiences of large cohorts of near-death survivors. However, we still do not have the tools needed to understand the phenomenon of consciousness. And perhaps due to the limitations inherent in being human, we might not ever have the capacity to develop such tools. 
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading
Alexander E. Proof of heaven. New York: Simon and Schuster; 2012.
Nash O. Custard and company. Little Brown and Co; 1980.
Orlando A. Death defying. Discover. September/October 2021. Pages 51-58.

This post has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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