Science Can't Yet Explain
Near-Death Experiences

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - While no one is sure exactly what they are or why they occur, ``near-death'' experiences may not be explainable by science alone, according to researchers.
Their study of 62 patients who said they had a near-death experience after going into cardiac arrest found that factors such as medication and the duration of unconsciousness did not explain the phenomenon.
``Our results show that medical factors cannot account for occurrence of near-death experiences,'' Dr. Pim van Lommel and colleagues from the Netherlands report in the December 15th issue of The Lancet.
A small number of people who survive life-threatening circumstances like cardiac arrest report having had ``an extraordinary experience,'' note van Lommel, of Hospital Rijnstate in Arnhem, and his colleagues. These so-called near-death experiences often involve visions of a light or a deceased relative, flashbacks of life events or an ''out-of-body'' sensation.
Researchers have come up with a number of explanations for these experiences. Some believe that brain cells dying from a lack of oxygen help trigger the episodes, while others point to psychological factors such as fear of death, or to the changing state of consciousness people may go through in a life-threatening condition.
But research on near-death experiences has typically asked survivors to recount the events long after they occurred, according to van Lommel's team. The investigators tried to overcome this problem by interviewing cardiac-arrest survivors within days of being resuscitated and again 2 and 8 years later.
In the initial interviews, 62 of 344 survivors (18%) reported near-death experiences. All 344 had been clinically dead, meaning they were unconscious due to a lack of blood and oxygen to the brain.
The patients' near-death experiences varied, with 41 having a deeper, or ``core,'' experience. The rest reported more ''superficial'' events, van Lommel's team notes. Two years later, 6 of these individuals were deemed to not have had a near-death experience.
But those patients who did have one were able to recall the experience ``almost exactly'' 8 years later, the researchers found. And in contrast with cardiac arrest survivors who did not have such an experience, these patients showed less fear of death and a stronger belief in an after-life.
What the researchers could not find was any clear explanation for why a small percentage of patients had a near-death experience while most did not. If ``purely physiological factors'' like a cutoff of oxygen to the brain were at play, they note, most of the study patients should have had such an experience.
``We did not show that psychological, neurophysiological, or physiological factors caused these experiences after cardiac arrest,'' the researchers write.
But these findings are hard to interpret, according to an editorial published with the report. For one, writes Dr. Christopher C. French of the University of London, UK, ``it seems that at least some near-death experiences may be the result of false memories.''
In addition, he points out, it is unclear when--during what state of consciousness--the patients had their experiences.
French calls for more research to overcome the limitations of most studies into near-death experiences, while calling the current one a ``major advance'' over past studies.
SOURCE: The Lancet 2001;358:2010-2011, 2039-2045.

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