Note: Last year, inspired by words from Fr. Robert Spitzer, I ran a 10-part series in our bulletin (Aug. 12 – Oct. 14, 2018) on modern day miracles that had been heavily scrutinized by science (available when you visit our parish website and pull up the bulletins from those dates). Spitzer had said that 93% of those who lose their faith today in America claim that their primary reason for this loss of faith is that they do not believe religion can hold up to the scrutiny of modern science. In other words, faith in science is replacing faith in God for many people. Spitzer’s solution to this modern phenomenon was to challenge Church leaders to make a focused effort to report Church documented miracles that have confounded science in recent decades. However, he also raised questions around the natural sciences that were quite separate from religious miracles and the lives of the saints that, nevertheless, have religious significance. For the next few weeks, I will examine a few of those, beginning with…
Episode 16: Near Death Experiences (NDEs); Evidence of the Soul?
I read of a survey taken with some professional association of scientists (many of whom were atheists) and the survey asked them to list the greatest questions posed to science that remain unanswered to date. The top 200 were listed at the conclusion of the survey (I guess based on the frequency of mention). The top question dealt with the make-up and origin of the universe but second only to that was the question about the biological make-up of the human conscience. It has been the widely held belief among scientists, even until now, that the human conscience (some might say soul?) is the product of the basic functions of the human brain. One subset of studies that has raised a debate around this assumption though has been on the phenomenon known as the near death experience or NDE. A scientist who would insist that NDEs were the product of the brain would have to try to claim that they are caused by nerve cell activity, oxygen deprivation, hallucination based on medications or changes in brain chemistry, etc. What the assumption does not explain is how such experiences are possible when the patient is clinically brain dead. If the brain is temporarily not functioning, then such scientists would be forced to try to identify an alternate biological source for the human conscience apart from the spiritual and thus the question remains unanswered for the time being in their eyes. To add to the mystery, not all patients uniformly experience NDEs in conjunction with the shutdown of brain function. In the studies I have read, reported cases impact only between 18-24% of individuals who have had close calls with death so some studies have also tried to explore why not all share in this experience. Still, at least 8 million Americans alone claim to have had near death experiences. In this episode, I will simply try to point out mounting medical evidence that the source of such experiences is something other than the brain and how this may make the case for the possible existence of the soul from a scientific standpoint.
For those involved with the NDE phenomenon, near death experience is defined as some special state of consciousness present during clinical death where vivid impressions, images and emotions are experienced. Anecdotally, it is likely that many of you may know someone who has claimed such an experience. Common elements of such stories tend to include an out-of-body experience, a description of a tunnel with a light at the end of it, meeting deceased individuals and euphoric, mystical feelings of oneness, unity and peace. In fact, compiling the results of various studies has shown a high consistency of reported details or symptoms. The top ten commonly experienced factors are: being able to see yourself from an outside perspective, accurate visual perception of some kind, audible sounds of voices, feeling of peace and/or painlessness, light phenomena, a review of your life at some kind of hyper-speed (i.e. “your life flashing before your eyes”), being in another world, encountering other beings, tunnel-like experiences and precognition. These varied studies also discovered similar after-effects of a NDE. For example, there is a measurable decrease in death anxiety/fear of death and a pronounced increase of interest in religion and spiritual things regardless of faith or lack of faith within this patient group. In many cases, there is also the presence of what is known as veridical data (i.e. patients who were unconscious/brain dead were aware of information not accounted for through basic memory recall). For example, in one well-documented TV interview, a patient described the experience of floating above their own body and eventually ascending through the various floors of the hospital and through the roof. In floating/flying around the building, they mentioned their attention being drawn toward a red shoe that was strangely sitting on the outside windowsill of a window on an upper floor of the building (a detail just too strange to make up). Hospital staff went to investigate this claim while the patient was still under hospital supervision and found the shoe just as described. There was the documented case also of a man who was discharged from the hospital and was missing his retainer among his personal items. He accurately reported where it could be found because he said that during his surgery, while unconscious he witnessed a staffer pick it up off the floor and stuff it in a drawer. There are many such examples.
Here are some of the most mind-blowing finding, however. In the Kenneth Ring Study on blind patients reporting NDE, 80% of them reported being able to see and often with great specificity to their surroundings, even though, in some cases, the individuals reporting were blind from birth. This study was particularly convincing to Fr. Spitzer, who is now legally blind, because those born blind could not possibly be making use of memory in reporting their stories. The Melvin Morse study on NDE children is also very interesting to me because the child results were consistent with adult ones even though many of these children were far too young to ever have heard of near death experiences or understand the concept even. This seems to indicate that they could not have been biased in any way, ruling out suggestive thought. The Von Lommel Study, which identified 18% of its subjects having NDE, took the approach of ruling out all potential causes common to 100% of their patients as they tried to see what set the 18% apart. For instance, all experienced stress, oxygen deprivation, etc. All were treated with morphine, etc. And Dr. Eben Alexander’s studies on cardiac arrest patients, where 24% were found to report NDE took a similar approach (see Consciousness Beyond Life). These studies and others like them seem to rule out medications, physiological trauma and the functioning of the brain as the cause. In my family, my own father reported such an event to us after he underwent open-heart surgery. He “flat lined” for a time and, although he was wheeled into the surgery room already unconscious without meeting the medical team, he awoke hours later saying he saw the whole scene from above. He was able to physically describe each of the surgical team members with accuracy, even listing their names. I think you know where I stand on this question but how about you? Did I blow your mind?