Thursday, December 16, 2010
Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experience by Jeffrey Long MD
Recently I presented a review of a 2010 book which I read and which impressed me immensely. The book is by Jeffrey Long MD, a radiation oncologist. I am posting my somewhat lengthy review here. I do apologize for its length but it really took that many words to even touch the surface of this fascinating subject.
Review of Evidence of the Afterlife:The Science of Near-Death Experiences
Jeffrey Long, MD with Paul Perry
Harper Collins, 2010
Dr. Jeffrey Long is a radiation oncologist in Houma, Louisiana. He has served on the board of directors of The International Association for Near-Death Studies, and is actively involved in NDE research. Dr. Long and his wife, Jody, established the non-profit Near Death Experience Research Foundation and a website as a forum for people to share their NDEs and then to collect scientific data on this phenomenon.
Near Death Experiences were first talked about and written about to any extent in about 1975. Many books have been written and journal articles have tried to express the experiences in scientific terms but most previous studies have been small. This might be because people are reluctant to tell about their experiences. Many times what they say is not accepted. The medical profession in particular has not always been very open to these narratives. Patients who report to their caregivers often have their narrative belittled; they are told they are crazy or their experiences are just a manifestation of how sick they were, was confusion from lack of oxygen or delirium from the underlying medical problem. Patients also hear this line from their friends and relatives so that many do not relate their experiences to others and live with their knowledge for years. Dr. Long and his foundation thought that perhaps Near Death Experiencers (NDErs) would be more likely to relate their experiences over the Internet. They developed a 100 item questionnaire which is amenable to statistical analysis. Over 10 years of collection of data on the website, they obtained 1300 answers to these questionnaires coming from all ages, all cultures and from all over the world. These experiences are so powerful that NDErs recall them vividly years later and recall not only the characteristics of these experiences in detail but also report how these experiences have transformed them in their life.
Dr. Long, being a man of science, has examined the data created by this Internet questionnaire in a scientific way. The results are remarkably consistent among responders. This study finds that what people discovered during their near-death experience about God, love, afterlife, reason for our earthly existence, earthly hardships, forgiveness, and many other concepts is strikingly consistent across cultures and races. Because NDEs happen to people all over the world, they are a spiritual thread that binds us together, a common experience that reminds us of our mutual spiritual nature.
Dr. Long developed 9 lines of evidence found in NDEs that there is life after death. The convergence of several lines of evidence builds a much stronger case than only a single line of evidence. For example suppose we had only two lines of NDE evidence. We may not be 100 percent convinced that these two lines of evidence prove an afterlife, but perhaps each line of evidence by itself is 90 percent convincing. Combined these two lines of evidence by mathematical calculation are 99 percent convincing that the afterlife exists. It would seem to be very complex to analyze mathematically 9 different lines of complex evidence, but Dr. Long et al were able to design a custom form for the website which provides for automatic calculations and allows each reader to calculate how strongly he/she believes the 9 lines of evidence prove the existence of an afterlife.
In the website questionnaire, the author considered individuals to be near death if they were so physically compromised that they would die if they did not improve. The NDErs interviewed were generally unconscious and often apparently clinically dead with absent pulse and respirations. Also the experience had to be lucid, to exclude descriptions that are fragmentary and disjointed memories.
The episodes were collected from all over the world and eventually translated into English so that the conclusions would be multicultural. Also there were about 60 childhood experiences though many were recalled years later. But this supplied data from all ages.
The NDERF website explores the data collected on the website and how it provides evidence for an afterlife. http://www.nderf.org/afterlife.
No two NDEs are the same. However, when many near death experiences are studied, a pattern of elements that characterize NDE is easily seen and these elements occur during NDEs in a consistent order. NDEs may include some or all of the following elements:
1: Out of Body Experience. This element is often the first sensation experienced in a NDE. 75% of NDErs experience this. People often see their own body and the medical professionals working on it. But they also are often able to see things even outside of the area where their body is. One of the most telling such experience was reported on the website. A NDEr reported ascending as usual from her body, but passing outside the hospital and along its wall and seeing a tennis shoe on a windowsill on a 5th floor window. She described the shoe perfectly even to the point of one shoe lace lying under it. After she recovered and told someone of this, they went back to the window sill and found the shoe just as she had described. She had not been in the hospital before nor had any of her family or friends.
Another interesting part of this element is that people have vision, even those that were blind from birth and have never experienced colors, or visual perception of any type, have perfect clear color vision during OBE. Those who were blind from birth have abstract concepts of what things look like and have trouble matching those concepts with actual sight should their vision be restored. They are even unable to visualize well or describe what light is. Those who experienced vision for the first time during a NDE have no trouble with the perception and describe things as they would seeing, not as they would if depending on their other senses such as hearing, touch, etc. One person saw her wedding rings for the first time during a NDE and she then described them as a visual person would. Even the sighted report unusual characteristics of their vision, unusual clarity, or 360 degree vision in all directions. Colors are often described as intensified and the vision seems unusually clear. Other senses are involved in NDEs also but vision seems the most amplified. Just the fact that blind from birth people experience color vision in NDE seems proof of some sort of existence outside and away from the body that is unrelated to the senses of the body – an afterlife of some sort.
The author personally reviewed 617 of these OBE descriptions. He required that they be personally described by the person who had the OBE during a NDE, that they describe a single NDE in English. Of the 617, 46.5 percent described OBEs that contained observations of earthly events that would allow others to objectively assess the reality of their observations. In addition, 287 or 23 percent investigated the accuracy of their own experiences, such as reviewing the medical records and comparing what was done with what the NDEr observed. None described inaccuracies.
What Skeptics Say: Some think OBEs are simply fragments of memory that pop up as a person begins to die. They suggest that OBEs might be reconstructions of partial memories from the time of the NDEr first beginning to lose consciousness or from the recovering time period. If that were the case, that some of these are fragments or lucky guesses, it would be unlikely that fully 97.6 percent are memories without any apparent errors, and 23% even checked their accuracy with facts. We know by research that memories formed just before and after a period of cardiac arrest without NDE, if they occur at all, are marked by confusion. NDErs experience the highest level of their awareness, or consciousness not at the beginning or the end, but during the middle and entire NDE.
A further characteristic of some NDEs is that the OBE involves traveling away from the body and seeing, hearing or experiencing things that are going on well away from the abilities of the senses of the person who is unconscious. One person saw her father approaching the house from outside the walls and he found her and began to help her, called for medical help etc.
2. Heightened senses. Of the NDErs, 74.4 percent indicated that they had more consciousness and more alertness than normal.
3. Intense and Generally Positive Emotions and Feelings. 76.2 percent of NDErs selected “Incredible peace, or pleasantness” as the answer to questions about their feelings during NDEs. 52.5 percent also selected “Incredible Joy”. Only a small percentage are frightening to the NDEr.
4. Passing Into or Through a Tunnel. 33.8 percent answer yes to this question.
5. Encountering a Mystical or Brilliant Light. 64.6 percent saw this light. It is usually described as bright but not painfully so and often not coming from a point source but rather being generalized in a portion of the field of vision. There is often a desire to move toward the light or merge with it.
6. Encountering Other Beings, either mystical beings or deceased relatives or friends. 57.3 percent encountered beings. Interestingly either the being seems to be an unknown mystical being, or often is a deceased relative. In some cases the being is unknown, but after recovering from the NDE, the experiencer sees a photo or otherwise recognizes the being they saw as a deceased relative whom they never met, who may have died even decades before them but that the NDEr had never seen before. In some cases the being is not seen but is only heard as an internal voice or external voice – of mystical nature.
7. A Sense of Alteration of time or Space. 60.5 percent answered “Yes” to the question “Did you have any sense of altered space or time? 33.9 percent answered “yes” to the question “Did time seem to speed up?” “Everything seemed to be happening all at once.”
8. Life Review. Though this is often touted as a necessary element of an NDE, only 22 percent experienced a life review. In those cases, fragments of early life may be seen, or the review may be panoramic, covering all of one’s earthly life.
9. Encountering Unworldly (“Heavenly)) Realms. To the question, “Did you see or visit any beautiful or otherwise distinctive locations, levels, or dimensions?”, 40.6 answered “yes”. Another questions was asked in this category, “Did you seem to enter some other, unearthly world?” 52.2 percent responded yes to this.
10. Encountering or Learning Special Knowledge. The questionnaire asked: “Did you have a sense of knowing special knowledge, universal order, and/or purpose?” 56% answered “Yes”. The question was asked in a different way: “Did you suddenly seem to understand everything?” 31.5 percent answered “yes” to the questions “about the universe.” 31.3 percent answered “yes” to the question ending in “about myself and others”.
11. Encountering a Boundary or Barrier. Many people saw doors along the tunnel or at the end of the tunnel, or were just suddenly in front of a door. Some just felt the barrier. In some the barrier was a sense that they could go no further until they made a decision about life and death themselves. Sometimes they were not given a choice whether to cross the boundary or not; they had to go back even if they did not really want to go back to their body and life. 31% “did reach a boundary or limiting physical structure.”
12. A Return to the Body Either Voluntary or Involuntary. 58.5% “were involved in or aware of a decision regarding their return to the body.”
So these twelve things are the identified elements of the NDE and their percentages expressed during the NDEs of these 1300 people who were interviewed on the website. The interviews consisted of a detailed questionnaire with some questions asked in several ways to make the experiences clearer. Then people were offered the chance to write a narrative about their experience; this narrative was unlimited. The vast majority chose to write a narrative and parts of many of these narratives appear in the book.
NOW THE CONCLUSIONS that the author regards as PROOF of an AFTERLIFE:
Proof #1: Lucid Death.
“Speaking both medically and logically, it is not possible to have a highly lucid experience while unconscious or clinically dead.” Being clinically dead means no longer having the perceptions or senses of a living person. The person is unconscious; likely their heart has stopped pumping blood throughout the body and to the brain. Ten to twenty seconds after blood stops flowing to the brain, the EEG goes flat. The EEG measures brain activity in the cortex, which is responsible for conscious thought. Without blood, and with unconsciousness, the higher centers of the brain become increasingly unable to function and then first cell stunning and then cell death begins to occur. Following cardiac arrest, a lucid organized and seemingly conscious experience should be impossible. Even electrical activity in the lower of the brain should not produce such highly lucid and ordered experiences. If this is true, then NDEs are evidence of something of our consciousness existing without brain function.
Some skeptics think these experiences are like dreams. But the question was asked in the questionnaire if these experiences seemed like dreams, and an essay was asked for in answer. Virtually everyone adamantly said these experiences were not like dreams. If we recall our own dreams, most are disjointed and have sensory or visual input that is very abstract, vague, and often doesn’t make good sense. None of the descriptions of NDE were like dreams according to the NDErs.
Skeptics also say that hypoxia of the brain in death produces some of the elements of NDEs. Most doctors are quite familiar with the symptoms of hypoxia: they are headache, confusion, memory loss, and fatigue. As it worsens, the confusion worsens, and then finally unconsciousness occurs. NDErs almost never have confused memories that are typical of the experience of hypoxia. The fact that highly lucid and organized near death experiences occur at the time of severe hypoxia is further evidence of the extraordinary and inexplicable state of consciousness that typically occurs during NDEs.
Other skeptics say that these reports of NDEs result from the “Oprah Factor”. The first book which described NDEs was “Life After Death” by Dr. Raymond Moody which was published in 1975. Later Oprah had many people on her show that described their NDE. This author was able to divide his data base into pre 1975 experiences, and post 1975 experiences. The same elements occurred in both groups and in the same order and in the same frequency. Another author, Geena Athappilly MD , 2006 has compared two equal groups, pre 1975 and post 1975 and found the same result. The questionnaire included a question asking, “Did you have any knowledge of NDE prior to your experience?” 66.4 percent did not.
Proof #2: Out of Body. We have discussed this above.
Proof #3: Blind Sight
Proof #4: Impossibly Conscious. In this proof, the author reviews general anesthesia and what it does to the brain. We know that the five states induced by general anesthesia are pain relief, loss of memory of the procedure, ie amnesia, loss of consciousness, motionlessness, and reduced autonomic nerve responses, such as reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and slower breathing. Yet in spite of all these goals being maintained, NDEs have occurred during general anesthesia during surgery due to the heart stopping, or hemorrhage, or other clinical death during surgery on very ill patients. There were 23 cases in the data base in which the NDE occurred during general anesthesia. The author compared the results of these folk’s NDEs to the 590 in the database which had answered in English and whose experience included the stoppage of the heart. All elements, frequencies and percentages were the same for the two groups.
Skeptics may say these experiences resulted from “too light” anesthesia. Well, some of these NDEs resulted from anesthesia overdose which would rule out “too light” an anesthesia being administered. But also the type of experience is totally different. They are unpleasant, painful, and very frightening experiences. Fortunately they only occur 1-3 in 1,000 cases. Usually anesthesia awareness as it is called are not visual, but are hearing. Some skeptics have claimed NDEs are REM dreams or strange experiences during REM sleep when there is paralysis. But REM dreams are often bizarre and frightening dream imagery and are not ordered and pleasant, accompanied by the peace that accompanies NDEs. Also if indeed REM dreams do explain NDEs, then how can NDEs occur during appropriate general anesthesia combined with a clinical death. The author says that “there is no explanation for NDE’s occurring under anesthesia other than accepting that full consciousness can exist apart from the physical body. For that reason, I consider them significant evidence of an afterlife.
Proof #5: Perfect Playback
Here the author discusses the life review that is often part of a NDE. At the very least, the review contains part of the NDEr’s life experience. Sometimes it is like a rerun of a play or film, sometimes seemingly on a screen. 26% described it thus. 21% said they judged themselves during the review. Some saw the good, the bad, and their effects of their choices. Some reported feelings instead of visual content. Some reported feeling others feelings or reactions to their own early actions.
If these NDEs are realistic they should show life review that is real and contains accuracies from the NDEr’s life. 14% of the 617 English reviews had life reviews. When asked, none said that the life reviews contained inaccuracies about their life. Some of the events had been long forgotten but were recalled to memory after the NDE.
Skeptics say that life reviews or even out of body experience can be produced by stimulating the exposed brain in certain areas and postulate that these experiences are just the brain’s memories being triggered by such a stimulation, for whatever reason. But these reported stimulations are not like the life review or the OBE. They are fragments, like a piece of music, or voices, or fear, or bizarre imagery. If they are an OBE they are often a view of just a leg, or a trunk. They are often distorted, and incomplete, are not organized and like the NDE life review, orderly and in chronological order with each fragment or sequence having meaning and being accompanied by appropriate feelings which are not usually fearful or painful.
Proof #6 Family Reunions.
95% of beings seen or heard during NDEs are of deceased relatives, while only 5% were of friends or acquaintances. Only 4% of the NDEr’s saw living relatives or friends. If NDE’s were a product of a dying brain, or dream like sequences, then one would expect that the people seen would be those which the patient most recently saw and would much more likely be living than dead and certainly not long dead as is often the case in NDEs. Other studies have also confirmed the identity of these beings as being mostly deceased relatives. They often talked telepathicly, and the reunions were described as joyful, and supportive. The relatives appeared youthful and with full capacities if they appeared visually. Interestingly though for 32% of the deceased beings encountered, the NDErs were emotionally neutral or distant from the beings and had never previously met them. Yet they sometimes knew how they were related. In one instance at least, there was an unknown being whom the NDEr later identified from a photo as a long deceased relative whom she had never seen before living or in any photos. In some cases, the NDEr met a deceased relative whom they thought at the time was living, ie had been alive before the person experienced their NDE. After recovering from the NDE, these few people learned that the person they saw had died during their NDE or during that illness and they learned of the death later.
Proof #7 Out of the Mouth of Babes.
There were 26 NDErs under the age of 5. One would expect that they would not be overly influenced by Oprah or have read books that describe NDEs. When this group is looked at and compared to the remainder of the 617 over age 6, the elements, order of elements, and frequencies are statistically identical to the larger group.
Here is a remarkable story and I would like to cite this whole story of an NDE:
Jennifer was 11 years old when she was involved in a severe car accident. She saw her “limp and lifeless” body below. The voice of a spiritual being told her that she was needed back at the accident site to help the unconscious driver. Here is her experience as she wrote it:
Then the voice said: “His nose is cut off his face; you will need to go back and help him; he is bleeding to death.” I said, “no, let somebody else do it. He will be fine without my help. I don’t want to go back down there. No!” The voice said, “I will tell you what to do. You take off his shirt after you pick his nose up off the floorboard of the car. It will be next to your feet and his right foot. Place his nose on his face, pressing down to stop the bleeding. It’s just blood, so do not be afraid. I am with you always.” (I knew I was never alone from as far back as I could remember.) “So, then, Jennifer, you will begin to walk him up the right side of the road, and a car will come. Tell the man to take you to the nearest hospital. Keep the man calm, and lead him to the hospital where you were born. You know the way and everything will be all right. You must do this. Understand?”
Jennifer goes on to say that when she returned to her body everything happened as she was told by the spiritual being. A car stopped and carried them to the hospital where she was born. She was able to calm both the anxious driver and the accident victim who lost his nose. And there was a happy ending; a skin graft was used to reattach the nose with “barely a scratch left to notice.” The astonished emergency room doctor said, “I cannot explain what kind of miracle I just witnessed in this emergency room today.”
Proof #8 Worldwide Consistency
Because the questionnaire was translated into multiple languages by volunteers, 2000 NDE’s have been obtained from people whose primary language was not English. Many of those questionnaire answers and portions of their narrative have also been translated by volunteers. 79 of these were studied statistically and compared to the larger 617 English reports and again there is no statistical difference between the elements, the order of the elements and the frequency percentages of these two groups. This suggests that NDEs are not just cultural but universally human. Also it adds further evidence that these experiences are not just due to a cultural Oprah Factor phenomenon. This is further strong evidence that NDEs are not products of cultural beliefs or prior life experiences. NDE are in a word real.
There are a lot of studies of NDEs from around the world that are different but when these studies are examined closely they included many stories that were not NDE by this author’s definition. The people were not clinically dead. These experiences are much more often like hallucinatory experiences. More work is being done and studies have been done and are being done on this author’s database with translation work, but it appears that by his definitions, NDEs are remarkably similar around the world, from East to West, from English speaking to non English speaking countries.
Proof #9 Changed Lives.
A NDE is a very powerful experience, needless to say. And of course, that person was so sick they almost died. You would think that most people would want to talk about that experience right away. But this is not usually the case. Even if they try to share their experience, they often run into indifference or even negative reactions. They might be crushed by being told it was imagined, or a dream, or a hallucination, or even that it was some crazy psychotic break, or just due to drugs. This may make them suppress their memory of it and this reduces the chance of strong positive aftereffects.
In spite of such negative responses, still 73% of the NDErs do share the experience and report that it changed their life. But it can take many years. One other NDE researcher reported that it takes the average NDEr 7 years to adjust to the knowledge and memory of the experience. Common aftereffects are increased self confidence, stronger sense of spirituality, reduced interest in material gain or status, and a greater appreciation of life. Others experienced a belief in the sacredness of life, a sense of God’s presence, an awareness of meaning and purpose to life, willingness to reach out and help others. Some become more religious or spiritual. They may reevaluate their life, their jobs, their relationships and belief system. Many cease to fear death. And many have an increased belief in an afterlife.
Skeptics claim that it is the near death itself that changes people. But a study was done that compared those who suffered a cardiac arrest without NDE and the study showed that it is the NDE, not just a brush with death that produces more afteraffects. There were also more afteraffects the deeper and more detailed the NDE was.
Another profound effect is the development of psychic ability. This is usually not common and is not profound, but various people do report this after an NDE.
Summary and Conclusions:
1. The level of consciousness and alertness during NDE is usually greater than that experienced during everyday life, even though the NDE occurs while a person is unconscious and clinically dead. The elements of a NDE follow a consistent and logical order.
2. What NDErs see and hear in the OBE during their NDE is generally realistic and often verified later by the NDEr or others as real.
3. Normal or supernormal vision occurs in NDEs among those with significantly impaired vision or even legal blindness. Several NDErs who were blind from birth have reported highly visual NDEs.
4. Typical NDEs occur under general anesthesia at a time when conscious experience should be impossible.
5. Life reviews in NDEs include real events that took place in the NDErs’ lives, even if the events were forgotten.
6. When NDErs encounter beings they knew from their earthly life, they are virtually always deceased, usually deceased relatives.
7. The NDEs of children, including very young children, are strikingly similar to those of older children and adults.
8. NDEs are remarkably consistent around the world. NDEs from non-Western countries appear similar to typical Western NDEs.
9. It is common for NDErs to experience changes in their lives as aftereffects following NDEs. Aftereffects are often powerful and lasting, and the changes follow a consistent pattern.
Dr. Long’s research has made him a believer in the afterlife. It has also made him more concerned for others and he believes it has made him a better doctor. He believes NDErs have brought back a piece of the afterlife and when shared it makes all of us better people.