Recollected experiences around death: more than hallucinations?


SThe scientific advances of the 20th and 21st centuries have brought about a major evolution in the understanding of death. At the same time, for decades people who have survived an encounter with death have recalled unexplained lucid episodes involving heightened consciousness and awareness. These have been reported using the popular, but scientifically ill-defined term, “near-death experiences.”

A multidisciplinary team of national and international leaders, led by Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, director of the cardiopulmonary resuscitation research program at NYU Langone, has released “Guidelines and Standards for the Study of Death and Death Experiences deaths recalled”, a multidisciplinary consensus statement and future directions proposed in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. This study, which reviewed the scientific evidence accumulated to date, represents the first-ever peer-reviewed consensus statement for the scientific study of remembered experiences surrounding death.

Study researchers represent many medical disciplines, including neuroscience, critical care, psychiatry, psychology, social sciences and humanities, and represent many of the world’s most respected academic institutions, including the Harvard University, Baylor University, University of California, Riverside, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Medical College of Wisconsin, University Hospital Southampton, and King’s College London.

Among their findings are the following:

  • Thanks to advances in resuscitation and critical care medicine, many people have survived encounters with or near death. These people – who are estimated to number in the hundreds of millions worldwide based on previous demographic studies – have consistently described recollected experiences around death, which involve a unique set of mental memories with universal themes.
  • Recalled experiences surrounding death do not correspond to hallucinations, delusions or experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, according to several previously published studies. Instead, they follow a specific story arc involving a perception of (a) separation from the body with a heightened and expansive sense of awareness and recognition of death; (b) travel to a destination; (c) a meaningful and useful examination of life, involving a critical analysis of all actions, intentions and thoughts towards others; a perception (d) of being in a place that feels like “home”; and (e) a return to life.
  • The death experience culminates in separate, previously unidentified subthemes and is associated with long-term positive psychological transformation and growth.
  • Studies showing the emergence of gamma activity and electrical spikes – usually a sign of heightened states of consciousness on electroencephalography (EEG) – in relation to death further support the claims of millions of people who have reported having felt lucidity and heightened awareness of death.
  • Scary or distressing experiences related to death often share neither the same themes nor the same narrative, transcendent qualities, ineffability and positive transformative effects.

“Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, but represents the final stage of a disease or event that results in a person’s death,” says lead author Dr Parnia. “The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation has shown us that death is not an absolute state, but rather a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has begun.”

“What has enabled the scientific study of death,” he continues, “is that brain cells are not irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead, they “die” for hours. This allows scientists to objectively study the physiological and mental events that occur in relation to death.

So far, according to the researchers, the evidence suggests that neither physiological nor cognitive processes end with death and that, although systematic studies have been unable to conclusively prove the reality or significance patients’ experiences and claims of conscience in relation to death, it was impossible to deny them either.

“Few studies have explored what happens when we die in an objective and scientific way, but these findings offer interesting insights into how consciousness exists in humans and may pave the way for further research,” adds Dr Parnya.

In addition to Dr. Parnia, the multidisciplinary group of experts involved in this study were Stephen G. Post and Briana Locicero from the Department of Family, Population, and Preventive Medicine, Stony Brook Medical Center, State University of New York at Stony Brook; Mathew T. Lee of Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences; Sonja Lyubomirsky of the Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside; Tom P. Aufderheide of the Department of Emergency Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin; Charles D. Deakin from the Department of Anaesthesia, Southampton University Hospital, UK; Bruce Greyson of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia: Jeffrey Long of the Mary Bird Perkins Terrebonne General Medical Center Cancer Center, Louisiana; Stephan Mayer from the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery at New York Medical College; Jeff Levin of the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University; Anthony P. Bossis of the Department of Psychiatry, NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Everett Worthington of the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University; Peter Fenwick from the Department of Neurophysiology, Sleep and Epilepsy, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, UK; and Tara Keshavarz Shirazi, Anelly M. Gonzales, Elise L. Huppert, and Analise Dickinson, all from the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Learn about critical care and resuscitation research at NYU Grossman School of Medicine

Critical care and resuscitation research within the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine is advancing resuscitation techniques beyond cardiopulmonary resuscitation to improve lifespan. oxygen supply to the brain and thus improve the survival and quality of life of patients who suffer cardiac arrest. The program brings together a multidisciplinary team of experts in many specialties, including neurology, cardiology and critical care. Together, they hope to improve the prevention and treatment of cardiac arrest, as well as address the impact of new scientific findings on our understanding of what happens at death.

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Ryan Dziuba
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