Most people believe in a religious or spiritual afterlife, which we can’t prove exists. But what about an afterlife where one is physically present?
Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon, recently claimed that he experienced life after clinically dying.
In 2008, Dr. Alexander was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and was in a coma for 7 days. Doctors considered him brain dead. Dr. Alexander’s cortex was completely shut off, meaning that it was medically impossible for him to have the smallest bit of consciousness. But when Dr. Alexander was unconscious, he said he saw birds, clouds and vivid colors, and received positive messages from an angelic figure.
“While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe,” he said. Dr. Alexander documented this out-of-body experience in his book “Proof of Heaven,” which was named a New York Times “Best Seller” in 2012.
Alexander is just one of a number of people who have reportedly experienced visions after being pronounced clinically dead. Doctors report patients as “clinically dead” after they lose function in one of the vital organs – either the brain or the heart.
Defining ‘Clinical Death’
Dr. James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth explained that clinical death is an ambiguous term. For example, you can be brain dead if you lose function in every part of your brain. But this doesn’t mean the rest of your body is dead—all other organs could very well be functioning simultaneously.
Then you have death as a result of the loss of heartbeat. However, if CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation), the medical process known as “mouth to mouth” is performed, the heart can stop and restart again. Patients who’ve undergone cardiac arrest have also had experiences like Dr. Alexander’s, and researchers at the University of Southampton spent four years studying this.
The study, called “AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation)” tested the consciousness of patients who survived cardiac arrest. The study involved more than 2000 people in 15 UK hospitals. The participants were asked to describe what happened in their brain when their heart stopped. The researchers then correlated the results with “near death experiences” and “out of body experiences.”
According to Dr. Sam Parnia, the study’s lead author, nearly half of participants had experiences where they were more aware than a traditional near-death experience. Parnia described one of these cases of hyperawareness below:
“In this case, consciousness and awareness appeared to occur during a three-minute period when there was no heartbeat,” he said. “This is paradoxical, since the brain typically ceases functioning within 20-30 seconds of the heart stopping and doesn’t resume again until the heart has been restarted.”
The study’s results were published in the journal of the European Resuscitation Council in 2014. The conclusion stated: “Consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness.”
The Impact of the Phenomenon
Though more and more cases of awareness and “life after death” are being reported, the number of affected individuals is still low, according to a study published this year in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Only about 10 percent of patients survive after experiencing cardiac arrest and receiving CPR, which means that the a small number of people can experience consciousness while “dead.” Not to mention, in the Southampton study, only 2 percent of participants reported experiencing full-on visual awareness.
Nevertheless, out-of-body experiences remain a conversation-starter, and those who have been in these situations want others to believe in the phenomenon.
Dr. Alexander, who was stunned by his experience, wants other disbelievers to believe in life after death. “I intend to spend the rest of my life investigating the true nature of consciousness and making the fact that we are more, much more, than our physical brains as clear as I can, both to my fellow scientists and to people at large,” he said.