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Out of body experience (OBE)/ Near death experience

Good Weekend August 2009

By Will Storr

THE BEST DAY of JAN SUTHERLAND'S life began with a heart attack. She sat up in bed and felt a gripping, choking pain in her chest. An ambulance took her to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, where she had an angiogram - a small camera was inserted into an artery near her groin and run up to her failing organ and then, nothing. Or rather, if the laws of science as we understand them are correct, it should have been nothing. Because Sutherland had gone into cardiac arrest. Her blood stopped pumping and she lost consciousness. When she awoke from death, Sutherland was laughing. “Oh, you’re back with us," said the cardiologist, confused but smiling with her. But she wasn’t laughing with him. She’d been doing it with someone else — someone else who was somewhere else.

Intelligence often reveals itself as a sort of active alertness, and Sutherland, 53, has exactly that when you meet her. She is smart and quick, funny and efficient. She’s a live in house manager responsible for the running of a Point Piper mansion that belongs to a celebrity whose identity she won’t reveal. She doesn’t often talk about the bizarre events of the day in February 2005 when her heart stopped beating, but when she does she smiles with such an affecting radiance that you feel as if someone’s thrown the sun in your face. “l have never, ever felt anything like it,” she says, emphasising each word, still visibly awed by the experience. “I’ve had a pretty charmed and happy life — I’ve experienced a lot of joy - but nothing comes close to this.”

Sutherland settles back into her cream sofa in the living area of her compact quarters and tells me what she recalls about her "death". “The first thing I remember is my father, who died on Boxing Day 1995. He had his back to me and he turned around with a real look of surprise on his face like, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was more a feeling than anything. I wasn’t actually talking to anybody It was an understood thing. Almost like . .. I don't know. ..” She looks away, suddenly self conscious, and says with a dismissive flick of her hand, “. . .telepathy or something. Anyway, there was my brother’s mother in law, who’s no longer with us, there was my mother-in-law and a couple of other faces that were vaguely familiar but that I didn’t recognise.” She says she doesn’t know how long she was in cardiac arrest because her medical team were reluctant to talk about it. “But it was long enough : for them to have placed me on my side,” she says. “I’d say some minutes had passed. When I came round in intensive care, I was groggy. I asked the cardiologist what had happened and he started to explain the medical intervention. I said, “No, no, no, that’s not what I mean I tried to tell him what I’d experienced, but he didn’t want to know.” Which is not unusual. According to the vast majority of the scientific community,

Sutherland must have been mistaken. For them, it’s simple: planet Earth, and everything on it, is made from atoms that were forged billions of years ago when the universe was relatively young. We our bodies and our minds are literally made from the ashes of dead stars. When our hearts stop pumping, our brains cease to function and so, logic dictates, we have no more thoughts, feelings or memories. We are gone. But a rowing body of scientists are beginning to wonder if the reality isn’t rather more complex. There are thousands of people like Sutherland all over the world who claim to have been through a near death experience” (NDE),  in which they apparently left their bodies to have a conscious experience where no consciousness should have been possible. Some claim to have found themselves floating, looking down at their body. Some say they remember a tunnel of light and a celestial encounter that they felt changed them forever. Some have had both. Some have had an NDE when they were “near” death. Others, like Sutherland, have had them when clinically dead. Which is where the first problem arises. At what point do we die? The moment is generally defined as when the heart has stopped beating and brain function has ceased (as indicated by fixed, dilated pupils). But as medical techniques improve, we’re able to revive people after longer and longer periods of “death” and so a new definition is required. One crucial question that remains a mystery is when do our thoughts stop? Which leads us to our second problem arguably the most important and intractable one currently facing science and philosophy What are our thoughts? How does our sense of self- our consciousness — come to be?

TWELVE YEARS BEFORE THE STRANGE DEATH OF Ian Sutherland, in a laboratory in the University of London, a young medical student called Sam Parnia had his eye glued to a microscope. The 20 year old had spent the morning examining slices of brain and there was something that didn°t make sense. He looked at the tracts of nerves that convey information from the spinal cord to the brain and back again, then at individual brain cells and the tiny neurones within them. And he wondered, “W'here are the thoughts in here? Is this cell thinking, ‘I’m hungry’? It can’t be.” Next, he pondered the stem cell. “One of these can turn into any cell in the body - a kidney cell, a heart cell or a brain cell. Can a stem cell think? And if a stem cell can think, why can’t a kidney cell or a heart cell? If I throw a brick through my neighbour’s window, would these cells feel guilty about what I’ve done?”

Frustrated at his inability to find the answers to his questions, Parnia looked forward to upcoming lectures on neuroscience. Finally, he would discover the mechanism by which the brain generated thought. But when the lecturer announced, “This is one of the most intriguing questions in science. Nobody yet knows how it happens,” Parnia was aghast. “Nobody,” he told himself, “has the answers to the questions I’m asking.” Some years later, he moved to New York where he became a critical-care doctor in a hospital ER, working in a world of mortality and resuscitation with other health—care professionals to whom death was regular and unmysterious. And yet there were mysteries. Some patients, returning from a state of cardiac arrest, reported experiencing the same sensation — that of floating to the ceiling of the operating theatre, their thoughts apparently breaking free of their brains.

One story, recounted to Parnia by his trusted cardiologist friend, Richard,fascinated him: Richard attended a 30—year-old male patient who’d gone into cardiac arrest. His team had spent half an hour attempting to resuscitate the man before giving up. He’d been left in a flat-line state for more than 30 minutes and Richard had left the room to write up his case notes. When he returned, the patient wasn’t as blue as he had been previously. He checked the groin for a pulse. Incredibly, his patient had returned to life. Despite the team’s fears of brain damage as a result of oxygen deficiency, the patient was later discharged from the IC unit suffering no adverse effects. But he told Richard, in detail, what had gone on in the room while he was seemingly devoid of life. Says Parnia: “He described how Richard had left the room, come back in and looked at him. He remembered Richard looking unsure, looking at him again, putting his hand on his groin, and then freaking out and running out of the room.” NDEs have been reported all over the world for centuries, one of the earliest written accounts being in Plato’s Republic. Studies have shown that between 10 and 20 per cent of patients who’ve been revived from a state of cardiac arrest report having had some sort of memory of a time when they should have had none.

An NDE can consist of many different components which, in 1983, American psychiatrist Bruce Greyson tried to catalogue in his l6—point Greyson scale. In an attempt to pinpoint the exact moment of death, Parnia, now a fellow at New York City’s Weill Cornell Medical Centre and author of What Happens When We Die?, recently announced the start of a three-year study known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation). Organised by the Human Consciousness Project, a multidisciplinary collaboration of scientists and physicians, which launched at a special UN symposium in September 2008, the study will interview 1500 survivors of cardiac arrest. Inan attempt to discover whether out—of—body experiences (OBEs) are real, a series of pictures will be placed in operating theatres in positions only visible from the ceiling. If enough patients claim to have floated from their bodies and observed themselves being worked upon, and yet don’t report seeing these planted images, the team will have produced powerful evidence that OBEs are likely an illusion. But if they do, an entirely new branch of science may have been established.


IT SEEMS TO BE A WASTE OF FUND1NG,” DR KAREN STOLLZNOW, THE Berkeley University-based linguist and former editor of The Skeptic magazine tells me. “So we’re not looking too favourably on this study. We know why these experiences happen. It can be anything from drug intake to epilepsy. It’s just the mind playing tricks on us.” Sceptics commonly point to the work of Canadian neuroscientist Dr Michael Persinger, claiming that he’s replicated NDEs by inducing a “temporal lobe seizure” with the application of a magnetic field to the brain. Other sceptics believe NDEs are brought about by a lack of oxygen (hypoxia) and an increase in carbon dioxide in the dying brain. While some primary features of hypoxia — a sense of bright lights, peace and leaving the body — certainly overlap with those of NDEs, others — jerking limbs, impaired memory, tingling in the extremities, fragmented thinking — certainly do not. There are also cases of patients who, while unconscious on the operating table, have had an NDE without suffering cardiac arrest and hypoxia. Stollznow’s view is typical of the group of absolutist scientists who refuse to take NDES seriously. “They’re anecdotal, hand-me—downs,” she says. “You know, YX friend of a friend told me this story’” But isn’t it true that we still don’t know if the brain generates thoughts and, therefore, whether thoughts can form independently of it? “It’s true there’s a lot we don’t understand, she says. “But it’s not as though we understand nothing. Thinking is just the meat talking to itself. lt’s all generated by the brain and when we  die, unfortunately that dies with us. We can say that categorically?

HOGWASH," SAYs DR EMILY KELLY, RESEARCH assistant professor in the department of psychiatric medicine at the University of Virginia. "Even things like memory are completely unexplained in the current framework of materialist science. People say there are “traces’[of memory] left in the brain, whatever that might be. But the whole trace theory is flawed no matter what form people think that might take. They just assume that’s the case.” “Fundamental everyday things, such as the ability to be conscious and to talk about the world, are not understood at all,” adds her husband, Dr Edward Kelly, a graduate of Harvard and Yale and a research  professor in the same department as his wife. He adds, “When you actually look at it, the sceptical literature on NDEs is pretty terrible stuff” The doctors Kelly are neuroscientists and experts in consciousness. For a section of their exhaustive 800-page book, The Irreducible Mind, they were required to review the extant literature on NDEs. They examined the theories referred to by Stollznow, as well as many others, and carefully outline the flaws within them. Reading the chapter on NDEs, you find yourself asking questions: if NDEs are “like dreams’, why are their  narratives so organised? lf they are the psychotic exhalations of a failing brain, why are NDEs so clear, vivid and precisely remembered? What about Michael Persinger, who claimed to have replicated NDEs in the lab? \/Vhen the Kellys read his study, they found thatmost of the reports “consisted of hearing bits of music or singing, seeing isolated and repetitive scenes that seem familiar   and bore little re-semblance to actual NDEs’ They go on to quote neurologist Ernst Rodin, who said, “In spite of having seen hundreds of patients with temporal lobe seizures during three decades of professional life, I have never come across that symptomatology [of NDEs].”

Reports of Daniel Horn’s NDE also encouraged Sam Parnia. As well as being a case in which the patient’s heart didn’t actually stop - thus apparently causing problems for those citing hypoxia - Horn’s story was fascinating to Parnia “because he was too young to have any concept of death or religion or the afterlife. ’Hailing from Hampshire in the UK, Daniel was 3 in 1995 when he had to have emergency surgery after being diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Three months later, he was watching a BBC television show called Children’s Hospital when he called to his mother, “That’s the machine I had!” On the screen was a piece of heart-bypass equipment. “He couldn’t have seen it,” says his mother, Kerin , “because when I went into the anaesthetic room he was out for the count.” Kerina says Daniel told her that a lady took him to heaven. “I said, “What did she look like?° and he said, 'She had dark, curly hair, she looked a bit like you.’ So I showed him the photo on the TV of my mum. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, that’s not her} So I thought, “Fair enough} At a later date, I got out some photographs, and I showed him a photo of my mum when she was probably my age now, and he said, ‘That’s the lady that took me to heaven] So I said, “Oh, that’s my mum. That’s Nanny Peggy] I said, “Did she talk to you?’ and he said, ‘No, she didn’t talk, but I could understand what she meant. And then I said, ‘Were you scared? and he said, ‘No, because you feel really happy. It’s really nice and sunny there, like a park, and Nanny Peggy said, ‘I’m going to take you back because if I don’t take you back, your mum will be heartbroken, and he floated back down then into his body.”

Importantly for NDE proponents, sceptics don’t seek to address the most intriguing aspect of the phenomenon, one that continues to attract the attention of some of academia’s more inquiring minds: patients who came back with impossible knowledge of events seen and heard in the environment around them when they were unconscious or who “met” individualsthey didn’t recognise until later. One such example is known to NDE researcher Dr Pim van Lommel. The Dutch cardiologist met “Ben B" several times in Holland following this patient’s reported experiences during a series of cardiac arrests due to myocardial infarctions in the ’70s and ’80s. Ben told van Lommel, “I saw a man who looked at me lovingly, but whom I did not know. More than 10 years later, as my mother lay on her deathbed, she confessed to me that I had been conceived during an extramarital relationship, my [biological] father being a Iewish man who had been deported and killed during the Second World War. She then showed me his picture. The unknown man I had seen more than 10 years earlier turned out to be my biological father.”

IN 1991, SINGER PAM REYNOLDS UNDERWENT SURGERY AT THE BARROW Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to have an artery aneurysm close to her brain stem removed. Because it was so difficult to reach, doctors induced a hypothermic cardiac arrest. The 35 year old was anaesthetised and her eyes taped shut while speakers placed in her ear canals delivered 95 decibel clicks to enable the surgical team to monitor her brain-stem activity. Her skull was opened, her blood chilled, her heart stopped, the operating table tipped and the blood drained from her head.

 Reynolds? subseqient out of body memory of the operation begins with the sight and sound of the skull saw, the tone of which she identified as a natural D. From her position above her neurosurgeon’s shoulder, she pondered the bizarre manner in which her head had been shaved and listened to a woman comment on how unusually small her veins were. After being pulled up a tunnel and meeting with various deceased relatives, she returned to the operating room where the team were listening to the Eagles Hotel California as they worked. Even though Reynolds was anaesthetised and all her vital signs were being monitored, even though nobody fully awake would have been able to hear past the speakers clicking in her ears, all these re-ported details have been confirmed by medical personnel who took part in the procedure.

“We’ve got more than 1000 [similar experiences] in our files and we haven’t even scratched the surface,” says Edward Kelly. “There’s a famous saying among experimental psychologists: “The plural of anecdote is not data} But that's really very facile. Some of them have a great deal of substance and can be verified.”

IF SAM PARNIA'S THREE YEAR STUDY DOES reveal that consciousness can exist without the brain, he will not, as some fear, have demonstrated the truth of the “soul’. Instead, he might end up demonstrating that the reason we still haven’t located the source of thought after centuries is because we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Consciousness may turn out to be a separate scientific entity, a subtle matter - a concept sim--lar to electromagnetic waves — that we don’t yet have the tools to measure. Then again, if the secret of consciousness does, after all, lie in the electric grey organ inside our skulls, we may yet discover some  perfectly ordinary explanation for the baffling experiences related by Ian Sutherland and others like her.

As I leave Sutherland’s apartment, I notice an open packet of Alpine cigarettes in a brass ashtray. “It was probably a good time to give up," she says, looking at them with the wry smile. “But I’ve decided, no I’m just going to go on and smoke away. I don’t worry as much as I did be fore. I’m a lot calmer and happier since. You can’t take things that seriously when you’re not afraid to die." GW


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