ARE NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCES THE FINAL MOMENTS OF LIFE?
OR, CAN THE BRAIN DIE AND RETURN TO LIFE?
Melvin L Morse MD spiritualscientific.com
This is one of the most hotly debated issues in near death research. It is one of the most divisive points among the researchers, so much so that the major researchers have for years been unwilling to issue a unified statement on just what a near death experience is. Bruce Greyson (The Dean of Near Death Research) sent out a survey many years ago asking the major researchers to define what is near death, and he found enormous differences. I more recently attempted to write a joint paper with the other major researchers and again, this was a significant divisive issue.
Oddly enough, although I am one of the few researchers who has actually resuscitated my own patients and then asked them what it was like to die, I had not really considered the subject at all until I recently met with Peter Fenwick in Miami in 2008. I have always used the term “clinical death” to describe the near death state, meaning that without the intervention of modern medicine, the patient will die. The term “death” itself is enormously controversial, with numerous legal, ethical, and practical meanings and definitions, as we can keep the body alive with virtually complete brain death indefinitely.
WHAT ABOUT EEG STUDIES ON PATIENTS WHO HAVE HAD NDEs?
Yeah, what about them? They are not a myth. I personally spoke with Fred Schoonmaker in 1993 about his research on EEGs at the point of death. He did over 2000 EEGs on dying patients, in an effort in understand what the EEG tracings were of a dying patient, and if they were helpful in understanding what was true “brain death”. Many of these patients survived and went to share with him their near death experiences. He told me that he had over 300 examples of patients with flat EEGs who reported near death experiences. He published this in Anabiosis in 1979 (the forerunner to the current Journal of Near Death Studies.) However, he was extremely vague about the entire situation, as he was more interested in his work on EEGs in dying patients. He never published his data in the mainstream medical literature, and his article in Anabiosis lacks many of the details neurosciences would love to have.
WHAT ABOUT MY PATIENTS? WEREN’T THEY BRAIN DEAD?
Yes, in reality, they were truly brain dead. Most of them had fixed and dilated pupils, lacked protective reflexes such as a gag reflex, and often were starved of oxygen for over 10 minutes. However, when we published our work in the 1980s and 1990s, our team felt it was far too controversial to make the claim that these patients had truly died and come back to life. We wanted to publish in mainstream medical journals, so we took the approach that previous authors had taken, that they represent the final few moments of life. Dr. Fenwick prodded me to reassess our data, and in fact most of the patients were truly brain dead by any criteria. However, as a statement to the scientific community, it hardly seems right to re-interpret our data long after the initial fact of publication.
WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? (LESSONS FROM THE LIGHT)
If patients can truly have a biologically dead brain, and still retain consciousness and return to life, this would seem to prove without a doubt that consciousness survives the death of the brain. It further seems to prove that consciousness or the mind does not depend on brain function. This is why there are so many attempts to document dramatic cases in which patients have been dead for hours and still returned to life. Fortunately, the issue is now completely moot. (It no longer matters) Any reasonable review of the scientific literature clearly documents that consciousness persists in extraordinarily dysfunctional if not completely dead brains. Frankly I find the fact that there is a consensus of scientific research supporting the idea that we survive bodily death to be far more compelling than dramatic stories. Science now supports the concept that first came consciousness, and in turn we evolved brains to allow us to experience and learn lessons in this reality essential for our spiritual growth. (This is known as “top down” causation, meaning consciousness comes first. Bottom up or “upward” causation is the conventional view that first came atoms, then molecules, then groups of molecules, then cells, as so forth until we evolved as human beings. Upward causation has always had a problem with consciousness, and how it could have evolved in such a way. Most materialists, or upward causation scientists see consciousness as a by product of brain function, not a primary cause of brain function.
WHY I DON’T THINK IT IS IMPORTANT (And Why I Ignored the Advice of the Great Ian Stevenson)
For over 150 years, consciousness research has been dominated by the search for the “white crow” as William James called it. By this he meant that if we find a white crow feather, that proves that not all crows are black. Similarly, if we can find one dramatic case it which the brain is definitely dead and yet the person has a near death experience, then that would seem to prove that consciousness survives independently of a dead brain. When I was a young man, I served with Ian Stevenson on the Science Board of the legendary National Institute of Discovery Science, led by Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aeronautics. I asked him what his advice was to me as I was starting in consciousness research. He stated that I should find and carefully document that one case in which someone had a proven dead brain, had a near death experience, and returned from the experience with information that they could not have obtained in any other way. I immediately thought to myself, but wait a doggone minute! Didn’t Meyers, at the turn of the last century do exactly that, documenting two gigantic volumes of such case histories. And didn’t Ian Stevenson devote his career to exactly that? And it hasn’t made a bit of difference. Instead, I feel that we need to create a body of research, numerous small research studies which build on each other, and in turn, create the New Paradigm.
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On the left is the Tacoma Glass Museum featuring the work of Dale Chihuly. Above is the legendary Robert Hickman, one of my professors and the inventor of the Hickman line.
It was an amazing honor that Dr. Hickman
came to my lecture in Tacoma and I was very proud that he told me he liked it.