Back from Brink Patients 'Prove the Soul Exists'

By Jonathan Petre
London Daily Telegraph - Sunday (Filed: 09/12/2001)

NEW evidence that patients whose hearts stop beating can experience a form of afterlife is to be published this week, supporting the view that the mind - or soul - can survive death.

Doctors who studied 344 heart attack survivors found that more than one in 10 had experienced emotions, visions or lucid thoughts while they were "clinically dead" - unconscious with no signs of pulse, breathing or brain activity. Some reported having "out-of-body" experiences.

The research, by a Dutch team, is to be published in Britain's leading medical journal, the Lancet. It will be seized on by academics who believe that the mind can continue to work after the brain has stopped. Church leaders will cite it as evidence for the existence of a soul.

The two-year study in 10 Dutch hospitals found that 12 per cent of cardiac arrest survivors reported having various "near-death experiences" (NDEs) before being resuscitated. One said he had floated out of his body and watched doctors as they removed his dentures before putting a tube down his throat as part of efforts to revive him.

The research, led by Professor Pim Van Lommel, coincides with the findings of a new British survey, saying that 10 per cent of people questioned thought they had experienced the sensation of floating out of their bodies.

The study, conducted by Opinion Research Business in November among a representative sample of 1,002 people, produced similar results to previous surveys in America. Sixty per cent of respondents said they were aware of out-of-body experiences and only 13 per cent did not believe these could happen.

For centuries, people have been reporting having near-death experiences but, until recently, these claims have never been scientifically tested, and the phenomenon has been treated with scepticism by most academics.

Experiences have included feelings of peace and joy, a speeding-up of time, heightened senses, lost awareness of body, entering another world, encountering a mystical being and reaching a "point of no return."

The latest Dutch research is the most extensive scientific study of the phenomenon, and supports the findings of a smaller project at Southampton Hospital, completed last year. It used the latest medical equipment to confirm no signs of pulse or brain activity in the patients who reported near-death experiences.

Researchers say they should not have been able to perceive anything, and that their recollections are too structured to be hallucinations. The phenomenon defies normal medical explanation.

The Dutch study found that cardiac arrest survivors who had had a near-death experience subsequently tended to have a more spiritual approach to life - and less fear of death - than those who had not.

Dr Peter Fenwick, a consultant neuropsychiatrist at London University, who was the joint author of the Southampton study, said: "The Dutch research is very exciting because it confirms our findings. We now know that NDEs do occur and do so when the person is in a coma, so we have to examine the question as to whether mind and brain are the same."

He added: "If the mind and brain can be independent, then that raises questions about the continuation of consciousness after death. It also raises questions about a spiritual component to humans and about a meaningful universe with a purpose rather than a random universe."

In a paper to be published next year by the medical journal Resuscitation, Dr Fenwick's fellow author, Dr Sam Parnia, a clinical research fellow at Southampton University, argues that consciousness "might actually be a fundamental scientific entity in its own right, irreducible to anything more basic.

"This concept has been proposed to be similar to the discovery of electromagnetic phenomenon in the 19th century, or quantum mechanics in the 20th century." Sceptics argue, however, that the experiences are generated by the brain as it faces the trauma of death.

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This page was updated on Friday, August 29, 2003 3:26 PM