Scientific advances in the 20th and 21st centuries have led to 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—yet 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, have published “Guidelines and standards for the study of death and recalled experiences of death,” a multidisciplinary consensus statement and proposed future directions in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. This study, which examined the accumulated scientific evidence to date, represents the first-ever peer-reviewed consensus statement for the scientific study of recalled experiences surrounding death.
The researchers on the study represent many medical disciplines, including the neurosciences, critical care, psychiatry, psychology, social sciences, and humanities, and represent many of the world’s most respected academic institutions including Harvard University, Baylor University, the University of California, Riverside, the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the University Hospital Southampton, and King’s College, London.
Among their conclusions are the following:
- Due to advances in resuscitation and critical care medicine, many people have survived encounters with death or being near-death. These people—who are estimated to comprise hundreds of millions of people around the world based on previous population studies—have consistently described recalled experiences surrounding death, which involve a unique set of mental recollections with universal themes.
- The recalled experiences surrounding death are not consistent with hallucinations, illusions, or psychedelic drug–induced experiences, according to several previously published studies. Instead, they follow a specific narrative arc involving a perception of (a) separation from the body with a heightened, vast sense of consciousness and recognition of death; (b) travel to a destination; (c) a meaningful and purposeful review of life, involving a critical analysis of all actions, intentions, and thoughts towards others; a perception of (d) being in a place that feels like “home”; and (e) a return back to life.
- The experience of death culminates into previously unidentified, separate subthemes and is associated with positive long-term psychological transformation and growth.
- Studies showing the emergence of gamma activity and electrical spikes—ordinarily 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 experiencing lucidity and heightened consciousness in relation to death.
- Frightening or distressing experiences in relation to death often neither share 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 causes a person to die,” lead author Dr. Parnia explains. “The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation showed us that death is not an absolute state, rather, it’s a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has started.”
“What has enabled the scientific study of death,” he continues, “is that brain cells do not become irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead, they ‘die’ over hours of time. This is allowing scientists to objectively study the physiological and mental events that occur in relation to death.”
So far, the researchers say, evidence suggests that neither physiological nor cognitive processes end with death and that although systematic studies have not been able to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness in relation to death, it has been impossible to disclaim them either.
“Few studies have explored what happens when we die in an objective and scientific way, but these findings offer intriguing insights into how consciousness exists in humans and may pave the way for further research,” Dr. Parnia adds.
Besides Dr. Parnia, the multidisciplinary group of experts involved with 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 from The Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University; Sonja Lyubomirsky from the Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside; Tom P. Aufderheide from the Department of Emergency Medicine, Medical College of Wisconsin; Charles D. Deakin from the Department of Anesthetics, University Hospital Southampton, UK; Bruce Greyson from the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia: Jeffrey Long from the Mary Bird Perkins Terrebonne General Medical Center Cancer Center, Louisiana; Stephan Mayer from the Departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery, New York Medical College; Jeff Levin from the Institute for Studies of Religion, Baylor University; Anthony P. Bossis from the Department of Psychiatry, NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Everett Worthington from the Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University; Peter Fenwick from 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, NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
More About Critical Care and Resuscitation Research at NYU Grossman School of Medicine
Critical care and resuscitation research in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine is advancing resuscitation techniques beyond cardiopulmonary resuscitation to improve the delivery of oxygen to the brain and thus lead to improved survival and quality of life for patients who experience cardiac arrest. The program brings together a multidisciplinary team of experts across many specialties, including neurology, cardiology, and intensive care. Together, they hope to improve cardiac arrest prevention and treatment, as well as address the impact of new scientific discoveries on our understanding of what happens at death.