It might be the biggest mystery of ever faced by humankind—other than how Twinkies can last so long. What happens after we die? The answers range from terse (ie, nothing) to miraculous—there’s a light, angels, heavenly gates. Some believe in reincarnation, although that doesn’t necessarily answer the question of what happens between death and rebirth. Scientists at Southampton University set about trying to answer this huge question their study suggests a surprising answer: people can retain awareness after they are clinically dead.
Certainly there are a lot of near-death stories, accounts in which people’s hearts have stopped or they’re otherwise technically dead for a short amount of time, but then they are revived. There are some general similarities in many of those stories—kind of like people who claim to be abducted by aliens tend to describe similar-looking extraterrestrials. Despite the skepticism that surrounds some of those stories, the Southampton scientists wanted to pursue the NDE and life after death claims, so they spent four years on a study that involved examining 2,060 patients in 15 hospitals in the U.S., U.K., and Austria, all of whom suffered cardiac arrest.
330 patients survived, and of those, 140 were surveyed for the study. Of those, 39 percent described some level of “awareness” between the time their hearts stopped and when their hearts were restarted. 20 percent of those surveyed said they felt unusually peaceful, and over 30 percent said strange things happened to time as they were being resuscitated—that it seemed to speed up or slow down. Some people saw light or a flash. 13 percent said they had out of body experiences, and 13 percent also said they experienced heightened senses. Some had a pretty negative experience, saying they felt fear or the sensation of drowning.
As is fairly common in NDE stories, one patient, who was technically dead for three minutes, said he left his body and watched the doctors work on him from the other side of the room. He was able to give an accurate and detailed account of what happened in the room as doctors and nurses bustled around him.
Even though the brain generally stops working 20-30 seconds after the heart stops beating, lead researcher Sam Parnia says that in this case, “conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes…He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened.”
Some of the scientists think more patients would remember near death experiences if it weren’t for the potent anesthetics. It’s also possible that being on some kind of sedative or other drug makes people think they are hallucinating, when they’re actually having a real experience. “These experiences warrant further investigation,” believe the scientists, especially when it comes to out of body experiences.