Testing Near Death Experiences

There are alleged cases of Near Death Experiences (NDEs) in which patients who were clinically dead are able to supply information which is later corroborated by others. What can we make of these extraordinary claims? 

Since 1967, the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia School of Medicine has investigated NDEs. In the fifty years since its inception, the Division of Perceptual Studies has amassed thousands of reports of NDEs in an attempt to identify whether these reports of extrasensory experiences are reliable. The overwhelming majority of such reports do not contain any accurate information. However, a minority of the reports gathered are genuinely puzzling.

For example, there are allegedly cases in which patients, who were clinically dead, have been able to recall events which they could not have had any conscious awareness of. These patients provide details of the appearance of the operating theatre, the discussions had between hospital staff, objects in separate rooms, medical procedures performed etc. Moreover, these patients often claim that they witnessed all this from a perspective outside of their own bodies. In one case, a patient claimed to have floated high above the hospital, and described a shoe perched on the roof. Subsequent investigations were then alleged to have supported the patient’s testimony.  The shoe was discovered on the roof much to the astonishment of hospital staff. So the story goes…

Of course, there is no shortage of naturalistic hypotheses that might explain these cases better. If the patient maintains some residual degree of consciousness throughout treatment, then we need not posit an entirely new cognitive faculty to explain the reliability of any information gathered during the NDE. Perhaps more importantly, we must remember that the majority of cases are known to us in the form of anecdotal reports which are only formally recorded long after the NDE has taken place. Perhaps, then, in the case detailed above, a shoe was simply thrown onto the roof by a cheeky prankster hoping to give us all the heebie-jeebies. If so, it worked.

For obvious reasons, NDEs are difficult to study in controlled conditions; difficult, but not impossible.

In 2014, initial results of the AWARE study (AWAreness during REsuscitation) were published. AWARE is the most comprehensive study to date to test the reliability of cognition during NDEs. To assess the accuracy of claims of visual awareness during NDEs, participating hospitals installed shelves in their emergency rooms. Each shelf was fitted with an image only visible from above. These shelves allowed researchers to test the claim often made by NDEers that they are able to observe their own resuscitation from a perspective outside their own bodies and usually high above.

Over the course of four years, the study observed 2,060 cardiac arrests. Of those cardiac arrest patients, 140 survived. Of the survivors 101 were interviewed, nine reported having an NDE. Of the nine NDE reports, two involved detailed descriptions of their surrounds. Of these two descriptions, one was described as being “accurate”.

Unfortunately, this lone patient was also resuscitated in a room lacking a shelf.


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