Cardiac Arrest and the Near Death Experience
By Barbara Mango, Ph.D.
Current research contends the strongest lines of evidence supporting the veracity of the near-death experience remain OBEs, NDEs in the congenitally blind, and those which occur under general anesthesia, and during cardiac arrest. Each of these lines of reasoning arrive at the same postulate to explain NDE’s: that heightened, lucid consciousness occurs when the heart stops beating, the brain demonstrates no measurable activity or function, and breathing ceases. NDEs which occur during cardiac arrest however, remain the closest model of the process of dying, and are considered the most objective and scientific method to study brain, mind, and consciousness at a time of clinical death. This is because from a biological standpoint, cardiac arrest is the same as clinical death, or “flatline”. The medical community uses these terms interchangeably.
Clinical death has traditionally been defined when three biological parameters are met; there is no heartbeat, there is no breathing, and there is no brain function-this is determined when a light is shone into the eyes and there are fixed, dilated pupils which indicate a lack of brain stem activity. Death, as indicated from the above three parameters, follows very quickly from the moment when the heart stops beating. This is due to a lack of blood flow into the vital organs including the brain itself.[i]
Cardiac arrest often occurs suddenly and without warning. It is fatal if not treated immediately. The most frequent cause of cardiac arrest is erratic heart rhythms, or arrhythmias, which inhibit the ability of the heart to pump blood effectively. Arrhythmia is described as:
…an electrical malfunction in the heart. A common arrhythmia in cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation (VF). This is when the heart’s lower chambers suddenly start beating chaotically and don’t pump blood. With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Seconds later, a person loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death occurs within minutes after the heart stops. Cardiac arrest may be reversed if CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is performed and a defibrillator is used to shock the heart and restore a normal heart rhythm. [ii]
It remains medically inexplicable that highly lucid consciousness can exist during clinical death [cardiac arrest]. However, five current independent studies conducted in the UK, Holland, and the US corroborated this phenomena:
…cardiac arrest survivors report continuation of consciousness, as demonstrated by lucid, well structured, thought processes together with reasoning and memory formation, as well as claims of verdical perception (being able to ‘see’ and recall specific details from their cardiac arrest, which have also sometimes been confirmed by resuscitation staff). The occurrence of heightened consciousness and awareness during cardiac arrest…has significant implications, and has also raised the possibility that the mind and consciousness may continue functioning during clinical death[iii].
In Science and the Near-death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death, author Chris Carter describes an extraordinary case of a NDE precipitated by cardiac arrest. This account is known as “The case of the missing dentures.” The traditional scientific community considers the lucid content and verdical perception of this case medically inexplicable. Yet, as a coronary-care nurse later described her DOA:
After admission, he receives artificial respiration without intubation, while heart massage and defibrillation are also applied. When we decided to intubate the patient, he turns out to have dentures in his mouth. I remove these upper dentures and put them onto the “cart.” Only after a week do I meet again with this patient…The moment he sees me he says: “Oh, that nurse knows where my dentures are…Then he elucidates: “Yes, you were there when I was brought into the hospital and you took my dentures out of my mouth and put them onto that cart, it had all these bottles on it and there was this sliding drawer and underneath and there you put my teeth.” …It appeared the man had seen himself lying in bed, that he had perceived from above…He was also able to describe correctly and in detail the small room in which he had been resuscitated also well as the appearance of those present like myself.[iv]
The account of Pam Reynolds’ astonishing NDE during brain surgery, however, is perhaps the most comprehensive and thoroughly documented such case ever recorded. While undergoing brain surgery, the cerebral cortex and brain stem were constantly monitored.
Pam was diagnosed with a massive aneurysm in a cerebral artery near her brain stem. Neurosurgeon Robert Spetzler agreed to operate on Pam, although her chance of surviving the surgery was remote. Her surgery required that a unique and rare procedure termed “hypothermic cardiac arrest”, or “operation standstill” be performed.
Pam’s body temperature was lowered to fifty degrees, which invariably induces cardiac arrest. Due to a complete loss of cardiac activity, Pam was connected to a heart-lung machine (a mechanical circulation support of the heart and lungs, also known as cardiopulmonary bypass). All blood was drained from her brain, rendering it totally nonfunctional. As Spetzler explained:
During standstill, Pam’s brain was found “dead” by all three clinical tests-her electroencephalogram was silent, her brain-stem response was absent, and no blood flowed through her brain.[v]
Yet, as Pam later recalled:
I was the most aware that I’ve ever been in my entire life. I knew that this was my body, but I didn’t care. I remember my head tingling, and I just sort of popped out of the top of my head. I remember seeing several things in the operating room when I was looking down. I was metaphorically sitting on Dr. Spetzler’s shoulder…I remember the instrument in his hand; it looked like the handle of my electric toothbrush…it even had little bits that were kept in this case that looked like the case that my father stored his socket wrenches in. I remember the heart-lung machine. I didn’t like the respirator…I remember a lot of tools and instruments that I did not readily recognize. And I distinctly heard a female voice saying: “We have a problem. Her arteries are too small.” And then a male voice: “Try the other side”. It seemed to come from further down on the table. I do remember thinking, “what are they doing there [laughs] because this is brain surgery”! [vi]
Dr. Spetzler confirmed the validity of Pam’s observations by stating:
…The observations she made… were just not available to her. For example, the drill and so on, those things are all covered up. They aren’t visible; they were inside their packages. You really don’t begin to open them until the patient is completely asleep…At that stage in the operation, nobody can observe, hear in that state…I don’t have an explanation for it. I don’t know how it’s possible for it to happen, considering the physiological state she was in. I have seen so many things that I can’t explain that I don’t want to be so arrogant as to be able to say that there’s no way it can happen.[vii]
Skeptics including G.M. Woerlee and Susan Blackmore, however, hypothesize Pam’s NDE was caused by a combination of anesthetic awareness, hallucinations, abnormal interpretations of bodily sensations, and previous knowledge of her surgical procedure. Woerlee states:
These things explain most aspects of the wondrous near death experience of Pam Reynolds. All this means was that the experience of Pam Reynolds was not a product of an immaterial soul, or immaterial mind, which can exist for eternity separately from her body. [viii]
Blackmore strongly agrees with the imaginative reconstruction premise of Woerlee. According to Blackmore, although patients appear to be unconscious, they may still retain residual hearing and sense of touch. Blackmore postulates:
Through this information they [the patients] are able to construct a convincing and realistic impression of what was occurring during surgery and believe they have experienced a NDE. From hearing alone, we can construct extremely convincing visual pictures. This [residual sense of touch] applies also to cases where patients correctly recall where on their chest the defibrillator pads were placed, or which side of their chest injections were given.[ix]
Blackmore additionally claims numerous patients have had previous surgeries, and are thus familiar with surgical procedure, medical terminology, and the visual layout of an operating room. Armed with this awareness, patients may create imagined scenarios based on information gathered before surgery. Blackmore has termed this “awareness” imaginative reconstruction, defined as a function of prior knowledge, hearing, and bodily sensation.
Chris Carter vehemently disagrees with the ‘imaginative reconstruction’ theory proposed by Blackmore and Woerlee, and challenges skeptics who continue to debunk NDEs which occur during cardiac arrest. As he states:
Genuine skepticism plays an important role in science, but genuine skepticism involves the suspension of belief, not the refusal of belief. So individuals such as Woerlee are not practicing genuine skepticism.[x]
How then is it possible for a NDE to occur during cardiac arrest? Non-materialism questions how such complex states of consciousness including vivid mentation, sensory perception, and memory can occur under conditions in which neurophysiologic models consider such states impossible. They propose that future scientific studies cannot be responsibly investigated without taking this data into account.
The Horizon Research foundation concludes:
The study of near-death experiences during cardiac arrest, together with a lack of plausible biological mechanisms to account for the causation of consciousness from brain processes, has led to major questions about this theory. Many may now have to reconsider their opinions based upon the latest data. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time in science that a prevailing view has been proved wrong. When we look back, we can see that many widely accepted theories have been modified or even completely changed in the light of new evidence.[xi]
[i] Horizon Research Foundation: Researching Mind and Brain During Clinical Death.
[iii] Horizon Research Foundation, Ibid.
[iv] Carter, Chris. Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010.: 217-18
[v] Van Lommel, Pim. Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-death Experience. New York: HarperCollins:2010. : 169-76.
[vii] Blackmore, Susan. Dying to Live: Near-Death Experiences. Amherst, New York: Prometheus: 1993.
[viii] Woerlee, G.M. Interview: Atlantic Journal Constitution, May, 2010.
[ix] Blackmore, Susan. Ibid.
[x] Woerlee, G.M. Ibid.