Jody's Review of The Lancet Article 3/6/02

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Jody's Review of:  Near Death Experience In Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands, Pim van Lommel, et al, THE LANCET • Vol 358 • December 15, 2001 ,  2039-45.  3/6/02

    The is the largest prospective study of NDErs and published in a major British medical journal, the Lancet.  The 8-year old study involved 344 consecutive cardiac arrest patients who died and were subsequently resuscitated.  Of these 344 patients, several had had repeat resuscitations.  The total deaths and resuscitations were 509.  The study was meticulously designed to measure NDEr life changes over the 8 year period, and to look at whether there were any statistically significant differences in the areas of demographics, medical history, pharmacological and psychological make-up.  Specifically, the test addressed skeptical concerns regarding the proper use of scientific methodology, whether the NDE was caused by brain chemistry, if and how drugs might affect the occurrences or perceptions of NDEs, and whether fear or other psychological factors might account for NDEs.  Id. at 2039.

One of the glaring problems in NDE research is that there is no “one” definition that is agreed upon by all researchers.  It should be noted that the definition was changed during the study to account for the observed data.  Moreover, van Lommel admitted that this was a possible bias in the study.  Accordingly, an NDE is defined as: 

The reported memory of all impressions during a special state of consciousness, (awareness of being dead 50%) including specific elements such as out of body experience (24%), pleasant feelings (56%), and seeing a tunnel(31%), a light (communication with the light 14%, described the colors 14%), deceased relatives(32%), or a life review(13%).  Id. at 2039.

Additionally 29% talked of celestial landscapes and 8% described boundaries that they could not go beyond.  Id. at 2041.  Clinical death was defined as a period of unconsciousness caused by insufficient blood supply to the brain because of inadequate blood circulation, breathing or both.  Id.

    This study can be cited for major NDE scientific findings, the largest being that NDEs are not medically explicable. Id. at 2039.  Van Lommel proved under rigid methodology that the occurrence of the NDE was not associated with “duration of cardiac arrest or unconsciousness, medication, or fear of death prior to the cardiac arrest.”  Id.

    Given the similarity in physiological make-up of the sample population, one would expect that most of the 344 patients should experience an NDE. Id.  This would take into account the skeptic argument of cerebral anoxia (dying brain cells).  However, that is not the case.  The findings were that 18% of the 344 cardiac arrest patients had an NDE, with 12% of the 18% reporting a “core experience.” Id.  Therefore, NDE is not correlated with physiological causes of death.  However, the study did find that age might play a factor in the occurrence of NDEs in that younger experiencers were more likely to have an NDE and more likely to have a core experience.  Id. at 2043.

     The same argument pertaining to physiological make-up could be made for those in the sample population who were psychologically afraid of death right before the cardiac arrest.  However, there was no difference between those who were afraid and reported an NDE as opposed to those who were afraid and did not report an NDE.  Id. at 2039.  Therefore, NDE doesn’t appear to be caused by emotional make-up such as fear.   

     What is most significant to me, was that it took NDErs several years to integrate the NDE into their lives, consistent with PMH Atwater ’s observations.  Van Lommel called the integration period, the length of time for the transformation to occur.  I would call it “spiritual transformation.”  The transformation included life-changing insight, heightened intuition, and disappearance of fear of death.  Id. at 2040.  Contrarily, those who did not experience and NDE were more likely to become agnostic or atheist and still fear death.  The depth of the experience, whether it was only an OBE or if it was a core experience, did not affect depth of spiritual transformation.  Id. at 2042. 

     Another key part of the longitudinal study was the effect of time, memory and suppression of the NDE during the integration process.  The commentary in the Lancet talks of NDEs being the result of false memories.  Interestingly, if this were true, then this rationale could not explain why the study found that people could recall their NDE exactly over the span of a 2-year and an 8-year period.  Id. at 2041.  Moreover, the skeptic commentary quoted memory studies of children, but lacked information on adults.  The cardiac arrest population consisted of adults rather than children.  There was a profound lack of explanation as to what constitutes false memory, and many in the field of psychology agree that false memory is credited with filling in small gaps in memory rather than inventing whole stories.

     One real weakness of the study from my perspective was that it used Ken Ring’s NDE scoring which rated positive feelings as an element of NDEs.  This does not take into account frightening NDEs.  Here, negative feelings should score just as high as positive feelings.  If anything, people would be less likely to share negative feelings and a frightening NDE should take longer to process than positive NDEs or to integrate due to the difficulty in wanting to revisit the NDE.  This would lead to a biasing in the results.  The occurrence of NDEs is most likely is higher than reported.  Id. at 2043.

     Although, Van Lommel could not find any medically explicable explanation for why NDEs occur, he did acknowledge that the neurological processes had to play a part in the NDE, noting similarities between various other phenomena such as electrical stimulation of the temporal lobe of the brain.  Id. at 2044.  However, he also commented on the fragmented and randomness of the memories derived by these other mechanisms.  Id.  Only the NDE had clear recall in a sequential order as evidenced by the life review.  Van Lommel left the door open for speculation that in order for a NDE to occur, memories and thought processes must occur outside of the physical body – ergo the brain is merely a transmitter rather than a receptacle of thought and memory. (Also see Berkovich article)  Id.

Copyright1999 by Dr. Jeff and Jody Long


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