Is there life after death?

You have been blind or deaf since birth. The physical reason for this is known, recorded and accepted. You have a traumatic health crisis - a cardiac arrest, a coma - where you find yourself, for the first time, having veridical perceptions of the world through senses you 'cannot' use. You see, you hear. You are resuscitated or recover and you are back with your blindness or deafness in tact. So not only were you having a heightened consciousness event when everything we think we know about the brain says, in all likelihood, you cannot be, you are having a heightened consciousness event, sensorily structured, that you have never had (in you body) before!

These are two of the most arresting examples of 'Near Death Experience' that Dr Pim van Lommel gives in his quiet, sober and yet provocative book, 'Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near Death Experience'. Van Lommel, with colleagues, was the first researcher to make a prospective (as distinct from retrospective) study of 'near death experience' (that was published in the Lancet in 2001). A prospective study, among heart patients in a number of Dutch hospitals, enables you not only to have a control group, who report no such experience, but allows you to immediately cross reference a person's first hand account with the accounts of the attending teams and with the medical data. Subsequent prospective studies correlate with Van Lommel's findings, and reinforce (while adjusting) past retrospective studies.

The book patiently proceeds through all the current physical/psychological approaches to explaining the experience and finds them wanting - either they are plain wrong or only partially suggest lines of enquiry that may just contribute to future understanding.

Near Death Experiences are, in Thomas Kuhn's language, anomalies in the prevailing scientific paradigm and they are not being easily wished (or explained) away.

So what does happen if we go back to the drawing board? There follows several 'difficult' chapters (that I will need to re-read with a damp towel around my head) on quantum mechanics, non-locality and the functioning of DNA. However, the core analogy is clear - the brain is a transceiver of consciousness, not its originator. Imagine the analogy of a television set - in order to receive pictures here and now in my living room, it must be switched on and functioning (and this latter may be of varying quality), but what it displays is not produced by it, it is picking up waves that are there whether the television is on or not.

Now none of this, Van Lommel graciously concedes, explains consciousness - perhaps consciousness if it is the fundamental field from which all things are born forth is 'inexplicable' - but it would not be the first 'field' or 'force' that itself is unseen but its effects are known (think gravity or electricity).

Nor, of course, does this come to terms with the irreducible subjectivity of the actual experience itself.

For me the most interesting, and moving, parts of the book are people's accounts of those experiences and the consequences of their aftermath. Many, unsurprisingly, found it very difficult to articulate - first because of the difficulty of putting it into words and second in sharing those descriptions with either medical professionals or loved ones who might (and often did and do) meet them with incredulity, even scorn.

However, the overwhelming testimony, backed by qualitative research, shows how an NDE - an out of body experience, an encounter with a light filled space beautiful beyond compare, a life review and unconditional love, and potentially an encounter with predeceased loved ones - does transform a person's life stance, behaviours and priorities, in usually highly positive ways. The fear of death goes, one becomes more loving and tolerant and engaged in spirituality and social action, concern for material possessions withers. Compellingly the effects appear to deepen over time, rather than fade away.

There was one finding too that I found highly instructive namely that whereas an engagement with spirituality rises significantly that with religion declines substantially! It is as if having been to the banquet, why would you want to keep chewing on the menu?

I was reminded of a story David Lorimer  told me (who himself has been very active in the field of Near Death studies over many years) of going to a science and religion conference and discovering that the only person there who was an empiricist was himself. The scientists and theologians were both very happy to exchange their well articulated and structured views about how the world was, each comfortable in their separate silos, but nobody wanted to step out on to the messy ground of what people's actual, empirical experience might be. Thus, the Sunday Telegraph quote at the back of Van Lommel's book, 'Church leaders will cite it as evidence for the existence of the soul' is, sadly, unlikely (if they read it rather than merely cite it) because, of course, it may transform (by adding new evidence) what people have believed 'on faith'. What 'faith' is, its content, may well have to change.

Genuine exploration is always deeply undermining of authority - whether scientific or religious - and van Lommel's book is a wonderful example of such an exploration, made doubly so by both his own willingness to describe how his views have changed and the obvious generosity of spirit with which he listens to his 'subjects' (and too responds to the rather ill-tempered attacks from the 'scientific establishment').


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