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Some Suggested Explanations for Near Death Experiences

What is a Near-Death Experience? is the first of a new series of entry-level mind, body, spirit guides. Author Penny Sartori explores the fascinating phenomenon of near-death experiences (NDEs), revealing not only how they can change our perspective on death, but also how they can empower us to live more meaningful, fulfilled lives.

Near-death experiences have been debated for many years. Several theories have been proposed yet despite over 40 years of research in this field there is still no theory that provides a full explanation for all aspects of this highly complex phenomenon.

It is very important that all possible explanations are examined in an attempt to fully understand the NDE. It is logical to explore the possibility of abnormal blood chemistry and the side effects of drugs administered which have all been proposed as causes of the NDE. These were some of the factors that I investigated in my prospective hospital research. This article will briefly mention some commonly suggested explanations for NDEs. For a more in-depth discussion see my books The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences and What is an NDE?

Can a lack of oxygen to the brain create such an experience?

Indeed, when there is a lack of oxygen people do appear to see things that are not really there but they also become very confused and agitated and hallucinate before losing consciousness. This state is very different to the heightened state of reality reported during an NDE. People who have lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen have never reported to me a heightened state of awareness like that reported during an NDE. Most unconscious patients I’ve nursed have very little recall of losing consciousness and certainly have no recollection of a heightened state of awareness.

The work of American psychiatrist, Charles Meduna published in 1950 showed that people who had inhaled carbon dioxide did report some sensations that are characteristic of NDEs. There were reports of out of body experiences, vivid dreamlike experiences, geometric shapes, bright colours, feelings of self-discovery, as well as distressing experiences. Another side effect of high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood is frequent spasmodic twitching which is not witnessed when someone is apparently having an NDE.

There were also cases in my hospital research where patients had an NDE during a period of unconsciousness but they were ventilated at the time of their NDE, therefore receiving oxygen therapy throughout the duration of their period of unconsciousness, and their blood levels were normal. Also, there were many patients who were lacking in oxygen and had high levels of carbon dioxide but they did not recall a NDE. If abnormal blood results are an explanation for NDEs then I would have expected a much higher frequency of NDEs in my sample. Further hospital research, I hope, will build on this.

Another theory commonly proposed is that the NDE is a side effect of the drugs administered. Many patients in intensive care receive strong pain killing or sedative drugs. What I found in my research surprised me; rather than causing the NDE, the drugs that we gave the patients actually appeared to inhibit the experience or turn it into something confusional. Those who had been given strong pain killing or sedative drugs were less likely to report an NDE. Also, if drugs were the cause of the experience then I would have expected a far greater frequency of experiences than were reported. There were also cases where NDEs were reported when no drugs were administered.

NDEs frequently get referred to as hallucinations so I documented 12 consecutive cases of patients who had been hallucinating and I found big differences. The people who had hallucinated often displayed abnormal behavior, some tried to climb out of bed or remove some intravenous infusions, and some even became aggressive towards nursing staff. What they recalled subjectively was random and bizarre and on further investigation could be attributed to background noise, tactile stimulation and staff conversation they could hear as their sedation was wearing off. On follow-up a few months after their hallucinations, the patients could rationalize that they had been hallucinating and some were quite embarrassed by their behavior at the time.

Whereas the NDEs followed a pattern and they could not be attributed to such external stimuli. The two NDErs who described the deepest experience were adamant that it was a real experience even more than a year after the experience. They reported a heightened state of awareness which was in direct contrast to the cases of hallucinations that were documented.

The most reliable way to investigate NDEs is within the acute hospital setting. This ensures that all details can be checked alongside the medical notes and the testimonies of the healthcare professionals who were present at the time. Hospital research can verify the proximity to death along with which drugs were administered and in some cases what the blood gas status was at the time of the medical emergency. I believe it is of great importance to continue with hospital research in order to find a greater understanding of NDEs and consciousness. Even though there is currently no explanation for NDEs within the framework of the materialistic scientific perspective that consciousness is created by the brain, it is paramount that we acknowledge that this phenomenon exists and has a big impact on those who experience it. To ignore these important experiences will be detrimental to future patient care and care of the dying – something that will affect each one of us at some point.

Penny Sartori

Dr Penny Sartori PhD, RGN is an expert in NDEs, having been an intensive care nurse for 17 years and having undertaken the UK’s first long-term prospective study on them, for which she was awarded a PhD. She is the author of best-seller The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences (2014), which was serialised in The Daily Mail, and she lectures both nationally and internationally. She currently teaches at Swansea University.

What Is Near Death - low res single-1

Penny Sartori
What is a Near-Death Experience?
£7.99, available from Watkins Publishing

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