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Return of the Living Dead: The Final Chapter

Paul DesOrmeaux

Skeptical Briefs Volume 21.2, Summer 2011

Although most of us haven’t had the exhilarating and life-affirming experience of nearly dying, a lucky few have returned from being “living challenged” to report their near-death experiences (NDE). An intriguing study (AWAreness during REsuscitation, or AWARE) to test this phenomenon is taking place at a number of medical centers throughout the United States, Europe, and Canada (and, if you buy into the Drake Equation, on other planets in the universe as well). One of the most amazing characteristics of the AWARE study is its catchy acronym from such a clumsy phrase. If nothing else, at the end of the day, these researchers should get an honorable mention for creativity from the Journal of Near-Death Acronyms (JNDA).

The main purpose of this research is to discover if there is any truth to the concept of an NDE. In theory, an NDE occurs when the flow of blood and oxygen to the human brain stops or slows, which can happen for a variety of reasons, including a near-fatal accident, a heart attack, a catastrophic illness, or an Al Gore global warming lecture. Of course, the concept of being “clinically dead” isn’t always easy to scientifically explain, like the crocoduck. Is it when the heart ceases? Or is it when a person’s EEG flatlines even when tempted with cheese fries?

In addition, the AWARE researchers would like to settle the controversy over whether some of the survivors of these brushes with deathness were also exposed to an out-of-body experience (OBE) or whether they were only divinely delusional (ODD). By interviewing those who claim to have returned from “the other side,” researchers hope to settle the age-old question of whether consciousness disappears with brain inactivity or whether it lives on and on and on and on like angels and souls and Twinkies.

Approximately 15,000 patients will be included in the study. It is likely that of the survivors, only about 150 will report an episode that would qualify as an NDE. Moreover, according to some estimates, only about a quarter of patients with an NDE will report some kind of OBE by regaling the listener with tales of bizarre-sounding experiences. These include remote viewing, falling toward a tunnel of light, and meeting religious figures, which proves one thing: even during death, modern humans remain inveterate multitaskers.

The researchers will test for OBEs by “hiding” randomly generated images in the operating room. These images will be visible only to someone who is having an OBE and looking down from the ceiling—that is, unless the out-of-body self decides to wander down to the hospital cafeteria for some yummy chow. Once the previously deceased patient is resurrected, he or she should be able to describe the hidden image observed while buzzing around the OR—unless the patient unfortunately returns as a reincarnated turtle, which would then require the use of a facilitated-communication expert.

Surprisingly, NDEs aren’t a recent phenomenon. Some ancient texts include incidents in which critically wounded soldiers describe their journey into the afterlife after being revived through CPR (common-prayer resuscitation). Also, a number of extraordinary thinkers have experienced or lent credence to NDEs, such as Plato, Carl Jung, and Eric Estrada of CHiPs. Even atheists aren’t immune to the phenomenon. One atheist became an ex-atheist after returning from his “death,” where he observed “billions and billions of Carl Sagans.”

The modern phenomenon of NDEs, however, actually dates back to the publication of Raymond Moody’s best-selling Life After Life (1975), in which he coins the phrase “near-death experience” after X-ing out the alternative: “psychedelic groove-on” (PGO).

Moody’s interest in NDEs developed while he was in medical school, possibly after he sniffed one too many cadavers. Eventually he interviewed dozens of people who had supposedly died and returned to tell the tale. Because of the unexpected similarity of experiences, Moody eschewed science and concluded that there was more to dying than death. To Moody, the common experiences he recorded proved one thing: this crazy-ass idea could sell him some books! Since then, tens of thousands of personal accounts of NDEs have been “recorded all over the world,” just like religious-image discoveries on everyday food items (e.g., a burnt fish stick).

As stated earlier, not everyone who’s dabbled in death has had a heavenly experience. In various studies, anywhere from 2 percent to ___ percent (fill in the blank) of those who have returned from having “nearly passed” reported NDEs as well as OBEs. Others had neither, while a small minority described the event as “like being stuck in Toledo, Ohio, for six weeks.”

Some of the more common universal experiences recorded by Moody and others include:

Out-of-body experiences (OBEs). This is the most controversial claim that AWARE is trying to settle. According to solid, indisputable anecdotal evidence, it’s clearly possible for one’s consciousness to leave one’s body and fly hither and yon like a magic carpet, which allows the deceased to clearly observe his or her own resuscitation without the use of prescription eyeglasses. This phenomenon might eventually come in handy if the patient observes the surgeon mocking his liver and is then called as an eyewitness to his own medical malpractice lawsuit.

Hearing strange sounds. These have been described variously as a buzzing, a ringing, and a Bob-Dylan-singing-Christmas-carols type of noise.

A feeling of peace. This feeling is often difficult to explain since no such state has existed on our planet for decades.

Encountering other dead beings. Many believe they’ve arrived in heaven because they come across religious figures, deceased relatives and friends, beings of light, strangers, or Jerry Garcia. One person even witnessed Buddha driving a yellow school bus. Strangely, the religious figures that are observed are those of the person’s own religion. For example, during an NDE no Hindu is known to have seen Jesus, no Christian has met face-to-face with Mohammed, and no member of the Jewish faith has run into L. Ron Hubbard.

Looking down a long tunnel of light. Described as akin to coming out of the birth canal, visiting The Screaming Tunnels of Niagara Falls, or “feeling like one bitchin’ migraine.”

Rising rapidly into heaven. So far, no one has reported falling rapidly into the bowels of hell.

A desire to stay deceased. Most “zombies” reluctantly return to life kicking and screaming. Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to compare notes with those who stuck to their guns and decided not to return, since they’re not talking. Apparently, what happens in the afterlife stays in the afterlife.

A profound transformation. The transformed person no longer has a fear of death, unless he or she is driving in Los Angeles.

To some, there is no doubt that these common experiences are evidence of a world beyond. For others, like skeptics, some kind of physical evidence of these events would be welcome. Would it be asking too much for Jesus’ autograph on a temporary visa?

Many scientists (or killjoys) claim there are plenty of logical and rational theories for what causes an NDE, including chemical changes to parts of the brain, unusual electrical activity in other parts of the brain, intrusion of our normal REM dream sleep into our consciousness, and an innate inability to reason. Some scientists claim to be able to duplicate many of these NDE and OBE events through use of certain drugs, electronic stimulation of the brain, or by reading passages from Deepak Chopra’s latest book, but these tests have yet to be duplicated. At some future date, we might know enough about the brain to fully understand the NDE, but right now it’s clear that you don’t necessarily have to be officially pronounced dead to meet up with the seventy-two virgins in paradise.

One question that puzzles many skeptics is that if the brain has stopped functioning (no neural or EEG activity), then where is this “memory” of the afterlife stored? Good question. To give believers the benefit of the doubt, however, there’s much that scientists don’t understand about the human brain, and it’s possible that since it contains more nooks and crannies than an English muffin, there’s probably hidden storage space aplenty.

Since it’s clear I’m bending over backward to accommodate the believers at this point, I’ll also admit that these various “scientific” theories are quite complicated and make my head spin. If we were to apply Occam’s Razor to this issue, might not the existence of an afterlife and angels and beings of light and souls and religious figures and separate consciousnesses and a life review, as well as the ability to communicate with lights and the possibility of attaining complete knowledge about life and the nature of the universe and so on, ad infinitum, be the simplest explanation after all?

Until this ongoing controversy is resolved once but not likely for all by the AWARE experimenters, it would behoove skeptics, including myself, to keep an open mind on this controversial topic. And even before the results are finally published, maybe we should start thinking about award nominations for this worthy study. I’m thinking an Ig Noble Prize. How about a Pigasus Award? If we’re especially lucky, maybe a Darwin Award.

Then again, if the AWARE experiment totally fails, all is not lost. Why not try an alternative test, such as stretching a nano-fiber mosquito net above the dying patient to trap the consciousness when it tries to escape the body? Catching a consciousness would be awesome evidence, wouldn’t it? It surely beats electronic voice phenomena (EVP) and orbs.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, in the name of science, I’m off to run my own AWARE experiment by way of autoerotic asphyxiation. Will I have an NDE? An OBE? And will I be able to watch my own orgasm (O)? Results TBA.

Paul DesOrmeaux

Skeptical satirist Paul “Pablo” DesOrmeaux has written a variety of humorous pieces for a number of skeptical publications. He’s also a regular contributor to the Skeptical Inquirer’s “The Last Laugh.” He believes that if we don’t make room for humor and satire in skepticism, our impact will always be restrained, limited, and unintelligently designed.