Recollected experiences around death: more than hallucinations?

A multidisciplinary team of national and international leaders, led by Sam ParniMD, PhD, Director of Critical Care and Resuscitation Research at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, published “Guidelines and Standards for the Study of Death and Recalled Death Experiences”, a statement of multidisciplinary consensus and proposed future directions in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. This study, which reviewed the scientific evidence accumulated to date, represents the first-ever peer-reviewed consensus statement for the scientific study of remembered experiences surrounding death.

Study researchers represent many medical disciplines, including neuroscience, critical care, psychiatry, psychology, social sciences and humanities, and represent many of the world’s most respected academic institutions, including Harvard University, Baylor University, University of California Riverside, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, Wisconsin Medical Collegeand the universities of Southampton and London.

Among their findings:

  1. Thanks to advances in resuscitation and critical care medicine, many people have survived encounters with death or close to death. These people – who are estimated to number in the hundreds of millions worldwide based on previous demographic studies – have consistently described recollected experiences around death, which involve a unique set of mental memories with universal themes.
  2. Recalled experiences surrounding death do not correspond to hallucinations, delusions, or experiences induced by psychedelic drugs, according to several previously published studies. Instead, they follow a specific story arc involving a perception of: (a) separation from the body with a heightened and expansive sense of awareness and recognition of death; (b) travel to a destination; (c) a meaningful and useful examination of life, involving a critical analysis of all actions, intentions and thoughts towards others; a perception of (d) being in a place that feels like “home”, and (e) a return to life.
  3. The death experience culminates in previously unidentified separate subthemes and is associated with long-term positive psychological transformation and growth.
  4. Studies showing the emergence of gamma activity and electrical spikes – usually a sign of heightened states of consciousness on electroencephalography (EEG) – in relation to death, further support the claims of millions of people who have said to have felt lucidity and an increased awareness of death.
  5. Scary or distressing experiences related to death often share neither the same themes nor the same narrative, transcendent qualities, ineffability and positive transformative effects.

“Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, but represents the final stage of a disease or event that results in the death of a person,” says lead author Parnia. “The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) has shown us that death is not an absolute state, but rather a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has begun.

“What has enabled the scientific study of death,” he continues, “is that brain cells are not irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead from this they ‘die” for hours. This allows scientists to objectively study the physiological and mental events that occur in relation to death.”

So far, according to the researchers, the evidence suggests that neither physiological nor cognitive processes end with death and that, although systematic studies have been unable to conclusively prove the reality or significance patients’ experiences and claims of conscience in relation to death, it was impossible to deny them either.

“Few studies have explored what happens when we die in an objective and scientific way, but these findings offer interesting insights into how consciousness exists in humans and may pave the way for further research,” adds Parnia.

Besides Parnia, the multidisciplinary group of experts involved in this study was Stephen G. Post from the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine, Stony Brook Medical Center, State University of New York at stony stream; Mathew T. Lee from the Institute of Quantitative Social Sciences, Harvard University; Sonja Lyubomirsky from the Department of Psychology, University of California, Riverside; Tom P. Aufderheide the emergency medicine service, Wisconsin Medical College; Charles D. Deakin from the anesthesia department of Southampton University Hospital, Southampton, United Kingdom; Bruce Greyson from the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences, University of Virginia: Jeffrey Long Mary Bird Perkins Terrebonne General Medical Center Cancer Center, Houma, LA; Stephane Mayer departments of neurology and neurosurgery, New York Medical College; Briana Locicero from the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine, Stony Brook Medical Center, State University of New York at stony stream: Jeff Levin of the Institute of Religious Studies, Baylor University; Anthony Bossis of the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Everett Worthington from the Department of Psychology, Virginia Commonwealth University; Pierre Fenwick from the Department of Neurophysiology, Sleep and Epilepsy, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College, London, UK; and Tara Keshavarz Shirazi, Anelly M. Gonzales, Elise L. Huppert and Analise Dickinsonall from research in intensive care and resuscitation, Department of Medicine, New York University Grossman School of Medicine.

About NYU Grossman School of Medicine Critical Care and Resuscitation Program
Research from the Critical Care and Resuscitation Research Program in the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Sleep Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine is advancing resuscitation techniques beyond CPR to improve oxygen supply to the brain and thus lead to better survival and quality of life for patients in cardiac arrest. The program brings together a multidisciplinary team of experts in many specialties, including neurology, cardiology and critical care. Together, they hope to improve the prevention and treatment of cardiac arrest, as well as address the impact of new scientific findings on our understanding of what happens at death.

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SOURCE NYU Langone Health

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