Scientific research into NDEs supports the Vedic explanation of consciousness and perception. “Science may keep saying: ‘Such things are simply impossible’; yet so long as the stories multiply in different lands, and so few are positively explained away, it is bad method to ignore them.” American psychologist William James
Is there any scientific proof for the existence of the soul?” is a common question devotees face whenever they share the philosophy of Krishna consciousness with others. Yes, there is. Scientific research into fields like consciousness, past-life memories, and near-death experiences (NDEs) do indeed provide persuasive evidence. In this article I’ll discuss the phenomenon of NDEs.
Unusual Yet Universal
NDEs are experiences of extraordinary visions and perceptions during periods of unconsciousness among people who were medically dead or nearly dead due to various causes like accidents, diseases, surgeries, or attempted suicides. These people returned from the dead or the near-dead to tell us their amazing experiences.
NDEs have been reported since time immemorial in cultures all over the world. In a cross-cultural study published in Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, March 1978, researcher Dean Sheils reported that NDE beliefs appear in about ninety-five per cent of the world’s cultures and are striking in their uniformity even though the cultures are diverse in structure and location. In modern times, popular interest in near-death experiences was initially sparked by Raymond Moody’s 1975 book Life After Life, which reported numerous NDEs among a wide cross section of people. According to the Gallup and Proctor survey in 1980–1981, fifteen percent of all Americans who have been in near-death situations have had an NDE. In a more clinical setting, Pim van Lommel, a cardcardiologist from Netherlands, found that, among patients who had been successfully revived from cardiac arrests, eighteen percent had experienced an NDE.
Evidence Evaporates Skepticism
During the NDEs, patients report undergoing many extraordinary experiences meeting effulgent beings, having a life review, traveling into a realm filled with beautiful colors many of which profoundly change people’s lives. From the viewpoint of scientific testability, the most relevant among the NDEs are the autoscopic out-of-body experiences (OBEs), in which the patients report having seen their body from a perspective outside the body (generally from above the operating table) and also give verifiable descriptions of, say, the surgical procedures adopted by the medical staff. According to current mainstream science, unconscious patients cannot be aware of such details, and so their descriptions can be nothing more than hallucinations or educated guesses at best. This was the attitude of Dr. Michael Sabom, an American cardiologist who started his NDE research in the late 1970s as a skeptic. In his book Recollections of Death: A Medical Investigation Sabom outlined his initial plan to disprove the claimed perceptions of autoscopic OBE patients: “I would pit my experience as a trained cardiologist against the professed visual recollections of lay individuals. In so doing, I was convinced that obvious inconsistencies would appear which would reduce these purported visual observations to no more than an ‘educated guess’ on the part of the patient.”
Sabom’s initial skepticism soon faded away as evidence kept piling up during his more than three decades of NDE research. Here are some of the cases from Sabom’s books that changed his understanding of life and death and also the understanding of thousands of his readers.
A retired Air Force pilot who had suffered a massive heart attack recounted the resuscitation procedure in rich detail. He even described the motions of the two needles of the defibrillator, an electronic device used to administer electric shock to attempt to restore the normal functioning of the heart: “It [the defibrillator meter] was square and had two needles on there, one fixed and one which moved . . . the first needle moved each time they punched the thing and somebody was messing with it. And I think they moved the fixed needle and it stayed still . . . It [the moving needle] seemed to come up rather slowly, really. It didn’t just pop up like an ammeter or a voltmeter or something registering . . . The first time it went between one-third and one-half scale. And then they did it again, and this time it went up over one-half scale, and the third time it was about three-quarters.”
Sabom explains the significance of this specific observation: “I was particularly fascinated by his description of a ‘fixed’ needle and a ‘moving’ needle on the face of the defibrillator as it was being charged with electricity. The movement of these two needles is not something he could have observed unless he had actually seen this instrument in use. These two needles are individually used (1) to preselect the amount of electricity to be delivered to the patient [patient’s description: “they moved the fixed needle and it stayed still”] and (2) to indicate the defibrillator is being charged to the preselected amount [patient’s description: “the moving needle seemed to come up rather slowly, really. It didn’t just pop up like an ammeter or a voltmeter or something registering”]. This charging procedure is only performed immediately prior to defibrillation, since once charged, this machine poses a serious electrical hazard unless it is correctly discharged in a very specific manner. Moreover, the meters of the type described by this man are not found on more recent defibrillator models, but were in common use in 1973, at the time of his cardiac arrest.”
How could a person who was (1) in the middle of a cardiac arrest, (2) about to be jolted by an electric shock (3) while being almost certainly unconscious, and (4) not in a physical position to observe the defibrillator meter (5) methodically observe the motion of the needles on its dial?
In another Sabom case, a woman provided a medically accurate and detailed description of her lumbar disk surgery, performed with the patient in the supine position. She reported that her surgery had been performed, to her surprise, not by her surgeon but by the chief resident in neurosurgery, a correct detail that had not been divulged to her.
Following the lead of Sabom, many other researchers have also come across NDEs involving accurate or factual perceptions.
Unconscious Yet Conscious?
How could the subjects have acquired such accurate information of what happened while they were medically unconscious? Could they have gotten the information about the medical procedures from prior general knowledge? Such precise knowledge seemed unlikely among patients not directly connected with the medical profession. Still, Sabom, being a rigorously scientific researcher, decided to evaluate this possibility. He questioned a control group of twenty-five cardiac patients whose backgrounds were similar to those of persons reporting NDEs. When the control subjects were asked to imagine what they would see happening in the operating room when doctors resuscitate a cardiac-arrest patient, two of them could not give any description at all, and twenty among the remaining twenty-three made major errors. In marked contrast, of the thirty-two subjects who reported having NDEs, twenty six gave general descriptions that did not include any major errors, and six gave very detailed reports that exactly matched their medical records, which they had not seen. Based on this study, Sabom concluded, “These NDE accounts most likely are not subtle fabrications based on prior general knowledge.”
Could the subjects have been partially conscious and thus have acquired this information through sounds and touches?
This hypothesis fails to explain the NDE cases in which the subjects provide accurate information from outside their immediate vicinity, information they could not have obtained from sounds and touches or by any normal means even if they were conscious.
Sabom reports a case in which a patient recovering from sickness suffered an unexpected cardiac arrest. After he was revived, he reported that he had an OBE in which he had traveled down the hall and saw his wife, eldest son, and daughter arriving there, which was what had actually happened. This information is highly significant because (1) as he was soon to be discharged, he was not expecting his family members to visit; (2) even if he had known they would be visiting him, he couldn’t have known who would be visiting because he had six grown children, who took turns accompanying their mother when she came to see him; (3) his family members were stopped in the hall ten doors away from the room where he was being worked on by the doctors and nurses; (4) his face was turned away from them; and (5) he was in the middle of being resuscitated from cardiac arrest.
NDEs involving unconscious patients giving accurate information from beyond their vicinity have been reported for more than half a century, as indicated in Hornell Hart’s article published in Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research (Vol. 48, No. 4).
Could these experiences simply be hallucinations of people wanting to avoid fear of death? NDEs are markedly different from hallucinations in their contents and effects, as is evident from the table at left: NDEs differ from hallucinations not only in their experiential aspects, but also in their scientific causative mechanism. In an article in the medical magazine The Lancet, Pim van Lommel and his Dutch co-researchers expose a fatal flaw in all such physiological explanations of NDEs: “With a purely physiological explanation [for NDE] such as cerebral anoxia for the experience, most patients who have been clinically dead should report one.” Lommel points out that among all the people under similar hallucinogenic or physiological conditions, only some undergo NDEs. This selectiveness of NDEs shows they are not hallucinations and are not caused by any physiological conditions.
Add the compelling fact that many NDE subjects give accurate information that could never have been obtained through hallucinations, and the hallucination hypothesis about NDEs can be safely buried deep under the ground.
Outside-the-Box Thinking On Out-of-Body Experiences
NDE research is not restricted to a few non-mainstream scientists; hundreds of scientists all over the globe are engaged in NDE research in serious global forums like The International Association for Near- Death Studies (IANDS) and peerreviewed publications like The Journal of Near-Death Studies.
If consciousness were emerging from the brain, as mainstream science would have us believe, then an unconscious person could not have:
1. A clear thought process
2. Knowledge of his or her surroundings
3. Knowledge beyond his or her surroundings.
But NDEs show that what is theoretically impossible has actually happened, as has been documented by rigorous researchers under wellmonitored conditions. In science the purpose of theory is to explain the facts, not to quarrel with them. The facts of NDEs strongly disprove the theory of the cerebral origin of consciousness. Indeed, just one of the hundreds of NDE cases is enough to disprove that theory; if even one person’s consciousness continues when his brain is nonfunctional, then that one case proves that consciousness does not originate from the brain.
Then from where does consciousness originate? Taking the question further, who is perceiving from outside the body during OBEs? Seeking answers to questions like these, cutting-edge researchers are courageously thinking outside the box of materialistic, reductionistic science to explore alternative scientific explanations. Vedic books like the Bhagavad-gita offer a promising way out of the box with their penetrating insights into the source of consciousness and the mechanism of interaction between the body and the soul.
The Gita (2.17) explains that the soul pervades the body with consciousness and is indestructible, thus implying that the soul continues to exist when the body is dead or nearly dead. Further, the Gita (13.34) elaborates that consciousness, the energy of the soul, pervades the body just as sunlight, the energy of the sun, pervades the universe. The consciousness of the embodied soul is channeled through two kinds of body: gross and subtle. The gross or visible body is what we normally call our physical body, and the subtle body mainly comprises what we normally call the mind. Usually, the soul’s consciousness is channeled through the mind to the brain, the body, and the external world.
But because the soul and the body are essentially different, the soul can separate from the body under special circumstances, like when the body is damaged in OBEs. Upon such separation, the accuracy of the perceptions during the OBEs strongly suggests that the soul continues to be conscious through the subtle body even when the brain is dysfunctional. (This mechanism is depicted at left.)
A Holistic Explanation And a Holistic Life
A good scientific theory explains coherently not only the phenomenon it is intended to explain, but also other related phenomena. The soundness of the Vedic soul theory is evident from its ability to explain not only NDEs and OBEs, but also related phenomena like mindsight. In his book Mindsight: Near-Death and Out-of-Body Experiences in the Blind, Kenneth Ring describes many blind people who were able to see only during their NDEs and never again. The Vedic texts explain that the embodied soul sees with the aid of the mind and the eye mechanism. For the blind, the eye mechanism is impaired, but as souls, they still have the power to see. When their subtle body is decoupled from the gross body in OBEs, the subtle eye, no longer obstructed by the dysfunctional gross eye, is able to see. Similarly, the Vedic paradigm can also explain many other paranormal phenomena, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, and clairaudience.
NDEs offer a dramatic and authentic scientific demonstration that consciousness is not dependent on the brain and life is not dependent on the material body. By giving some of us experiences of life beyond the perishable body, the NDEs beckon all of us to strive for the complete experience of eternity. The Bhagavad-gita offers a systematic and practical method to experience our own innate spirituality and thus reclaim our lost right to eternal life. Indeed, the import of the NDEs resonates with the universal message of the Vedic scriptures to reclaim the eternal life that is our eternal birthright. Mrtyur ma amrtam gama: “Go from death to eternity.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. His free ezine, “The Spiritual Scientist,” gives a scientific presentation of Krishna consciousness. He is the author of eight books, including the upcoming Solving the Reincarnation Puzzle, from which this article is adapted. To read his other articles and to subscribe to his free ezine, register at www.thespiritualscientist. com