Did a recent study find evidence of life after death?

Did a recent study find evidence of life after death? October 23, 2014
Photo: panthera-lee (Deviant Art)
Photo: panthera-lee (Deviant Art)

The age-old question of whether there is life after death is one of the main selling points of religion and sparks countless philosophical debates around the globe. Near-death experiences garner the front pages of magazines like Newsweek because, as humans, we struggle with facing our own mortality and search for evidence of what comes after death.

In a new study published in the journal Resuscitation, researchers claim to have found evidence in support of life after death. Taking stories from 330 survivors of cardiac arrests, the study claims that 140 of the subjects could recount some “awareness while being resuscitated” after their hearts stopped beating.

This study is one of the world’s largest on the subject of out-of-body or near-death experiences, taking a pool of 2060 patients and narrowing it down to 330 qualifying candidates who were then interviewed after their resuscitation.

One man in the study told researchers he watched his own resuscitation from the corner of the room, despite being clinically dead for 3-minutes. His story was not wholly uncommon among the patients. Many experiences ranged from a “feeling of peacefulness” to an experience of heightened sensations.

“We know the brain can’t function when the heart has stopped beating,” said Dr. Sam Parnia, of State University of New York, who led the study. “But in this case, conscious awareness appears to have continued for up to three minutes into the period when the heart wasn’t beating, even though the brain typically shuts down within 20-30 seconds after the heart has stopped.”

Researchers state there was a medical machine in the room that makes a beeping noise in 3-minute intervals, and patients claimed to hear the beep at least two times after their heart stopped.

“He seemed very credible and everything that he said had happened to him had actually happened,” said Parnia of the patient who claims to have had an out-of-body experience. This statement highlights one of the first major problems with the study.

The study relies heavily on eyewitness data, which alone is often very unreliable, but in the case of the eyewitness being the very patient who is at the center of the traumatic event, the testimony is even more questionable. A statement that someone “seemed” credible is not exactly scientifically sound evidence.

While some patients recall what they believe are events that happened after their hearts stopped beating, this does not amount to evidence.  These memories could have taken place leading up to that event, and the out-of-body experiences may very well be the workings of the human imagination at its best. This “evidence” also fails to take into account that perhaps the patient’s brain activity didn’t cease as researchers speculate.

In their study, these researchers failed to address the highly contested subject of human consciousness. In order to claim that patients experienced life after death, the researchers would have to show that consciousness exists even after a person is technically brain dead, something they did not do. More importantly, the patient’s brain activity was not monitored during cardiac arrest; so to understand what activity was taking place, the researchers cited older studies about brain activity upon death.

In fact, the study says that “consciousness may be present despite clinically undetectable consciousness.” This is an important piece of the study because neuroscientists understand that certain brain functions are not detectable by most medical machinery.

Neuroscientist and author Sam Harris, speaking on near-death experiences and consciousness, says, “The problem, however, is that ‘CT scans and neurological examinations’ can’t determine neuronal inactivity—in the cortex or anywhere else.” The researchers do not have data from MRI, PET, or EEG machines, and without this kind of information, their claims about their patients’ brain activity are speculative at best.

While the study itself is interesting, it unfortunately provides no scientifically verifiable evidence for the testimony of each patient and fails to provide information for each patient’s brain activity. So on the question of life after death, this study fails to provide an answer, and if anything leaves us with more questions about our understanding of human consciousness.

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