What do a naval aviator, an Episcopalian priest and a trauma surgeon have in common?
At the IANDS Conference in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, it’s near-death experience.
Every year, cancer survivors, university professors and medical professionals gather to discuss the latest research on the phenomenon known as near-death experiences (NDEs).
And whether you find it awe-inspiring or incredulous, it’s hard not to at least be curious.
So I secured a press pass, packed a go bag and made the 450 mile journey into this parallel universe.
This is what I learned.
What is a near death experience?
The phenomena collectively known as near death experience appears nearly universally in cultures around the world.
Reports of NDEs date back to ancient peoples.
In modern studies, a number of key features typify near death experience. Experts in the field continue to argue over the nitty-gritty details of what constitutes an NDE.
But Dr. Bruce Greyson’s NDE scale is widely accepted as a rough measure of near death experience.
Each experience is as unique as the individual who had it, but the following are common threads found in many NDEs.
-NDEs usually occur during a traumatic event that often (but not always) onsets near the brink of death.
-Time may seem to speed up, slow down or cease to have meaning.
-Some experience a “life review” or scenes of their lives “flashing before their eyes.”
-There may be a sense of omniscience, or all-knowing awareness.
-Many feel an overwhelming sense of peace, joy or harmony.
-A sense of separation from the body.
-Encountering mythical or religious figures.
-Meeting deceased relatives. In some cases, meeting deceased people the experiencer did know were dead.
-Coming to a border or a point of no return.
Researchers continue to discover many other commonalities.
Certainly, they continue to argue over what causes NDEs.
Explanations range from the effects of oxygen deprivation to unapologetic assertions that “God talks to the dying.”
But few deny the phenomena exists at all.
I became interested in near-death experience during my research into other altered states of consciousness (like my visit with the Ayahuasca church in Kentucky last year).
“A work in progress.”
Dr. Bruce Greyson stands before a crowded conference room at a plush hotel just outside Philadelphia.
He wears a somber navy blazer, khaki pants, and the kind of thin, wire-framed glasses you expect to find at the end of a clinical researcher’s sharp nose.
“Science is always a work in progress.” He looks up, sweeping his eyes across a room.
An audience of 400 or so leans intently towards the podium.
By the way: if you thought a convention for near death experience drew the ignorant, foolish or uneducated, you’d be dead wrong.
The average person in this room holds a master’s degree or higher. Many of them work professionally in close proximity to death and science—trauma surgeons, ER doctors, hospice nurses.
Greyson likens the relationship of the brain to consciousness to that of a radio to airwaves. If you tune into all the radio stations at once, everything becomes indecipherable.
Like the radio, the brain acts as a filter, a physical piece of hardware that filters consciousness into awareness that is useful for everyday life.
Interestingly, he doesn’t deny that NDEs are the result of the brain malfunctioning near death.
He just thinks there’s more to it than that.
“Classical physics isn’t wrong. It’s just limited.”
So the current prevailing theory among supporters of the idea that near-death experience gives us a glimpse into the afterlife goes something like this.
When the brain dies, they contend, it does, indeed, produce some strange cognitive responses.
It’s not so much that they think mainstream science has it wrong when they say that the malfunctioning brain produces NDEs.
Their argument seems to center around the idea this malfunction reveals something else: an underlying universal consciousness.
Think of it this way. Have you ever seen this famous image?
When you first look at it, most people see a white vase.
Look at it again. Do you see the two faces looking at each other in profile?
So is it a vase, or is it two people looking at each other?
The answer, of course, is that it is both.
Supporters of the universal consciousness theory often use images like this to explain why a physiological explanation and a mystical explanation aren’t mutually exclusive.
They say near death experience results from both a malfunctioning brain, and a revealed universal consciousness.
And while all of this remains highly theoretical by the most rigorous stands, the concept of universal consciousness itself is certainly one that mainstream science continues to ponder seriously.
Without getting into a complex conversation about quantum mechanics, it’s fair at least to say the connection between consciousness and quantum theory is a can of worms that scientists have been kicking around for a long time.
“Classical physics is not wrong,” Greyson tells us. “It’s just limited.”
“We’re not going back to materialism. Because it’s a failed world view.”
New York Times best-selling author Dr. Eben Alexander and I stand awkwardly in a narrow corridor behind the main conference room of the IANDS convention.
Among the most famous medical professional openly supportive of scientific inquiry into NDE phenomena, Dr. Alexander is the busiest man in any room of the IANDS conference.
After the publication of his book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, Dr. Alexander’s public life gained some high-profile traction.
Oprah Winfrey even featured him in an episode of Super Soul Sunday.
In the hallways at the IANDS conference, throngs of adoring fans greet him, thrusting copies of his books towards him for an autograph and sometimes brimming with emotion to thank him for his work in the field.
I conduct my interview with him in this cramped, quiet space because any other setting makes interruption inevitable.
“The physical realm is simply projected from mental.” Dr. Alexander states this firmly, and with conviction.
In this assertion, he is not alone in academia.
Even mainstream publications like Scientific American continue to give proponents of universal consciousness a serious platform for academic inquiry.
But it would be a gross exaggeration to say Dr. Alexander is without opposition.
The idea of near-death experience as evidence of universal consciousness remains at odds with some fierce critics.
Perhaps most notably, the late Oliver Sacks wrote extensive rebuttals critiquing the mystical view of near-death experience.
But for the people who actually claim to have had an NDE (sometimes referred to as “experiencers”), all the clamor among scientists is just background noise.
One woman put it most succinctly: “When you’re in the presence of God, you know it.”
Case Studies and Credibility
The word credibility factors heavily in our perception of near-death experience.
We often react with a knee-jerk response to NDEs.
“They must be crazy.”
Or, “They’re selling something.”
Or, “They just don’t understand what happened to them. How the brain malfunctions during trauma.”
Perhaps worst of all: “She’s a quack.”
The fear of this reaction came up over and over during my interviews.
“Please don’t use my name. I’m a researcher/trauma surgeon/university professor/whatever. I’ll get fired.”
Or, “No one will take me seriously anymore.”
Or, “My family will think I’m crazy.”
Far from the attention-seeking, uneducated or just plain crazy, most of my interview subjects presented in ways that run counter to that narrative.
I’m not saying there aren’t crazy/uneducated/attention-seeking people out there who use the premise of a fabricated NDE to promote self-interest.
But you could say the same thing about cancer.
Just because people fake cancer doesn’t mean cancer isn’t a real thing.
Contrary to this idea that NDEs are either imagined or fabricated, many of my interview subjects are reluctant even to give a voice to their experience, let alone profit from it.
So I focus on experiencers that met the following criteria.
1. They aren’t obviously mentally ill or psychotic.
2. They have little to gain from telling their stories.
3. They are reasonably educated.
Jennifer Catlin, a 42-year-old experiencer, fits this description. She stands out on the younger end of the demographic at the IANDS conference, and I kind of follow her around waiting for a chance to ask her what her deal is.
“I had AFib,” she tells me. Cardiac problems.
One day, she lost consciousness while driving.
She describes crossing over into another realm. “There were colors there that aren’t here. I don’t know how to describe them.”
Catlin appears neither crazy, nor attention-seeking, nor particularly poised to profit from her experience.
She strikes me as someone you’d expect to find at a book club meeting, or standing in line at Starbucks about to order a fluffy latte.
You know, normal. Whatever that is.
A Universal Phenomena
Linju Ann Alias, a near-death experience researcher from India, sits across from me in a stop-sign red and gold sari.
Clearly bright and dedicated, Alias made near-death experience the topic of her dissertation and devoted 3 years to it.
Her interest highlights a deeply compelling aspect of NDEs: They appear universal across cultures, history and geographic location.
“Oh, but in my research, no one reported the tunnel experience.”
She’s talking about the nearly cliche visual motif of a light at the end of a long tunnel that many NDEs feature.
I raise my eyebrow. That is interesting.
We talk about her life in India, her grandmother’s take on spirituality, and an obscure funerary rite in Kakkapattu.
But the most striking chord rings in Alias’ voice as frustration.
She applied for a research grant from Indian government to continue her work. It was denied.
“Why did they deny it?”
She sighs. “They said it was ‘an irrelevant topic.'”
This seems to be a common blockade in research of this nature.
Governments, academic institutions and think tanks aren’t often willing to spend money on the study of NDEs.
But there is also a professional pressure to shut down any line of inquiry on this subject.
Very often, even the most intelligent, capable researchers face ridicule among their colleagues.
No matter how scientific the approach, there’s a woo-woo factor.
Like psychics, paranormal experiences and, well, witchcraft, even proposing a hypothesis outside the materialistic world view is professionally risky.
The Silence of Science
But what is the risk of not asking? Of preventing even the most objective inquiry into NDEs simply because it may imply something contrary from our current model of the universe?
The truth is, no one knows where NDEs come from or how to explain them.
That alone makes them worth investigating.
*Please note: The promoters granted me access to the IANDS Conference . However, this publication made no promises with regard to the nature of the article or opinions presented on this site. All opinions are my own.