Dr. Sam Parnia is one of the world’s leading experts on the scientific study of death.
Human Consciousness Project: a 3-year exploration of the biology behind “out-of-body” experiences.
The study, known as AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation), involves the collaboration of 25 major medical centers through Europe, Canada and the U.S. and will examine some 1,500 survivors of cardiac arrest.
This is a paraphrased interview:
What sort of methods will this project use to try and verify people’s claims of “near-death” experience?
Some people who are brought back to life report having consciousness and seeing everything around them from the ceiling.
This hypothesis is easily testable by providing pictures that can only be seen from the ceiling.
How does this project relate to society’s perception of death?
The clinical definition we use is when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working, and as a consequence the brain itself stops working. When doctors shine a light into someone’s pupil, it’s to demonstrate that there is no reflex present. The eye reflex is mediated by the brain stem, and that’s the area that keeps us alive; if that doesn’t work, then that means that the brain itself isn’t working. At that point, I’ll call a nurse into the room so I can certify that this patient is dead. Fifty years ago, people couldn’t survive after that.
How is technology challenging the perception that death is a moment?
Due to lack of blood flow, within five minutes the cells start to damage or change.
After one hour it is not possible to revive a person because of damage to the cells.
What we don’t know though, is what happens with human consciousness during that time.
What was your first interview like with someone who had reported an out-of-body experience?
Eye-opening and very humbling.
I have about 500 or so cases of people that I’ve interviewed since I first started out more than 10 years ago.
There was a cardiologist that I spoke with who said he hasn’t told anyone else about it because he has no explanation for how this patient could have been able to describe in detail what he had said and done. He was so freaked out by it that he just decided not to think about it anymore.
Why do you think there is such resistance to studies like yours?
Because we’re pushing through the boundaries of science, working against assumptions and perceptions that have been fixed.
Now, if you look at the mind, consciousness, and the brain, the assumption that the mind and brain are the same thing is fine for most circumstances, because in 99% of circumstances we can’t separate the mind and brain; they work at the exactly the same time. But then there are certain extreme examples, like when the brain shuts down, that we see that this assumption may no longer seem to hold true.
With our study, for the first time, we have the technology and the means to be able to investigate this. To see what happens at the end for us. Does something continue?