Does consciousness survive the physical death of the body? That is perhaps the fundamental question of human existence, and one which modern orthodox science would answer with a resounding “no”.
But there are numerous tantalising pieces of evidence that suggest that perhaps our consciousness does live on. One of those lines of evidence concerns multiple reports of what is known as ‘veridical perception’ during a near-death experience – cases where someone who was ostensibly dead, reported (after being resuscitated) that they viewed the scene from outside their body, and could confirm certain details about that scene.
The evidence in this area was so significant, in fact, that it inspired a genuine medical study, led by Dr Sam Parnia, to test whether patients who survived a cardiac arrest would report hidden ‘targets’ placed above the patient’s physical vantage point in the resuscitation room.
Undeterred, Sam Parnia used his experience with the AWARE study to mount a subsequent, related research project, named AWARE II. That study is currently underway, with an anticipated end date of September 2020.
But late last year Parnia did give an update on the study to his medical peers, at the conference ‘Resuscitation 2018 – Back to the Future’. His 25 minute presentation, “Conscious Awareness, Mental and Cognitive Experiences During Cardiac Arrest”, has happily found its way online and can be viewed on YouTube (embedded below for your convenience).
The first half of the talk is largely concerned with describing the topic of near-death experiences to an academic and/or medical audience that perhaps isn’t used to seeing presentations on these sorts of topics:
I’m going to talk about something that I think is very important with respect to cardiac arrest resuscitation, but it’s hardly ever spoken about. In fact you may have heard about it more in media coverage than we do in symposia like this. So I’m delighted to be able to present some information on essentially conscious awareness, mental and cognitive experiences during cardiac arrest.
Parnia has always been careful to frame his near-death experience research within the bounds of orthodox medical research, and in the talk he frames the study not just as trying to figure out what these strange experiences are, but also what it might reveal about what’s happening in the brain during resuscitation, and how that might effect post-resuscitation outcomes related to possible brain damage, and also psychopathologies such as depression and PTSD.
He notes that, due to advances in medical science, we now have “a fairly large window of time in which we can bring people back after they’ve essentially reached the threshold of death.” As a result, while some people come back after a long period of time with no problem, “others come back with brain damage”.
But while one side of the research is to understand “the processes that occur after the heart has stopped…the flipside of that is that, whether we like it or not, we are essentially studying what happens to the human mind and consciousness when people have gone beyond the threshold of death.” – that is, the ‘near-death experience’. But, says Parnia, “this is a term that I don’t like to use, but I will because people may have heard about it. It’s inaccurate because the patients that we study have technically gone beyond the threshold of death.”
Parnia then provides some examples to his audience to show that the core features of NDEs are, bizarrely, very similar regardless of age or culture (“while the interpretation might be based upon your cultural background, essentially the core features are similar.”)
For instance, he relates the NDE of a 3-year-old child he interviewed who suffered cardiac arrest and was resuscitated for 25 minutes. “He recalled watching doctors and nurses working on him, and he told his parents that when you die you see a bright lamp, and you are connected to it by a cord.” (Unfortunately, he skips the video of the interview due to time constraints!) He also quotes one NDErs description of the ‘life review’ and ‘judgement’ aspect of the experience: “Then I began a review of my life, of the key moments of my life. But at the same time I was re-experiencing it from the other people’s points of view and that was a stunner because you feel their pain, you feel the sting, you feel the hurt.” He finishes this first half of his presentation by outlining the theories that have been suggested to explain away the NDE, along with their limitations.
In the second half of his presentation Parnia moves on to describing his initial AWARE study, followed by details of the (currently underway) AWARE II.
He begins by noting the problem they faced with the initial study was that most people die from cardiac arrest (84%). All the same, he says, “we did get one or two cases of people who were describing events from their cardiac arrest, which appear to be corresponding to the period when their brain was shut down. Which was really a paradox, we didn’t expect to get that.”
The AWARE results led he and his team to try and understand more about what happens to the brain and consciousness, and also to then develop a new line of research. Thus the AWARE II study was born, with a targeted recruitment of 1500 adult, in-hospital, cardiac arrest patients.
This time however, the study includes explicit monitoring of the brain and oxygen levels of cardiac arrest patients via Cerebral Oximetry and Portable EEG respectrively. “We’re trying to get a marker of how the relationship of brain resuscitation will interact with consciousness as well as survival and neurological outcomes,” Parnia points out. But along with that, they are also monitoring patients’ ability to detect audio-visual sensations during their cardiac arrest:
We have a backpack, we have a team, they are on call with a pager, when a cardiac arrest goes off they take the backpack with them to the scene of cardiac arrest…we have a number of pieces of equipment [including] an iPad or tablet that gives off independent audio-visual stimuli that are transmitted to the patient through a wireless headphone, and we can then look at survivors and see if they can recall any of these stimuli and when they were able to perceive information and how that related to their brain resuscitation quality.
However, when it comes to giving an update on how the study is going so far, Parnia notes that the data so far is “disappointing, in some ways”, because of – once again, like the first AWARE study – “the problem of survival of cardiac arrest”. He runs through the numbers: of 3668 cardiac arrests so far, 2266 of them were out of the working hours of his teams. Of the 1402 patients who had cardiac arrest during working hours, only 371 of them were able to be recruited (that is, they were resuscitated before the team arrived, or the team was not notified of the cardiac arrest, etc.). Of those 371 patient who were ‘recruited’, 200 died during resuscitation, and of the remaining 171, 133 died afterward in hospital. This left just 38 patients, from 3668 cardiac arrests in total, who were able to be interviewed (roughly 10% of the recruited patients, 1% of all cardiac arrests).
However, while Parnia was unable to share results at this time, he did note that from those 38 recruited patients who survived, “what we have identified is that you have an array of experiences – some patients do have a perception of being aware during their cardiac arrest, some have typical mystical type of near death experiences”.
And beyond the near-death experience aspect of the research, Parnia again returned to the possible future medical benefits of the AWARE II study. “Many other lines of research are coming out of this collaboration, including the use of brain oximetry and portable EEG to provide a bi-modal monitoring for cardiac arrest, which is very important to guide our resuscitation efforts in the future to avoid brain injuries and disorders of consciousness.”
The presentation concludes with some questions from the audience – which, it was nice to see, seemed genuinely respectful and interested in the topic.