(This reprint slightly revised)

B. Stett

(Investigator #6, 1989 May)

Dr. Peter Fenwick, a clinical neurophysiologist, is an expert in brain function. In the television science program QUANTUM (August 3 1988) he discussed whether consciousness is merely a function of the brain or whether it is something wider. The program presented a series of interviews with people who believed they had left their body while they were temporarily clinically dead.

The first interviewee, a man who had "died" on two occasions, said: "Suddenly I seemed to take off and float to the corner of the room. I looked back from the corner of the room and there was my own body immediately below me."

Barbara Lambert, age 37, described herself floating near the ceiling and looking back at herself in bed: "I was out of my body." Next she described going through a dark tunnel and entering a "country garden" where people recognized her. It seemed very real: "It wasn't a dream. It actually physically happened."

Retired nurse Jean Williams "died" on July 9 1969. Her husband was told to come back the next day to get the death certificate. Mrs Williams explained: "I seemed to leave my body. I floated to the clock on the wall in the ward. It wasn't like a dream at all." In this position she could hear the doctor and nurse talking. Next she too entered a tunnel and found herself in a garden where she met her dead father.

Peter Fenwick explained that anaesthetic gases and opiates could produce mystical experiences. But such experiences are confused and random whereas out-of-body experiences are detailed and specific. Some people report seeing Jesus or Heaven during the out-of-body experience. What may have happened in such cases is that the brain reconstructed images seen in church or books. People in Eastern religions, who have near death experiences, meet their own heavenly beings. When the part of the brain known as the limbic system is stimulated it produces feelings of ecstasy. The limbic system is sensitive to lack of oxygen which people near death do lack. Therefore, suggested Fenwick, the beautiful sights and feelings during out of body experiences could be an effect of the limbic system.

Conventional explanations, then, are based on hallucinations and alterations to brain function. Conventional explanations, however, would be challenged if, during the out-of-body experience, the person picked up information that was not in his brain prior to his losing consciousness.

Dr. Fenwick then introduced cardiologist Michael Sabom author of Recollections of Death (1982). Sabom has taped 100 interviews with people who have had out-of-body experiences mostly after heart attacks. Then Sabom looked up hospital files with the de¬tails of how the persons had been resuscitated. Sabom concluded: "There was a high degree of accuracy between what they said they saw and what actually occurred." "Many of the people were able to give me specific and unique events that were happening that were out of their physical visual field of view." "I've looked to the traditional explanations for this and they don't explain how these people were able to explain these things." "I'm left with the possibility that ... they looked at it from a position separate from their physical body."

Let's leave Quantum now and try to give a common-sense explanation to these extraordinary reports. If the human mind could really leave the body and gain new knowledge while absent from the body then science will have to reinterpret its understanding of the nature of human consciousness. We would also have evidence for life after death, for God, and for many other religious and supernatural phenomena. Possibly for ghosts, reincarnation, astral projection, etc. In that case much of the philosophical debate of the past few centuries which is counter to such beliefs can be scrapped. The skeptical and — I believe — rational alternative is to first investigate alternative explanations for the out of body experience. We should accept reports of out-of-body experiences at face value only after all possible alternative explanations fail.

One problem is that there is no certainty that persons who have allegedly left their body were dead at the time. There might be no EEG and no response to any stimuli. An unconscious person might be attached to machines that keep him ventilating and nourished. And he appears dead. Said one physician: "They've kept somebody running as a vegetable for four months with a flat EEG, and after four months they spontaneously woke up and they went about the business of living." (Elder 1987 p.58)

The same reference goes on to tell of a woman in the Intensive Care Unit. The doctors went through every test and finally gave up and declared her clinically dead. Later a nurse who was wrapping the "dead" woman in a sheet screamed when the "dead" woman sat up.

This particular "dead" person did not however have an "out of body" experience.

Skeptics would view consciousness as being associated with the nervous system including the brain. Brains don't leave the body and fly around hospital wards.

Near Death experiences are not the only cases where unconscious people recall things that occurred while they were apparently unconscious.

Clare Dover (1986) reported:

Women who go into hospital to have a baby by Caesarian section expect to drift off to sleep under anaesthetic and wake up after painless delivery.

They do not expect to lie there paralysed, but mentally alert, and forced to endure the excruciating pain of the obstetrician's scalpel, unable to call for more anaesthetic...

Now, following the action by Mrs Margaret Ackers who won more than ₤13,000 ($A26,000) compensation from Wigan Health Authority in the first case of its kind last summer, more women are pressing for their own cases to come to court.

The report states that 40 women had come forward. One described the incision to deliver the baby as feeling like a "red-hot poker" :

"The anaesthetist said: 'You are going to sleep now and when you wake up you are going to have a nice new baby.'

"I remember having the injection and experiencing a sinking feeling. Then I felt this terrible pain. As I lay there in pain, unable to move and let anyone know, I heard a woman's voice say: 'It's a girl. Hello Rebecca.' Then I passed out..."

Whether patients who remember things that happened while under anaesthetic is analogous to people who remember things that happened during a near-death-experience may be debatable. One difference is that the former don't recall leaving their body and floating around.

"Near death experiences" might be connected to combinations of the following:
(1) Dreams
(2) "Unconscious" person is not fully unconscious
(3) Oxygen-lack stimulates limbic system
(4) Patient's semi-conscious mind converts spoken words of doctors and/or other sensations to images
(5) Influence of past or recent religious feelings.

Dover, C. Caesarian nightmares no dreams, The Advertiser, March 4, 1986, p. 40

Elder, B. 1987 And When I Die, Will I Be Dead? Australia

Sabom, M.B. 1982 Recollections of Death, Corgi Books Britain