The subject of NDE is translated in Italian as “Esperienze di premorte”, a pre-death experience. But this translation is incorrect, since it seems to refer to a metaphysical reality, and not to an experience of the psyche.
The experience is presented as inherent to an electroencephalograph showing no brain activity. Normally, when we speak of a flat EEG, we are referring to clinical death or brain death, which is irreversible; but brain death does not correspond exactly to a flat EEG: other information is required in order to reach this conclusion. Italian law (29 December 1993, n. 578) – criteria in a number of countries are on the whole similar - specifies that other data must be provided: muscle reflex response, lack of autonomous respiratory functions, a twenty-minute ECG check, a thirty-minute EEG, repeated twice in the space of six hours, and various other observations carried out over a six-hour period, such as corneal reflex, ciliospinal reflex, etc. only after observing all these criteria can we speak of brain death and irreversible electrical silence.
A flat EEG, then, can continue for some time without signifying death, and it can be reversible, while brain death is an irreversible conclusion.
A flat EEG may occur under deep anaesthetic or during cardiac arrest caused by various factors – an accident, a heart attack, brain surgery. A few seconds (20-30) after the occurrence of cardiac arrest, a flat EEG can be observed; after four minutes brain damage is irreversible. In order to avoid brain damage a procedure known as "hypothermic cardiac arrest" may be carried out; in this case the flow of blood to the brain is obviously provided artificially.
Those who believe in NDE suggest that this occurs during a flat EEG, when the patient is in a state of non-consciousness. It should be noted that the patient describes this event on waking from a coma, and that during the time of returning to consciousness, there is a period of time in which the EEG is no longer flat. NDE occurs during the very last moments of waking from coma. It is common to all who undergo this experience to remember only the dream which ends on waking from coma, and not any previous dreams which took place during sleep (especially REM sleep). Those who believe in the reality of NDE assert that the patient remembers what happened during the flat-EEG period, but this is not conclusively scientifically verifiable.
The phenomenology of NDE
The features listed here do not always occur, but are present in many narrations.
1) A bright light at the end of a tunnel, where the subject sees him/herself physically present.
2) Meeting with relatives, friends, acquaintances, luminous in appearance, with whom the subject communicates verbally or non-verbally. Meeting Jesus, saints, angels, or the divinities of the subject’s own faith.
3) The presence of a very bright light, reassuring and exciting.
4) Seeing one’s own body as though it were a separate entity, on the operation table, with the doctors carrying out their tasks. Floating around the hospital, or flying. Finding oneself in beautiful, luminous landscapes.
5) Drawing an ethical balance-sheet of one’s whole existence, including forgotten episodes or events referring to the moments immediately after birth. (These are influenced by the stories narrated by family members.)
6) The subjects go forward towards place of happiness, but then have to return, after having glimpsed Paradise. But there are also terrifying experiences, like nightmares. (I myself heard a woman, questioned by a doctor when she came out of a coma, describe how she saw herself head down in a dark well. the doctor was considerably embarrassed, very probably because he had been influenced by the relative literature which describes only the wonders and the peace experienced during NDE).
1) A first observation is that the experiences narrated bring into play the beliefs of the subject and those of the doctors asking the questions. Since these narratives are all we can have – in the absence of any technology able to record the event – we need to use very great care in evaluating them.
The case of the singer Pam Reynolds (age 35, operated on for a huge aneurism in the brain in 1991), made widely known through the book “Light and Death, 1998” by Michael Sabom, a cardiologist from Atlanta and an Evangelical Christian. He put forward four things perceived by Ms Reynolds while under general anaesthetic (the sound of the drill, the saw which removed a part of the skull, some words spoken by the cardiologist who said that one of her arteries was too small for the cardiac bypass tube, and a few notes of the song “Hotel California”). These four perceptions corresponded to reality. Gerald M. Woerlee, an expert in anaesthesia, pointed out, however, on examining the clinical documentation (the stages of the operation carried out under “hypothermic cardiac arrest”, the medication used and the anaesthetics and relative dosage), that the patient, during a few moments in the course of the operation, was in a state of “anaesthetic awareness”, which Michael Sabom had presupposed was not so. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Pam_Reynolds_case). Ms Reynolds was able to flesh out her narrative because Dr. Michael Sabom interviewed her three years after the occurrence.
2) A second observation is that all the narratives clearly reflect the cultural circumstances of the subject. Research by Karl Osis and Erlendur Haraldsson published in “At the Hour of Death”, ed. Hastings House, USA, 1986, showed that NDE was clearly influenced by cultural circumstances. The work of these two doctors was very detailed and developed from comparing the NDE narratives of 442 persons living in the U.S. with those of 435 persons living in India.
The authors found that Hindus refer to their divinities, while the American Christians refer to Jesus Christ and the saints. Meetings with family members vary: in 25% of cases, Americans meet their mothers, while for Hindus the figure is 9%. 20,6% of the Americans questioned met their wives, while in India the figure was 5,6%. The father, in India, is encountered in 9% of cases; in America 6,3%. Meetings with brothers and sisters occur in India in 8,4% of the cases examined; in America the figure is 11,3%. In India meetings with the subject’s children occur in 9,6% of cases, in America 11,3%. Where friends are concerned, the figure is 4,5% in India and l’8,8% in America. Relatives: in India 19,7%, in America 6,7%. Non-relatives: 34% in India, in America 10,4%.
These scrupulous observations demonstrate that the subject’s beliefs come into play here. If NDE really were a glimpse of the afterlife, the subject’s cultural background would not have any influence and there would be a shared vision. Instead, the subject brings into play all his/her psychological and cultural baggage.
The images of a tunnel come from a very common cultural stereotype: finding oneself in a tunnel and longing for the light is a common expression of a state of stress.
Being in a dangerous situation easily generates a desire to escape to a happier situation. In other cases the danger overcomes the subject; in still other cases nothing particular happens.
3) A third observation is that not all those emerging from a flat-EEG state have seen or experienced something, or at least something notable, which should not be the case.
The most recent study (published in “Resuscitation”, October 2014) was carried out by the University of Southampton, U.K. Out of 2060 cases of cardiac arrest (in British, American and Austrian hospitals), 330 people survived, and only 140 of these subjects experienced what is called NDE. Their reports were not all the same. One in five reported an unusual sense of peace. A third of the subjects felt that the time was very long, or that everything happened very quickly. Some of them spoke of a very bright light, others reported feeling fear, or a sense of drowning. (The absence of these cases of fear in the literature has been interpreted by Antonio Socci “Tornati dall'Aldilà”, Rizzoli, 2014, as having been concealed by the subjects concerned, but this explanation, which does not explain the reason for their silence, contradicts their evident need for reassurance).
13% of the subjects felt themselves to be separate from their bodies and very wide awake.
Such situations can be explained by normal neurophysiologic processes. Seeing one’s own body as something separate is a phenomenon known as “psychosomatic depersonalisation”, a pathological event which may well occur when coming out of a state of coma, when the brain has been under severe stress and producing endomorphines to deal with it. A part is doubtless played in NDE by Ketamine (anaesthetic), which when used in small doses causes similar experiences in non-pathological subjects.
Seeing a team of doctors working on one’s body while one is separated from it is a very likely mental image of the operating theatre, especially when one has been taken into the theatre still awake and not under general anaesthetic, which was the case with Pam Reynolds. It should be borne in mind that the subject is well aware of his or her clinical situation, having been required to give written consent for the operation. Flying, or being in bright surroundings or even sitting on brilliantly-lit clouds, are all common in dreams. The case of a four-year old American child, Colton Burpo, is typical: after a flat-EEG coma he spoke of seeing Jesus, angels, and God sitting behind a desk, and his little sister who had never been born (this last can be explained by the fact that he had heard his family speak of her and by his desire to see her in heaven).
It is well documented (odorisuonicolori.it/book/export/html/2) that those who are born blind normally have dreams without colour, but it is also possible that they dream in colour without being able to describe the experience, since they have no knowledge of colour except what has been described by others. It should therefore come as no surprise when a blind person speaks of seeing colours during NDE, without being able to say what colours they were.
As regards the description of things not seen, such as a painting which is hidden, it must be noted that these things have been mentioned in the total absence of scientific procedures. It is obvious that there is no natural explanation for this, other than saying that the subject guessed a painting previously seen.
The question of the paranormal comes up against considerable problems nowadays, since the commonly-held theory that we only make use of 10% of our brains, leaving plenty of space available for paranormal abilities, has been debunked (see the proof put forward by neuro-scientist Barry Beyerstein: wikipedia.org/wiki/Sfruttamento_del_10%25_del_cervello). Radio-aesthesia has also been debunked, in an early scientific study conducted by Hans Dieter Betz between1987 and 1988 and by other scientists. A more recent study employing very rigorous methodology (2004) was conducted at Kassel, in Germany, by GWUP: “Gesellschaft zur Wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften, the Society for the scientific investigation of pseudoscience”, and this killed many myths. (wikipedia.org/wiki/Sfruttamento_del_10%25_del_cervello).
A believer, when evaluating cases of NDE, cannot exclude the intervention of the devil during the final stage of recovering from a state of coma. The devil, as theology tells us, is able to induce dreams or visions.
Those who support the belief that NDE really does take those who experience it up to, and sometimes beyond, the borders of the next world must, of necessity, before returning to this world, connect with dualistic conceptions of body and soul, joined together by chance and not forming the sole unit ‘man’. They should refer to the doctrine on spiritualism set out by Allan Kardec (1804 - 1869) and previously outlined by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688 - 1772). Spiritualism today appears in a more moderate guise, motivated by affection towards departed loved ones, and not from a wish to seek answers. And believers in spiritualism must also accept belief in reincarnation.
One example of this link to spiritualism is given by Carl Gustav Jung, who in 1944 had a heart attack, with an experience which he interpreted as NDE. Jung’s cultural background included experiences of séances (he was present at, and took part in, those conducted by his cousin Helly Preiswerk), and the acceptance of reincarnation and an interest in the paranormal. This NDE experience was very vivid, but did not transcend his real state of belonging to mankind and living on earth. His words describing this experience are closely connected to his concept that the individual conscience of each person springs from a collective unconscious, which is seen as a universal psychic container. The only truth in this concept is the truth: that is, that all men are men; but men develop according to their contact with reality and not from a collective unconscious which links them all, and which Jung presents as being present in every person’s development: the archaic development of historic humanity, still present today; present-day socio-cultural values, and the superior sphere, that of potentiality and future goals. In his autobiography he stated that what comes after death is so indescribably splendid that our senses cannot conceive it even remotely, and that the dissolution of our temporary body into eternity is not a loss of significance but rather makes us all part of one body. Jung merely described his own vision of future eternity. Inevitably, he supported the out-of-body experiences which mediums described, but which keep a connection – a fluid bridge – with the body, around which there is imagined an occult anatomy which however does not exist and which is closely connected to pantheist conceptions of the divine (gris-imola.it/new_age/foto_Kirlian.php) and (gris-imola.it/new_age/varienergie.php). This occult anatomy may be imagined as a shell encasing the physical body and connected to it at various levels of material fineness (perispirit or ethereal body which is most directly connected to the material body, an astral body which is the seat of emotions, a mental body responsible for the formation of thought, a spiritual body – the soul – which is the counterpart of the perispirit or ethereal body). Mediums are not yet free to enter the other world because they remain connected to the perispirit which keeps the body alive. Here we can understand how the term ‘pre-death experience’ is compatible with spiritualist ideas, an independent conscious activity connected to the brain’s functions, that is, to an EEG which is flat but nevertheless alive.
It is amazing that Christian authors such as Michael Sabom, Francois Brune, and Albert J. Hebert S.M, uphold the belief that NDE is really a pre-death experience, without comprehending the very grave philosophical and theological implications involved. They cannot be justified because their intention is to affirm the existence of the next world and of the soul.
Man is not a dual being (soul and body), but a single unit comprising a soul and a body. Duality belongs to the theory of reincarnation, in which Plato too believed. In the Bible Man does not see himself as a soul inside an interchangeable body; he perceives his body immediately and knows that this is his body. This means that his parents are his parents and not a means of transport to other bodies. Reincarnation makes one’s father and mother relative, because there were others before them. Procreation too is relative because being in the flesh is seen as a punishment, hence the extreme ideas of the various Gnostics, which had already begun in St. Paul’s time and which viewed the body and consequently marriage too as something evil (see 1 Timothy 4,3), an evil deriving from an evil Origin, whereas the spirit was believed to derive from a good Origin. It is impossible to introduce reincarnation into the Bible, since the resurrection of the dead from their graves makes it unthinkable (the resurrection of the flesh says the Creed, making it clear that we are not talking about a mystic resurrection without the body. The word flesh in the Bible means the whole body: see Galatians 2,20; 2 Corinthians 4,11; Ephesians 5,29).
And indeed, were reincarnation possible, which body would then be resurrected? The first or the last, seeing that they would all have belonged to the same person?
The Gospel According to St. John (9,2-3)
In chapter 9, verses 2-3, St. John’s Gospel rejects reincarnation outright: “‹Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?›. Jesus answered: ‹Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents›”.
The disciples, faced with this episode, found themselves in difficulty: the theology they had listened to in the synagogue told them that evil is a result of sin, but this episode contradicts the idea that the man born blind had sinned. Therefore, on the basis of certain passages from the Bible (Exodus 20,5; 34,7; Numbers 14,18; Deuteronomy 5,9; Jeremiah 32,18) they could only conclude that the man’s parents must have sinned. These passages say that the iniquity of the fathers will be visited on the children, but the significance of these words is that the descendants of a man who had broken his alliance with God, could not hope to receive the blessing of God; it does not mean that punishment was inescapable, since a son could reject his father’s influence, as we can read in the Book of Ezekiel (18,1 et seq), which confirms the existence of personal responsibility. Some rabbis affirmed that even an embryo could sin, referring to the struggle between Jacob and Esau in their mother’s womb (Genesis 25,22), but this was an untenable conjecture and probably unknown to Jesus’ disciples. They were clearly in difficulty when faced with a case which seemed to leave the door open to the doctrine of reincarnation, known and refuted in Israel. Jesus’ answer frees the disciples from their problem and ensures that they do not cast moral aspersions upon the parents of the man born blind, since the misfortunes of children may have very distant roots. At this time people had no notions of genetics, but they all understood very clearly that the observance of the Law and the moral behaviour of a people would guarantee the beauty of their descendants (Psalm 127/128,3; 143/144,12).
The Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews (9,27)
The Epistle to the Hebrews can be immediately understood (9,27): “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgement”.
The First Epistle of St. Paul to the Thessalonians (5,23)
In Paul’s first Epistle to the Thessalonians we read (5,23): “And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly, and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Spirit and soul: this does not mean that in Man there are two souls. By spirit Paul meant the intellectual powers and the will of the soul, that is to say, the highest aspect of the soul, which is one only and is not divided into parts, but into powers and is the substantial form of the body. St Paul also contradicts Platonic and Stoic body-soul dualism, saying that the body will once more be, that is, will really be resurrected when the Lord comes. The body has its physiological being, but without the soul it is dead.
What the Councils have said
The Council of Vienne 6,51312 approved by Pope Clement V: “We hold erroneous and contrary to the truth of the Catholic faith every doctrine or argument which suggests openly or by means of instilling doubt that the substance of the rational or intellectual soul is not truly in itself the form of the human body; and we define, so that all may comprehend the truth of the pure faith and so that the way to error may be barred, that whoever, in the future, may dare to affirm, defend, or support the view that the rational or intellectual soul is not truly in itself the form of the human body, must be judged a heretic”. Denzinger n° 902.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church n° 365 states, against any concept of the duality of Man, “The union of the soul and the body is so deep that the soul must be considered the formo f the body; this means that by the grace of the spiritual soul the body composed of matter is a human and living body; spirit and matter, in Man, are not two conjoined natures; their union forms one nature”.
The Council of Constantinople IV, 28.2.870, can. 10, Denzinger n° 657-658 stated: “Although the Old and New Testaments teach us that Man has only one reasoning intelligent soul, as do all our fathers and teachers who have received from God this judgement and have spoken of it, there are nonetheless some who hold that Man has two souls, and they reinforce their heresy by means of illogical arguments; therefore this Council declares loudly anathema to the authors of such impiety and to those who listen to them, and to any who in future tolerate this heresy, be anathema to them”.
The Words of Philosophy
A way to reach the spiritual soul by means of the path of philosophy is possible, and it has been coherently followed. Thus the existence of the spiritual soul, the substantial form of the body, is upheld not only by faith but also by reason. (See e.g. Sofia Vanni Rovigli “Elementi di filosofia” vol. III ed. La Scuola, Brescia, pag. 157-184; St. Thomas Aquinas “Summa teologica”: I, quest. 75, 76, 77, 78.
And finally, the exact moment in which the soul separates from the body cannot be measured by any instrument. We can only recognise imminent death or death itself. (See Pope John Paul II at the Eighteenth International Congress of the Transplantation Society, 29 August 2000).