Evolving news on the science, writing and thinking about Near Death Experiences (NDEs)

Setting the Scene

While we wait for the official publication of the AWARE study in a peer reviewed medical journal, I thought it would be interesting to visit some of the previous research in this area. Over the next few weeks I will be commenting on the main prospective studies which were previously published in mainstream medical literature (as characterized by their searchability on PubMed), this would not include studies published in the Journal of Near Death Studies. I subscribe to this journal, so I do not mean to belittle it, however, at this stage I feel that referring to journals accepted by the academic establishment makes these articles more credible to those who are visiting this site who are not “believers”.

The first paper that I am going to comment on is Incidence and correlates of near-death experiences in a cardiac care unit by Bruce Greyson M.D. This was published in General Hospital Psychiatry in 2003. Here is the abstract:

Near-death experiences, unusual experiences during a close brush with death, may precipitate pervasive attitudinal and behavior changes. The incidence and psychological correlates of such experiences, and their association with proximity to death, are unclear. We conducted a 30-month survey to identify near-death experiences in a tertiary care center cardiac inpatient service. In a consecutive sample of 1595 patients admitted to the cardiac inpatient service (mean age 63 years, 61% male), of whom 7% were admitted with cardiac arrest, patients who described near-death experiences were matched with comparison patients on diagnosis, gender, and age. Near-death experiences were reported by 10% of patients with cardiac arrest and 1% of other cardiac patients (P<.001). Near-death experiencers were younger than other patients (P=.001), were more likely to have lost consciousness (P<.001) and to report prior purportedly paranormal experiences (P=.009), and had greater approach-oriented death acceptance (P=.01). Near-death experiencers and comparison patients did not differ in sociodemographic variables, social support, quality of life, acceptance of their illness, cognitive function, capacity for physical activities, degree of cardiac dysfunction, objective proximity to death, or coronary prognosis.

Greyson is one of the most widely published researchers on NDEs in the established literature with a host of citations to his name. He is also the creator of the Greyson NDE scale, an interview tool used by researchers to establish whether the experience is an NDE or otherwise (if the subject scores greater than 5-7, then the experience is classified as an NDE). In other words Greyson is NDE royalty, along with the likes of Raymond Moddy, Michael Sobom, Kenneth Ring and relative newcomers like Sam Parnia.

This study was prospective, which means that it was set up in advance of the events recorded in it, with clearly established protocols designed to capture various data around the phenomenon. Subjects were included in this study if they had been admitted to the University of Virgina Hospital with a number of possible different cardiac outcomes. Once the patients had stabilized (within 6 days) they were asked to complete a questionnaire which identified various baseline (pre-existing) characteristics such as sociodemographic factors (income, social isolation etc) and severity of cardiac incident among others. They were also asked to complete the Greyson scale questionnaire, and if they had a score higher than 7 they were assigned to the experiencer group.

The aspect of this study that differentiates it from others is the use of matched controls. Matched controls are basically a way of trying to identify what variables (changeable characteristics such as belief) might contribute to a phenomenon when key characteristics are fixed. In this study they “matched” the subjects who experienced NDEs with subjects who didn’t experience NDEs but had similar age, gender and primary diagnosis. They took the NDEers and the matched controls and conducted more in depth interviews identifying such things as prior paranormal experiences. By doing this it is possible to identify factors that are associated with someone having an NDE. They also compared characteristics of the NDEer group to the wider, unmatched, cohort who did not experience an NDE.

I won’t repeat the results that are presented in the abstract above, but rather highlight a few interesting findings and comment on some of the conclusions.

• NDEs were most common in those who had survived a cardiac arrest (10%), compared to 2% of the entire cardiac event cohort. This makes this a landmark study because it is the first to show that NDEs are associated with the patient actually being close to death.
• The mean Greyson score for the NDE group (27 patients in total) was 12.7. This compared to 21 of the 23 matched controls achieving a score of 0, and 2 of the controls who scored 1. This finding extends to the wider non-experiencer population, 96% of whom scored 0 and the remainder who scored less than 5. This has clear implications in that there is no grey area here (which might be the case if this was a purely physiological effect). You either have an NDE or you don’t.
• NDEers reported more prior paranormal experiences than the matched controls. Greyson makes the following remark “Experiencers in this study did in fact report more prior purportedly paranormal experiences than did non-experiencers. That difference may suggest that persons who believe they had a paranormal experience are more likely to report NDEs; or it may suggest that persons who have NDEs are more likely to interpret past experiences as paranormal.”

There is of course another potential explanation for this last observation that Greyson does not include. People who have NDEs report more prior paranormal experiences because they are more “spiritual” i.e. there is something about them that makes them more likely to have paranormal experiences AND NDEs.

This last notion, a predisposition towards spirituality, is something I discuss in much greater length in my book Aware Of Aware. One explanation could be that there is a genetic predisposition to being spiritually sensitive (the God Gene). Another explanation is that some people do not have a spirit (they either weren’t born with one, or they spiritually died). This may seem abhorrent, but if the NDE is real, and therefore the conscious (spirit) is real and independent of the body, then one perfectly valid interpretation of the data from NDE studies is that only 10% of people have a spirit.

Greyson addresses this very question in his study, speculating that the reasons that only 10% of subjects report an NDE is because they either couldn’t remember it or didn’t want to disclose. This may indeed be the case, and they are less troublesome explanations, but as disturbing as it might be, to exclude the possibility that there are two types of people, one with a spirit and one without, with no evidence one way or the other, is unscientific.

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