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

Last But Not Least

This is the 3rd and final overview in my series of reviews of prospective NDE studies. The last study, A qualitative and quantitative study of the incidence, features and aetiology of near death experiences in cardiac arrest survivors, was published in 2001 in Resuscitation. The author was Dr. Sam Parnia, who is very well known to the readers of this blog. This study was in fact the pilot study for the ongoing AWARE study. (pilot studies are small scale studies designed to identify any issues with technique, and also gain an understanding of numbers that would be required to drive a result from a planned larger study)

The study was conducted at Southampton General Hospital over the course of one year. This was another study that exclusively looked to prospectively recruit Cardiac Arrest (CA) survivors. Patients were interviewed within a week of the event, and any memories that were recorded were assessed using the Greyson scale. The investigators also assessed various physiological parameters such as hypoxia, electrolyte disturbances, drugs, as well as psychological factors such as religion.

This study was the first to prospectively deploy the use of “targets” to verify OBEs (i.e. to prove whether or not they are indeed veridical). Cards with images facing the ceiling were placed above the beds in the resuscitation suite. To quote Dr. Parnia on the use of these images:

“If OBEs are indeed veridical, anybody who claimed to have left their body and be near the ceiling during a resuscitation attempt would be expected to identify those targets. If, however, such perceptions are psychological, then one would not expect the targets to be identified”

This statement is problematic, but it is a moot point in this instance, as I shall explain.

The results of the study can be viewed in the abstract below, but to briefly summarize, out of 63 CAs, only 4 (6.3%) subjects had an NDE by the Greyson scale. There was no difference in psychological or physiological factors between those who experienced an NDE and those that didn’t. There were slightly higher levels of oxygen in the blood of those who experienced an NDE, than those that didn’t, but the numbers were too small to form a conclusive causative association. There were no OBEs reported, not just that no one saw the cards, but that no one even reported an OBE.

Once again, we see very small numbers of CA survivors who either experience, or are able to remember, an NDE. This influenced the eventual design of the AWARE study, with the investigators deciding that there would need to be at least 1000 CA survivors to sufficiently power the study and generate enough cases to form statistically significant conclusions about NDEs. Because there were no reported OBEs by any patients, this study did not inform the team as to how they should progress with the targets.

This last point is important, as I point in my book Aware of Aware, the same card based targets were initially deployed in the AWARE study. This is a relatively limited and crude way of verifying OBEs since not all patients report seeing themselves from directly above. There are other issues that I will not belabor here, but I understand that the targets have been refined and become more sophisticated as the AWARE study has progressed.

So this concludes my mini-series of reviews of the 3 main prospective studies that have been published on NDEs. I will discuss the combined findings and implications in another post, but suffice to say, these studies at once lend credibility to the NDE phenomenon and the area of research, but also leave the most important question unanswered, namely, is the NDE proven to be a genuine transcendental experience in which our conscious separates from us, or is it all just happening in our heads. Personally, I believe that the NDE is the former, and therefore it is logical to conclude that it is only a matter of time before a target is identified (the pretext for the book Aware of Aware). Hopefully it won’t be long before we find out if the AWARE study has indeed achieved this goal.


Aim :To carry out a prospective study of cardiac arrest survivors to understand the qualitative features as well as incidence, and possible aetiology of near death experiences (NDEs) in this group of patients. Method : All survivors of cardiac arrests during a 1 year period were interviewed within a week of their arrest, regarding memories of their unconscious period. Reported memories were assessed by the Greyson NDE Scale. The postulated role of physiological, psychological and transcendental factors were studied. Physiological parameters such as oxygen status were extracted from the medical notes. Patients’ religious convictions were documented in the interviews and hidden targets were used to test the transcendental theories on potential out of body claims. Those with memories were compared to those without memories. Results : 11.1% of 63 survivors reported memories. The majority had NDE features. There appeared to be no differences on all physiological measured parameters apart from partial pressure of oxygen during the arrest which was higher in the NDE group. Conclusions : Memories are rare after resuscitation from cardiac arrest. The majority of those that are reported have features of NDE and are pleasant. The occurrence of NDE during cardiac arrest raises questions about the possible relationship between the mind and the brain. Further large-scale studies are needed to understand the aetiology and true significance of NDE.


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