Part Two, But Is It Real? Series with Dr. Melvin Morse Better Understanding Consciousness Through Children's NDEs
Sometimes the accounts of near-death experiences themselves contain elements which prove that they are “real," meaning that we can trust the information gained from them.
Eight-year old Jamie Untinen nearly died from a severe brain infection. During the time she was clinically dead, she thought that she floated out of her physical body and met Jesus.
“He was very nice,” she said. She also saw a light which told her “who she was and where she was to go."
I personally resuscitated Jamie Unitinen. She was part of my study of children who survived cardiac arrest, done at Seattle Children’s Hospital under the supervision of the Department of Intensive Care Medicine and the Hospital’s Human Subject Research Review Board. I know that she was clinically dead during the time that she says she was out of her body, visiting Jesus and angels, and meeting “grandpas, grammas and babies waiting to be born."
Jamie was rushed to Valley Medical Center in Renton, Washington by her private physician after she went into a coma in his office. She had a form of bacterial brain infection which should have resulted in death within a few hours of presentation. Instead she lived to draw this picture of her own resuscitation.
She says that she witnessed her resuscitation. She correctly draws Dr. Christopher with his arms flexed and hands in perfect American Heart Association positioning to do cardiac compressions. She draws me with a hat on my head, at the head of the bed. At our hospital, the team leaders wore a hat so they could be quickly identified. She says she floated out of her body, met Jesus and angels, and both grandparents and also babies waiting to be born. She saw a door through which they came and went from heaven.
Our research team interviewed her several months after her cardiac arrest as part of our study of survivors of cardiac arrest in the Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She had not told anyone of her experience. When I asked her why she hadn’t told anyone, she whispered to me, “I didn’t think that you were supposed to be able to talk to God."
How can we believe this story? Jamie comes from a Lutheran family who is not particularly religious. The Jesus that she describes looks more like Santa Claus than the typical Jesus portrayed in the pictures in her household and at her church. Her church and family do not teach reincarnation, nor do they say that there is a door in heaven where babies waiting to be born return to, as can be seen in the bottom right hand corner of the above drawing. Jamie drew me this picture of her cardiac resuscitation and ascension to heaven several months after her successful recovery from clinical death.
By clinical death, I mean that her heart had stopped beating, she was not breathing on her own, and she was in a profound coma which prevented her from seeing or hearing anything through her ordinary senses. Her brain was on the edge of complete cellular death from which there can be no recovery. In the state of clinical death, patients are not dreaming; they have little brain activity, and lack the ability to create complex hallucinations such as those described in the typical near-death experience. Their brain is not functioning at all; it is completely shut down.
It is important to understand the neurology and science of the near-death experience to understand whether or not they are “real." It is often assumed that the near-death experience might be some sort of complex hallucination that occurs to dying patients, perhaps an experience that evolved precisely to ease us into the scary unknown of death.
Physicians such as myself who have resuscitated hundreds of dying patients know differently. We understand that the brain is shutting down to preserve the integrity of its cellular structure. The brain at the end of life tries to conserve energy and oxygenation to its cells. If the near-death experience is a hallucination, then it must involve almost all of various areas of the brain including the visual cortex, hearing cortex, language centers and emotions. This is unlikely to be occurring in an otherwise dysfunctional dying brain.
Our research team at the University of Washington, which included Vernon Neppe of the Department of Neuropsychiatry, Jerry Milstein, head of the Department of Neurology, and Don Tyler, head of the Department of Intensive Care Medicine, reviewed the scientific evidence and determined that either the near death experience is a real event that occurred to dying patients independent of the dysfunctional dying brain, or it was an invention of the mind after the fact of resuscitation. In the next blog, I will discuss our research design and results.
However, for now it is important to understand that the neuroscience of spirituality indicates that either Jamie had her experience at the time of near death, or it was an invention of her mind after the fact. If it occurred at the time of near death, then it cannot be explained by current understandings of brain function and consciousness. In other words, if these experiences occur at the point of death, then consciousness must exist independent of brain function, as the brain is not functioning at the point of death.
There are three important details which document for me that Jamie was fully conscious and witnessed her own resuscitation. First, she draws me wearing a hat at the head of the bed. This is not a detail she could have invented from watching resuscitations on television. Secondly, she draws my partner Dr. Christopher with his arms and hands in perfect position for cardiac compressions. Again, this is a detail it is unlikely that an 8-year old child would invent. Finally, below her bed, she clearly draws the crash cart used for cardiac resuscitation. Again, a seemingly minor detail that has profound significance.
Her dying dysfunctional brain could not have invented these details. Her eyes were taped shut to protect them as she had no blink reflex so she could not have seen any of these details by ordinary means. There simply is no scientific explanation for the above drawing with its accurate details except that her consciousness existed outside of her body during her resuscitation.
She is not the only patient who has provided me with details that prove that their near-death experiences were real. One young girl who nearly drowned told me that she was told in heaven that she had to return to earth to help her mother with a child as yet unborn who had heart disease. She told me this prior to the birth of her brother, who turned out to have heart disease. I had a patient once who laughingly told me that he saw us trying to cardiovert him with paddles only to realize that the machine became unplugged from the wall. In fact that did happen during his ultimately successful resuscitation.
I do understand, however, that these stories are not enough proof for many people including skeptical scientists. I personally witnessed these events. These are patients that I resuscitated and interviewed, so I directly know that the events are true.
However, when these stories are told and retold, and are heard through second and third hand accounts, there is a legitimate concern that the stories might be embellished or even fabricated. In twenty-five years of studying these experiences, I have encountered a handful of fabricated experiences. Usually they are unwitting or unconscious fabrications without an intent to deceive, although that happens as well.
Science begins with observations. That is where we are now in our exploration of the science of the near-death experience. We have credible observations by children of their own resuscitations and of a spiritual existence that awaits us all after death. These do not seem to be inventions of the mind after recovery from near death, but rather contain details which indicate that they occur in the final moments of life, just as the children say that they do.
Next week: We will review the scientific studies of the experiences themselves.
The next step is to develop hypotheses as to the causes of the experiences and design studies to test these hypotheses. We will look at the studies that have done this, beginning in 1968. Dozens of them have been published in the medical and scientific literature including studies from our team at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital.