22 July 2022

Study of Death’s Recalled Experiences

Welcome back. Five years ago, I wrote a blog post, Near-Death Experiences. It was all new to me but based on the literature I reviewed--and there was quite a bit--I concluded: the topic is one I’m no longer inclined to write off entirely as someone’s still active imagination.

Scene from Flatliners, a 1990 horror film in which medical students experiment with near-death experiences (Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts and Oliver Platt, with William Baldwin on the table.) (photo I used in Near-Death Experiences).

Well, it’s not just me. A multidisciplinary team of 18 leading researchers in neurosciences, critical care and resuscitation, psychiatry, psychology, social sciences and humanities examined the scientific evidence to date and published the first-ever, peer-reviewed consensus statement, Guidelines and Standards for the Study of Death and Recalled Experiences of Death. (see P.S. for researchers’ affiliations)

Why the Increased Interest?
First, realize that recalled experiences of death have been reported since antiquity.

Now, add the science. Advances in stem cell research, neuroscience and resuscitation science have enabled insights regarding the human brain in relation to death. Some 98% of people are declared dead by cardiopulmonary criteria. Brain cells, more resilient to the absence of oxygen than once assumed, become irreversibly damaged and “die” over hours to days postmortem.

Resuscitation has restored life to millions after their hearts had stopped. These survivors have consistently described a unique and specific set of cognitive recollections with seemingly universal themes and unexplained lucidity, consciousness, awareness and recall.

The Three-Part Consensus Statement

Part One, the introduction and purpose, notes that barriers to the scientific study of the recalled experience of death (RED) include a lack of an overall research framework, precise definitions and terminology, as well as validated measures to help distinguish REDs from other diverse human experiences.

The document aims to (1) describe current knowledge regarding death, consciousness and the RED, (2) propose an appropriate definition, terminology and research framework for the study of REDs and (3) identify knowledge gaps that will help standardize current research and lay the foundation for future work

Part Two presents a definition and terminology for RED, laying a framework for its study.

Although REDs were originally labeled near-death experiences (NDEs) in the
1970s, the term was not formally defined. Over the years, it has been used to refer to an assortment of unrelated human experiences, often with no relation to death, critical and life-threatening illnesses, or each other.

To distinguish REDs and authentic NDEs from other diverse human experiences, the researchers present a detailed flowchart and propose that death-related experiences include the following six components:

(1) a relation with death (a condition that would lead to death without life-saving interventions)
(2) a sense of transcendence (going beyond normal limits or boundaries)
(3) ineffability (cannot or should not be expressed in words)
(4) positive transformative effects (related to meaning and purpose to life)
(5) a severity of illness that leads to loss of consciousness
(6) the absence of features of other coma-related experiences (e.g., conventional dreams, delirium and delusions in the intensive care unit or elsewhere).

A RED is thus a cognitive and emotional experience during a loss of consciousness related to a life-threatening event. It comprises a specific narrative that can be broken into broad categories of themes (they list 51 with additional subthemes) in the following idealized steps:

Perceived death and separation from the body; Heading to a destination; Reliving a recording of life that is purposeful, meaningful and educational; Being “home” again; Returning back to life; then Reporting the effects.

Separation themes from 51 themes related to recalled experience of death (from nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.14740).

Part Three suggests areas for future research. These include identifying the underlying processes that relate to lucidity, despite the loss of visible signs of consciousness; systematic study into phenomena such as transcendence; and continued investigation into REDs.

Wrap Up
The researchers conclude that while understanding death and what happens when we die remain a mystery, this may now be a mystery that is amenable to unbiased and objective scientific scrutiny.

And I’m even less inclined to write off the topic as someone’s still active imagination. Thanks for stopping by.

Consensus statement on recalled experiences of death in Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences journal: nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nyas.14740
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/948999

Affiliations of study researchers: New York University, Stony Brook Medical Center, Harvard, University of California, Riverside, Medical College of Wisconsin, University of Virginia, Mary Bird Perkins Terrebonne General Medical Cancer Center, New York Medical College, Baylor University, Virginia Commonwealth University and the UK’s University Hospital Southampton and King's College.

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