Do you like mysteries? No, not the Agatha Christie type. I’m talking about the types that abound around you, and in the deepest oceans, in outer space; even in your own skin, even on your own skin. Consider itching, for example.
Why do itches start, and why do they stop when you scratch? How do you even know to scratch, much less where? But you do know. You can even place your thumbnail on your back exactly on an itch localized to a single skin pore. No sweat.
And about sweat — how can you perspire the same before a job interview or a first date as you do in a gym? And what tells your body when it’s time to stop eating? Why do you sleep?
When you do sleep, are your free-range kooky dreams really natural states? After all, you can’t impose man-made rules of logic on dreams when you’re asleep. But, if dreams are natural, are your awakened-state thoughts unnatural?
Can your ability to adapt to the craziness of our warp-speed whipsaw-change world be “normal”? Or must you be crazy to function as if “sane”?
And what about the greatest mystery of all: Is there life after death? Do you even die, or do you simply wear out physically, but continue transcendentally?
Theologians say the “fact” that the soul or consciousness lives after the brain dies subtracts from death-anxiety and adds meaning to life. To existential philosophers and non-believers, death is the dead-end that requires us to customize our own existence within whatever time we have, and that gives meaning to life.
To observers, you’re clinically dead when your heart stops beating and your lungs stop breathing. After about three minutes of “clinical” death, your brain begins running out of oxygen, brain cells start dying, and biological death ensues.
But if medical types get the clappers on you chop-chop, they may be able to resuscitate you from clinical death, though not from biological death. Not yet, anyway. So the good news is, getting dead is no longer necessarily an on/off switch toggled to “off.”
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was developed in the 1960s and improved since. Now, about 20 percent of those whose hearts stop are successfully resuscitated. During resuscitation, before biological death, mysterious experiences may occur that might support the notion that consciousness exists apart from the brain. Such mysteries are called “near-death experiences,” or NDEs.
NDEs are not new news. They’re cross-cultural, and scattered written reports of NDEs date to ancient Greece, but there was no systematized way to analyze them. Until 1983.
Then, Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioral sciences, published a 16-point questionnaire to quantify and categorize NDEs. Now, according to Gallup, about 10 million people of the present-day U.S. population have reported an NDE.
Perhaps the strangest thing about these strange reports is their similarity. Folks resuscitated from clinical death frequently tell the same tale: peacefulness and feelings of contentment, detachment from the body or out-of-body sensations, moving through a long dark tunnel and into a bright light.
But nowadays, a healthy skepticism is standard equipment; one can be excused for raising eyebrows about spookiness. Moreover, many scientists say NDEs can be explained away. “Moving through a tunnel,” e.g., might simply be tunnel vision that can occur when eyes are depleted of blood and oxygen, or during extreme fear, both common to dying.
Or it may be that death throes generate an overflow of dimethyltryptamine, the most powerful hallucinogenic drug on the planet, which exists naturally in the body. The explanation tapped most to “explain” NDEs is the “dying brain hypothesis,” that hallucinations are caused by hyperactive brain cells reacting to a brain starving for nourishing blood.
Bottom line: There is no agreed-upon definitive explanation for the mystery of NDEs.
The New York University School of Medicine is one of America’s foremost medical schools, and with a 1.6 percent acceptance rate, one of the most selective. Dr. Sam Parnia directs research into CPR there. Parnia, a British scientist, also directs research on the Human Consciousness Project at the University of Southampton.
Parnia’s the man when it comes to consciousness after death from cardiac arrest. But that’s not his focus. His goals are to improve CPR and to prevent brain injuries while restarting the heart.
Nonetheless, here’s what Dr. Parnia says about NDEs: “It’s a paradox. The fact that you have people who can fully recall something, who appear to have full consciousness, when the brain is shut down, suggests that consciousness may be a separate entity from the brain.”
So what to make of the NDE mystery? Don’t know; but according to Dr. Laurin Bellg, author of “Near Death in the ICU,” most NDEers found death peaceful, “and even look forward to going there again.”
Michael Smith is a Southern Pines resident and writer.