My last two posts covered the discovery of an electrical surge in the brains of lab rats subjected to cardiac arrest or asphyxiation. The study has been touted as a possible explanation for near-death experiences.
Arguments about the study quickly become technical, as people debate whether the spikes in certain brainwave frequencies (in the context of greatly reduced overall brain activity) could account for the elaborate structure and intense imagery of a full-blown NDE. I'm certainly not competent to weigh in on this question. The argument made by the study's authors is found here; an opposing argument made by an NDE researcher is here.
Another possible weakness of the hypothesis is perhaps more easily tested. In the study, the rats' brains were monitored (using intracranial electrodes) throughout the waking state, anesthesia, and cardiac arrest (or asphyxiation). No surge was recorded during anesthesia. This has led some to argue that the surge cannot be responsible for an NDE, since NDEs do sometimes occur under anesthesia.
In thinking about this, I wondered if we might be mixing apples and oranges. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of NDEs (though there can be considerable overlap). The first kind are what might be called veridical or autoscopic NDEs, and are basically out-of-body experiences in which the person hovers over his physical body and observes what's happening around him. The second kind are transcendent NDEs, in which the person experiences a trip toward (or into) a bright light, reunion with deceased loved ones, a life review, and a decision (made by himself or others) to return to earthly life. Not all of these components are found in the typical transcendent NDE, but normally at least one of them is.
It seems clear that the veridical NDEs (or OBEs) cannot be associated with the electrical surge. Not only do such NDEs and OBEs occur under anesthesia, when there is no surge, but they also occur in other situations where the brain is not in any distress. It is even possible to learn to bring on such OBEs at will.
That leaves the transcendent experience. Could this be tied to the surge? Could the "hyperarousal" of the brain at certain frequencies be enough to produce a vivid, extended hallucination of going into the light, meeting the dead, judging one's life, and returning?
The fairest way to address this question is to see if transcendent experiences have been documented under conditions where the surge would not be a factor – such as anesthesia. After all, we already know from the rat study that anesthetized rats do not exhibit an electrical surge. So, do anesthetized patients report transcendent NDEs, or only autoscopic NDEs/OBEs?
In search of an answer, I looked at three books from my shelf – admittedly only a small fraction of the vast NDE literature.
In Intimations of Immortality, Robert Crookall recounts several cases of anesthetized patients who had what we would now call autoscopic NDEs (though the term "near-death experience" had not been coined when Crookall was writing). None of them recounted a transcendent NDE.
In Crookall's More Astral Projections, in the section titled "Enforced Out-of-the-Body Experiences," Crookall includes more cases of NDEs under anesthesia. Nearly all are autoscopic. In one case, a patient reported, "I found myself proceeding along a straight black tube with hardly room to move," but there was no mention of a bright light or heavenly realm. Another patient found himself "in a dark, windy, cold tunnel [and] could see distant lights," but again the experience went no further.
One transcendent case involved the patient's visit to a brightly glowing room, where he was surrounded by smiling people, including his deceased wife. But this patient's heart stopped on the operating table, so the transcendent NDE could have been associated with cardiac arrest, not anesthesia.
Crookall does, however, list one transcendent NDE under anesthesia that apparently did not involve cardiac arrest. A Mr. Roberts encountered "a phalanx of stalwart figures" who escorted his astral body back into his physical body. These figures told him, "Time's up – go back now." Unfortunately no details of the surgery (or any complications) are reported.
Finally, I looked at Michael B. Sabom’s Recollections of Death. Sabom includes the case of a patient who had an autoscopic NDE/OBE while under anesthesia, and who previously had another autoscopic NDE during cardiac arrest. Neither experience was of the transcendent type, but the patient still reported a clear contrast between the two:
But this [anesthesia NDE] is distinctly different from the time I had a cardiac arrest … In the first experience [cardiac arrest] I died … That's a different feeling. This is more earthly, just like I had two feet planted on the ground … I don't think I died like I did before.
Sabom also includes a section titled "The Transcendental Surgical Experience," which covers nine patients. One of them had a full-blown transcendent NDE, in which he visited a beautiful world and met a spiritual figure (interpreted as Christ) before being told to return. But this man "had required resuscitation from a cardiac arrest at the end of his surgery." So again, the transcendent NDE could be linked to heart failure. Similarly, another patient who had a transcendent NDE during surgery (in this case, an encounter with a bright light) was told by his doctor, "We lost all life signs while you were on the operating table."
I realize not much can be concluded from three books. But it would be interesting to know if transcendent (as opposed to autoscopic) NDEs are largely absent from anesthesia cases. If so, it might suggest that the autoscopic NDE/OBE is a manifestation of latent psi powers (perhaps activated by the shutdown of ordinary consciousness) while the transcendent NDE is linked to the end-of-life electrical surge recorded in rats and in some human subjects.
What's needed is more info. If someone can point me to a case(s) of a transcendental NDE occurring during anesthesia, in the absence of a life-threatening surgical complication, I'd be much obliged. Please note that I'm mainly concerned with well-documented, independently investigated cases; self-reported cases on sites like NDERF, while interesting, are inevitably more open to doubt.