A Texas professor searches for the human soul
“I think death is an illusion. I think death is a really nasty bad lie. I don’t see any truth in the word death at all.”
This is the conclusion of Pam Reynolds, a singer-songwriter. She spits out her defiance softly while recalling her vivid brush with death during an interview for the BBC documentary The Day I Died. Her near-death experience is near-boilerplate: the feelings of euphoria, the separation from the body, the rush through a dark tunnel toward a bright white light, the life review, the encounters with dead loved ones.
Yet Reynolds’ experience is different. In 1991, doctors found a gargantuan aneurysm lodged at the base of her brain. In a last-ditch effort, she submitted to doctors at the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix and a radical surgical procedure where her heart was stopped and her brain was shut down.
Shortly after her recovery, her doctors were baffled when she accurately described her surgery: the saw used to carve up her head, the box of saw bits held in reserve, the urgent conversations between doctors and nurses. Yet such recollections were impossible not only because her eyes were taped shut, her face shrouded and her ears plugged, but because her brain had ceased functioning.
Such bizarre phenomena have long aroused the curiosity of Jan Holden, a professor of counseling at the University of North Texas and president of the International Association of Near Death Studies. Holden says her interest in near-death research was aroused after reading The Great Soul Trial, an account of the estate of an Arizona prospector who disappeared in 1949. State officials opened his safe deposit box and found roughly $200,000 along with a crudely written will that instructed the money be channeled into research to find “some scientific proof of a soul of the human body which leaves at death.”
“It definitely fits my sense of purpose in life,” Holden says. “This [near-death] phenomena and the people who experience them need to be known.” But Holden says funding for such research is hard to come by. In the nearly two decades since she has been exploring near-death phenomena, she has participated in but a handful of research studies. The first was in 1986 at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Illinois, to explore veridical perception, or accurately reporting concurrent facts and activities that would be impossible to perceive while in a near-death state. The study was abandoned after three months.
In another study, published in a 1993 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, Holden explored the process of recalling near-death experiences via hypnosis. Holden says she was approached by a Dallas-Fort Worth resident with $15,000 to use near-death experiences to unearth the cause of a rare disease. “There’s a phase in the near-death experience that a minority of [near-death subjects] report…having access to all knowledge,” she says.
Though Holden refuses to disclose the donor or the disease, she claims she was able to discover specific genetic information by guiding her research subjects via hypnotic regression to this omniscient phase. “My great dream would be to find a donor who wants to fund this research,” she says. Holden says the number of people reporting near-death experiences is increasing substantially as medical advances permit doctors to resuscitate patients ever closer to the point of death.
“The broader scientific-medical community views this kind of research much the way the general public does, based on their individual beliefs about who we are and what is important to us,” says Dr. Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Health System. “Some scientists are very excited about the work that we are doing, and others think it is a waste of time.”
But Greyson and Holden are determined to apply rigorous scientific principles to near-death research. With a $60,000-plus grant from the Bial Foundation, a Portuguese organization dedicated to research into human psychology and spirituality, Holden and Greyson launched a two-year study earlier this year. The study will involve some 60 patients who will have devices surgically implanted into their chests that shock the heart at the onset of cardiac arrest. Such patients make ideal research subjects because surgeons must deliberately stop their heart to test the devices.
Greyson and Holden have installed an upward-facing laptop computer in the operating room ceiling that runs a randomly selected computer animation that can only be seen from a vantage point well above the patient’s body. Patients are interviewed following the procedure to see if they have any recollection.
But some scoff at such research. “We don’t think people are just making this stuff up,” says Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and author of Why People Believe Weird Things. “They are having real experiences. The question under dispute really is what’s the proper scientific explanation for that phenomenon?”
Shermer believes strange near-death phenomena can be explained solely by physiology, such as brain oxygen deprivation and the rush of endorphins (brain chemicals that behave like opiates) that accompanies severe brain stress. “Before you say something is supernatural, make sure we know that it’s not natural,” Shermer insists.
But Holden disputes such pat physiological explanations. “Every hypothesis that has been put forth to try to explain near-death experiences in terms of physical purposes, exceptions have been found,” she says.
Holden concedes this research has special problems when it comes to the rigors of the scientific method. In the field of parapsychology, she says, there is the phenomenon of the sheep-goat effect: Researchers who believe the experiences involve the supernatural (sheep) tend to produce positive results, while skeptics (goats) tend to generate negative results. “Nevertheless, I don’t think that it’s possible for something that does not exist to be found in a research study, especially if it’s done in several locations with consistent findings. My personal belief is that it’s real.” She pauses. “And I’m also open to the possibility that it’s not.”