Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Near-Death Experiences

Salon posted an interesting article over the weekend on near-death experiences. The subject has been studied for decades by neuroscientists who claim that the similar features of experiences reported from people all over the world has to do with what we experience when our brains are in the process of shutting down. However, the biggest challenge to this idea remains that some of these accounts have independently verified. The feeling of rising out of the body can be explained by a number of different neurochemical processes, but in a number of cases patients have been able to observe and give accounts of objects that they could not have possibly seen unless their consciousness was indeed elsewhere. An example of this is the case of a woman named Maria, who seemed to leave her body while medics worked to save her life following a heart attack.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

In other cases, patients have awareness of events that happened in their presence during surgeries, but from times when their brains were registering no activity. According to standard neuroscience that should not be possible, as without neural firing the brain should have nothing to process and therefore nothing will be experienced.

This sort of awareness was documented in the case of Pam Reynolds, who underwent surgery in 1991 for a brain aneurysm. This is a particularly noteworthy case, as during the surgery her body was cooled and her blood vessels drained. Not only did her brain register no activity, it also had no blood flow to provide energy to the cells themselves. Nonetheless, she recalled some of the tools present in the operating room and some of the statements made by the surgeons while she was for all intents and purposes temporarily dead.

Pam was brought into the operating room at 7:15 a.m., she was given general anesthesia, and she quickly lost conscious awareness. At this point, Spetzler and his team of more than 20 physicians, nurses, and technicians went to work. They lubricated Pam’s eyes to prevent drying, and taped them shut. They attached EEG electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of her cerebral cortex. They inserted small, molded speakers into her ears and secured them with gauze and tape. The speakers would emit repeated 100-decibel clicks—approximately the noise produced by a speeding express train—eliminating outside sounds and measuring the activity of her brainstem.

At 8:40 a.m., the tray of surgical instruments was uncovered, and Robert Spetzler began cutting through Pam’s skull with a special surgical saw that produced a noise similar to a dental drill. At this moment, Pam later said, she felt herself “pop” out of her body and hover above it, watching as doctors worked on her body.

Although she no longer had use of her eyes and ears, she described her observations in terms of her senses and perceptions. “I thought the way they had my head shaved was very peculiar,” she said. “I expected them to take all of the hair, but they did not.” She also described the Midas Rex bone saw (“The saw thing that I hated the sound of looked like an electric toothbrush and it had a dent in it … ”) and the dental-drill sound it made with considerable accuracy.

So what do these cases mean to us as magical practitioners? To me they imply that some aspect of consciousness can operate without the activity of the brain. Hermeticism, of course, has put forth this contention just about forever, the idea that we possess a "body of light" or spiritual aspect that is in some way related to the nature of consciousness. This may be one of those instances in which science is finally catching up with phenomena that are generally regarded as magical.

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