MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR, News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
: the tunnel, the white light, the encounter with long-dead relatives looking very much alive. Scientists have cast a skeptical eye on those accounts. But now, some researchers are taking a close, neurological look at near-death experiences.
: Can your mind still operate when your brain has shut down?
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: I met Pam Reynolds in her tour bus. She's a big deal in the music world. Her company, Southern Tracks, has recorded music by everyone from Springsteen to Pearl Jam to REM. But you've probably never heard her favorite song.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
U: (Singing) Saw my kin, felt the breath of God.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Reynolds wrote the song about the time she traveled to death's door and back. The experience has made her, well, a rock star in the near-death world. Reynolds' journey began one hot, August day in 1991.
NORRIS: I was in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with my husband. We were promoting a new record, and I inexplicably forgot how to talk. I've got a big mouth. I never forget how to talk.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: An MRI revealed an aneurysm on her brain stem. It was already leaking, a ticking time bomb. Her doctor said her best hope was a young brain surgeon in Arizona named Robert Spetzler.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: The aneurysm was very large. And it was in a location where the only way to really give her the very best odds of fixing it required what we call cardiac standstill.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: It was a daring operation: chilling her body, draining the blood out of her head like oil from a car engine, snipping the aneurysm, and then bringing her back from the edge of death.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: She is as deeply comatose as you can possibly be and still be alive.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: When the operation began, the surgeons taped shut her eyes and put molded speakers in her ears that made clicking sounds as loud as a jet plane going off. These ear speakers allowed the surgeons to measure her brain activity and let them know when they could drain her blood.
NORRIS: And I was lying there on the gurney minding my own business, seriously unconscious, when I started to hear a noise. It was a natural D.
(SOUNDBITE OF A DRILL)
NORRIS: And now, as the sound continued, I don't know how to explain this other than to go ahead and say, I popped out of the top of my head.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: She found herself looking down at the operating table. She says she could see 20 people and hear what sounded like a dentist's drill. She looked at the instrument in the surgeon's hand.
NORRIS: It was an odd-looking thing. It looked like the handle on my electric toothbrush.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Reynolds observed the bone saw they used to cut open her head, the drill bits, and the case, which looked like the one where her father kept his socket wrenches. Then she noticed a surgeon at her left groin.
NORRIS: I heard a female voice say, her arteries are too small. And Dr. Spetzler, I think it was him, said, use the other side.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Soon after, the surgeons began to lower her body temperature to 60 degrees. It was about that time that Reynolds believes she noticed a tunnel and a bright light. She eventually flatlined completely, and the surgeons drained the blood out of her head.
During her near-death experience, she says she chatted with her dead grandmother and uncle, who escorted her back to the operating table. She says as they looked down on her body, she could hear the Eagles song "Hotel California" playing in the O.R. as the doctors restarted her heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOTEL CALIFORNIA")
BRADLEY HAGERTY: (Singing) Relax, said the nightman, we are programmed to receive.
NORRIS: The line was, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. And I opened my eyes and I said, you know, that is really insensitive.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Afterwards, Reynolds assumed she had been hallucinating. But a year later, she mentioned the details to her neurosurgeon. Dr. Spetzler says her account matched his memory.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: From a scientific perspective, I have absolutely no explanation of how it could have happened.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Spetzler didn't check out all the details, but Michael Sabom did. He's a cardiologist in Atlanta who was researching near-death experiences.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: With Pam's permission, they sent me her records from the surgery. And long story short, what she said happened to her is actually what Spetzler did with her out there in Arizona.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: According to the records, there were 20 doctors in the room. There was a conversation about the veins in her left leg. She was defibrillated twice. They were playing "Hotel California." How about that bone saw? Sabom got a photo from the manufacturer. It does look like an electric toothbrush. Sabom asks, how could she know these things?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Even if she was wide awake, she could not have heard because of what they did to her ears. In addition, both of her eyes were taped shut, so she couldn't open her eyes and see what was going on. So her physical sensory perception was off the table.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: That is preposterous, says anesthesiologist Gerald Woerlee.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: This report provides absolutely no evidence for survival of any sort of consciousness outside the body during near-death experiences - or any other such experiences.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Woerlee is an Australian researcher and near-death experience debunker who's investigated Reynolds' case. He believes she was conscious and could hear everything in the room, despite the clicking ear plugs.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: There are various explanations. One is that the earphones or plugs were not that tightly fitting. Two, it could have been that it was due to sound transmission through the operating table itself.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: As for seeing the bone saw, Woerlee says she recognized a sound from her childhood.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: So she made a picture in her mind of a machine or a device which was very similar to what she was familiar with, a dental drill.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Woerlee says Reynolds experienced anesthesia awareness, when a person is conscious but can't move. Now, that doesn't convince Sabom or Dr. Spetzler. They believe the combination of anesthesia, and the sluggish brain activity caused by hypothermia, meant that Reynolds could not form or retain memories for a significant part of the operation. At the very least, Sabom says, Pam Reynolds' story raises the possibility that consciousness can function even when the brain is offline.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Is there some type of awareness that occurs with a nonfunctional, physical brain? And if there is, then does that mean that there's a soul or a spirit?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: But in the end, her story is just an anecdote. And in fact, that's the problem with all the studies of near-death experiences. After all, you can't do clinical trials where you kill Mrs. Smith, tag along as she passes through the tunnel to the light, just to verify her story - except in Hollywood, of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FLATLINERS")
NORRIS: (As Randy Steckle) Don't do anymore. I did not come to medical school to murder my classmates no matter how deranged they might be.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: In the movie "Flatliners," five medical students try to peer into the next world by stopping their hearts and returning to tell the tale. The movie inspired Mario Beauregard, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal.
What if he could do the next best thing? Since stopping people's hearts is a research no-no, he is asking people who have had near-death experiences to relive them, while he looks to see what's happening in their head.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: It seems that these people have a different kind of brain.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Beauregard recruited 15 people who had a near-death experience. One of those was Gilles Bedard, who says he saw, quote, 12 beams of light, when he nearly died in 1973.
NORRIS: And I felt it was like, I would say the breath of the universe. And because it was like...
(SOUNDBITE OF BLOWING)
NORRIS: ...very, very peaceful.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Since then, Bedard has meditated every day and says he often reconnects with the light. The research question is: How will his brain respond when he does?
BRADLEY HAGERTY: So we have 32 electrodes...
BRADLEY HAGERTY: For the experiment, Bedard is shut into an isolation chamber at Beauregard's Montreal lab. Bedard's head sprouts 32 electrodes, which will record his brainwave activity when he's in his spiritual state. He's told to relax, then imagine his near-death experience. A few minutes later, Beauregard and his research assistant are peering at a computer screen recording Bedard's brainwaves.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: I know, and look at this.
RESEARCH ASSISTANT: Oh, really good example.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Look at this, huh.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: The slow delta waves undulating across the screen are typical of a person in deep meditation. Afterward, the researcher asks Bedard if he was able to reconnect with the light.
NORRIS: Yeah, it was coming from within.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: It would take Beauregard a year to complete his research on near-death experiences, or NDEs. A few weeks ago, I called to ask what he had found out.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: So it's like the NDE triggered something at a neural level in the brain. And perhaps this change, in terms of brain activity, is sort of permanent.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Beauregard says it's as if touching death jumpstarted the spiritual lives of these people. They're a lot like Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks who have spent tens of thousands of hours in prayer and meditation, he says. Both groups showed extremely slow brainwave activity. They also saw significant changes in brain regions associated with positive emotions, attention and personal boundaries as the people lost their sense of their physical bodies and merged with God or the light.
Can't anyone do that? I asked.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Oh, no, no, no, no. It's not possible to do this.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: Skeptic Gerald Woerlee says there is nothing remarkable and certainly not spiritual about these findings.
NORRIS: The brain function of many of these people who have undergone near-death experiences is altered. Extreme oxygen starvation does change brain function because it causes damage to the largest cells in the brain.
BRADLEY HAGERTY: It is brain chemistry, he says, not a trip to heaven.