Fans of the Netflix sci-fi thrillers The OA and The Discovery, both of which weave tales of scientists researching the afterlife, may be shocked to know it’s not just the stuff of fiction. While the haunting plotlines are (thankfully) fantasy, their themes echo real clinical research into what happens to consciousness at the moment of death.
Leading the way with this work is Dr. Sam Parnia, author of What Happens When We Die: A Groundbreaking Study into the Nature of Life and Death. Parnia works in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit, making him oft present for cardiac arrest–and sometimes the return from it. He’s spearheaded research into studies on near death experiences, or, ‘NDEs’ as The OA casually refers to them. Parnia, though, prefers to call them “actual death experiences” since his studies focus on what happens while the patient’s heart has stopped.
“Contrary to perception, death is not a specific moment but a potentially reversible process that occurs after any severe illness or accident causes the heart, lungs, and brain to cease functioning. If attempts are made to reverse this process, it is referred to as ‘cardiac arrest’; however, if these attempts do not succeed it is called ‘death.’”
Parnia says about 10% of patients have actual death experiences–2% of which involve floating above the their body and looking down. What some patients saw is verifiable by others in the room.
“This is significant since it has often been assumed that experiences in relation to death are likely hallucinations or illusions occurring either before the heart stops or after the heart has been successfully restarted, but not an experience corresponding with ‘real’ events when the heart isn’t beating.”
In one case the patient’s heart stopped for three minutes, during which they reportedly stayed completely conscious and in the room including “verifiable events” such as witnessing a doctor accidentally kick over a stand.
There are other tales of patients communicating with deceased loved ones and learning things they couldn’t have known— like the fact that uncle jimmy is dead when nobody told them.
Dr. Parnia is very encouraged by these findings and continues to deepen his research.
He’s far from alone in this thinking. Dr. Bruce Greyson, author of The Handbook of Near-Death Experiences: Thirty Years of Investigation presentedhis neuro-science-based theoryand studies of consciousness post-mortem to the United Nations in 2008, to many stunned audience members.
Greyson, like Parnia, believes that consciousness is not generated by the brain, but rather, the brain is a medium for housing and displaying consciousness. Think TV antennae, not the broadcast itself. Or, as Greyson puts it, “the mind is the software and the brain is the hardware.”
Undoubtedly, researchers will continue to flirt with the line between science and spirituality, focusing today’s overwhelming technology on the final, earthly, frontier—here’s hoping it’s not the stuff of Netflix horror.