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NDEs: A glimpse behind the mortal curtain?     

By Dr Doug Witherspoon - 18th Feb 2024


“… To sleep, perchance to dream – For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause…” Hamlet

Along with the development of better emergency medicine, there has been an increase in the number of patients reporting what are termed near-death experiences (NDEs). The debate continues as to whether the experiences people have when they are clinically dead are the result of some chemical-electrical process in the brain, or something else. Some of the accounts from people who have had such an experience are compelling, and some doctors have spoken out about their own NDEs. Motivation for medical research into this topic can be either clinical, existential, personal, or a combination of these. But the work is ongoing.

In 1998, US Radiation Oncologist Dr Jeffrey Long set up the Near-Death Experience Research Foundation. Its website contains more than 5,000 accounts of NDEs, all of which Dr Long says he has studied. He is also author of Evidence of the Afterlife and God and the Afterlife. In a recent essay in Insider, he defined an NDE as relating to “someone who is either comatose or clinically dead, without a heartbeat, having a lucid experience where they see, hear, feel emotions, and interact with other beings”.

“After the out-of-body experience, people say they’re transported into another realm,” Dr Long explained.

“Many pass through a tunnel and experience a bright light. Then, they’re greeted by deceased loved ones, including pets, who are in the prime of their lives. Most people report an overwhelming sense of love and peace. They feel like this other realm is their real home.” 

Other accounts describe in detail medical procedures or situations that they should not have been able to describe, as they were clinically dead at the time.

“I’ve read brain research and considered every possible explanation for NDEs. The bottom line is that none of them hold water.”

Another doctor active in this field of research is Dr Sam Parnia, US Intensive Care Physician. In common with Dr Long, he has been fascinated by the topic for decades. In an effort to shed more light on the phenomenon, a study, of which Dr Parnia was the senior author, aimed to measure electrical activity in the brain when the respiratory system and the heart both stop functioning. The research is published in Resuscitation (

For the study, trained personnel in 25 hospitals in the US, UK, and Bulgaria followed doctors into rooms where patients were ‘coding’ or were clinically dead. Doctors performed CPR and devices to measure oxygen and electrical activity were attached to the patient’s head. Doctors had to stop chest compressions or electric shocks at two- or three-minute intervals to see if the patient’s heart would restart, at which point brain activity was measured. Those who returned to life – sadly only 53 out of 567 people – were later interviewed about their experience and this was correlated with brain activity data. 

“We were able to conclude that the recalled experience of death is real. It occurs with death, and there’s a brain marker that we’ve identified. These electrical signals are not being produced as a trick of a dying brain, which is what a lot of critics have said,” according to Dr Parnia. 

If you would like to delve into an account of one doctor’s personal NDE, you could do worse than check out the experiences of Dr Eben Alexander (, author of Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. Dr Alexander discusses the enigma of consciousness and the challenges in achieving synthesis between science and spirituality. With the forensic eye of a surgeon, he recalls his experiences when deeply comatose.

“Concluding that my experience actually happened, but outside of my brain and the physical universe, demanded an extraordinary shift in my worldview,” writes Dr Alexander on PubMed.

“Such a shift was mandatory if I were to move toward any comprehensive understanding of the world that could incorporate my strange experience and begin to explain the vast spectrum of similar experiences reported over the last several thousand years.”

Wherever you stand on the phenomenon, it will only grow in interest as medical science becomes better and better at preventing people from shuffling off this mortal coil.

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