In the wee hours of the morning on July 28, 1976, the deadliest earthquake of the 20th century and the third greatest in recorded history shook Tangshan, China. Approximately one-fifth of the city perished in the calamity, and thousands were rescued from the arms of death.
A sociological survey was conducted among people who were brought back from a state of near-death to find out what they experienced at the most critical moments of their lives.
Surprisingly, many responded that on the threshold of death, they did not feel any pain or regret, but experienced a kind of excitement, as if they had been liberated from their physical bodies. Some said that they had seen a tunnel of light and some reported seeing other beings.
It is likely that many people are familiar with these kinds of stories, known by experts as Near Death Experiences (NDEs).
The existence of NDEs raises a problem for contemporary understanding of the mind, as modern science holds that the mind is a product of neurochemical reactions, rather than an entity independent of the brain and at times able to separate from the physical body. The NDE phenomenon suggests that a human being not only has a body but also has a soul. Naturally, scientists have diverse opinions with regard to the existence of the soul as an individual entity.
One study that probed into this matter was performed by medical doctor Duncan MacDougall of Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1907. MacDougall worked with six patients who were all in a critical condition. He weighed them at the moment just before death, and then immediately following their departure.
The results, published in contemporary medical journals, found that the patients lost an average of 21 grams (about 0.74 oz.) at the precise moment of death. Dr MacDougall reached the conclusion that this difference was the weight of the human soul, a curious fact made famous in the 2003 movie “21 Grams.”
Nowadays this study is given little consideration, dismissed as nothing more than an anecdote in scientific circles, since detractors say that measurement errors caused by several factors could have occurred. Yet, so far no one has repeated the experiment either to confirm or refute it.
The “reductionist” is by nature skeptical of the existence of the possibility of an independent consciousness. Scientist Francis Crick—who shared the Nobel Prize with James Watson in 1962 for discovering the double-helix structure of DNA—is probably the most well-known contemporary representative for this viewpoint.
In one study carried out over several years, Professor Crick affirmed that: “our minds—the behavior of our brains—can be explained by the interactions of nerve cells (and other cells) and the molecules associated with them.”
However, some scientists argue that Professor Crick clings to an extreme viewpoint. “It is like saying that the cathedral is a pile of stones and glass. It is true, but too simplistic and it misses the point,” says Michael Reiss, professor at the University of London who is both a priest and a scientist.
The most complete study on NDEs to date was made by Pim van Lommel and a team of Dutch doctors on 344 patients from 10 hospitals. The patients had been resuscitated after cardiac arrest.
The study, reported in Lancet in 2001, found that 62 of the patients (18 percent) had some recollection of a near-death experience, while 41 of these described experiencing a “deep” or “very deep” experience.
Half of those who reported having an NDE said they were aware of being dead, while 56 percent said they experienced positive emotions. Fifteen people (24 percent) reported having an out-of-body experience, while 31 percent experienced moving thorough a tunnel. Eighteen said they saw a “celestial landscape.” A third said they met with dead relatives, and eight said they saw their life reviewed.
“The concept thus far assumed, but never scientifically proven, that consciousness and memories are localized in the brain,” writes Professor Van Lommel in “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness”
“How could a clear consciousness outside one’s body be experienced at the moment that the brain no longer functions during a period of clinical death with flat EEG?” asks Van Lommel. “Furthermore, blind people have described (perceptions that agree with reality) during out-of-body experiences at the time of this experience.” Van Lommel says near-death experiences push the limits of medical understanding concerning the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relationship.
While the subject will likely remain a contentious issue in scientific circles, further studies may be warranted to probe the eternal question: Is there life after death?