Jeanette Atkinson is surprisingly relaxed about the time she died and went to the edge of heaven.
“I do not want to die again in the near future because I still have too much to do,” she says. “But I have no fear of death.
“People see the pain and suffering of dying and equate that with death - but they’re not the same. Death is the progression of life.”
Jeanette, a 43-year-old student nurse from Eastbourne, had a near-death experience in 1979 when she was just 18-years-old. It was triggered when a blood clot in her leg broke up into seven pieces and clogged the main vessels in her lungs, starving her body of oxygen. The doctors were certain that she would die. She did – but then returned to tell the tale.
“The first thing I noticed was that the world changed,” says Jeanette. “The light became softer but clearer. Suddenly there was no pain. All I could see was my body from the chest downwards and I noticed that the time was 9:00pm.
“In an instant I found myself looking at the ceiling. It was only a few inches away. I remember thinking it was about time they cleaned the dust from the striplights!
“I then went on a little journey around the ward and along the corridor to see what the nurses were up to. One was writing on a notepad. It never occurred to me that I was dying. It was a lovely experience and very, very serene.”
Jeanette then began the journey that many others before her have reported – being drawn into a long dark tunnel suffused with light. “Everything went fuzzy,” she says. “I found myself being drawn into a tunnel shaped like a corkscrew.
“All I wanted to do was reach the beautiful lights at the bottom. The longing was so powerful but so gentle. I knew I desperately wanted to be there. But then a voice bellowed at me: ‘Come on you silly old cow it’s not your time yet!’
“I then shot back into my body – it’s all a little unclear – all I can say is that I remember seeing the clock again and it was 9:20pm. The next thing I was aware of was waking up a few days later, surrounded by equipment and feeling terrible. Later on I realised that the voice I’d heard was my grandmother’s. She’d died when I was three years old.”
For decades near-death experiences like Jeanette’s have been written off as delusions by scientists. They are dismissed as no more than the last twitches of a dying brain. Modern science has no place for mysticism and the paranormal. But now a group of British researchers are challenging the scientific establishment by launching a major study into near-death experiences. They hope to settle once and for all the question of whether there truly is life after death.
“We now have the technology and scientific knowledge to begin exploring the ultimate question,” says Dr Sam Parnia, leader of the research team at London’s Hammersmith Hospital. “To be honest, I started off as a sceptic but having weighed up all the evidence I now think that there is something going on.
“It’s not possible to talk in terms of ‘life after death’. In scientific terms we can only say that there is now evidence that consciousness may carry on after clinical death. Our work will prove one way or the other whether a form of consciousness carries on after the body and brain has died.”
Several scientific studies have suggested that the mind – or ‘soul’ - lives on after the body has died and the brain ceased to function. One study published in the prestigious Lancet medical journal found that one in ten cardiac arrest survivors experienced emotions, visions or lucid thoughts while they were clinically dead. In medical terms they were “flatliners” or unconscious with no signs of brain activity, pulse or breathing.
About one in four people who have a near-death experience also have a much more profound – and sometimes disturbing – experience such as watching doctors try and resuscitate their bodies. These ‘out-of-body experiences’ often include seeing a bright light, traveling down a tunnel, seeing their dead body from above, and meeting deceased relatives.
Research in America has uncovered even more bizarre results. Blind people who underwent near-death experiences were able to see whilst they were ‘dead’ – even those who had been blind from birth. They did not experience perfect vision, often it was out of focus or hazy, as if they were seeing the world for the first time through a thin mist. But the vision was sufficiently clear for them to watch doctors trying to resuscitate their clinically dead bodies.
Dr Parnia has previously studied near-death experiences. Two years ago his work was published in the prestigious medical journal Resuscitation. Dr Parnia’s team rigorously interviewed 63 cardiac arrest patients and discovered that seven had memories of their brief period of ‘death’, although only four passed the Grayson scale, the strict medical criteria for assessing near-death experiences. These four recounted feelings of peace and joy, they lost awareness of their own bodies, time speeded up, they saw a bright light and entered another world, encountered a mystical being and faced a “point of no return”.
According to modern medicine all of these patients were effectively dead. Their brains had shut down and no thoughts or feelings were possible. There was certainly no possibility of the complex brain activity required for dreaming or hallucinating.
Dr Parnia’s initial trial was especially rigorous - he wanted to confound his critics before they could muster their arguments. To rule out the possibility that near-death experiences resulted from hallucinations after the brain had collapsed through lack of oxygen, he rigorously monitored the concentrations of the vital gas in the patients’ blood. Crucially, none of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen.
He was also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure was the same in every case, regardless of whether they had a near-death experience or not.
“Arch sceptics will always attack our work,” says Dr Parnia. “I’m content with that. That’s how science progresses. What is clear is that something profound is happening. The mind – the thing that is ‘you’ – your ‘soul’ if you will - carries on after conventional science says it should have drifted into nothingness.”
Dr Parnia says that every near-death experience is subtly different but that they all share eight or nine key features, whatever the nationality, culture or religion of the patient. These include intense feelings of calmness, traveling down a long dark tunnel, being drawn into an intense loving light, seeing your dead body from above, and meeting long-deceased relatives or friends. A few experience a brief form of ‘hell’ where they are drawn, petrified, into a dark swirling well of bitterness, hatred and fear.
There are cultural differences in these experiences. Tribal people may report paddling in a canoe down a long dark river for three days towards the sun, for example, rather than floating down a tunnel towards the light. The experience, whatever the cultural differences, usually have a deep and long lasting effect. It often leaves behind a legacy of profound spirituality and removes the fear of death.
“The worst thing is coming back from the dead,” says Patrick Tierney, who had a near-death experience following a cardiac arrest in 1991. “If dying is anything like the experience I had then it’s not a problem.
Patrick was rushed to hospital in July 1991 following a heart attack. He survived the initial attack and within hours was chatting with his family at the bedside.
“I was talking to my wife and eldest boy when I felt a little pinch in my chest,” says Patrick. “The next thing I knew I was travelling down a corridor in a medieval looking house. I was astounded. It was very real and lucid. I thought to myself ‘what the hell’s going on?’.
“I came to a fork in the corridor and I knew that I had to make a decision. One branch was a dark and sinister looking hole. The other was brightly lit and appeared friendly in some way, so I floated down that one.”
Patrick then found himself in a form of ‘heaven’. He was in front of a beautifully lit landscape bordered with a waist-high white picket fence. He was instantly calmed and soothed by a beautiful translucent light.
He then became aware of his parents, who were behind the white fence, smiling broadly at him. Strangely, they were in their thirties despite the fact that they had both died in their seventies.
“I moved towards a gate in the fence but my father gave me a look that I knew meant ‘don’t come through the gate’, so I didn’t. No words passed between us. I then found myself moving backwards through the corridor but this time it was very disturbing.
“Greeny-grey gargoyle-like figures were staring at me from the roof,” says Patrick. “One, with a face like an evil goat, began to move towards me. All of the warmth and cosiness left and I was terrified. A moment later I saw the face of an angel - it was a nurse from the hospital. It turned out I’d had a cardiac arrest.”
Cardiac arrest survivors like Patrick are tailor-made for Dr Parnia’s study. Scientists know that within seconds of the heart stopping the brain has shut down completely. The patient is effectively dead and there is no chance of dreams or hallucinations mimicking a near-death experience.
As soon as a patient slips into a cardiac arrest, Dr Parnia’s team will swing into action. The first priority will be to get the patient’s heart beating again. Equipment used during the resuscitation will have symbols placed on top of it in such a way that they can only be seen from above: Other symbols will be placed around the patient’s body.
Surviving patients will then be gently quizzed about their experiences when they regain consciousness.
Those that claim to have left their bodies will be questioned in more detail to see if they can identify the symbols.
Dr Parnia has designed the experiments to be bullet-proof. He is only too keenly aware that critics will tear his work apart if he leaves even the slightest doubt about the rigour of his team’s efforts. It will also destroy his career as a scientist. Even the exact experimental details are shrouded in secrecy.
“We can’t run the risk of prejudicing the experiment,” says Dr Parnia. “I won’t even know some of the details.
We have a researcher who will be hiding the symbols on the equipment. Somebody else will be doing the interviews with the patients. It’s what’s known as a double-blind trial. It prevents scientists from unconsciously altering the results of their experiments.”
Other scientists acknowledge Dr Parnia’s formidable reputation and the care he takes over his experiments but are still sceptical about his aims.
Dr Susan Blackmore, who has herself had a near-death experience but since written it off as a delusion, says such experiences “probably result from random firings in the brain.”
“I think that people have near-death experiences not when they are flatlining but when they are drifting into or out of consciousness,” she says: “Having said that, I’m curious to know the results: If they are positive then they could change the world.”
Because of the implications of his work – and the potential for ridicule from his fellow scientists - Dr Parnia is being very cautious in the claims he is making for the study. He is not trying to prove that we all die and go to heaven. He is instead trying to find out whether the mind continues to function after the brain has effectively died, or at least ceased to function.
If the mind does continue after the brain has died then this will prove, by default, that the ‘soul’ is independent of the body. Dr Parnia will have proved that the mind – in essence, the soul – continues to live after the body has died.
“It comes back to the question of whether the mind or consciousness is produced by the brain,” says Dr Parnia. “If we can prove that the mind is produced by the brain then I don't think that there is anything after we die. If the brain dies then we die. It’s final and irreversible.”
“If, on the contrary, the brain is like an intermediary which manifests the mind, like a television will act as an intermediary to manifest radio waves into a picture or a sound, then we should be able to show that the mind is still there after the brain is clinically dead. That will be a significant discovery.”
But all of the theories and questions posed by scientists are academic to those who have had a near-death experience. They know the answers.
“There is no doubt in my mind that there’s life after death because I’ve seen the other side,” says Jeanette. “I don’t believe in a benevolent God. I’ve seen too much suffering for that but I’m very spiritual.
“I saw my daughter suffer for four years with cancer. She died when she was only 17... I know she has gone to a better place.”