Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Erasing Death: Could Life Be More Than Material?


I just listened to a fascinating interview on Fresh Air with Dr. Sam Parnia, author of the forthcoming book, Erasing Death: The Science that is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death. Parnia is the Director of Resuscitation Research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Here is an excerpt from the Kirkus Reviews review:

Since it is now possible to resuscitate people who would previously have been pronounced dead, the question then arises: When does death occur? Death is not an event, writes the author, but a process that is sometimes reversible. This idea leads him to question the implications of near-death or after-death experiences. While they do not in themselves substantiate any religious beliefs, there are too many documented cases to be ignored. People from diverse cultures who hold different religious beliefs, including atheism, describe many common features, such as seeing a bright light and a guiding figure, and out-of-body experiences.

A fascinating discussion that addresses medical, moral and social issues and their implications for understanding consciousness, self-awareness and the soul.

Parnia is one of the world’s foremost researchers into the phenomenon of death. Among the interesting and sometimes unexpected statements Parnia made to Terri Gross in the interview:

  • He isn’t coming from a religious perspective and doesn’t “have a religion.”
  • When the heart stops, the brain ceases functioning.
  • People sometimes “remember” what happened to them after their hearts stopped and brain ceased functioning, in about 1% of the cases.
  • The “memories” dealt with what happened in the hospital room, often recalled with remarkable accuracy, and what could be interpreted as an afterlife.
  • People able to communicate right after resuscitation, are better able to communicate their experiences than those whose brains swelled and were unable to communicate for a period of time. People seem to forget them over time and thus more may be having these experiences than are actually reported.
  • Those who “died” natural deaths reported remarkably similar experiences of entering a warm light, encountering a loving being, and reviewing their life experiences–particularly of having a totally empathetic reaction about how their own conduct affected others. In other words, if the person hurt another person’s feelings, the “dead” person personally experiences the hurt.
  • The after “death” reports were strikingly similar whether the resuscitated person was a child or an adult, religious or atheistic.
  • People resuscitated after suicides reported strikingly different experiences, terrorizing and dreadful. He has no idea why that might be.
  • Science cannot yet demonstrate that neurons are capable of generating thought.
  • The jury is still out whether the mind’s locus is in the brain or indeed, even in the body.
  • The mind may be able to function with no brain at all.
  • Parnia’s overall goal in writing the book is to improve and standardize care after cardiac arrest. 

It seems to me that the people who “came back” weren’t really dead, but it also seems clear that their experiences cannot be explained as a purely neurological phenomenon if the brain had ceased functioning. I think I’ll give this book a read. 


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