Scientists in the UK and US are embarking on an extensive study of near-death experiences to determine if they are real or a physiological figment of the imagination. Some 1,500 hospital patients are slated to participate.
The study is expected to run three years and is being headed by Dr. Sam Parnia of the University of Southhampton in England.
Part of it will involve placing pictures on hospital-room shelves, so high that they can only be viewed from above. If any unconscious patients recall the pictures, it would constitute hard proof of a true out-of-body experience.
“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that consciousness is a separate entity,” Parnia says. “It's unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories. This is a mystery that we can now subject to scientific study.”
Around 10 to 20 per cent of people whose hearts stop after a cardiac arrest report some near-death experience. The study will look at survivors from heart attacks at 25 UK and US hospitals who experienced periods with no heartbeat or measurable brain activity. During the study, doctors will use technology to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest.
At the same time, they will test the validity of out-of-body experiences and patients' claims of being able to see and hear things while unconscious.
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