A brush with death
Reviewed by Kuldip Dhiman
Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience
By Pim van Lommel, M.D.
HarperOne. Pages 442.
Price not stated.
There can be nothing more obvious than consciousness. After all, we seem to experience it all the time. As the philosopher Rene Descartes said, you could doubt the existence of everything, but you could not doubt your own existence, and that is because you are thinking and you are conscious. And yet, consciousness is the biggest mystery ever, and there are philosophers and scientists who say consciousness is mere fiction, or at the most it is an epiphenomenon, i.e., it is a by-product of bio-chemical activity in the brain. Of late, the materialist view is being questioned, and scientists are beginning to take consciousness seriously. Many now believe that consciousness is somehow connected with the brain, and that it ends with death. In other words, body is a necessary condition for consciousness. That is why, when someone receives a severe blow on the head, they might become unconscious.
Things are not that simple, however. Scientists and philosophers have now begun to consider seriously that, which has been claimed for centuries by people in diverse cultures. Many people all over the world have for ages said that they have experienced being out of their bodies. This is now known as a near-death experience (NDE).
In Consciousness Beyond Life, cardiologist Pim van Lommel defines an NDE as "the (reported) recollection of all the impressions gained during a special state of consciousness, which includes some specific elements such as witnessing a tunnel, a light, a panoramic life review, deceased persons, or ones own resuscitation". Most cases of NDE were experienced during a heart attack, in a state of coma after a traffic accident, asphyxia, intoxication, electrocution, depression, failed suicide, or during meditation.
During his long career as a doctor, Lommel says he was surprised by the number of his patients who claimed to have had near-death experiences after a heart attack. His training as a mainstream scientist made it difficult for him to believe these accounts, but he could not ignore the cases for too long. Recent studies in the US and Germany suggest that approximately 4.2 per cent of the population has reported an NDE.
To verify the claims of his patients, he designed a research methodology, so he could investigate the phenomenon under controlled conditions. After years of hard work, he and his fellow researchers published their findings in the medical journal, The Lancet, in 2001. The present volume is based on that study.
Lommel gives us a good background to physiological and psychological theories that try to explain NDE, but finds most of them are unable to come with a satisfactory explanation. "There is no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness . . . materialist approach falls short in many respects and can no longer be maintained in its current form. It is now becoming increasingly clear that brain activity in itself cannot explain consciousness."
Although we do not yet have a satisfactory theory to explain consciousness, the author feels that quantum mechanics could possibly be a strong candidate. "This not-yet-commonly-accepted interpretation posits that our picture of reality is based on the information received by our consciousness. This transforms modern science into a subjective science in which consciousness plays a fundamental role." Of course, quantum theory cannot explain consciousness fully, but in conjunction with the results and conclusions from NDE research, it can contribute to a better understanding of the transition or interface between consciousness and the brain.
After studying cases of NDE, Lommel has come to a conclusion that brain is not a necessary condition for consciousness, i.e., consciousness can exist independently. He strongly believes that consciousness cannot be located in a particular space and time, this is known as nonlocality. "Complete and endless consciousness is everywhere in a dimension that is not tied to time or place, where past, present, and future all exist and are accessible at the same time. This endless consciousness is always in and around us. We have no theories to prove or measure nonlocal space and nonlocal consciousness in the material world. The brain and the body merely function as an interface or relay station to receive part of our total consciousness," says the author.
A very well-written book; it should be read especially by those who still strongly cling to the materialistic paradigm of science — the problem is, they won’t.