Patients Recall Death Experiences During CPR, Researcher Says

by Staff Writer
November 14, 2022 at 11:00 AM UTC

One in 5 people who have CPR report having a lucid death experience.

Clinical Relevance: We should not discount the human mind and consciousness as part of the death experience.

  • Around 20 percent of  people who survive CPR after cardiac arrest report lucid experiences.
  • EEG tests uncovered spikes of brain activity normally seen when people are conscious, including so-called gamma, delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves, up to an hour into CPR.  
  • During lucid death experiences people report going through a purposeful, meaningful reevaluation of their lives with a focus on morality and ethics
  • The lead author says this study may upend our perception of the experience of death and dying.

Around 20 percent of  people who survive cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) after cardiac arrest report lucid experiences even as they appear near death, according to the new AWARE II study, presented at the American Heart Association (AHA) Scientific Sessions 2022 in Chicago.

The research examined 567 Americans and Britons who, over a three year period, received CPR in the hospital after their hearts stopped beating. 

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Survivors reported having lucid experiences, including a perception of separation from the body, observing events without pain or distress, and a meaningful evaluation of life, including of their actions, intentions, and thoughts toward others, the researchers write. EEG tests uncovered spikes of brain activity normally seen when people are conscious, including so-called gamma, delta, theta, alpha, and beta waves, up to an hour into CPR.  

Psychiatrist.com News spoke with lead investigator Sam Parnia, MD, PhD, who is also an intensive care physician and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, about his findings. 

How did you choose to study this unique problem? 

What we now know is that, over the last six decades or so, millions of people have been revived, having had a cardiac arrest and been resuscitated. And they’ve reported episodes of lucid consciousness, of being able to perceive that they were able to see and hear doctors and nurses resuscitating them.

And because our understanding of death has been somewhat left in the past, shall we say, the way that people, including scientists, have approached this issue is to sort of assume that they were likely to be hallucinations, that they’re not real and they’re tricks of a dying brain.

So the premise was to try to study once and for all, and comprehensively, the experiences that people have when they’re on the brink of death. We also wanted to see if we can characterize whether they’re real experiences. And then importantly, to try to identify brain-based markers of lucid, heightened thought processes and consciousness using an EEG device and an electrode.

How do these lucid death experiences differ from hallucinations?

It’s complicated because hallucinations themselves are actually experiences that you have in a weakened state that don’t correspond with reality. We can’t call people’s experiences when they’re unconscious an hallucination in the same way that you don’t call your dreams that. 

What we found is that there were a consistent set of themes that kept on clustering together, which were related to an experience of death that people described. And it involved a perception of separation from the body and watching doctors and nurses or having visual awareness of what was happening.

This is a key part: It also involves a perception of reviewing and reliving every moment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts and their intentions. And interestingly, the way that this reliving occurs is often misrepresented in the media, where it’s presented as having your life flash past you.

It’s not like that. It’s actually a purposeful, meaningful revaluation of everything that we have done, but also everything that people have thought and intended to do towards other people. And so there is a focus on their conduct with respect to morality and ethics towards others as they really lived their lives. It’s not like a chronology. It’s actually a purposeful revelation. 

How common are these experiences?

There were a couple of published studies, and ours as well, which supported that, between ten and 11 percent of the adult population, if you interview them, they’ve had these types of experiences. So we think it’s pretty common.

If you translate that into the global audience you’re looking at about 400, 500 million people who are living with one of these experiences. So they’re not rare, they’re not like weird anecdotes. 

What our study showed actually, is that there is a spectrum of recalls. Of people who have certain recollections, 20 percent overall have this sort of transcendent experience. But we don’t know if some have had the experience and have forgotten it. 

What did you see happening in the brain?

The brain shutting down, as you would expect. And then interestingly, we identified spikes of brain activity that emerged, which was consistent with lucid, heightened thought processes in humans. Under other circumstances, for example, they are the same spikes as when people are recalling memories or reliving their lives and having higher order cognitive activities, except that we found the tracings of this in people who were dead. We’re going through that to see whether this supports the claims that these millions of people have had for years, which is that they’re having a lucid, heightened consciousness.

We have this idea of death as being sort of the void. But actually we’re seeing that as the brain is shutting down, it’s causing a disinhibition of certain processes in the brain that leads to activation. You’re seeing that these spikes and this activation is giving people access to dimensions of reality that they would otherwise not have access to when they’re at death’s door. 

So how is it that when we’re at death and our brain is shutting down that somehow we get access to every aspect of our consciousness, every aspect of our lives, as if it’s always been recorded somewhere in us? And now, for the first time on the brink of death, it comes to life for you?

It’s not like a movie that just sort of randomly goes past you. It’s a purposeful, meaningful reevaluation, and your focus is suddenly, purely on your conduct with respect to morality and ethics in life. I think that as the brain is shutting down and what we can see now on these tracings, is leading to activation in other parts of your brain that are normally subdued, like normally you don’t see life that way, but somehow in death this comes to fruition for you and it becomes real and you have access to other aspects of reality that you can’t normally access.

It’s humbling and inexplicable, frankly.

Is there a spiritual aspect to this research?

The challenge that we have is that we’ve always perceived death and the study of what happens when we die in the realms of theology or philosophy. And I don’t agree with that. I understand in the past everything used to be there. But my job is to bring people back to life.

And so it doesn’t make any sense to me that we do these kinds of studies and then people always try to translate the findings into what people talked about thousands of years ago. The way I see what we found, which is remarkable, is that people reevaluate their lives with meaning and purpose at the end of life and they get access to new dimensions of reality.

Does this have the potential to change our perception of death?

Greatly.

One, we can actually recognize the fact that once and for all, these people are having experiences that are unique to death. And because we weren’t supposed to go to that, we think that they shouldn’t be having experiences. But the reality is they are having real experiences. And so we’re getting access to understanding what the human experience of death is like.

The second thing is that most people don’t realize how much of a revolution the understanding of death has gone through. And that death is no longer as we think. It’s not like the end. It’s not that there’s a void afterwards. By way of example, researchers at Yale just three years ago were able to show that you could revive dead pig brains almost 14 hours postmortem which basically shows you that when you’re dead, you can say we’re back to life again and that it takes hours for your brain cells and your body cells to die when you’re a cadaver. 

That goes against all of our assumptions about what death really is. It challenges all our societal views about that as this sort of blank line that you can never go beyond and come back. One of the key things that comes out of this discovery is that we can’t forget human consciousness. We can’t forget that there’s a person in there and we have to also include the study of human mind and consciousness into any other research that goes on and any clinical medicine that goes on in the death and postmortem period.

What’s next? 

We’re going to try to study this in more detail, because we’ve only got a glimpse of the brain. We’ve made a remarkable discovery. But it’s just the beginning. Our plans are to develop better brain monitoring systems, to go into people when they’re going through death or when they’re going through other circumstances that are mimicking death.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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