October 16th, 2009
06:33 PM ET

Near-death experience

By Caleb Hellerman
CNN Medical Senior Producer

Our special this weekend, “Another Day: Cheating Death,” includes the story of Laura Geraghty, a school bus driver in Massachusetts who survived a cardiac arrest that left her without a heartbeat for 57 minutes.  While the medical aspect is astounding, just as interesting is the story Geraghty told when she was revived.

She’d floated out of her body, and found herself in a world of incredibly bright light – heaven, she says. While there she saw her son, daughter, granddaughter and even her ex-husband – who wouldn’t take her hand when she reached out to him. Eventually she came back to the real world.

Many cultures and religions describe a vivid world on the border of life and death, but the classic modern near-death experience, or NDE, was described by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1966 book, “Life After Life.”  While not every NDE includes the same features, among the most common – according to Moody – are bright lights, a tunnel, a sense of being out of the body and an intense feeling of peace and calm.

Most people who return from the verge of death with memories like this say it’s a life-changing experience. Many view it as direct proof of an afterlife – that the place they “visit” is the world we all will see after we die. But increasingly, near-death experience (a term coined by Moody) is being studied from the perspective of science.

Dr. Kevin Nelson, a neurologist at the University of Kentucky, believes an NDE is caused by REM activity, the same type of brain activity that’s linked to dreaming.  REM activity, says Nelson, can be triggered by intense stress or even lack of oxygen. In fact, he says many people experience an out-of-body experience during fainting episodes, or if they momentarily lose blood flow to the brain – as in a massive head rush.

Another intriguing experiment is underway at more than two dozen medical centers in the U.S. and Europe. It’s led by Dr. Sam Parnia, a critical care physician at New York Presbyterian-Cornell Hospital in New York. The setup is ingenuous. In hospital areas with critically ill patients, panels are hung from the ceiling to a height at which only someone floating near the ceiling could see what’s painted on top. If any patient reports a sense of floating - investigators can see if they accurately report what’s on the panel. Because the patients are being carefully monitored in ICUs, the experiment could also determine whether there are physical differences among people who report NDEs, and those who don’t.  

Parnia says he doesn’t know what he’ll find – but he does believe science can answer the question of what these experiences are really all about.  

What do you think? Can near-death experience be explained by what’s going on in the brain?

Watch “Another Day: Cheating Death” at 8 and 11 p.m. ET Saturday and Sunday.

Don’t miss, Dr. Gupta’s new book “Cheating Death”, available now wherever books are sold.  Be sure to follow – and tweet your medical miracle to – @sanjayguptacnn with #miracle and you could win a signed copy of the book and a Skype guest appearance from Dr. Gupta at your book club event.

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. jan

    Interesting to read about but very frightening to actually think about going through it.

    October 16, 2009 at 21:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Kenny

    This same phenomena described by people from near death experiences happens every day at the Air Force training facility. When new pilots are put into the centrifuge and spun around at a high rate of speed they pass out. Bright lights, tunnels, images of love ones, floating above their body looking down, are all common remarks by the cadets when they come to. There is nothing spiritual going on here, this is a natural phenomena caused by the lack of oxygen to the brain.

    October 17, 2009 at 08:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Fr Basil Aguzie

    Hello Dr Gupta.
    I have been watching your documentary on "Cheating Death" CNN and I absolutely agree with some of those who share their experiences and would like to add my own. In 1983, about 2 pm on a Sunday, I was with my sister and her family having dinner. Midway, I felt a funny feeling on my teeth and asked my sister to help remove whatever it was in mouth. As she put her fingers in my mouth, my jaws locked and I began to quake. At that point I passed out, lifeless. I had an out of the body experience.
    This was happening in the Army Barracks in Akure capital of Ondo State South West of Nigeria. I am from Imo State, South East of Nigeria. After I fell on the ground, the next thing I saw was I was in my home in the South East. I saw my parents, siblings and other members of our family all crying as my body was brought home for burial. In order words, I watched myself prepared for burial. I was not aware of what was happening to me where my body was lying. After 1 hour 24 minuets, I opened my eyes and saw my sister and her husband and two other men standing watching me. I was told later that I had had tetanus attack and one of those men standing was a military doctor they called when I passed out. He taught I was dead. Well I am alive today without any defect. In-fact I am a Catholic Priest and I thought it right to join in your program to add to the experience of those who have appeared in your program.
    Thank you.
    Fr Basil Aguzie
    Washington DC

    October 18, 2009 at 00:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Grumbler

    Can these NDE be caused by the brain? Of course; anything can be caused by the brain. The issue is finding out if it is. And faith cannot tell us if it is or is not, only science can.

    October 18, 2009 at 23:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. lawrenceez

    Hi, I think NDEs are high complex. Some seem to contain information not readily available to the revived patient (ie. in one case, a woman who flatlined ""saw"" her partner sitting by her ex husband outside in the hospital lobby, when the ex lived a way from her and they had had no contact for years; the ex was only there now because he was the father of the woman's child and had been contacted due to the patient's seriously health decline). I've also heard some similar stuff. A lot of the case for NDEs supporting an afterlife rests on anecdotal evidence, but this doesn't automatically mean that the anecdotes don't play an important role in the afterlife argument.

    The afterlife theory does have some problems, but I'm still willing to accept that some of the NDEs would suggest that consciousness can (sometimes) exist independently of the brain.

    Thanks for blogging this interesting article.

    October 19, 2009 at 07:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. George Servais

    I don't believe that it is all in the brain. July 5, 1973 @ 4:00 AM I was hit with a 7,200 volt power line while attempting a rescue at a hotel fire. I had what may be considered a near death experience. Up to a point perhaps some of the feeling I had during it could be considered "chemistry". The communication I recieved from other consciennesses present were not. The communication was simple. "Don't worry, everything will be allright. You are going back". These weren't communications from persons I knew who had passed on. Just impressions of consciousnesses not myself.

    October 19, 2009 at 20:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Julie M. Lycksell, SuddenCardiac Arrest Survivor

    I watch the episode on Cheating Death and I'm glad that Dr. Gupta is letting the whole world know that there are a lot of us that had cheated death. I had sudden cardiac arrest 11 years ago at a restaurant. A police officer saved me with an AED he was carrying in his car. I am thankful for the new technology that is out there and I am happy that more people are doing research to save even more people after they have been brought back to life. I was lucky I did not have any neurological deficit after my arrest. At that time cooling SCA patients were not common. I was resuscitated within 2 minutes of my event because the AED was in the police officers car. I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to Dr. Gupta for his work in educating the communitry on sudden cardiac arrest.

    October 20, 2009 at 10:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Laura

    Julie, almost the same exact thing happened to my dad! He was at his first baseball pracitce in March 2008 (yes, a 69 year old man was still playing in a baseball league–over 50, but still........) and he went into cardiac arrest 7 times in 3 hours, had to be paddled back all 7 times. He was in an induced coma for a week & the docs told us he probably wouldn't make it, & if he did he'd likely wake up w/the brain of a 4 year old.

    Well, the old dude woke up & started the NY Times crossword puzzle the sa,e night. 🙂 What none of us knew was that one of his baseball team members was a cardiologist & had an AED plus an oxygen tank in the trunk of his car. Not only did he save my dad's life, he saved his brain too.

    There are still heros in this world!

    October 20, 2009 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Barbara Craft

    At the age of 38, in 1979 I was diagnosed with and underwent surgery for breast cancer. During the surgery I had the following experience.
    I was in a small room that looked like stainless steel and the far side was shrouded in fog or a mist.
    I was lying down and heard this strong male voice saying "This is what it is like when you die. It will be like this into infinity." The voice kept repeating this until I thought to my self, that I can't die because I have three daughters and I have to be here to take care of them. At that point I left the dream or experience, and the next thing I remember was waking up in my room.
    This happened at St. Lukes Hospital, a Catholic Hospital, in Fargo, ND. The next morning as I lay in my hospital bed, thinking about what had happened to me, (I am not Catholic) a Priest came into my room an asked if I needed to counsel with him. I told him what happened to me and I was very understanding and supportive. I have wished in later years that I knew his name and could thank him for listening.
    For a number of years I did not speak of this experience because it was not considered a real experience. Since this no longer the case I have related this story to others with mostly positive responses.
    In 2005 I was again diagnosed with breast cancer and am now a twice survivor.
    Barbara, Minnesota

    October 20, 2009 at 20:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Dr. Joe Farrell

    My wife and I watched Dr. Gupta's "Cheating Death" program on Sunday with great interest. In August of 2007, I saved a man's life on a golf course in Incline Village, NV with CPR. I said to my golf buddies, pray if you go down, that someone knows CPR and the paramedics get to you very quick or an AED is near. On August 9, 2008 I suffered a sudden cardiac arrest at a professional friends home. Fortunately, my colleagues administered CPR, the paramedics arrived in about 6 minutes; I was shocked four times with a defibrillator and off to the hospital where I was shocked two more times to restore a normal cardiac rhythm. I underwent hypthermia treatment in the the ICU and left the hospital 9 days later with an implanted cardioverter-defibrillator in my chest, which manages my cardiac arrhythmia. Fortunately, I made a quick and full neurological recovery and was back at my clinical practice in 7 weeks.

    My wife and I are now dedicated to teaching CPR/AED use within the San Francisco Bay area and volunteer our services to the San Ramon Valley Fire District's Heart Safe Community Awareness Committee. We are CPR/AED instructors and strive to raise the awareness of CPR/AED training and the necessity of being prepared to help a family member and/or fellow citizen who suffers a cardiac event.

    I am one of the fortunate few that have cheated death and I had the honor of saving a fellow citizens life through CPR. Since I was on the other side of the wall of death, I am very indebted to those who saved my life. I am acutely aware of the fragility of life and the magnitude of surviving. Thus my mission in life is to educate the public about cardiovascular disease, hypothermia and training as many people as possible in CPR/AED use. I am hoping my comments stimulate citizens in every community to get CPR/AED trained so they are prepared to save a life. Remember, sudden cardiac arrest takes over 350,000 lives per year in the USA. Let's step up to save lives. Thank you!!

    October 20, 2009 at 23:24 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Michael Brodeur

    Dr Sanjay Gupta, I just saw the episode on Bob scheiver the gentalman the collapst on the football feild in Sept. 2002. I was suprised to see the episode about sudden death bec ause I was very involved in his medical care. I was the paramedic on that call. It was very gratifying to know that he walk out of the hospital without any neurodeficits. I wish him well

    Michael Brodeur

    October 28, 2009 at 17:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. John. H.

    I had a near death experience in 2008. While complaining alot about choking, I was taken to a doctor. Found out that I had a "Lima-Bean" sized tumor (no cancer) on My left vocal cord. I had a three hour operation. I guess all went well through the procedure. However, once in recovery, that is where it all went bad quickly! I awoke, feeling actualy quite good. The madical staff of about eight , just happened to stop by My bed for a follow-up visit. I began to feel uncomfortable, and had a hard time catching My breath. In an instant, a nurse called out "He's as white as a sheet"..than dashed away. Now I was starting to panic, when I heard.."Recovery...Code...Blue". Great, I thought someone else was in need, and everyone would go away leaving Me to die! My vision started to go "dark" and a strong feeling of body "weekness" came over Me. I had no clue that the page in the E.R. was for Me! Before I actually passed out, I was given a very large injection, right in the rear end. Wow, with in about 30 minuites, I was ready to clean windows,wash a car, or paint the building! What a "Rush"! Later in the week, at a follow-up visit to the doctor, I had asked Her what had happened to Me? Her words were "Yes, "You gave us quite a scare"! You had a life altering reaction to the (spelling?) anisthesia". You were given a strong and large dose of drugs to counter-act the "Death-spiral". You were lucky that the Team was standing next to You when the emergency happened. Later after the episode, I was given crackers and apple juice. They also extended My release by three hours, just for observation. Looking back, I had NO "Life passing before My eyes" Just a total panic and thinking that this was the end! Thank God I was lucky. The doctor remains as My MD. Her and Her Staff did a great job! I thank them all.

    John H 42, Reno, NV

    November 3, 2009 at 18:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Herschel West

    I am a concerned father of a daughter that has Arnold Chiari Syndrome of a mild nature. However, the mild form causes excess cerebral spinal fluid that resulted in a syrnix in her neck resulting in severe spinal pain due to the pressure. At age 15.5 yrs this was relieved with a syringo peritnoeal shunt with a manual pump. The relief combined with her growth casued the brain to drop within the caranium and attempt to extend into the fossa six months later. A second surgury, a laproectomy was performed to relieve the stress and allow the brain to settle more comfortably. At age 39 she is now experiencing scarring and movement at the syrnix end of the shunt resulting in loss of feeling and atrophy in her left arm and hand. Third surgury may be necessary and we need surgical advice but the health provider keeps "passing the buck" and will not seek or provide what is needed.

    November 15, 2009 at 21:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. escort brazilian

    I definitely want to read more soon. By the way, rather good design that blog has, but don’t you think design should be changed from time to time?

    October 20, 2010 at 15:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. pagingdrgupta.blogs.cnn.com

    Near death experience.. Neat 🙂

    April 19, 2011 at 04:48 | Report abuse | Reply

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.