It is more than two years since I posted this short sequence. Given my recent sharing of Sharon Rawlette’s review, it seemed a good time to republish it.
I recently read yet another book about NDEs – The Wisdom of Near-Death Experiences: How Understanding NDEs Can Help Us Live More Fully by Dr Penny Sartori.
Much of it covered very familiar ground and I won’t be dwelling on those aspects in detail here as I have dealt with such things as the basic elements and the implications for consciousness elsewhere. I want to look at what the book seems to add to our understanding of this contentious area of investigation.
Some of what she writes simply adds to my understanding of aspects which have been well-researched already. For example, previous studies, such as those of Ken Ring, have rightly emphasised the impact that an NDE can have on someone’s subsequent pattern of life, often radically altering a person’s priorities, shifting them from the material towards the moral/spiritual. What Sartori includes is some concrete evidence that supports the idea, which writers such as Eben Alexander put forward, that genuine knowledge beyond the person’s previous capacity can be acquired during an NDE. One example (Kindle location 325) describes a presentation at an NDE conference of the NDE experienced by someone called Rajaa:
During the conference a video recording of an interview with Rajaa’s university professor was broadcast. He stated how puzzled he was about Rajaa’s level of knowledge of quantum physics. The knowledge and understanding that she has cannot be acquired by attending an accelerated course or reading lots of books about quantum physics. What I found particularly intriguing was that he said that not even he understood some of what Rajaa was writing about but her work had since been confirmed by recent papers that had been published in physics journals.
Because she is a nurse by profession she is particularly interested in the clinical implications of the NDE. This gives her treatment of the subject a specially valuable slant.
She gives a clear account of the challenges the experience can present in its aftermath. She feels that ‘six major challenges that the NDErs [are] faced with’ have been identified (697). She lists them as (698):
• Processing a radical shift in reality
• Accepting the return to life
• Sharing the experience
• Integrating new spiritual values with earthly expectations
• Adjusting to heightened sensitivities and supernatural gifts
• Finding and living one’s purpose.
As will become clear later the attitude of important others is of particular significance in helping people comes to terms with these challenges. NDEs may be particularly testing for children (1464):
Connecting with unconditional transcendent love, then returning to life was confusing for many childhood NDErs. Many children reported that they wanted to return to where they were and would even attempt suicide to get there. Suicide in this case is not a means of self-harm but a means to return to that wonderful place of love.
In her own practice as a nurse she was challenged by the way that clinical teams managed death and dying and by accounts of NDEs that she met en route. She watched as four members of staff, intent on saving the life of an elderly woman who was certain to die soon, mounted a massively invasive mechanical campaign to prevent the inevitable, only to prolong her suffering to no useful purpose whatsoever.
She decided to embark upon her own investigation of NDEs. It was a demanding exercise to undertake given her duties as a nurse at the time (2605-8):
After the first year I had interviewed 243 patients but only two reported an NDE (0.8 per cent) and two reported an OBE (0.8 per cent). . . . . So by the by the end of the five years, out of 39 patients who survived cardiac arrest, seven reported an NDE (17.9 per cent). . . . . in total, during the five years, 15 patients reported an NDE and there were eight reports of OBE-type experiences.
She argues strongly against NDEs as some form of wish fulfilment, partly on the grounds that these experiences do not conform to expectations and are sometimes decidedly unpleasant. One ‘was so terrifying for the patient that I had to terminate the interview.’ She adds (2725):
Such experiences are hardly the outcome of wish fulfilment. Further to this, some patients met dead relatives they did not expect to see and some had unexpected reactions from these relatives while others did not experience what they had expected. It seems that expectations were not met and some unexpected factors arose.
She quotes Bruce Greyson’s pithy summary of the situation as far as systematic investigation is concerned (2786):
It is interesting to note Professor Bruce Greyson’s comment: ‘Why is it that scientists who have done the most near-death research believe the mind is not exclusively housed in the brain, whereas those who regard NDEs as hallucinations by and large have not conducted any studies of the phenomena at all?’
She dismisses the contention that NDEs are drug induced on the basis of considerable evidence to the contrary, for example (2807-9):
Interestingly, when drug administration is considered in the hallucination group, out of the 12 patients who reported bizarre hallucinations, 11 (almost 92 per cent) of them received both painkilling and sedative drugs. This appears to suggest that drugs greatly contribute to confusional, bizarre hallucinations . . . . which are in stark contrast to the clear, lucid, well-structured NDEs that were reported.
She then moves into an area of particular practical interest to me given my involvement in NHS Chaplaincy.
She begins by explaining that, in general (2967), ‘spiritual aspects of patient care are an area which is greatly lacking for many reasons, such as lack of confidence or experience, or lack of continuity of care, but probably the biggest factor is excessive workloads and resultant lack of time and nurses.’ She is clear that (2970) ‘addressing spiritual needs of patients and treating patients holistically has the potential to accelerate healing and recovery, reduce medication and resources required and so reduce the hospital stay’ and that (2973) ‘[c]aring for patients’ spiritual needs could also prompt healthcare workers to explore their own spiritual needs.’
She makes the same point (2977) as the recent Horizon programme on the placebo effect also demonstrated experimentally, ‘Drawing on the latest research of the effect of positive emotions on health, it has been shown how feelings of wellbeing and love can greatly enhance recovery and healing.’
What has this to do with NDEs? Quite a great deal as it turns out. First of all these experiences are usually wrongly categorised (2987):
NDEs are often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress or a dissociative disorder, despite the literature warning against this, and they are categorized into conventional diagnostic illnesses that are not appropriate for NDEs.
There is widespread ignorance amongst health staff which adversely affects the care they provide (3003):
Despite NDEs being highly popularized in the media, healthcare workers still lack the knowledge to provide the level of care that these patients require.
She argues for the importance of a more understanding approach (3032):
Caregivers should not discredit NDE/end-of-life experiences because they are at variance with their own worldview but should encourage the person to use it in a positive way and see it as a gift. Although as nurses we are trained to ‘correct’ hallucinations, it is most important that NDEs are not treated in this way but listened to.
She unpacks why this matters (3040):
NDEs are still regarded by some people as hallucinations and many try to explain them away as being due to drugs or lack of oxygen. This is not a criticism; when NDEs are taken at surface value these appear to be very rational, plausible explanations – in fact, these were my own initial reactions to NDEs. Research in the clinical area is now showing these factors to be inadequate explanations and such a response can be detrimental to the NDEr understanding and integrating their experience.
This can lead to long term negative consequences as the patient retreats into silence about the whole experience, questions his or her rationality and suffers from a feeling of alienation.
The next post will go into more detail about what the book reveals of the implications and the aftermath of an NDE.