Dr. Sam Parnia (with Josh Young), Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death (Harper One, 2013).
“Howl, howl, howl! … She’s gone for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives …
This feather stirs; she lives! If it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.”
— King Lear, Act V, Scene 3
The feather’s trembling is an illusion. Cordelia is dead; Lear’s sorrows go unredeemed. “Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” Of course she won’t. When Shakespeare wrote those lines, the technology that could bring Cordelia back was 400 years in the future.
It sounds odd, in any context other than the religious, to speak of bringing dead people back to life, and it’s one of the very considerable merits of Dr. Sam Parnia’s intriguing book that he chooses to embrace that oddity. He leads off with the story of Joe Tiralosi, a Brooklyn man who died of a heart attack in August 2009. Sure he was dead: no heartbeat, no breathing–that feather wouldn’t have stirred–no brain function. He remained that way for 47 minutes. Then, in the emergency room of New York Presbyterian Hospital, a resuscitation team brought him back to life. He walked out of that hospital a fully functional Joe Tiralosi.
47 minutes. That’s not exactly the dead-four-days-by-this-time-he-stinketh of the Gospel story of Lazarus (John 11:39), but it’s still pretty impressive. And about a year and half after Tiralosi’s return from the halls of death, a Londoner named Arun Bhasin came back to full functionality after three and a half hours of being dead.
Bhasin was lucky, if you want to call that luck. He had his collapse outdoors on a chilly night. By the time he reached the hospital, his body temperature had dropped to 86 degrees. Parnia tells us, and I’ll trust him–according to the jacket blurb, he’s “assistant professor of critical care medicine and director of resuscitation research at the State University of New York at Stony Brook”–that cold inhibits the processes by which, after death, the body cells become so impaired they can’t function any longer. Giving resuscitation a longer time to work.
Near the end of his book, Parnia drops a real bomb: The people who died on the Titanic, whose corpses floated in the freezing ocean waters for two hours before another ship came to the rescue–how many of them could have been brought back to life, if the technology had been immediately available?
In speaking of the “dead” and the “corpses,” I’m following Parnia’s usage, by which once your heart stops beating and you stop breathing and your brain shuts down, you are dead, albeit not “permanently and irrevocably” dead. I’m aware, as is Parnia, that it’s easy to quarrel with this usage. The problem is, once you abandon the conventional criteria for death, the statement that “no one returns from the dead” becomes a tautology rather than a truth. If you can be resuscitated, by definition you weren’t dead in the first place. Q.E.D.
Thus far, Parnia’s made what I think is a pretty convincing case. The received wisdom of centuries, according to which death is instantaneous and irrevocable–like a light bulb blowing out, and the “self” vanishes in that instant like an unsaved computer file when the power blinks off–is simply wrong. A 21st-century Lear need not have despaired.
But there’s a lot more in his book than that.
Parnia gives a lot of space to the NDEs, “near death experiences,” which he prefers to call ADEs, “actual death experiences,” since by his standards many of those who report them have in fact been dead. Joe Tiralosi had one, during those 47 minutes his heart wasn’t beating and his brain lay idle.
“He described encountering a luminous, loving, compassionate being that gave him a loving feeling and warmth. His encounter with this being was ineffable. He couldn’t find the right words to fully describe his sensations. This encounter and the whole experience had comforted him to know what it would be like when, in his own words, he goes ‘to the other side.’ Because he had experienced this luminous feeling, he said that he was no longer afraid of death” (pages 8-9).
Far and away the most poignant of Parnia’s stories is one that even he would surely call “NDE,” the experience of a 3 1/2-year-old named Andrew who went through open-heart surgery. “About two weeks after the surgery, Andrew started asking his parents when he could go back to ‘the sunny place with all the flowers and animals.’ His mother told him that they would go to the park when he was feeling better. He said, ‘No, I don’t mean the park. I mean the sunny place I went to with the lady.’ When she asked him what lady, he replied, ‘The lady that floats.’
“His mother told him that she didn’t understand what he meant and apologized that she must have forgotten where this sunny place was. He said: ‘You didn’t take me there. The lady came and got me. She held my hand and we floated up. You were outside while I was having my heart mended. It was okay, the lady looked after me … the lady loves me … it wasn’t scary. Everything was bright and colorful [but] I wanted to come back to see you.’ …
“About a year after Andrew’s operation, he and his mother were watching a TV program that showed a child having heart surgery. When the bypass machine appeared on the screen, Andrew grew very excited and declared, ‘I had that machine.’ His mother said she didn’t think he was right about that, but Andrew insisted he was. His mother then pointed out that he was asleep during his operation and therefore would not have seen any machines. He said, ‘I know I was asleep, but I could see it when I was looking down.’ She questioned him about this, and he replied, ‘You know, I told you, when I floated up with the lady'” (page 137).
So was Andrew right about the machine, or was his mother? Parnia never tells us, nor does he indicate that he made any attempt to find out. This, for me, was the biggest disappointment of his book: that he leaves this crucial point unexplored.
Parnia sees the NDE/ADEs as human experiences transcending culture, though often viewed through cultural lenses by those who’ve gone through them and need to make sense of them. (The light-being is Jesus, or the light-being is Krishna.) Indeed, it’s hard to imagine what cultural or religious biases might have fed into little Andrew’s recollections. They point, he thinks, to a consciousness that persists even when the brain is no longer functioning. We know this, of course, only for what Parnia calls the “first period of death,” the time when it’s still reversible. But once you grant that consciousness can exist independent of the brain, in some manner wholly beyond current scientific understanding, there’s no obvious reason why it shouldn’t keep on indefinitely.
In other words, we live forever.
If true, this is probably the best news humankind has ever received. Far better, indeed, than the Christian Gospel, since there’s no room in this economy for anyone’s damnation. (Parnia does mention the unpleasant subject of “negative NDEs,” but quickly lets it drop.) Precisely for this reason, it needs to be greeted with suspicion. How remarkable it would be, Freud says somewhere in Moses and Monotheism, if reality were to be so exactly as we wish it. He wasn’t talking about NDEs, but his caution fits them perfectly.
Parnia mentions a number of suggestions, all of them more or less speculative, of how NDEs might be explained from a materialist, brain-centered paradigm. In the grand panorama of the history of science, these hypotheses may turn out to be the 21st-century equivalent of the “epicycles,” those last-ditch efforts of the Ptolemaic astronomers to squeeze the pesky observational data into the framework of their Earth-centered universe. Or one of them, or some combination of them, may turn out to be true. The “smoking gun,” a really well-established case of someone knowing something from an NDE out-of-body experience that he or she couldn’t have known any other way (like Andrew with his machine), remains as elusive as the wreckage of crashed UFOs.
Consider the following options: In the first, I enter after my death into a timeless, eternal consciousness of light and peace. In the second, my dying brain creates for me the illusion of entering such a realm, after which I cease to exist. The first makes me immortal, the second mortal. But from the point of view of my experience, is there any difference between them?
I like to think of our lives as bubbles cast up by a stream as it tumbles over rocks. The bubbles survive for a few seconds, or in some exceptionally hardy cases the greater part of a minute. Then they pop. From the perspective of the individual bubble, its demise is the ultimate catastrophe. From the stream’s perspective, there’s no catastrophe at all, but only part of the unending flow. The practice of spirituality, as I understand it, is the deliberate effort of us “bubbles” to adopt, however incompletely, the perspective of the stream.
Could the meaning of the NDE/ADE phenomenon be that this happens automatically, by whatever evolution-driven trick of our mortal minds, as a part of our process of dying?
In which case the Reaper comes for each of us, not with a scythe but with a kindly light. “If it be so, / It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows / That ever I have felt.”
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+