Soul-searching doctors find life after death By Jonathan Petre (Filed: 22/10/2000) THE first scientific study of "near-death" experiences has found new evidence to suggest that consciousness or the "soul" can continue to exist after the brain has ceased to function. The findings by two eminent doctors, based on a year-long study of heart attack survivors, could provoke fresh controversy over that most profound of questions: is there life after death? Reports of "near-death" experiences, in which people close to death have vivid encounters with bright lights and heavenly beings, date back centuries, but the phenomenon has been treated with scepticism by most academics. The new study concludes, however, that a number of people have almost certainly had these experiences after they were pronounced clinically dead. This would suggest that the mind or consciousness can survive the death of the brain - a conclusion that was hailed by clerics last night as supporting religious faith. Bishop Stephen Sykes, the professor of theology at Durham University and chairman of the Church of England's Doctrine Commission, said the findings were "absolutely fascinating". He added: "I do not find them surprising, however, as I believe life is much more mysterious than we usually think it is. For theologians, the soul is far more than consciousness or the mind. But these findings challenge the crude idea that when a person's brain dies, that, as far as the person's existence is concerned, is that." The Bishop of Basingstoke, the Rt Rev Geoffrey Rowell, another commission member, said: "These near-death experiences counter the materialist view that we are nothing more than computers made of meat." Based on interviews with survivors of heart attacks at Southampton General Hospital's cardiac unit, the new study is to be published in the respected medical journal Resuscitation next year. The study's authors, Dr Peter Fenwick, a consultant neuropsychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, and Dr Sam Parnia, a clinical research fellow and registrar at Southampton hospital, stress that more research is needed. Dr Parnia said: "These people were having these experiences when we wouldn't expect them to happen, when the brain shouldn't be able to sustain lucid processes or allow them to form memories that would last. So it might hold an answer to the question of whether mind or consciousness is actually produced by the brain or whether the brain is a kind of intermediary for the mind, which exists independently." Dr Fenwick said: "If the mind and brain can be independent, then that raises questions about the continuation of consciousness after death. It also raises the question about a spiritual component to humans and about a meaningful universe with a purpose rather than a random universe." During the study period, 63 cardiac arrest patients survived and were interviewed within a week. Of those, 56 had no recollection of their period of unconsciousness, a result that might have been expected in all cases. Seven survivors, however, had memories, although only four passed the Grayson scale, the strict medical criteria for assessing near-death experiences. These four recounted feelings of peace and joy, time speeded up, heightened senses, lost awareness of body, seeing a bright light, entering another world, encountering a mystical being and coming to a "point of no return". Three of them described themselves as non-practising Anglicans while the fourth was a lapsed Roman Catholic. By examining medical records, the researchers said the contention of many critics that near-death experiences were the result of a collapse of brain functions caused by lack of oxygen were highly unlikely. None of those who underwent the experiences had low levels of oxygen. Researchers were also able to rule out claims that unusual combinations of drugs were to blame because the resuscitation procedure in the hospital unit was the same in every case. Dr Parnia, who was trained at the Guys and St Thomas' medical school, University of London, said: "I started off as a sceptic but, having weighed up all the evidence, I now think that there is something going on. Essentially, it comes back to the question of whether the mind or consciousness is produced from the brain. If we can prove that the mind is produced by the brain, I don't think there is anything after we die because essentially we are conscious beings. "If, on the contrary, the brain is like an intermediary which manifests the mind, like a television will act as an intermediary to manifest waves in the air into a picture or a sound, we can show that the mind is still there after the brain is dead. And that is what I think these near-death experiences indicate." Christopher French, a reader in psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, said he had not seen the new study but remained sceptical. "Near-death experiences could be pointing towards the soul or the mind leaving the body, but they could just be the brain trying to make sense of what is a very unusual event," he said.