Sunday, 4 June 2017

“You don’t really know something until your body knows it.”

*WARNING – Minor plot details for the Netflix series ‘The OA’ ahead. No major spoilers*

The recent Netflix hit series ‘The OA’ examines the subject of near death experiences and life after death, but is there any scientific evidence to support these seemingly far-fetched plot lines?

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are a phenomenon whereby an individual will experience a variety of sensations upon impending death or upon dying, reported to include visions of deceased relatives or religious figures, detachment from the physical body, feeling of serenity and peace, the presence of a light (i.e. at the end of a tunnel), and the typical ‘life flashing before your eyes’ recall of memories.


In the Netflix series ‘The OA’, Prairie (or OA) is one of multiple characters who are near death experiencers. Her near death experiences (NDEs) are depicted as an alternate dimension of ethereal darkness filled with stars and galaxies where she meets Khatun, assumed to be a guardian angel or guide, who gives her the choice to return to the living or move on and see her deceased loved ones again. Oh, and there’s also some weird stuff with swallowing a bird.

But whilst in the series the "evil scientist" Dr Hap experiments on Prairie to find scientific proof of an afterlife, has modern science in the real world found any evidence to back up the fantastical claims of near death experiencers? Are patients who report NDEs really entering heaven or another dimension? Probably not, no. And science doesn’t think so either.*
(*though there are some prominent medical doctors who believe otherwise).

Wanting to believe? When experience trumps science.
Dr Mary Neal, Director of Spinal Surgery at the University of Southern California, and Dr Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who has previously lectured at Harvard Medical School, have both reported profound near death experiences which they could not explain by their own medical records. In 1999, Dr Mary Neal drowned whilst kayaking, and reportedly went to heaven and was welcomed by spirits dressed in robes; she recalls conversing with Jesus and being warned about the future death of her eldest son.

15th October 2012: Cover story of Newsweek magazine reads 'Heaven is Real: A Doctor's Experience With the Afterlife' by Dr Eben Alexander.

More recently, in 2008 Dr Eben Alexander suffered from bacterial meningitis and went into a coma, during which time he reports having an NDE. Upon reviewing his medical charts after recovery, he concluded that his brain was ‘shut down’ during the NDE, leading him to conclude that the only possible explanation for the visions he experienced was due to his soul leaving his body and visiting the afterlife (this visit to the afterlife reportedly included an offer of unconditional love from "a beautiful girl with high cheekbones and deep blue eyes"). 

A Dying Brain vs. A Dying Wish

Clinically, NDEs have been associated with clinical death; that is the arrest of cardiac and respiratory functions, and theories regarding the cause of NDEs have ranged from the resulting oxygen shortage to the brain (brain anoxia) to the body’s neurochemical responses to the trauma. Brain anoxia during cardiac arrest could cause damage to areas of the brain, and has been suggested to account for the visual, auditory, and memory reports from NDE experiencers. For example, damage to the temporoparietal junction (the area of the brain where the temporal and parietal lobes meet) could cause ‘out of body’ experiences (OBEs), the feeling of a presence, or meeting a spirit. Investigations into transient cerebral hypoxia (temporarily cutting of oxygen supply to the brain) was investigated by inducing syncopes (fainting) in subjects; the study reported healthy subjects experiencing symptoms of an NDE, with 47% reporting entering another world! During a cardiac arrest there are probably several other mechanisms occurring, in addition to brain anoxia, which could cause the characteristics of an NDE.


The cerebral cortex is divided into 4 lobes: the frontal lobe (blue), parietal lobe (yellow), occipital lobe (pink) and the temporal lobe (green). Damage to the region where the parietal and temporal lobe meet (the temporoparietal junction, or TPJ) has been known to cause out-of-body experiences (OBEs).

No pulse, no respiration, and fixed dilated pupils are used as measures to determine a lack of brain function, and should mean that it is not possible to form memories of experiences during this time. Without further tests to define the exact period of brain activity at which the NDE may occur, it isn’t really possible to know if the brain is classifiably ‘dead’ during an NDE. However, using electroencephalography (a test that detects brain activity), studies in rats have demonstrated heightened brain activity directly following cardiac arrest; rats anesthetised to stop their hearts demonstrated a spike in brain activity suggesting regions of the brain were communicating more actively than an awake brain, before flatlining after 30 seconds. Could this burst of activity provide an individual with the experiences they describe?

Clearly the kind of experiments that Dr Hap conducts in ‘The OA’ violate human rights and are ethically wrong, meaning that in the real world tangeable data on humans experiencing NDEs is much more difficult to obtain. There have been several small studies gathering anecdotal data which have focused on simply proving that NDEs are possible. In 2008 the AWAreness during REsuscitation’ or ‘AWARE’ study by Dr Sam Parnia, 2,060 cardiac arrest patients from 15 different hospitals in the UK, US, and Austria were assessed for NDEs. Of this sample group, only 9 were identified as having experienced an NDE, with 2 of these reporting specific auditory/visual awareness of the physical environment (the hospital room). Follow up interview of one of these subjects (a 57 year old man) details an out of body experience where he observed the events that occurred in the room at the time of his resuscitation (to read about a similar case, look up the 'Tennis Shoe' near death experience). As one report isn't much to go on in terms of proof, further research is due to take place in a second study,  'AWARE II'. In addition, other studies have gathered reports detailing the transformative effects of NDEs i.e. found purpose in life and relationships.

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Is death the end, or is there a life after this one, a heaven, a place where your spirit goes after your physical body had died? I’d say no, but then again I am an atheist, scientist, and sceptic of pretty much all things paranormal or spiritual. Whilst evidence to support the argument either way is severly lacking at this time, personally I believe NDEs will be shown to be the result of a combination of psychological influences (‘wishful thinking’) combined with neuroanatomical damage when blood flow (and therefore oxygen) to the brain is impaired. Maybe I’m wrong. But let’s hope I never have the chance to find out!
- Jess

'Ascent of the Blessed' by Hieronymous Bosch (circa 1450-1516)
Some NDE researchers associate this painting with aspects of near death experiences.

Title quote from 'The OA', Season 1, Episode 4 'Away'