It’s the age-old question: what happens to us when we die? Jo Macfarlane shares the inexplicable mystery of near-death survivors’ experiences with Jo Macfarlane
The doors of the train slammed shut, trapping David Ditchfield’s jacket between them. The jacket caught in the train’s doors. David Ditchfield tangled desperately at it for a moment. Then, as the train began to move from the platform at Huntingdon station, forcing him to jog alongside, David realised with deepening horror that, with his jacket caught, he’d shortly be dragged underneath the train. This, he thought was how he was going be killed.
What followed was far more intense and startling. For as he lay in hospital with horrifying injuries – the speed of the train and the pull of gravity had thrown him clear – he lost consciousness and had what’s described as a ‘near-death experience’. ‘All the noise of the room died out and the pain disappeared,’ the 61-year-old recalls today. ‘There was silence, and stillness. I was in another world entirely.’
David’s extraordinary experience echoes those of many others that have flummoxed scientists for decades. They pose the most intriguing question: Is there life after death? David, like thousands of others, believes that the answer to this question is almost certain.
David’s description is just as real today as it was in 2006 when it happened. In fact, it’s ‘the most real thing I have ever experienced. I was in a darkened and calm space with all these beautiful colours flashing and pulsating around, like landing lights on runways. The colours were more intense than anything I’d seen before.’
There was a ‘comforting presence’ beside him, a figure David felt he’d known his whole life, and two others who used their hands to ‘heal’ his physical and emotional wounds. ‘It was like being surrounded by love – it’s the only way I can describe it. Somehow, I knew I was staring at the source of all creation.’
It would be easy to dismiss it, as sceptics have, as an extraordinary dream brought on by extreme shock and the brain’s reaction to trauma. Except that David’s description of what he ‘saw’ is not unique. Remarkably similar reports have been reported for centuries back to Greek and Roman times. And there’s compelling evidence convincing scientists that these near-death experiences are proof that some form of consciousness may continue after the heart and the brain stop functioning.
I knew I was looking at the source of all creation
Research from all over the globe suggests that one in ten people who survive after a heart attack have had a near-death experience. Some are ‘out-of-body’, where patients float above themselves, often in operating theatres. David is one such example. He describes details that rarely change, even when comparing countries, cultures, and religious beliefs.
Some claim to have seen a light and others mention that they traveled through a tunnel to get there. Many people have spoken to deceased relatives or ethereal beings. As in David’s experience, many instinctively sense a higher power – which, they say, can’t be described by language alone. Many also describe a sudden understanding and awareness of the world, and a sense that everything is interconnected.
But there is always some kind of boundary – a door, bridge or river – which represents a point of no return. You can’t go back if you cross it. David had the sensation of being ‘dragged back by an invisible force. I didn’t want to come back, but it happened in an instant, like I’d crashed through some invisible barrier.’
David had never experienced near-death experiences. He woke in A&E, returning to shock and pain. He doesn’t know whether his heart stopped – to this day, he hasn’t asked medics how hard they had to battle to save his life. After being rushed to the theatre, surgeons performed skin grafts on his left arm to rebuild it. It had been badly cut and fractured, and the elbow was dislocated. One finger had been ripped off. He suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks from the accident.
David, like many survivors, found that the next step after he was able to return to his normal life was just as surprising as the near death experience. Some people claim that technology and machinery can malfunction when they’re around. When they turn a switch, their watches stop working and lightbulbs go out. At one conference on the subject in Texas, new microphones had to be bought when they stopped working on the day people who’d had near-death experiences took to the stage (despite having functioned normally when doctors and scientists gave their presentations over preceding days). These are anecdotal reports and haven’t been replicated in trials, yet they seem to have no plausible explanation.
People are often transformed beyond these bizarre phenomena. Many people become more generous and less concerned about money. Many people give up their jobs to support charity work.
David, a tradesman who was dependent on alcohol, found sobriety through it. Despite never having learned an instrument, he began to compose orchestral music. His compositions have been performed at the Chamber Orchestra of St Ives. ‘I realised, looking back on my life, that it was linear, just living on the surface,’ he says. ‘I’d just skim over adversity. But now I know death isn’t the end, it all feels so much more three-dimensional. I live more in the now and appreciate the small things. ‘When I lost my mother 18 months ago, I told her, “You’re going to love where you’re going now”. It was a huge comfort.’
For Zoë Chapman, 36, from North London, a near-death experience also had a galvanising effect on her life. She remembers ‘everything going black’ when there were complications following the birth of her son Mayson, now nine. ‘I just saw this tunnel, with a bright light at the end,’ she says. ‘It was dark and calm and I thought I must be dead. It was as if there was no connection to anything, and I felt like I was abandoning myself. I knew I could go towards the light if I wanted to, but I didn’t. Then, I heard Mayson’s cry. It was like a shot of adrenalin, and it brought me back.’
Zoë (who recently invented the Whizzer, a portable toilet for children) had mental-health struggles and had previously attempted suicide. But she says: ‘I was given the option to die and I didn’t take it. It has changed everything. My bond with Mayson is so strong.’
The number of near-death experiences reported has increased with medical advances; simply put, more people have been brought back from the brink. Dr Bruce Greyson is a professor of psychology and neurobehavioural sciences at West Virginia University. He has been studying them for 50+ years.
One young student attempted suicide, and that was his first encounter. She had been unconscious when he visited her, but the next day she not only recognised him, but recounted a conversation he’d had with her friend in a separate room down the hall.
She also asked what he’d spilt down his tie – moments before being called to the ward, he’d dropped spaghetti on it, and covered it up with a white coat. He has documented hundreds of similar incidents since that time and has spent his entire career studying the phenomenon.
One man having a heart bypass reported floating above his body and watching his surgeon ‘flapping like a chicken’. The doctor had learned a technique that required him to place his sterile hands on an apron and use his elbows as a guide for the theatre crew. Another man was puzzled to find his sister and long-dead parents in heaven. He woke up to discover that she had died the week before.
‘What’s happening is either fundamental to our biology, or fundamental to something else that we can’t yet explain,’ says Dr Greyson. ‘The only differences, across all cultures, lie in how we describe these events. Some people talk about tunnels. However, in less developed countries, where tunnels are not common, people might refer to the mouth of a well, a cave, or a flower. The basic idea is the same.’
Dr Greyson is one of a number of scientists who have attempted to find a biological explanation. Some suggest it’s the dying brain releasing a rush of endorphins, which creates a sense of peace and wellbeing. Studies of dying rats have shown their brain activity spikes just before they die, although this hasn’t been reproduced in humans. If damage occurs to the brain’s temporal parietal junction – which assembles data from our senses to create our perception of our body – it could induce an ‘out-of-body’ sensation. Other possibilities include hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen or too much CO2 affecting vision, creating the tunnel effect. But crucially, Dr Greyson admits, science can’t yet fully explain the phenomenon.
Near-death experiences have been reported in people attached to hospital monitors, which proves they weren’t lacking in oxygen. Out-of-body experiences can also occur when brain activity is not detected. Dr Penny Sartori is a former nurse in intensive care who studied near-death experiences at University of Wales Lampeter. She says that some people bring back information that they didn’t know. ‘One patient had a message for a living relative,’ she says. ‘That relative was astounded as she’d gone to great lengths to keep the information secret.’
Eben Alexander (an American neurosurgeon) described a near-death experience in which he was placed in a medically inducible coma for meningitis in 2008. He also described a journey through the spiritual realms with his female guide. He reported this guide as having ‘a beautiful face, with gorgeous clear blue eyes’.
After being adopted as a child, he was inspired to search his birth family and discovered that Betsy, his biological sister, had died ten-years before. When a surviving sister, Kathy, sent him a photograph of Betsy, Eben was stunned: she was ‘unmistakably’ the blue-eyed woman who had been his spirit guide.
Dr Greyson admits ‘a lot of these questions are not going to be answered by our logic and our science’. An international experiment placed image cards on shelves in hospitals. They were visible only if patients actually floated from their bodies. Ten percent of patients reported near-death experiences, but none saw the images.
‘I’m fairly well convinced now that there is something non-physical about us that is able to separate from the physical body during a near-death experience,’ Dr Greyson says. ‘I’ve seen enough evidence suggesting that we continue after death.’
Dr Greyson and Dr Sartori don’t profess religious beliefs. Whether we survive death ‘has nothing to do with whether there’s a god’, says Dr Greyson. It’s something more fundamental about what it means to be human, they explain, and whether consciousness exists separately from our brain – rather than being created by it.
In fact, those who had faith beforehand often tend to abandon it, as their experience doesn’t tally with any organised religion.
There is a darker side to all of this. Some people have difficulty reconciling their experiences with the outside world. Others feel disbelieved or unsupported. High rates of depression and divorce are common. Not every experience is uplifting, either: some report a distressing ‘hell-like’ realm.
‘People perceive there’s something “wrong” with them, or it happened because they’re somehow a “bad” person,’ Dr Sartori explains. ‘That’s not true. It could simply be these people are clinging on to life and fighting and resisting the experience.’
Gigi Strehler, who runs a support group, Near Death Experience UK, was one of five per cent to experience ‘the void’ – a realm of almost total darkness. In 2011, she was admitted to hospital for internal bleeding.
She was given blood transfusions, and then went into cardiac arrest. ‘It was total darkness, total silence, total nothingness,’ she said. ‘A doorway between life and death – a sort of purgatory.’
It did however lead to some profound insights. ‘I experienced my life through everyone else’s encounter with me,’ she says. ‘I now know the only judgment comes not from some “higher being” but from how you feel about yourself. It is hard to come back from this. You realise that every interaction has meaning, which is partly why people who have had near-death experiences become nicer people.’
Gigi also developed photosensitivity, and she had to wear sunglasses at night to drive. ‘The grass was the greenest green you could imagine. Others report sensitivity to sound,’ she says, ‘or that they can sense “auras” around people – these are lawyers, doctors, bus drivers, who haven’t exactly spent their lives aligning their chakras.’
Gigi’s support group now has around 700 members worldwide. ‘People think we sit around going, “Oh, I went down this tunnel of light and saw Grandma.” But we’re actually asking, “What is this reality. What is consciousness? How could I have had this awareness when I was technically dead?”’
Sometimes people can be physically different after surgery. Dr Sartori remembers a man who suffered from sepsis after having his cancer surgery. Unconscious, he later described floating above his body and ‘speaking’ to his father. He also accurately recalled what Dr Sartori did in that room. His right hand, which had been frozen in a claw-like shape since birth, was now normal upon his awakening. ‘It defies explanation,’ Dr Sartori says.
People have reported being healed from cancer and other illnesses. They are often dismissed as a coincidence. But Dr Sartori suggests: ‘Perhaps a near-death experience is such a powerful thing in the mind that it overwrites other programmes we have running. If we could learn more, we could come up with a way to harness it – it could revolutionise how we treat other problems.’
There are no easy solutions at this time. ‘Am I 100 per cent sure near-death experiences are real? No,’ Dr Greyson says. ‘Maybe there’s some data we haven’t seen yet that will change our minds. When I started, I believed death was the end. Now, I believe the likely scenario is that it is not.’
Shine On by David Ditchfield is published by O-Books, £13.99. After by Bruce Greyson is published by Transworld, £16.99. To order copies of Shine on for £11.89 and After for £14.44 until 14 November, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20