Questioning life after death


Doctor conducts studies on near death experiences

gabriel monte
Staff Writer

January 21, 2005


It's the journey to a white light through a tunnel, or the experience of floating over the operating table while under the knife. There is more to death than meets the eye. Consciousness may be more than just a product of brain activity, according to Dr. Jan Holden, a professor in NT's department of Counseling Development and Higher Education. Holden is involved with a study on near death experiences at the University of Virginia, which started last March. The research is actually part of a bigger study funded by Bial, a European pharmaceutical company.

Subjects of the research are patients undergoing operations for pacemakers. The procedure involves stopping the patients' hearts to make sure that the device will work. And that's where Holden's study begins.

"About a half dozen people a year who go through that procedure report having an out-of-body experience," she said.

According to Holden, many of the reports about near death experiences involve people floating out of their bodies and observing what happens below. In western cultures, people who experience this recall going through a tunnel toward a bright light. Holden has a picture in her office depicting the tunnel-experience.

With this in mind, Holden designed a method of proving this phenomenon. A laptop computer that opens flat hangs on the ceiling with the screen facing away from the floor. A series of animations runs once the computer starts up. Holden's husband, a computer software engineer, developed the program.

With this study, Holden hopes to provide support for the theory that consciousness is more than a product of brain activity. "If consciousness is a product of the brain, then when the brain dies, consciousness dies. If the brain is like a cell phone in the field of consciousness, then when the brain dies, consciousness continues," she said.

She also sait that the study could also give people insight to what man's purpose really is. "Loving and learning tend to be the purpose of our being," she said. "... Positive results in this research would lend credibility to what near death experiencers are saying and potentially influence some of our most basic beliefs about what humans are and why we are here." Research in this part of human life may also help individuals who deal with people facing their own mortality.

"I think that we don't have a lot of information about the death and dying process ... any research that helps clarify it is an advantage for councilors in terms of working with people who are facing that part of the journey of life," said Dr. Joseph Doster, Program Director of the Health Psychology/Behavioral Medicine Program.

Holden's interest in near death experience started after reading "The Great Soul Trial," in her sophomore year in college. The book was the true story of an Arizona man who went missing and was presumed dead. Seven years after his disappearance, the state went through his safety deposit box and found more than $100,000 and instructions to spend it on life after death research. According to Holden, people with a near death experience go through a change in personality. Some become more spiritual, though they may not be religious. Others become more sensitive to others and they feel more connected to the people around them. Most of all, Holden said, they no longer have a fear of death.

"Changes in values and attitudes and the most uniform change that is virtually unanimous among near death experiencers is the complete loss of fear of death. NDEers say that there is no such thing as death of consciousness." she said. "Paradoxical changes happen in that state of consciousness."

There are times, according to Holden, that a person experiencing near death relives moments in their lives and being on the receiving end of their actions. She said that a man claiming to work as an assassin for the U.S. in Vietnam had a near death experience of being on the receiving end of the bullets he fired. She said he also experienced the grief his target's family members felt. "People who come out of it ... realizing that the separation between people is artificial that, really, we all are connected, that when we do something to another person that we really do it to ourselves," Holden said.

Holden said research in near death experiences has increased, and is also the president of the International Association of Near Death Studies, Inc. In 2001 a major study on Near Death Experience was published in the Lancet, a medical journal in the United Kingdom. However, researchers encounter an obstacle when they look for financing. Holden is no stranger to this. A few years ago, she tried to apply for a grant to study near death experiences at NT, but the University denied the grant after review.

"One of the reviewers said that NT should avoid associating with 'paranormal research,'" she said. "That it would threaten our credibility as a serious research institute." Research in paranormal phenomena like near death experience usually goes through a lot of criticism.

According to Doster, however, research in near death experiences does have merit. "I think that near death experiences are dealing with a more acute experience of death," he said. "But it also has implications for individuals who are in a longer, more prolonged dying process. To say it has no merits is like saying well, there's one part of our human development we don't really want to understand anything about."