It’s the age-old question: what happens to us when we die? Near-death survivors share the inexplicable mystery of their experiences with Jo Macfarlane
The doors of the train slammed shut, trapping David Ditchfield’s jacket between them. There was a moment of frustration as he tugged desperately at the material. 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 to die.
But what followed was something far more startling and intense. 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. Together they pose the most tantalising question: is there life after death? For David, and thousands like him, the answer is almost certainly yes.
What David describes is as real for him today as it was when it happened in 2006. In fact, it’s ‘the most real thing I have ever experienced. I was in this darkened, calm space, with all these beautiful orbs of colour flashing and pulsating around me, like landing lights on a runway. 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 recorded for centuries, dating 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.
Studies from around the world suggest one in ten people who survive after their heart stops report a near-death experience. Some are ‘out-of-body’, where patients float above themselves, often in operating theatres. Others, like David, travel to an otherworldly realm and describe details that rarely vary, even across countries, cultures, socio-economic backgrounds and different religious beliefs.
Some mention travelling towards a light, sometimes through a tunnel. Many have spoken to dead 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. Most also describe a sudden understanding of the world, 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. Cross through or over it and there is no going back. 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.’
At the time, David had never heard of 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. But, having been rushed into theatre, surgeons took skin grafts from his legs to rebuild his left arm. It had been sliced open, was badly fractured and the elbow dislocated. One finger had been torn off. He subsequently suffered terrible post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks of the accident.
Yet for David, as for many other survivors, what happened next when he returned to his normal life was as startling as the near-death experience itself. Some people report that technology or machinery starts to malfunction when they are around. Their watches stop working; lightbulbs blow when they flick a switch. 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.
Outside these strange phenomena, people are also often changed in a more fundamental way. Many become more altruistic and care less about money. Some give up their jobs to pursue charity work.
For David, a tradesman, who had been dependent on alcohol, it led to sobriety. He began writing orchestral music, despite having never learned to play an instrument, and his compositions have been performed by 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 far more in the moment 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. There was no connection to anything physical, as if I was leaving myself behind. I knew I could go towards the light if I wanted to, but I didn’t. Then I heard Mayson 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 reported near-death experiences has increased as medicine has advanced; quite simply, more people are being brought back from the brink of death. Dr Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry and neurobehavioural sciences at the University of West Virginia, has studied them for 50 years.
The experience that first piqued his interest involved a young student who had attempted suicide. 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. Since that encounter, he has documented hundreds more and has spent his 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 trained in a technique that involved placing his sterile hands on his apron and using his elbows to instruct the theatre team. Another man was perplexed to meet his sister and his long-dead parents in the beyond. On waking, he found out she had died, without his knowledge, the previous week.
‘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 talk of tunnels, but in less-developed countries where tunnels are rare, people might describe the mouth of a flower, a well or a cave. The basic idea is the same.’
Dr Greyson is among a group of scientists who have tried to find a biological explanation for near-death experiences.
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 a lack of oxygen causing hallucinations, or too much carbon dioxide affecting vision, creating a 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. And out-ofbody experiences also occur when brain data indicates no activity at all. Dr Penny Sartori, a former intensive care nurse who
has researched near-death experiences at the University of Wales, Lampeter, says some people bring back information they could not have known.
‘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.’
American neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who had his own near-death experience
when in a medically induced coma with meningitis in 2008, described travelling through spiritual realms with a female guide. He reported this guide as having ‘a beautiful face, with gorgeous clear blue eyes’. He was inspired to research his birth family after being adopted as a baby, and learned a biological sister, Betsy, had died ten years previously. 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’. A recent international experiment put image cards on high shelves in hospitals, only visible if patients truly floated out of their bodies. Ten per cent reported a near death experience 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.’
Yet neither Dr Greyson nor Dr Sartori is religious. 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, however, a darker side. Some struggle to reconcile their experience with the world, or feel disbelieved and unsupported. There are high rates of divorce and depression. 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 rushed to hospital with internal bleeding. She received several blood transfusions and went into cardiac arrest. ‘It was total darkness, total silence, total nothingness,’ she said. ‘A doorway between life and death – a sort of purgatory.’
But it yielded some profound revelations. ‘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. Coming back from that is hard. 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 had to wear sunglasses to drive at night. ‘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?”’
In some cases, people are physically different afterwards. Dr Sartori recalls a man who was suffering from sepsis following cancer surgery. Unconscious, he later described floating above his body and ‘speaking’ to his father. He also accurately recounted what Dr Sartori did in the room. On waking, his right hand, frozen into a claw-like position since birth, was now normal. ‘It defies explanation,’ Dr Sartori says.
People have reported being healed of illnesses, including cancer. They are largely dismissed as coincidences. 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.’
For now, there are no easy answers. ‘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. But when I started out I thought death was the end. Now, I believe the likely scenario is that it is not.’