We are glad to have an interview with Dr. Pim van Lommel www.consciousnessbeyondlife.com, a Dutch cardiologist and a prominent researcher on near-death experiences. Dr. van Lommel started his research in 1986. Among other works, he is the author of an important research paper published in 2001 in Lancet and of the book Consciousness Beyond Life, The Science of the Near-Death Experience which was first published in Dutch.
What kind of evidence for survival of death is most convincing for you?
First of all: I don’t talk about survival of death, but about the continuity of (nonlocal) consciousness. And I am also reluctant to talk about ‘evidence’ or ‘proof’, but for me it is beyond reasonable doubt that there is a continuity of consciousness after the death of our physical body. Most convincing for me are the studies of near-death experience (NDE) in survivors of cardiac arrest because in these studies it has been proven that enhanced (nonlocal) consciousness can be experienced at the very moment the total brain does not function anymore. In our Dutch prospective study of 344 survivors of cardiac arrest, which was published in The Lancet in December 2001, we had to come to the surprising conclusion that NDEs were experienced during a transient functional loss of all functions of the cortex and of the brainstem, with a flat line EEG. But how did we know that the EEG is flat in those patients with cardiac arrest? Through many studies with induced cardiac arrest in both human and animal models cerebral function has been shown to be severely compromised during cardiac arrest, with complete cessation of cerebral flow, causing sudden loss of consciousness and of all body reflexes (function of the cortex), but also with the abolition of all brain-stem activity with the loss of the gag reflex and the corneal reflex, and fixed and dilated pupils are clinical findings in those patients. And also the function of the respiratory center, located close to the brainstem, fails, resulting in apnea. The electrical activity in the cerebral cortex (but also in the deeper structures of the brain in animal studies) has been shown to be absent after 10-20 seconds (a flat-line EEG). In acute myocardial infarction the duration of cardiac arrest in the Coronary Care Unit is always longer than 20 seconds, usually at least 60-120 seconds, and in a hospital ward or in an out-of-hospital arrest it even takes much longer. However, 18% of those patients could report an enhanced consciousness. And because of the occasional and verifiable out-of-body experiences, we know that the NDE must have happened during the period of unconsciousness, and not in the first or last seconds of cardiac arrest. Based on these NDE-studies one can conclude that there are good reasons to assume that our consciousness does not always coincide with the functioning of our brain: enhanced consciousness can sometimes be experienced separately from the body. So I had to come to the inevitable conclusion that most likely the brain must have a facilitating and not a producing function to experience consciousness. I believe now that presumably death, like birth, may be a mere passing from one state of consciousness into another. Death is only the end of our physical aspects. Moreover, during an NDE it is sometimes possible to communicate (thought-transfer) with the consciousness of deceased loved ones, even in some cases where it was impossible to know that they were dead. Also cases of after-death communication (ADC), with communication with the consciousness of deceased loved ones, and sometimes information was shared that was not yet known, which is quite a strong indication for the continuity of consciousness. Like the NDE there is also a huge taboo to talk about ADCs, because they cannot be ‘objectively proven’.
How have you contributed to the study of survival of death?
I have contributed to the study of the continuity of consciousness by our prospective study in survivors of cardiac arrest, because we could prove that after the temporary loss of all functions of the brain during clinical death (= cardiac arrest) the experience of enhanced consciousness was still possible in 18% of those patients. In the case of the definitive and permanent death of our body the loss of all functions of the brain is however permanent, and in that case, and based in these NDE-studies, it is it highly possible that (nonlocal) consciousness can still be experienced, as can also be demonstrated in the contact with the consciousness of deceased relatives during NDE, or during ADC.
How close do you feel we are in establishing without a doubt that there is life after death?
For me it is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ that there is a continuity of our ‘nonlocal’ consciousness. But this conclusion about the continuity of consciousness is not ‘without a doubt’, it will never be possible to ‘prove’ this idea because consciousness is subjective, and (materialist) science uses only objective methodology. With our current medical and scientific concepts it seems indeed impossible to objectively explain all aspects of the subjective experiences as reported by patients with an NDE during a transient loss of all functions of the brain. We cannot measure what we think or feel because we cannot measure the content of our ‘subjective’ consciousness. We measure just changing activation. And neural activation is simply neural activation; it only reflects the use of structures. Based on recent NDE-studies in survivors of cardiac arrest the widely accepted assumption that consciousness and memories are produced by large groups of neurons and are localized in the brain should now be discussed. We have to admit that it seems impossible to reduce consciousness to neural processes as conceived by contemporary neuroscience. The scientific study of NDE pushes us to the limits of our medical and neurophysiological ideas about the range of human consciousness and mind-brain relation.
Can you mention some of your current projects related to the topic of survival of death?
I am currently not involved in any scientific research. But I have written a book, and also some main articles about NDE. In 2005 I was awarded the ‘Bruce Greyson Research Award’ on behalf of the IANDS (the International Association of Near-Death Studies) in the USA, and in 2006 the President of India awarded me the ‘Life Time Achievement Award’ at the World Congress on Clinical and Preventive Cardiology 2006 in New Delhi. Recently I received the 2010 Book Award granted by the Scientific and Medical Network (UK). In the last 10 years I have lectured worldwide about NDE, nonlocal consciousness and the mind-brain relation.
Book: In November 2007 my book ‘Eindeloos Bewustzijn’ [Endless Consciousness] was published in the Netherlands, which was a national bestseller with more than 100.000 copies sold within one year. It was nominated for ‘The book of the Year 2008’ in The Netherlands. Thereupon it has been published in several languages. In 2009 my book was published in Germany, entitled ‘Endloses Bewusstsein. Neue medizinische Fakten zur Nahtoderfahrung’. In 2010 it was released in English by Harper Collins, entitled: ‘Consciousness Beyond Life. The science of the near-death Experience’. In 2011 a Polish edition was released, and in 2012 a French edition was published, entitled: ‘Mort ou Pas? Les dernières découvertes médicales sur les EMI’. Also in 2012 a Spanish translation was published, with the title: Consciencia màs allá de la Vida’. Worldwide more than 200.000 copies of my book have now been sold.
– Van Lommel P, Van Wees R, Meyers V, Elfferich I. Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. The Lancet 2001; 358: 2039-2045.
– Van Lommel, P. About the Continuity of our Consciousness, Adv Exp Med Biol. 2004; 550: 115-132. [Brain Death and Disorders of Consciousness. Machado, C. and Shewmon, D.A., Eds. New York, Boston, Dordrecht, London, Moscow: Kluwer Academic/ Plenum Publishers]
– Van Lommel, P. Near-Death Experience, Consciousness and the Brain: A new concept about the continuity of our consciousness based on recent scientific research on near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest. World Futures, The Journal of General Evolution, 2006; 62: 134-151.
– Van Lommel, P. Near-death experiences: the experience of the self as real and not as an illusion. 2011; Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1234: 19-28.
– Van Lommel, P. Nonlocal Consciousness. A concept based on scientific research on near-death experiences during cardiac arrest. 2013; Journal of Consciousness Studies, 20, No. 1–2 : 7-48.