“Journalists have invented a new term, ‘clinically dead.’ I don’t know what that term means, but the fact is Muamba was dead. And it was not by a miracle he was brought back to life, it was by science,” Parnia said.
One of the stranger things you realize in reading Parnia’s book is the idea that we might be in thrall to historical perceptions of life and death and that these ultimate constants have lately become vaguer than most of us would allow. The other strand of Parnia’s research, in which he leads a team at Southampton University, is into what most people tend to call “near-death experiences” and what he calls “actual death experiences.”
Parnia has talked to many people about what they recall experiencing while they were dead in his intensive care unit. About half claim to have clear recollections, many of which involve looking down on the surgical team at work on their body or the familiar image of a bright threshold or tunnel of light into which they were being drawn. Parnia has been collecting detailed accounts of these experiences for four years. I ask what conclusions he has drawn.
He suggests he is agnostic about the source of these subjective memories, as he is about questions of mind and matter.
“When I first got interested in these mind/body questions, I was astonished to find that no one had even begun to put forward a theory about exactly how neurons in the brain can generate thoughts,” he says.
“We always assume that all scientists believe the brain produces the mind, but in fact there are plenty who are not certain of that. Even prominent neuroscientists, such as Sir John Eccles, a Nobel prizewinner, believe that we are never going to understand mind through neuronal activity,” he says.
“All I can say is what I have observed from my work. It seems that when consciousness shuts down in death, psyche, or soul — by which I don’t mean ghosts, I mean your individual self — persists for a least those hours before you are resuscitated. From which, we might justifiably begin to conclude that the brain is acting as an intermediary to manifest your idea of soul or self, but it may not be the source or originator of it ... I think that the evidence is beginning to suggest that we should keep open our minds to the possibility that memory, while obviously a scientific entity of some kind — I’m not saying it is magic or anything like that — is not neuronal,” he says.
Does he have a religious faith?
“No, and I don’t have any religious way into this, but what I do know is that every area of inquiry that used to be tackled by religion or philosophy is now tackled and explained by science. One of the last things to be looked at in this way is the question of what happens when we die. This science of resuscitation allows us to look at that for the first time,” he says.
While those more esoteric studies go on, Parnia wants to ensure that an increasing number of people are successfully returned from death to tell whatever tales they can.
“I still have colleagues in ICU [intensive care unit] who say: ‘I don’t know why we are doing all this stuff,’” he says.
“Not long ago, I went for a job interview in New York at a teaching hospital and I was told if a patient comes in and has a cardiac arrest and they end up in the cardiac care unit, they will be cooled, but if they end up in the intensive care unit, the doctor in charge doesn’t believe in it. He thinks it blocks his beds so he won’t do it. I don’t see this as negligence exactly because there is, as yet, no authority telling us this is the standard we should use. But surely there should be,” he says.