Near-death events take arresting turn

At least 1 in 10 people treated for cardiac arrest, a condition in which the heart stops pumping after it beats unusually quickly, describes mystical-seeming experiences that accompanied the brush with death, according to the largest survey to date of this phenomenon among heart patients.

In contrast, only about 1 in 100 people treated for other comparably serious cardiac problems, such as a heart attack or unstable angina, says that his or her current physical symptoms led to near-death experiences, says psychiatrist Bruce Greyson of the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville.

Greyson directed interviews of 1,595 people admitted to his hospital’s cardiac-care unit during a recent 30-month period. A total of 27 individuals, including 11 of 116 cardiac-arrest patients, reported having had a near-death experience along with their latest heart symptoms. Near-death events often included sensations of time speeding up or slowing down, peacefulness, separation from one’s body, and being in an unearthly place.

Near-death patients cited more instances of losing consciousness when their symptoms struck and greater acceptance of death than other cardiac patients did. Many members of the near-death group also reported prior instances of extrasensory perception or other purportedly paranormal experiences.

The new results underestimate the frequency of near-death experiences among cardiac-arrest patients, Greyson contends in the July/August General Hospital Psychiatry. Amnesia, which often accompanies cardiac arrest, may make it difficult to recall near-death sensations, and some of those who do remember them may stay quiet for fear of being ridiculed or diagnosed as mentally ill.

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Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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