Tackling the Afterlife

In the California Literary Review, an interview with Mary Roach, author of Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife.

The Near Death Experience is something that seems to have happened to many people. How do people describe the experience? Are scientists investigating this? What are the results so far?

There are a few core elements of the NDE, as researchers call it: floating up above yourself, whooshing down a tunnel, moving toward a light, seeing dead loved ones who often tell you “it’s not your time.” The experience is pretty universal, though there’s often a unique cultural overlay: for instance, a man in China was told “there’s been a clerical error,” rather than “it’s not your time.” A truck driver sped down “a tailpipe” rather than a tunnel.

A team of cardiologists and psychiatrists at the University of Virginia are taking a simple, rather elegant approach to trying to find out whether people who have these experiences are hallucinating or are actually leaving their bodies. They’ve got a laptop computer taped, flat open, on top of the highest cardiac monitor in an operating room, such that the only way you could see what’s on the screen would be if you were floating up by the ceiling. You can’t see the image (one of several rotating images, randomly chosen) from down below. Patients are interviewed after they leave the OR, to see if they report having seen anything. So far, none of the patients has had an NDE, but the project had only just begun when I was there.