‘Consciousness Beyond Life’ by Dr Pim van Lommel
Book Review by Wendell Krossa
Just to whet your appetite for van Lommel’s (1) book ‘Consciousness Beyond Life’. It contains some fascinating accounts of NDEs (near death experiences), but it is much more than just that. It is a fascinating look at the mind/brain ( relationship and with some good comment on quantum theory in relation to all this. Van Lommel seems to be a balanced and rational scientist in his approach, cautious and not dogmatic. Let me offer some quotes and summaries to give some flavor of his material.
Van Lommel is a cardiologist who was taught a reductionist (all can be explained in terms of its smallest parts) and materialist (there is only matter and nothing else) explanation for everything. But science cannot answer so many important questions; such as, what is the universe made of?; what is the basis of consciousness?; does consciousness have any biological basis?
He then goes into some research on NDEs, noting that most people fear death and fear it as the end of everything. Are we really just our bodies? Again, he notes that science does not deal very well, if at all, with the subjective (human experience) even though this is the only reality we know and the basis of everything else (his later material on quantum theory deals with this in detail). He also deals thoroughly with the long term impacts of NDEs in transforming people’s lives. NDEs are the conscious experience of a dimension where time and distance play no role, where past and future are all seen, where people feel complete and healed, and where they experience unlimited insight and unconditional love. The primary insight is that love and compassion are the important conditions of life. He adds that every thought has an impact on oneself and others.
The personal experiences van Lommel offers are long, detailed and fascinating for their insights. As one lady said after her experience, “the only thing that matters to me is unconditional love”. Such experiences bring a profound transformation in the way people view death (no longer fearing this transition). His data on such experiences are also quite interesting – apparently according to surveys, some 25 million people worldwide (4% of the US population) have had such an experience. We are hearing more of this as our resuscitation technology has improved over the years. He notes the various researchers who have detailed the basic elements of such experiences – ineffability, peace and quiet, absence of pain, out of body, drawn toward a light, dazzling landscape with beautiful colors, music, seeing deceased relatives, brilliant light, experiencing complete acceptance and unconditional love, life review, preview, etc. Again, he notes the ineffability of all this – impossible to relate in words, the love, beauty and wonder.
Many try to dismiss NDE’s as oxygen deprivation and so on, and van Lommel answers such objections with research on brain chemistry and cell chemistry in crisis situations (brain death, flat lining of EEG and ECG). Despite the brain death, people experience extremely lucid consciousness, and see things while they are lying dead in emergency rooms, things that only a conscious person could see and relate.
I am skipping whole sections – later, he notes that during a life review people get a sense of whether love has been shared or withheld, yet no one feels judged; instead people just understand how their life has affected others and they realize the effect of every thought, word or action on themselves and others. Later in the book, Lommel talks of how others of us can learn from such experiences. All these life reviews stress the importance of love. He goes on into sections on how people’s views of death are radically changed and how such experiences transform their lives. He offers a lot of detail on how difficult it is to integrate such experiences into life, as most people experience skepticism from others and often just bury the experience for many years so as not to be considered strange. These experiences happen to people of every background, gender, education, religion and culture; anyone may experience such things; even atheists.
People who experience an NDE then focus on love. They become more forgiving, tolerant, and less critical of others, says Lommel. They become more compassionate and caring, and set greater store in unconditional love. In this section he goes over data on the numbers of people in varied religions that experience NDE’s. All across the world and in all cultures, the basic features of such experiences are the same; this is so also over past history, which he details to some extent.
Again I am skipping over large sections of material and research just to pick out a few comments here and there. On the paralyzing fear of death in certain crisis situations, he notes – “no grief was felt, nor was there paralyzing fright…there was no anxiety, no trace of despair, nor pain, but rather calm seriousness, profound acceptance, and a dominant mental quickness”.
Researchers, says Lommel, found no link between religion and NDEs. It did not matter whether people were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist. The lucid consciousness experienced in these situations challenges the prevailing view of the relationship between consciousness and the brain, which sees consciousness as a by-product of brain function. Lommel shines when he gets to this brain/mind research, detailing the work of Chalmers, Beauregard, and many others on the brain. He offers some of his best material in looking at the alternative explanations for NDEs such as hallucinations, oxygen deprivation, etc. He admits, where such explanations offer some credible insights and possible answers, such as the role of DMT (dimethyltryptamine). It may lift the body’s natural inhibitions against experiencing enhanced consciousness. It may be able to interrupt the interface between consciousness and our body. Epilepsy, electrical stimulation of the brain and many other scenarios are also looked at. Nonetheless, all these other explanations eventually fall short of explaining NDEs. There are just some elements that do not fit, such as people seeing things in an operating room that they could not have seen if in their bodies; like the nurse putting dentures in a tray while the patient was dead, and a team working on resuscitating – eyes were closed and sight blocked and brain was dead.
Consciousness during an NDE is lucid; much more vivid and real than normal waking, and more coherent with clear memory. He says, “there appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function”. This is opposite to normal brain problems, which lead to clouding and loss of clarity and lucidity; and also to hallucinations and dreaming, which are incoherent and less lucid.
Later chapters go into the history of research on this issue, and then what happens to the brain when the heart stops. Here his background as a cardiologist shines. He goes into detail on the research on cardiac arrest and brain death and oxygen deficiency, which is his area of expertise. The famous NDE of Pam Reynolds is shared again here. She had a brain aneurysm and had to be put to death to have the dangerous operation.
This leads to a chapter on research of brain function and neuroscience. MRI research is detailed here. He says, “while this suggests that neural networks play some role in the manifestation of thoughts, feelings, and memories, it does not necessarily imply that these cells actually produce and store our thoughts and emotions. We have no direct evidence to prove if and how neurons in the brain produce the subjective essence of our consciousness”. Further, in this section on MRI research he notes that consciousness is fundamentally unverifiable and thus fails to meet scientific criteria. This evaporates the hope for objective knowledge about consciousness. There will always be this subjective link. You always have the subject or observer; subjectivity is at the heart of all science and perception (so much for objective science).
Human experience is the most fundamental reality in all the world.