This article originally appeared in The Skeptic, Volume 18, Issue 1, from 2005
Ever since it was first reported by the cardiologist Michael Sabom, the near-death experience of Pam Reynolds has been held by many to be definitive proof of the paranormal and the reality of a life after death (Sabom, 1998). Her story has been told and retold, assuming almost mythic proportions. Finally, here was a person who returned from “clinical death” to tell of the reality of an existence beyond the veil of this earthly life. Proof at last, according to many!
It is true that the report of Pam Reynolds is a story of a wonderful experience which must have had a profound effect upon her. What Pam Reynolds experienced was not just an ordinary hallucination. She really did “see”, feel, and undergo all she described. She really did undergo a wondrous, seemingly inexplicable, life-changing experience – an experience possibly giving her much spiritual comfort by confirming deeply rooted socio-cultural expectations about a life after death, as well as the nature of the universe. And it was certainly an experience whose details seemingly prove the reality of a life after death. But is this true? I decided to examine the reality of the proof offered by this experience.
Pam Reynolds is the pseudonym of a woman 35 years old in 1991 when a diagnosis of a large aneurysm of one of the arteries of her brainstem was made. An aneurysm is a balloon-like weakening of an artery, and in the case of Pam Reynolds, this was a large aneurysm of the main artery providing her brainstem with blood.
A large aneurysm of a brain artery is like a time-bomb. It can burst at any moment, causing enormous bleeding within the head, depriving the parts of the brain normally fed by that artery of blood. Pam Reynolds’ aneurysm was very likely to burst, so depriving her brainstem of blood. Sudden bursting of this aneurysm would suddenly stop the blood supply to her brainstem, causing her to die immediately, because the brainstem is that part of the brain generating consciousness, controlling breathing, and many other vital body functions. So an operation was planned to remove this aneurysm.
The planned operation technique was complex. Pam Reynolds was brought under general anaesthesia. Her skull was opened and the aneurysm exposed. This was too large to treat safely, so her doctors connected blood vessels in her left groin to a heart bypass machine to cool her body down to 15 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit). Her heartbeat was then stopped, the blood drained from her head, and the aneurysm carefully removed. Subsequently, her body was warmed up again, normal heartbeat and blood circulation restored, the head, and all other wounds closed, after which she was allowed to awaken slowly in the recovery room. After recovering the ability to speak, she told of a truly amazing experience undergone while apparently unconscious under general anaesthesia and low temperature cardiac arrest.
She told of awakening and undergoing an out-of-body experience during the initial phase of the operation. She found herself in a position from which she observed the neurosurgeon at work, and where she could “see” and describe the pneumatic saw used to open her skull. She heard the cardiac surgeon say that the blood vessels in her right groin were too small. Subsequently, she passed through a black vortex to arrive in a world of light where she met with her deceased grandmother and uncle, as well as other deceased relatives. They helped her, “fed” her, and finally returned her to her body, after which she finally awoke in the recovery room (Sabom, 1998).
This is a fantastic story. Wondrous even. Superficially it appears to be definitive proof of an afterlife. But this is not the case. As an anaesthesiologist hardened and scarred by more than twenty years busy clinical experience, combined with a personal fascination in the ways the functioning of the body can generate apparently paranormal experiences, I know this experience to be a product of the way the body and mind of Pam Reynolds reacted to her situation and anaesthesia.
I will begin with a quick discussion of the reality of the paranormal. The reason for this approach is that many people attribute the observations of Pam Reynolds to paranormal perceptive abilities. But after believing in the possibility of paranormal perceptions for nearly all my adult life, I have finally come to the conclusion that there is absolutely no evidence for paranormal perceptions. Not only this, but I find that people possess absolutely no paranormal perceptive abilities at all! So what are my reasons for such an absolute and rigid-sounding statement? I will summarise the evidence (Woerlee, 2003, see chapters 7 & 8):
According to polls conducted with many thousands of respondents in many countries, about 25-85% of all people have experienced at least one or more “unexplained” or paranormal experience.
This means a large proportion of the world population has latent or actually manifest paranormal perceptive abilities.
The Society for Psychical Research was founded in London in 1882, and similar societies were founded almost simultaneously in other countries. University departments have conducted paranormal research for more than 50 years. Private institutions have also performed much paranormal research. Yet despite intensive, well conducted, and methodologically outstanding research performed during 120 years, no convincing and reproducible evidence for the reality of paranormal perceptive abilities has ever been found. And here we are speaking about an ability that may be present or latent in 25-85% of all people! Jessica Utts summarised this sorry state of affairs at the end of an article written in 1991. She stated that there is no real convincing evidence for paranormal perceptive abilities, but there may well be “something”, even though this may not be paranormal. No change has occurred in this sad state of affairs since 1991.
Nonetheless, paranormal perceptive abilities may not be manifest in experimental situations. Studies of tens of thousands of spontaneous paranormal perceptions and events reveal that 50% of these reports occurred during dreaming. Humans dream 4-6 times each night, spending about 2 hours per night dreaming, which means that 50% of all paranormal perceptions occur during a situation occurring during 1/12 of each day. So dreaming appears to be a state of mind conducive to paranormal perceptions. Careful dream research never yielded conclusive results.
Pharmacological enhancement of the neurotransmitter predominance during dreaming sleep is an effect of many medicines commonly used in normal medical practice. In the past this was done with Reserpine, a commonly used antihypertensive drug in the 60s. Rebound REM sleep occurs after stopping antidepressive drugs such as amitryptaline (a drug which is still commonly used). Yet no-one ever reports, or has ever reported, amazing paranormal abilities manifested by people experiencing these effects from these drugs. Strange…
Dream reports are said to provide evidence of paranormal perceptive abilities. In such situations people rake up the tired old story of Mark Twain’s dream of the sad demise of his brother Henry. My first reaction is that this is a dream reported more than 100 years ago! And the author said that he had recounted it many times before it was finally published 100 years ago. Aren’t there any more recent ‘veridical’ dreams?
If you calculate how many dreams are dreamed by each individual during a human lifetime, and by the world population, you quickly come to the conclusion that nearly all dreams have no relation to events in the future and are quickly forgotten, some dreams have some relation to the future and are remembered, and an incredibly few dreams are an exact report of a future event. And this last category of dreams is certainly remembered, and such dreams assume almost mythical proportions and are reported for more than 100 years.
Blind and deaf people develop their remaining senses to compensate for the loss of these senses. Epidemiological data from the USA population extrapolated to the living world population reveal that worldwide there are more than 7.7 million totally blind people on this world, more than 4.2 million totally deaf people, and more than 0.5 million totally blind and deaf people. In the past there have been countless millions of such people.
If these people develop paranormal perceptive abilities, then there would be popular knowledge and beliefs about blind and deaf people indicating their possession of paranormal perceptive abilities. But there is no popular belief saying that blind and deaf people are paranormally gifted. No-one goes to a blind and deaf psychic with the expectation that these people are more gifted with paranormal abilities than those with normal sight and hearing. No-one is jubilant upon hearing that a loved relative has become totally blind and totally deaf, even though these people could be expected to develop paranormal abilities which would more than compensate for their loss of sight and hearing. No-one expects blind and deaf people to cross busy roads using paranormal sensory abilities – everyone would call blind and deaf people wanting to do such a thing suicidal and foolish.
All the training of blind and deaf people is oriented towards the use of their remaining physical abilities, never towards the development of paranormal perceptive abilities. In fact, all people ever expect from the blind and deaf is that they are just that – blind and deaf – even though about 25-85% of blind and deaf people supposedly have latent or manifest paranormal abilities. All these things mean that blind and deaf people possess no paranormal perceptive abilities.
Gambling casinos are wonderful laboratories for testing the reality of paranormal perceptions. Casinos do not have to cheat to earn money – simple statistics means they always earn money by being scrupulously honest. Furthermore they are legally obliged to monitor the randomness of their gambling machines scrupulously. To make matters even better, gamblers are superstitious and really do want to win, and about 25-85% of gamblers supposedly have latent or manifest paranormal perceptive abilities.
So many millions of people visit and gamble at casinos, that even if only very few people had paranormal perceptive abilities, this would be conclusively proven by the statistics from gambling casinos. Yet the numbers churned out by roulette wheels and slot machines are truly random, and the earnings of casinos with slot machines and roulette wheels are precisely what the statistics of chance indicate they would earn.
Absolutely no evidence for paranormal perceptive abilities is to be found in these figures. Paranormal perceptive and psychokinetic abilities are not manifest in casinos, even though a significant proportion of gamblers should possess such abilities.
The totality of all these separate pieces of evidence clearly indicates that paranormal perceptive and psychokinetic abilities simply do not exist. Paranormal abilities are no more than a fantasy nestling in the human psyche; a wishful fantasy of fantastic powers fulfilling some deep desire nestling within all of us.
Having dealt with this fantasy, it is then possible, in part two, to deal logically with the perceptions of Pam Reynolds. This does not mean the experience of Pam Reynolds is in any way lessened. For to the woman called “Pam Reynolds” this was a profoundly meaningful experience. Even so, this does not preclude the fact that her experience was rooted in changes in the functioning of her body.
- Sabom, M. (1998). Light and death. Michigan: Zonderva.
- Utts, J. (1991). Replication and meta-analysis in parapsychology. Statistical Science, 6, 363-403.
- Woerlee, G. M. (2003). Mortal Minds: A Biology of the Soul and the Dying Experience. Utrecht, The Netherlands: de Tijdstroom.