Despite the 8 million Americans polled by Gallup who claim to have survived a near death experience, intense scientific debate rages on. Skeptics believe it's all in the mind, while others contend the remarkably similar visions all-but prove a separation between mind and body and of an afterlife. In part two of our special report, we hear from both sides of this controversial topic.
Beyond the threshold of death, many people brought back to life later describe visions of an afterlife, similar to this scene from the 1995 film "Hideaway." It shows a soul's journey to another realm of existence.
"You could legitimately call me one of the world's leading skeptics of near death experience when I started my research," says Dr. Jeffrey Long. But 25 years and three thousand case histories later, this radiation oncologist from Houma, Louisiana has come to one startling conclusion: "Near death experience is, in a word, real."
Dr. Long wrote the New York Times best seller "Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near Death Experiences." And he's made several national television appearances, including 'The Today Show:'
MEREDITH VIEIRA/TODAY SHOW CO-HOST: "Do you believe in life after death? One man says he has scientific proof it is true."
MEREDITH VIEIRA: "What is the proof?"
DR. JEFFREY LONG: "Well, my research reveals nine lines of evidence about the reality of near death experiences as their consistent message of an afterlife."
Near death skeptics argue the phenomenon is nothing more than the final gasps of a dying brain, that hallucinates or creates a dream-like state. Many others, like a psychiatry professor here at LSU Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, describe NDE's as an unsolved mystery. Dr. Mary Jo Fitz-Gerald told us, "The bottom line is that people who believe in the near death experience are going to believe in it. And the people who don't, aren't."
Dr. Long insists the mystery of near death experiences cannot be explained by a dying brain. "The elements of the near death experience are highly-organized, highly-lucid and follow a typical and very logical pattern throughout the entire experience."
And he says this dying brain hypothesis breaks down in dozens of well documented near death cases he's investigated. "There is no way any brain function can explain a near death experience while your heart stops while you're under general anesthesia; impossible!"
Those crystal clear, near death memories typically begin with an out-of-body experience. "And I thought, 'Boy, this is neat, you know, I can't wait to get back to tell my husband," recalled near death survivor Sondra Abrahams.
Abrahams said she remembers floating above her body shortly before being whisked through a long, dark tunnel and toward a light. Forty years after her experience, Abrahams speaks to others nearing death and offers advice to those afraid of what's next. "And I tell them you've got to go to the light, that's the first thing. Don't just stand there in darkness, go toward the light because the light is Christ."
While Dr. Long never researched Abrahams near death experience, perhaps the most compelling cases that prove an afterlife to him involve blind people. "Because people born totally blind, to whom vision is unknown and unknowable throughout their entire life, have described highly-visual and typical near death experiences."
Skeptics also argue that religious beliefs may influence near death experiences. So Dr. Long found a sub-group of cases with little, if any, exposure to religion - very young children. "So, what I conclude from my research is that near death experiences seem to be completely unrelated to cultural upbringing, to religious beliefs or expectations and really even any understanding of what a near death experience is."
Dr. Long hopes future research can push the boundaries even further in documenting a possible afterlife. Until then, he and others wage a battle against critics who contend near death research lingers between the realms of fantasy and pseudo-science.
Copyright 2012 KSLA. All rights reserved.
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