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Final Passages: Research on Near Death and the Experience of Dying

by Marilyn Schlitz

I just returned from an exciting conference held at the biotech company, Promega. The meeting was entitled Final Passages: Research on Near Death & the Experience of Dying. This eleventh in a series of bioethics forums was held in Madison, WI, April 26–27, 2012, and focused on scientific research into social and ethical issues around dying and near-death experiences. A stellar lineup of global experts addressed a wide range of topics as well as the implications of current research for understanding consciousness.

The conference was introduced and chaired by Bill Linton, the founder and CEO of Promega. In his opening remarks, Linton described various ways in which our understanding of consciousness can be broadened in our attempts to understand the nature of human experience. As he noted with elegance, we each have 100 billion neurons that can be turned inward to ask, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”

The first lecture was by Pim van Lommel, MD, a cardiologist from Holland. His frontier research on near-death experiences is based on a multi-site, longitudinal clinical trial. He found that many people who survive cardiac arrest described strikingly similar experiences to those of near-death reports. The second speaker at the conference was Penny Sartori, PhD, an intensive care nurse from Wales. She described a five-year research study she conducted at a Welsh hospital that also focused on reports of near-death experiences.

NPR reporter Steve Paulson then conducted an interview with neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, who described in detail his own near-death experience. Having been in a coma during a serious bout of meningitis, Dr. Alexander offered observations on that experience and the implications of it for reconciling science and spirituality.

The next speaker was Raymond Moody, MD, PhD, who described what he calls “shared death experiences.” This closely related phenomenon to NDEs involves bystanders at someone else’s NDE who report similar experiences to that of the patient. Moody then discussed the implications of the study for understanding the dying process.

Erik Weiss, PhD, reported on a new philosophy of physics for NDEs that he’s been developing at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). In describing his own theoretical evolution as well as the writings of mathematician-philosopher Alfred Whitehead, Weiss argued for a postmodern physics able to explain the death experience as well as life after death.

Stanislav Grof, MD, PhD, described his own work over the decades exploring death and dying from psychological, philosophical, and spiritual dimensions. He explained the parallels between and among psychedelic therapy, holotropic breathwork and other forms of deep experiential psychotherapy, thanatology (the scientific study of death), anthropological fieldwork, and therapy with individuals in psychospiritual crises.

William Richards, PhD, reported clinical research that’s now underway at Johns Hopkins University. This revolutionary study is looking at the ways in which psilocybin is being used to help patients who are in a terminal phase of life. He described the ethical implications of this work as people explore what the dying process means to them within the framework of altered states of consciousness. One of the primary objectives of the study is to reduce a person’s anxiety and fear, brought on in part by a culture that does not explain or face death well. A similar program involving assisted palliative care treatment for cancer related anxiety is underway at New York University. Jeffrey Guss, co-principle investigator and director of psychedelic psychotherapy training at NYU, shared details of the psychotherapeutic model his group is using and described how this cutting-edge work offers an uneasy bridge to the mainstream academic community.

My own talk was entitled “Death Makes Life Possible,” where I explored various cultural cosmologies of dying and the afterlife. I then considered the ways in which scientists are attempting to bring an evidence-based perspective to the question of what happens during the dying process and beyond. I also considered the psychological and social significance of these cosmologies for reducing suffering and the fear of death.

The conference concluded with a beautiful sound meditation by Alexander Tannous, who used a variety of instruments, including singing bowls, tuning forks, and his own over-toning process. Peter Russell closed the conference by leading us on a progressive meditation to help us to integrate the diverse and complex topics that were covered over the past two days.

A real gift of the conference was the rapid speed in which videos of all the talks were posted on the Promega website. Enjoy!

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Noetic Research

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