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12877People with Near-death Experiences Healthier Than Others

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  • medit8ionsociety
    Apr 15, 2004
      From The New York Times Health Section:

      Following a Bright Light to a Calmer Tomorrow
      By ANAHAD O'CONNOR

      Published: April 13, 2004


      Carlene Huesgen is not afraid of death, she says. Not since she felt
      herself slip from her body, float to a hospital ceiling and move
      toward a bright light three decades ago.
      "I feel assured that there is life after death," said Ms. Huesgen, 61,
      who lives in Tucson. "There really isn't such a thing as dying."
      To some people, near-death experiences reported by millions of
      Americans in recent years, are windows to a world beyond. To others,
      they are simply comforting delusions.
      Scientists have tended to fall into the latter group. But in several
      small studies, researchers are finding that the elaborate accounts of
      mysterious tunnels, flooded with bright golden light, may be a healthy
      coping mechanism that protects against traumatic stress.
      People who have such experiences, one study shows, are far better at
      handling stress than researchers had expected. And scientists have
      uncovered neurological and biological differences that may lie at the
      core of the coping mechanisms.
      "We found that people who have these experiences are just the opposite
      of what people
      think," said Willoughby B. Britton, a doctoral student at the
      University of Arizona who is the lead author of a study in the April
      issue of Psychological Science. "They aren't more likely to run away
      from stress."
      Almost everyone, at some point in life, experiences a moment of fear
      and anxiety after a catastrophe. For some people like those with
      post-traumatic stress disorder, the effects can linger for years,
      returning as flashbacks, nightmares or emotional numbness.
      But people who report having had out-of-body experiences like Ms.
      Huesgen, who suffered a near-fatal reaction to an influenza shot 34
      years ago, exhibit the reverse. Their lives are changed.
      They switch careers and adopt new values. Many fears they had are erased.
      Ms. Britton and a colleague, intrigued by the lack of scientific
      information on the subject, compared a group of people who reported
      near-death experiences, including Ms. Huesgen, with a group that had not.
      The scientists assumed that the near-death group would show patterns
      of brain activity similar to those seen in temporal lobe epileptics,
      who often describe undergoing spiritual out-of-body events during
      seizures. The abnormal activity, however, did not spring up in the
      right temporal lobe, as is sometimes the case with epilepsy. Instead,
      the activity appeared almost exclusively in the left temporal lobe.
      Unexpectedly, the researchers also found that the participants, like
      many people who suffer depression, had abnormal sleep patterns. But
      unlike people with depression, who move unusually quickly into the
      rapid eye movement or REM phase of sleep, the subjects who reported
      near-death experiences took an unusually long time to move into REM.
      "This is the first study to show these kinds of neurological
      differences in people who have near-death experiences," Ms. Britton said.
      Psychological tests showed that the participants' physiological
      differences were associated with what the researchers called active
      coping, a tendency to "take the bull by the horns" in stressful
      situations. The findings conflict with those of earlier studies, which
      found that people who distanced themselves from traumatic experiences
      were more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
      Dr. C. Bruce Greyson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia,
      has noticed a similar trend in his research. In two studies of
      hundreds of people who reported near-death experiences, Dr. Greyson
      found that they showed surprisingly few signs of shutting out reality,
      a behavior known as dissociation.
      Though they had slightly more dissociative symptoms — daydreaming, for
      example, or forgetting to eat lunch while reading a book — than other
      people, their responses were still far from pathological.
      "They were still within the normal range," Dr. Greyson said. "In fact,
      people who have N.D.E.'s tend to be a little healthier than others.
      They seem to have positive coping skills."
      From 9 to 18 percent of people who have almost died, Dr. Greyson said,
      later report having had near-death experiences. As medical techniques
      to save patients become increasingly sophisticated, that number is
      likely to grow.
      In the early 1980's, a nationwide Gallup poll found that eight million
      Americans said they had had near-death experiences. By the late 90's,
      15 million people reported having had them.
      Most doctors dismiss such events as hallucinations caused by
      medication. Other experts suggest that the illusions are caused by
      oxygen deprivation or the last-minute firing of neurons in the visual
      cortex.
      Dr. Greyson theorizes that the experience may be a protective
      mechanism that insulates some people against developing post-traumatic
      stress disorder. Certain personality traits, he suggests, may make
      some people more likely to have near-death experiences, while others
      are predisposed to developing severe psychiatric illnesses.
      The evidence of active coping and physiological differences in people
      who have had near-death experiences squares nicely with that theory,
      Dr. Greyson said.
      But there is still a question of cause and effect.
      "We don't know yet whether these were pre-existing characteristics
      that caused the N.D.E. or whether they are the result of the
      experience," he said.
      The answer may soon be clear. In a study that began this year, Dr.
      Greyson is interviewing a large group of heart patients before they
      undergo surgery to implant automatic defibrillators in their chests.
      In the operation, the patients are briefly put into cardiac arrest,
      setting the stage for some to have near-death experiences. Several
      months later, Dr. Greyson will interview them again, looking for any
      near-death aftereffects.
      "There are so many things to measure — anxiety, depression,
      adjustment, acceptance of death," he said. "We're still just
      scratching the surface. There's a whole lot more to be done."
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