• Pim van Lommel about consciousness

    Dead? I don't think so!

    When you are dead, nothing remains. That makes sense, because your brain, which produces consciousness, is broken. Some scientists, including controversial thinker Pim van Lommel, disagree.

    in short

    Cardiologist Pim van Lommel believes that consciousness can exist outside our bodies.

    He published a famous study into near-death experiences (NDEs) in 2001 in the top medical journal, The Lancet.

    The research was praised in the scientific community. His next book, Eindeloos bewustzijn (‘Consciousness beyond life’), however, was heavily criticised.

    Out-of-body experiences, seeing people who have died and the experience of being in a tunnel can only be explained if consciousness is not situated in the brain, Van Lommel says.

    The body is merely the hardware that is needed to receive consciousness, which is the software, according to Van Lommel.

    Traditional science is too bogged down in old concepts to accept his ideas. He feels the world needs more controversial thinkers.

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    Reading time: 8 minutes (1,589 words)

    What if it were true? What if all those thousands of ‘materialistic’ researchers are stuck in their dogmas and concepts that they have been taught for decades or even centuries? What if consciousness is not a coincidental by-product of our brain functions and can exist outside our bodies?

    What if Pim van Lommel is right?

    Pim van Lommel. The Dutch cardiologist whose 2001 article in the top medical journal The Lancet about near-death experiences (NDEs) made him world famous. The man who in 2007 published the book Eindeloos Bewustzijn (‘Consciousness Beyond Life’) about NDEs, which has sold approximately 250,000 copies worldwide. However, he is also the man who was praised by Dick ‘We are our brains’ Swaab for his research but ridiculed as a pseudo-scientist for his theory of consciousness. Someone who is being fought vehemently by the sceptics at the Skepsis Foundation.


    Van Lommel will be giving a lecture at Studium Generale on Tuesday as part of the series Zicht op de dood.

    For his Lancet research, the cardiologist questioned 344 people who had been resuscitated after going into cardiac arrest. Of these, 62 reported remembering being resuscitated and spoke of dark tunnels with light at the end, about leaving their dead bodies and floating above them, seeing the doctors working on them. They mentioned getting an overview of their lives and meeting dead relatives.

    Usually, it is a positive experience, but there are also cases of negative NDEs. People report feeling like they are drowning, or being followed. ‘Kind of like ‘Dante’s Inferno’’, says Van Lommel. ‘That happens, too.’

    But whether they are good or bad, Van Lommel concluded the experiences are real. Funnily enough, however, they seem to happen when the patient is considered clinically deceased. At that particular moment, it is in fact impossible for anyone to have experiences, create memories, or experience consciousness. It is even impossible to hallucinate, because you are already dead.

    No reflexes

    ‘When your heart stops, you’re unconscious within seconds. You have no more physical reflexes, your brainstem reflexes fail, you stop breathing. Your circulation stops within seconds and your EEG will flatline in ten to 20 seconds. It’s been shown in animals that even the deeper brain layers become inactive. And no one is resuscitated in 20 seconds.’

    Of all ages

    The oldest report of a near-death experience (NDE) is 2,400 years old and comes from book 10 of Plato’s ‘The Republic’. It tells the story of a soldier named Er who dies on the battlefield. Before his body can be placed on the funeral pyre, he comes back to life. He tells of tunnels that provide souls with access to either heaven or hell. Pure souls have told him about a beautiful land, and wondrous feelings. Others, however, have to endure punishment tenfold for their immoral deeds.

    The apostle Paul’s conversion can also be seen as an NDE. He is struck as if by lightning and falls from his horse. Blinded by a bright light, he feels around and finds Jesus. After that, he changes his entire life.

    The painter Hieronymus Bosch depicted the well-known tunnel in one of the panels of ‘Visions of the Hereafter’. Furthermore, religious visions can also be seen as NDEs.

    The fact that more people are reporting NDEs than they used to has to do with external defibrillation. This technique ensures more people are successfully resuscitated after they are clinically dead, increasing the ‘chance’ of an NDE.

    So what actually was happening? Van Lommel wondered.

    He studied all the phenomenon’s conventional explanations. Were people hallucinating due to oxygen deprivation? Was it caused by medication? Were people remembering things at the beginning or at the end of their resuscitation – before or after they were clinically deceased? Was it just wishful thinking? Did it have something to do with people’s fear of death?

    Van Lommel says all of the above was true. ‘We’ve never succeeded in inducing an NDE.’ Experiences resembling an NDE might be possible, but that real, deeply felt experience that lasts mere minutes and turns people’s lives upside down has never been recreated.

    Heightened intuition

    Because that is what it is all about, says Van Lommel, who, nine years after his book was published, still receives at least 30 emails a day from people telling him about their experiences. ‘Talking to these people is really emotional. They have trouble finding the words for it and their emotions are so sincere. You can feel how uncomfortable they are talking about it, how overwhelming their experience was.’

    After someone has had an NDE, they are never the same. Among other things, people lose their fear of death – provided, of course, that their NDE was a positive one. ‘They develop a heightened intuition: money or owning a big car becomes unimportant. Conversely, personal contacts become essential to them. Everything is about love and caring. This is a permanent transformation, which is unique.’

    These are the same values Van Lommel tries to apply in his own life: his love for nature can be seen in the lovely garden at his home, and his conscious lifestyle is reflected in the organic food he eats. He may never have experienced his own near-death, but the stories he heard are more than enough for him. ‘The experiences of the people I talk to resonate with me, the realisation that everything you do in life eventually comes back to you.’

    Recent studies

    People are still researching near-death experiences and are trying to verify the experiences during resuscitation. The AWARE study, started in 2008, involved 2,060 patients in hospitals in Great Britain, the U.S., and Austria. The results were published in the magazine Resuscitation in 2014.

    According to researcher Sam Parnia and his associates, 46 percent of the patients studied experienced some degree of consciousness. Only nine percent had experiences associated with an NDE. Only two percent could actually hear or see things.

    ‘While it was not possible to absolutely prove the reality or meaning of patients’ experiences and claims of awareness, (due to the very low incidence (2 per cent) of explicit recall of visual awareness or so called OBE’s), it was impossible to disclaim them either and more work is needed in this area.’

    And yet such a core experience does not always make life easier. Partners often have trouble accepting people’s new values. And sometimes they do not believe their loved ones, making the topic more or less taboo. In 70 percent of the cases, the experience leads to divorce. At the same time, people are deeply convinced of the reality of their experience. In answer to the question of whether there is life after death, people will just say, ‘I no longer believe it, I know it for certain.’

    In the cloud

    In the 30 years since he started his research, Van Lommel developed his own theory of consciousness which allows him to not only explain NDEs but also other phenomena, such as contact with the deceased and the state of enlightenment that years of meditation gives a person.

    Consciousness, he says, is nonlocal. It is something that exists both within and outside the body. ‘Right now, in this room, are all the countless bits and bytes of all the data that is in the cloud’, he explains. ‘But we need a computer to be able to perceive them. But the computer is not the same thing as the information.’ He thinks the same goes for consciousness. Our bodies are the hardware. When that body is removed, we are part of some kind of comprehensive whole in which time, space, and the ‘I’ are lost.

    You do not have to be clinically deceased to feel that. Buddhists reach this state of enlightenment through years of meditation, but it can also be caused by extreme isolation, or a stroke – as in the case of American neurologist Jill Bolte Tayler. ‘It’s a universal experience.’

    Van Lommel calls his conviction ‘inner knowledge’. But he is not surprised that not everyone immediately believes him. He, too, had doubts, and asked all the same questions people are now asking him. The only thing he asks is that people – and scientists in particular – keep an open mind to the idea that consciousness without a functioning body is possible. ‘Don’t say, ‘it’s impossible’’, Van Lommel pleads. ‘Ask, ‘how is it possible?’ Because the possibility is a fact.’

    There are numerous stories of verifiable observations: someone who saw their stepfather smoking on the steps of the hospital during their NDE, for example, when the man had died years before. ‘Or the man who lost his teeth and asked the nurse where she’d put them’, says Van Lommel. ‘I have eight thick files full of indisputable cases.’

    Wilful ignorance

    He has very little patience for sceptics, however. They are guilty of wilful ignorance, says Van Lommel. ‘In the beginning, I would engage them. But now? I don’t even read them anymore. They are completely incapable of accepting anything other than their own opinions.’

    He feels it is insulting to people who have experienced NDEs. ‘They can say whatever they want, but it’s got nothing to do with scientific research’, says Van Lommel.

    He repeatedly refers to the Australians Barry J. Marschall and J. Robin Warren, who discovered a bacteria that caused ulcers. ‘They were completely ridiculed. Until they got a Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2005.’

    What he is trying to say is that science needs controversial thinkers: people who dare to question old concepts and dogmas. But it is not easy. ‘I used to teach classes about NDEs to second year medical students. Anyone older than that was already too set in their ways.’

    Pim van Lommel / Photo by Christien Boomsma