One of the oldest questions is featured in a show that explores near-death experiences, and paranormal occurrences, raising more questions than it tries to answer.
Is there an afterlife? A novel Netflix series claims to prove there is, even as it crosses into realms beyond science.
"Surviving Death" is based on a book by journalist Leslie Kean, which explores near-death experiences, mediums and séances, ghost-hunting and supposed past-life memories.
While the show tries its level best to present "proof" for all this, it sometimes gets its own narrative confused by taking paranormal beliefs as seriously as more critical questions about death itself. The show takes on religion as something that can be proven or disproven, even though most religious beliefs aren’t something that can readily be tested.
But what happens when you die? Arguably, only the dead know exactly what transpires. The show tries to give its viewers a heads up on death before they kick the bucket.
The documentary first explores close encounters with death, interviewing subjects who share harrowing stories of the times they drowned or flatlined. The show explains how consciousness as we know it quickly comes to an end seconds after the brain’s cerebral cortex stops receiving blood flow, measured through the absence of brain activity.
But the interviewed subject claims to have experienced something. Some saw doctors trying to revive them, while others saw bright lights and described how they met their dead relatives, and fell into a void of colors or saw a tunnel.
This isn’t new though. Near-death experiences have been the focus of scientific inquiry for some time, with some evidence to indicate that people can continue to experience consciousness and brain activity even after the heart stops. Philosopher and Psychologist Raymond Moody first described it in 1975, after studying 50 people who were ‘medically dead’, yet shared similar experiences after reportedly dying.
“What has amazed me since the beginning of my interest are the great similarities in the reports,” he wrote in his book Life after Life. “Despite the fact they come from people of highly varied religious, social, and educational backgrounds.”
Modern scientists have continued to chip away at the same mysteries. A 2018 study in the Frontiers of Psychology journal found that near-death experiences were highly similar to experiences by people who took the psychedelic drug N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), so often touted by celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan.
While scientists disagree on whether DMT can be found in humans, it seems to be produced naturally in the mammalian brain. In 2019, a study reported that rats undergoing heart attacks showed higher levels of DMT.
DMT psychedelic experiences are often reported as inter-dimensional, overwhelming, and losing their sense of self. Scientists report that this ‘ego death’ often provokes thoughts of death and a total loss of self in subjects.
But that doesn’t necessarily make near-death experiences mystical, and it’s hard to tell what’s actually happening. For one, studying the moment of death is incredibly difficult. Scientists still disagree on when death occurs exactly, and the big question of what causes near-death experiences has yet to be answered.
One attempt by Dr. Sam Parnia, director of critical care and resuscitation research at New York University Langone Medical Center surveyed survivors of cardiac arrest to get to the bottom of this.
Out of 140 interviewees, 46 per cent described feeling conscious during the event. Some had memories that seemed to come from the intensive care unit after their heartbeat had been restored. That’s a big deal, because unlike what popular culture portrays, most cardiac arrest patients stay unconscious for days or weeks after being revived. Some of the subjects felt they were being tortured by hostile entities, but scientists pass that off as a normal hallucination caused by having breathing tubes removed.
Nearly 10 per cent of people in the study had what seemed to be a ‘near-death’ experience, with at least two describing doctor’s attempts to revive them.
Here’s where it gets intense. Of the two, one subject who reported floating outside his body, was able to accurately describe events in the ICU when he was unconscious, including the use of an automated defibrillator (AED) and the arrival of a bald doctor responding to a nurse’s request for help. The details of these findings were published in 2014 in the journal Resuscitation.
The article corroborates the patient’s account for five minutes, which was surprising because the brain’s cerebral cortex usually shuts down after 2 to 20 seconds without oxygenated blood.
Dr. Parnia took it further, playing audio recordings of words in the intensive care unit when cardiac arrest patients are brought in. If the patient survived, they were asked if they remembered anything.
In initial findings shared at the 2019 American Heart Association Resuscitation Science Symposium, a total of 165 patients were tested. Out of 165, 44 survived and only 21 were interviewed. Of the 21, four reported experiencing peace and joy, meeting dead relatives or hearing people speak. Only one person recalled the audio.
Dr. Parnia concludes that near death experiences aren’t delusions or hallucinations, and suggests that consciousness is more complex than we previously thought.
David Wilde, psychologist and senior lecturer at Nottingham Trent University also researches people who underwent near-death experiences, and reports that personal transformation is common. One woman included in a paper Wilde published in 2010 described finding herself in a dark place when her heart stopped, where she experienced everything bad she had ever done in her life. Once she woke up, she described needing a new beginning.
Near-death experiences are arguably the hardest phenomena to measure, but other parts of the "Surviving Death" documentary are more measurable, if not more outlandish.
But the show is under fire for not covering how paranormal occurrences have already been historically debunked. Instead, it makes allowances that mediums who allegedly communicate with spirits could read up about a client on social media before during a seance, only to later surprise a client with information about their relatives.
All in all, "Surviving Death" tells one of the oldest stories known to humanity: the struggle to understand what comes next. While science may not be able to disprove the existence of an afterlife, astonishing claims should nonetheless be taken with grains of salt, something the documentary acknowledges readily.