Katherine Keyes is Associate Professor of Epidemiology Columbia
University and with serveral colleagues had published a study in
the 'American Journal of Psychiatry' investigating what happens
when people suffer one of the worst stresses of all - the
unexpected death of a loved one. She talks to Consultant
Psychiatrist Raj Persaud about her study which with colleagues
appears to have verified there really is such a thing as 'Funeral
The Burden of Loss: Unexpected Death of a Loved One and
Psychiatric Disorders Across the Life Course in a National
Katherine M. Keyes, Ph.D.; Charissa Pratt, M.P.H.; Sandro Galea,
M.D., Dr.P.H.; Katie A. McLaughlin, Ph.D.; Karestan C. Koenen,
Ph.D.; M. Katherine Shear, M.D.
Objective Unexpected death of a loved one is common and
associated with subsequent elevations in symptoms of multiple forms
of psychopathology. Determining whether this experience predicts
novel onset of psychiatric disorders and whether these associations
vary across the life course has important clinical implications.
The authors examined associations of a loved one’s unexpected death
with first onset of common anxiety, mood, and substance use
disorders in a population-based sample.
'Near death experience' or NDE research remains a key divide
between religion and science - can consciousness function
independently of the human body, and therefore, survive bodily
death? Could this then prove the existence of a 'soul', and confirm
ghosts, plus other paranormal or spiritual phenomena?
A near death experience is defined as unusual recollections
associated with a period of unconsciousness during either serious
illness or injury, or resuscitation from a cardiac or respiratory
arrest. Some people who might have been technically dead, seem to
report experiences 'near or beyond death'.
Dean Mobbs from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain
Sciences Unit, Cambridge and Caroline Watt from the University of
Edinburgh Department of Psychology, recently published a paper
is nothing paranormal about near-death experiences: how
neuroscience can explain seeing bright lights, meeting the dead, or
being convinced you are one of them, which vigorously rejects
any spiritual account.
Published in the journal 'Trends in Cognitive Sciences', Dean Mobbs
and Caroline Watt explain that while 3% of Americans declare
near-death experiences, such as feeling the soul leaving the body,
approaching a bright light and entering another reality, where love
and bliss are all encompassing, there are other scientific accounts
for all these phenomena.
They report over 50% of those who recount near-death experiences
were not in fact in that much mortal danger, so a serious problem
for the spiritual account is that, for many experiencers, NDE's
aren't revealing what happens near death, but merely what happens
when one believes one is in danger of dying.
The lead author of the rat study so widely reported this week, Dr
Jimo Borjigin, suggested that the dying brain was also not shutting
down as might be expected, but instead, "If anything, it is much
more active during the dying process than even the waking
Dean Mobbs and Caroline Watt also point out that psychiatric
phenomena such as 'Cotard' or 'walking corpse' syndrome, named
after the French neurologist Jules Cotard, which results in the
feeling and conviction of being dead, could explain some of the
peculiar sensations reported in Near Death Experiences.
Mobbs and Watt report that in NDEs, 50% experience being dead, 24%
said that they had had an out-of-body experience, 31% remembered
moving through a tunnel, and 32% reported meeting with deceased
people. Mobbs and Watt contend that electrical stimulation of brain
regions can result in a sense of presence (i.e. someone is standing
behind us). Meeting deceased people could therefore be
hallucinations due to compensatory over-activation in brain
structures near areas damaged by whatever is causing death.
But other academics vigorously disagree with Mobbs and Watts
attempts to explain Near Death Experiences invoking a purely
scientific or non-spiritual account.
For example, in a paper entitled Seeing
Dead People Not Known to Have Died: "Peak in Darien"
Experiences, Bruce Greyson from the Division of Perceptual
Studies, Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences,
University of Virginia Health System, argues that in his collection
of 665 NDEs, 138 (21%) included a purported meeting with a deceased
person, whereas only 25 (4%) included an encounter with a living
While this discrepancy might be viewed as evidence of post-mortem
survival of the persons seen, it might also be no more than an
expression of the dying person's expectations of imminent
But Bruce Greyson points out that more troubling for the scientific
account of Near Death Experiences is where those on their deathbeds
see, and often express surprise at meeting, a recently deceased
person, of whose death neither they nor anyone around them had any
knowledge. This excludes the possibility that the vision was a
hallucination related to the experiencer's expectations.
Such NDEs are termed "Peak in Darien" cases, after a book by that
name published in 1882 by Frances Power Cobbe. The title is taken
from a John Keats poem describing the shock of the Spaniards, who,
after scaling a peak in Darien (in what is now Panama), expect to
see a continent, but are confronted instead with another ocean.
Bruce Greyson reports in his paper, published in the academic
journal 'Anthropology and Humanism', many examples, including that
of Physician K. M. Dale who related the case of 9-year-old Eddie
Cuomo, whose fever ﬁnally broke after nearly 36 hours of anxious
vigil on the part of his parents and hospital personnel. As soon as
he opened his eyes, at 3:00 in the morning, Eddie related that he
had been to heaven, where he saw his deceased Grandpa Cuomo, Auntie
Rosa, and Uncle Lorenzo. Then Eddie added that he also saw his
19-year-old sister Teresa, who told him he had to go back. His
father became agitated, because he had spoken with Teresa, who was
attending college in Vermont, just two nights ago. Later that
morning, Eddie's parents learned that Teresa had been killed in an
automobile accident just after midnight, and that college officials
had tried unsuccessfully to reach the Cuomos at their home.
Bruce Greyson relates many other examples, including cases in which
the deceased person seen was someone whom the experiencer had never
known. For example, Greyson reports cardiologist Maurice Rawlings
describing the case of a 48-year-old man who had a cardiac arrest.
In a NDE he perceived a gorge full of beautiful colours, where he
met both his stepmother and his biological mother, who had died
when he was 15 months old. His father had remarried soon after his
biological mother's death, and this person had never even seen a
photo of her. A few weeks after this episode, his aunt, having
heard about this vision, brought a picture of his mother with a
number of other people. The man picked his mother out of the group,
to the astonishment of his father.
In response to Bruce Greyson's critique that the non-spiritual
account of near death experiences ignores difficult to explain
phenomena as above, Dean Mobbs points out that such cases Greyson
has marshalled are all anecdotal reports, and therefore difficult
to rigorously verify.
The spiritual understanding of what happens to us differs from the
scientific view because it places greater faith in human
experience, and these death-bed stories. Science demands proof that
comes from brain scanners, replication and precise measurement.
But because these extraordinary accounts will always exist, does
that mean religion will forever survive the onslaught of
Or could it be that our first proper glimpse of heaven will instead
shortly arrive from a brain scan?