Critical reviews of the book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience are scarce. Many readers find it an excellent book, confirming their dreams and hopes for a life after death with scientific evidence as interpreted by Dr. Pim van Lommel. A few readers go so far as to describe this book as "majestic". Indeed, it is a "majestic"456 pages in size, and contains many discussions of the near death experience (NDE) phenomenon backed up by references to scientific articles. The core of the book, is an extensive discussion of the outstanding near death experience study of cardiac arrest patients published by Pim van Lommel and his co-workers in the international medical journal, "The Lancet" during 2001 (Lommel 2001).
NOTE: This review contains many links to the original scientific articles so that readers can read for themselves whether the points of criticism and / or praise are justified.
The biography of Pim van Lommel can be read at his website by clicking on this link for the biography of Pim van Lommel.
I am a working physician anesthesiologist and associate professor with years of teaching experience. My special areas of interest are the assessment of survivability of surgery and anesthesia, the functioning of the human body, the mathematical description of anesthetic drug actions on the body, and the physiology of out-of-body experiences and near death experiences (see my homepage for references to my books and websites).
The is a curious book. Some chapters are written in a simple popular style easily understood by anyone with a minimal high school education. Yet many other chapters will only be understood by someone with at least a college education, and then preferably in some life science related subject. Very curious. It means this book can be approached at these two levels. You have those who only read and understand the simpler chapters, and who find justification and extra proofs for their hopes and beliefs in these chapters. Those with a higher level of education, but without a critical understanding of the subject matter, will find "scientific justification" for these same hopes and beliefs. This is how the original Dutch language edition has functioned in the Netherlands since its publication in 2007 under the title "Eindeloos Bewustzijn: Een Wetenschappelijke Visie op de Bijna-Dood Ervaring.". Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience is simply an English translation of this successful Dutch book, so I expect much the same differentiation among the readers.
Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience is a large book with 456 pages and 16 chapters. I have listed them below.
So let us begin with a systematic, chapter by chapter examination of this book.
This chapter consists only of extensive personal account of an NDE undergone by a woman during the delivery of one of her children in 1978, together with an extensive account of its long-lasting emotional impact and psychological aftermath. The account is very personal and emotional, revealing the profound effects this experience had on the life of this woman. Pim van Lommel presents no analysis of this NDE. It is simply an emotional account presented to the reader.
Here we read a description of the basic elements of the NDE illustrated with snippets of NDE reports to illustrate each element. This is an almost standard formula, used in all popular NDE books since publication of the book called "Life after Life" by Raymond Moody in 1975. It is even more or less identical to that contained in the 35 year-old book "Life after Life".
Interested readers can read a more rigorous and extensive analysis of the properties of the NDE, together with the differences induced by expectations, religion, sex, and socio-cultural factors by reading this extensive analyisis of all these aspects of the NDE.
In this same chapter, Pim van Lommel cites the account of a man who saw a nurse removing his dentures while he was unconscious due to a cardiac arrest during 1979. He calls this account irrefutable evidence of a consciousness separate from the physical body. However, careful analysis of the available information upon which this apparently veridical NDE is based, reveals very different conclusions. Read the detailed facts about this story from the extensive discussion and analysis of this exceptional event at the Denture-Man NDE site.
This book was first published in The Netherlands during 2007, and this English translation was published in 2010. Nonetheless, this chapter provides absolutely no new insights into the fascinating NDE phenomenon than were known in 1975. You get the feeling that time has stood still for 35 years.
Many people report subtle, and even profound changes in personal emotional, psychological, and social functioning after undergoing an NDE. Pim van Lommel goes into considerable depths to explain these changes. He also cites the changes found in his own NDE study published in the Lancet during 2001. But, surprisingly enough, none of these changes he describes are new, he only confirmed these changes for a specific group of patients who underwent cardiac arrests. These changes have been known and extensively described in earlier publications such as in:
Again, no new insights in this chapter, except a review of known literature and confirmation of the hopes and wishes of the less critical for the occurrence of greater emotional, empathic, and paranormal powers after undergoing an NDE (especially in the book by Margot Grey).
This is a short chapter on NDEs in children. These are very similar to adults - something which comes as no surprise. After all, body structure and function in children is similar to adults, which is why the causes of NDEs in children are very likely to act in the same way as on adults to induce similar ideas and effects. This chapter adds no new knowledge, and appears to have been added for the sake of completeness.
This chapter is a review of accounts suggestive of NDEs in historical and religious texts. A chapter detailing such accounts has almost been standard in all popular NDE books for several decennia. Such a chapter supposedly demonstrates the erudition and historical knowledge of the author. However, the chapter in this book is little more than the result of reading decennia-old books on the NDE. For instance, look at previous examples in these older books:
Considerable research has been performed since 1975. NDEs occur in a wide variety of states of consciousness (page 307, Fenwick 1995):
All these different states of consciousness are associated with different body states. Pim van Lommel then proceeds to perform the same analysis performed many years ago by his predecessors since 1975. He analyses psychological theories, as well as whether oxygen starvation, high carbon dioxide concentration, drug effects, endorphins, or all manner of other wondrous substances which cannot be measured in living human brains, but which may induce NDEs. Unfortunately his analysis provides no new insights, differing in no way from those performed in books written many years ago. See:
This chapter is yet another example of a lack of any new insights revealed in the "Consciousness Beyond Life", while these insights have been staring people in the face for many years. It is very strange, but up till now, practically no NDE writers have considered separating the manifestations of the NDE from the effects of the incident / disease causing the NDE. Separating the effects of the cause of the NDE from the NDE itself yields surprising insights into NDEs. The link to the article, The Near-Death Experience: Unanswered Questions (2009) shows how this unifies the problem of different initiating causes of NDEs. Unfortunately, Pim van Lommel, along with many others, misses the boat here entirely.
Without a doubt, the best chapter in the book. Pim van Lommel describes the outstanding prospective NDE study performed in the region of Arnhem during 1988-1992, with their equally outstanding 8 year long follow-up of the long-term effects of the NDEs some of the people underwent. This study is one of those rare NDE studies standing head-and-shoulders above all others as regards organization, protocols, and simple persistence.
What are the bare facts of the study? During 1988-1992, 344 patients successfully resuscitated from a cardiac arrest in the 10 participating hospitals in the region of Arnhem were inter viewed within one week of resuscitation according to a strict protocol. Of these 344 patients, 62 reported undergoing an NDE. The exact locations and durations of the resuscitations are given by Pim van Lommel (see page 2041 of original Lancet article by Pim van Lommel:
Resuscitation in hospital (234 patients):
Cardiac arrest lasted less than 2 minutes - 190 patients (81%)
Time to recovery of consciousness within 5 minutes - 187 patients (80%)
Resuscitation outside hospital (110 patients):
Cardiac arrest lasted more than 2 minutes - 88 patients (80%)
Time to recovery of consciousness more than 10 minutes - 62 patients (56%)
The effect of a cardiac arrest is to suddenly stop the flow of blood to the body, which means no blood flows to the head during a cardiac arrest. Within seconds a person loses consciousness, and after 3-5 minutes brain damage begins to occur. When resuscitative measures are not started, a person with a cardiac arrest will die.
The occurrence of and NDE in this study was unrelated to the duration of the cardiac arrest, the location, or sex of the patient, or administered drugs. NDE is actually a collection of experiences. So which NDE elements did those 62 patients reporting an NDE due to cardiac arrest in this study say they underwent?
|NDE elements reported||% People reporting these experiences after cardiac arrest (N=62 in Lommel 2001)|
|Feeling of being dead||50%|
|Out-of-body experience (OBE)||24%|
|Meeting deceased family & friends||32%|
|Experience of a "barrier"||8%|
This fascinating and revealing study deservedly received much international attention. Pim van Lommel proceeded to analyze the results of this study in the next chapter of "Consciousness Beyond Life".
When the heart stops beating entirely, this is called cardiac arrest. When the heart suddenly starts twitch uncontrollably, this is called ventricular fibrillation. In both situations, the heart suddenly stops pumping a flow of blood to the body, which of course includes the brain and eyes. Of all the substances contained in blood going to all parts of the body, the supply of oxygen is most critical, because there is no store of oxygen in the body. And the brain and the eyes are most sensitive to any interruption of this supply of oxygen. Indeed, the brain and the eyes begin malfunctioning within seconds after total cessation of the supply of blood to the brain. This is why people lose consciousness within 5-20 seconds after the flow of blood to the head is suddenly interrupted such as occurs after developing ventricular fibrillation or cardiac arrest (Aminoff 1988, Rossen 1943).
The structure and function of the brain and eyes is such that some parts of the brain and eyes are more sensitive to oxygen starvation than others. Accordingly, a sudden loss of oxygen supply to the brain results in a standard sequence of events in the brain and eyes while losing consciousness, and while regaining consciousness. These changes in brain function induced by sudden oxygen starvation manifest as changes in mental function, and changes in the way the world is sensed with the eyes and other sense organs. The 344 patients who survived a cardiac arrest in the study of Pim van Lommel are no different to any other people who undergo sudden cessation of the flow of blood to the head. Very, very few studies have been made of the mental and sensory effects of suddenly stopping the flow of blood to the head. However, two outstanding studies have documented the effects of sudden cessation of the flow of blood to the brain (Lempert 1994, Lempert 1994a, Rossen 1943). These studies revealed the following effects occurring during the 30 - 60 seconds of unconsciousness experienced by the total of 126 + 56 = 182 participants in these studies:
The experiences of undergone by people who experimentally suddenly stopped the flow of blood to their heads (Lempert 1994a) set against the results of Pim van Lommel yields the following fascinating results set out in the table below.
|NDE elements reported||% People reporting these experiences after cardiac arrest (N=62 in Lommel 2001)||% People reporting these experiences after fainting (N=42 in Lempert 1994a)|
|Feeling of being dead||50%||not mentioned|
|Out-of-body experience (OBE)||24%||16%|
|Seeing colors||23%||not mentioned|
|Meeting deceased family & friends||32%||20%|
|Experience of a "barrier"||8%||not mentioned|
Now it should be noted that these are small numbers of patients. Moreover, the questioning of these patients as to what they experienced was also very different. Yet people who experimentally induced a fainting episode did report undergoing much the same experiences as cardiac arrest patients. However, there were differences. The 344 cardiac arrest patients of Pim van Lommel were totally unprepared for undergoing a cardiac arrest. Cessation of blood flow to their heads was totally unexpected, while the persons experimentally inducing fainting episodes fully expected to lose consciousness due to sudden failure of blood flow to their heads. These differences in expectations result in different types of NDEs, as was worked out by Bruce Greyson in a paper published during 1985 (Greyson 1985) (see also discussion on this matter in The Unholy Legacy of Abraham).
In other words, what these figures, tables, and experimental studies show, is that nearly all the experiences reported by the 62 patients out of the resuscitated 344 patients, were very likely due to the effects of oxygen starvation of the brain and eyes. The few remaining manifestations and experiences reported by these patients were then the product of some core NDE experience as described in this article.
This chapter also contains an extensive discussion of the wondrous case of Pam Reynolds. Pam Reynolds was 35 years old when she underwent a dangerous brain operation performed under general anesthesia, during which she was also cooled down to a lethally low body temperature, and her breathing and heart were as stopped. So she was actually "clinically dead" for part of the operation. While apparently unconscious under general anesthesia and "clinically dead", she underwent a remarkable out of body experience as well as a profound near death experience. During her out of body experience she made several observations of events occurring around her body, words spoken in the operating theater, and saw some of the instruments used during the operation. All these observations were subsequently verified to be true. Pim van Lommel, among with many others, consider this case to be an incontrovertible veridical case, proving beyond any shadow of doubt, the reality of the continuation of "consciousness beyond life". This story was made known to the world in a very careful account published during 1998 on pages 37-53 in a book written by Dr. Sabom called "Light & Death". Yet an equally careful analysis of the text in this chapter reveals this story to be explicable by normal body function (see analysis of Pam Reynolds near-death experience).
So contrary to what Pim van Lommel claims to prove, these cases are really proof of misinterpretation of medical facts, rather than proof of the reality of some immaterial consciousness that continues after death of the body. The study of Pim van Lommel fails to prove the reality of and immaterial "Consciousness Beyond Life". Furthermore, studies of the effects of drugs, oxygen starvation, etc, etc, have proven time and again that the experience of a person undergoing the effects of these things may well be believed as real by that person, but are actually no more than experiences undergone within the head of that person. There are many, many more aspects to be explained here, but I have kept this discussion as short as possible.
This chapter is an attempt to explain some of the basic functioning of the brain to a predominantly lay public. This is no easy matter. And Pim van Lommel does succeed to a degree. However, there are some very significant mistakes. He says that it is unknown where consciousness is generated in the brain. True consciousness is a very difficult subject to study, but research in the last decennia has localized those parts of the brain essential to generate consciousness (see Alkire 2008. It would require a whole book to explain the faults made in the very suggestive discussion made of brain function made in this chapter. The main purpose of this chapter seems to be to convince the reader that so little is known about brain function, that Pim van Lommel's explanations of how the brain functions are just as plausible as those of the many thousands of serious neuroscientists throughout the world. His suggestive explanations stop only just short of the ridiculous old and apochryphal statement mindlessly repeated by so many believers in the paranormal; "We only use 10% of our brains…" (click this link to read more about the real truth about this baseless, but well-loved statement).
What a strange interlude is all that can be said about this chapter. Sandwiched, seemingly at random between other heavy and difficult "scientifically" oriented chapters, we have a chapter which is no more than the very personal and emotionally laden extensive account of the NDE undergone by Mrs Monique Hennequin. Pim van Lommel gives no analysis. The account is placed there as is - nothing else. It is an emotional interlude between difficult chapters which many of the less well educated readers might find boring or too difficult.
This arrangement puzzled me, until I related it to the format of the public lectures given by Pim van Lommel, as well as his television appearances. These public and television appearance nearly always include a person who tells of their NDE. Usually it is a well-spoken woman, who is able to express the content of her NDE in terms everyone can understand, as well as fully convey the emotional impact this NDE had on her life. This is something to which most of the audience can relate. Most people ignore much of the scientific talk, but the public testimony really is an effective instrument binding the audience to the speaker regardless of what is said. Jeffrey Long used the same technique during his television appearances to promote his book "Evidence for the Afterlife". Oprah Winfrey and "Dr. Phil" also use this same presentation technique to very good effect in their popular television shows.
I actually once attended one of Pim van Lommel's lectures incognito to see how he presents his material. He is a good and effective speaker, and the public testimony works very well. You could "see" and "feel" the audience thawing and becoming more sympathetic to what he had to say. So the mystery of the strange placement of this chapter, as well as the similar content of chapter 1, was solved. This book is the written equivalent of his public and television appearances. It even uses the same tried and effective presentation techniques as several popular television shows. "Consciousness Beyond Life" is no more than a book written in the form of the popular "Oprah Winfrey style" television shows!
Now we come to the beginning of the core of the message of Pim van Lommel - his explanation of how quantum theory explains his belief in a consciousness separate from the physical body. He provides a good and simple explanation of some basic principles of quantum physics, and rapidly proceeds to non-locality and quantum entanglement. These phenomena are indeed amazing, but that does not mean they are applicable to the conditions of the human body. However, such a discussion does arouse a "Golly, gee, wow, isn't quantum physics wonderful!" emotion in the uncritical or uneducated reader. Pim van Lommel then proceeds to discuss how waves transfer information, and relates all of this together with the wonders of quantum physics to the functioning of consciousness in humans. And here is where the chapter falls to pieces. The result is a discussion of which can only be described as fantasy-rich attempt to apply the atomic reality of quantum mechanics to the thermally disorganized macromolecular reality of the body and this world. The reader can read and infer the impossibility of what he implies in the article entitled "Largest ever object put into quantum state". The human body just does not function at the temperatures, or conditions required for what he suggests in this chapter!
This chapter builds on his apparent lack of understanding of how people can be awake during a cardiac resuscitation (read here how consciousness during cardiac arrest is possible), and combines this with his previous suggestive and incorrect conclusions from his study of quantum mechanics. The few scientific references he uses to prove his case have not gained general acceptance by virtue of being reproducible by others. So the resulting conclusions are as fantasy-rich and unsubstantiated as those in the previous chapter.
The fact that the cells of the body are continually renewed, yet the body and mind remain the same is apparently a source of wonder to Pim van Lommel. Of course he forgets entirely that brain cells are not renewed all the time. They do not continually divide and renew themselves. Once you have your brain cells, they are all you have for your whole life. They do not regenerate, they do not renew themselves, and their numbers can only decrease. The body is the vehicle of the brain, and the brain is the source and generator of all that is termed mind. This is the explanation for this reality. Only, Pim van Lommel invokes fantasy-rich stories of DNA, non-local and entanglement quantum mechanics, biophotonic signalling between cells, and Sheldrake's morphogenic fields to explain all this. Biophotons do exist, but not in the way imagined by Pim van Lommel. A quick application of the standard Boltzman equations reveals that the human body radiates photons maximally in the invisible deep infrared at about 9500 nanometers, a fact used for designing night-vision goggles for the military, as well as many other applications where it is interesting to detect human infra-red emissions. Even so, these equations also do indicate that the human body does occasionally emit photons in the visible wavelengths of 390 to 780 nanometers. Chemical reactions such as occur during normal metabolism, cell division, or inflammation of tissues can also emit visible photons. However, the numbers of photons emitted at visible wavelengths from all these processes are so few, that they cannot be detected by the human eye, or even the most sensitive photomultipliers. So those simple souls who imagine that this is the explanation for the human aura should disabuse themselves immediately. (Those interested can read Chapter 3 of a book called The Unholy Legacy of Abraham to learn the physics of how people can see the human aura.) Accordingly, this chapter can only be considered as implausible, and fantasy-rich as the preceding two chapters. Unbelievable twaddle!
Finally we come to his theme - Endless Consciousness. This is a very standard discussion of the nature of the NDE, of the role of paranormal information exchange, combined with some simple philosophy to provide extra "proof" and extensions of the preceding discussions. His final conclusion is that the body is no more than a receiver for the instructions from an eternal and immortal consciousness. This is the old and hackneyed transmitter - receiver hypothesis so loved by many believers in the paranormal. The premises upon which these explanations are based are just as tendentious as those in many other chapters. Very little useful information here, and the totality is a hodgepodge which could only appeal to the uncritical and unknowing reader.
Here Pim van Lommel provides some thoughts on the implications of the NDE for medical practice, such as during palliative care, euthanasia, and organ donation. I personally find the latter part of the discussion quite appalling. I will explain why, because it hinges on his lack of belief in the diagnosis of brain-death.
Pim van Lommel implicitly makes clear that he does not believe in the concept of brain-death, and insinuates that brain-dead organ donors are still alive. The insinuations in these pages are a disservice to the selfless deceased donors themselves, as well as misleading and offensive towards their brave families who have made dreadful but altruistic decisions during a period of intense grief at the loss of a family member.
Brain-death is often a clear medical diagnosis. A diagnosis of brain-death made according to international guidelines is quite accurate ( see scientific medical diagnosis brain-death debate in Wijdiks 2001 ). Brain-dead people never regain consciousness, breathing never returns, and their bodies inevitably die. They are dead. The most striking examples of brain-death were reported from the Leiden University Hospital by Dr. Kramer during 1963 (Kramer 1963). During the early 1960s, he reported the postmortem findings of people with serious brain diseases and brain injuries, who were kept alive as long as possible with artificial respiration and intensive care. One patient clearly demonstrated the truth of the concept of brain-death.
This can be best demonstrated in slides derived from the brain of a 6-year old girl suffering from tubercular meningitis (case 1, table 1). Artificial respiration was necessary two weeks after commencement of the disease, yet the general condition grew worse in the following 9 days and she died two months later. As far as we could ascertain the brain had been dead for two months before the heart stopped. In this period of deanimation necrotic [rotting] brain substance leaked through burr-holes made in the skull. (page 147 in Kramer 1963).
This is an unspeakably sad, but truly dramatic example of the reality of brain-death while the rest of the body is still alive. This situation is functionally similar to beheading, and no one would think that a decapitated person is still alive, or ever return to a normal life. Pim van Lommel expressed surprise that brain dead donors require anesthesia to make organ removal possible. The reasons are clear and have long been known. The brains of the deceased donors are dead, but their spinal cords often still function. The result is that spinal reflexes induced by the surgery needed to remove the organs cause muscle spasm and reflex movements ( Suk-Geun 2006 ). These movements and muscle spasms make the surgery to remove the donor organs impossible. Therefore, general anesthesia must be administered to brain-dead donors to make organ donation possible.
So despite the insinuations and suggestive opinions of Pim van Lommel, brain-death is real, and brain-death exists. These unsubstantiated opinions of Dr. van Lommel on brain-death and organ donation do not reflect the actual state of health care in the Netherlands or the USA, nor do they do any justice to medical science. His opinions reek of a lack of respect and sensitivity towards organ donors and their bereaved families, as well as being a source of unjustified fear for any potential organ donors.
I won't bother any further. The reviews of the other chapters are clear enough.
The comments above cover only a small part of the evocative pseudo-scientific arguments presented in this book. Worse, the picture of the functioning of the body as proposed in this book, is definitely not consistent with medical reality. It is a masterly example of how tendentious and suggestive interpretation of international scientific literature, vague presentation of basic medical facts, together with ignorance of some basic statistical principles leads to incorrect conclusions. I would be fascinated to hear the opinions of some quantum physicists on the views on quantum mechanics expressed in this book. On the positive side, "Consciousness Beyond Life" does stand head and shoulders above such abominably wretched rags such as: "The Spiritual Brain" by Mario Beauregard and Denyse O'Leary, or "Evidence of the Afterlife. The Science of Near-Death Experiences" by Jeffrey Long and Paul Perry. Moreover, this book also contains a fine and readable presentation of the very good prospective study of NDEs undergone by cardiac arrest patients performed by Pim van Lommel and his co-workers. Unfortunately the interpretation of the results of this study is just as tendentious as in the original article published in "The Lancet" during 2001. The content of this book reminds me of the words written 78 years ago in the 1932 introduction to another book entitled "The Evidence for the Supernatural" written by Ivor Tuckett. These words are best illustrated in the two images below.
I need say no more about what I consider a suggestive and pseudoscientific book. The highlighted text of Ivor Tuckett said it for me nearly 80 years ago. Lastly, all I can say is that "Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience" costs $26.99 for 456 pages of tendentious and suggestive pseudoscientific nonsense, while the Lancet article can be had for free, or at minimal cost. "Consciousness Beyond Life" is not a book that will aid any serious study of the near death experience, so critical readers can make their own choices.