by Michael E. Tymn|
A neuropsychiatrist and Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dr. Peter
Fenwick is one of the world’s leading authorities on near-death experiences (NDEs).
In his 1995 book, The Truth in the Light, co-authored with his wife, Elizabeth
Fenwick, and recently republished by White Crow Books, Dr. Fenwick states that he
was fascinated by the NDEs reported by Dr. Raymond Moody in his seminal book on the
subject, but wondered if the “California factor” might be operating, referring to
the fact that some experiments and experiences do not seem to cross the Atlantic.
“My initial feeling was that near-death experiences might be only another one of
these,” Fenwick explained in the first chapter of his book. However, now, with some
four decades of research of NDEs and the dying process behind him, Fenwick has a much
better handle on the subject matter.
In addition to The Truth in the Light, the Fenwicks have authored Past Lives: An
Investigation into Reincarnation Memories (1999), The Hidden Door: Understanding
and Controlling Dreams (1999), and The Art of Dying (2008). I recently interviewed
Dr. Fenwick for “The Searchlight,” a quarterly publication of the Academy of
Spirituality and Paranormal Studies (http://www.aspsi.org/).
Dr. Fenwick, what prompted your interest in this whole area of dying, death, and survival?
“My interest in death and dying and the possibility of survival was triggered by my
interest in near death experiences. There is a class of NDEs which raises profound
questions for neuroscience and for philosophy. It has been demonstrated in numerous
studies that NDEs are reported by about 10 percent of patients who have a cardiac
arrest. Dr. [Sam] Parnia and I carried out one of these studies and were able to
conclude that the NDEs reported by those with cardiac arrests were no different from
those reported by patients with life-threatening illness or fear of death in
life-threatening situations. The question that neuroscience asks is, “can we be
certain that these experiences did occur actually during the time of the cardiac
arrest?” If they did, then as the features of cardiac arrest are those of the onset
of the death process, it would mean that these NDEs could be a good model for the
beginning of the death process.
“Thirty percent of NDEs reported during a cardiac arrest have an out-of- body experience
in which the experiencer reported leaving his body and witnessing the cardiac arrest
resuscitation procedure. If this is indeed true, it would mean that the NDE is taking
place while the patient is unconscious and has the clinical signs of death. Michael
Sabom, a cardiologist in the USA, has written widely on this issue and has compared
retrospectively the accounts given by the NDEr of his experiences during cardiac arrest
with those recorded in the medical notes. His data suggest that those who reported seeing
the resuscitation process were accurate in what they say they observed.
“Penny Sartori, an investigator in Wales, has carried out a study on NDEs in cardiac
arrest and asked those who had such an experience to describe what they saw. She also asked
patients who did NOT have an NDE during their cardiac arrest to describe what they thought
had happened during the resuscitation. She was able to support Sabom’s observation that
those who said they saw the resuscitation procedure were much more accurate than those who
were asked to describe what they thought had happened.
“One of the still unanswered questions is, “exactly when do these experiences occur?”
If they really do take place when the person is unconscious, then they should have no
subsequent memory of them.
“Some studies are now being carried out in which cards are being put on the ceiling of
rooms in coronary care units, where cardiac arrests are likely to occur, to see if these
can be accurately described by people who have had an apparently veridical out of body
experience. If they can, then this would time the experience, to the period of
“As the evidence that we had suggested – that the NDE which was experienced during
cardiac arrest was similar to that of people who were close to death – it seemed reasonable
to postulate that the NDE was part of the dying process. This then triggered my interest
in the dying process itself and led to the study that we carried out in hospices and a
nursing home in the south of England and hospices in Rotterdam, Holland.”
In “The Art of Dying,” you state that the evidence points to the fact that we are more
than brain function, and that consciousness will continue in some form or other after
death. What do you see as the best evidence?
“The evidence for a continuation of consciousness after death is always likely to be
difficult to find. The phenomena of the dying process suggest that the changes in
consciousness lead to experiences for which current neuroscience has no explanation.
This suggests that it would be unreasonable to confine consciousness just to the brain
and that we would expect there to be some evidence of a continuation of consciousness
after death. There is some evidence for this in the phenomenon of deathbed visions.
The dying often report that they are ‘visited’ by dead relatives shortly before they
die. They tell them they have come to help them when they die and take them on a
journey to elsewhere. One obvious explanation for this is that it is a ‘comfort’
strategy. However, we have a number of accounts of people who, as they are dying,
have had a deathbed vision of a close relative who had recently died, although they
did not know this. This raises the question – how did they know – and could the dead
relative still exist in some form?”
Is there any one case you have studied that stands out as the most impressive or convincing? If so, would you mind summarizing that case?
“My main interest is not in the possibility of consciousness continuing in some form
after death, but the changes in consciousness that occur as we die. Premonitions of
death are the first and early stage. The Dalai Lama says many of us will know two years
before we die that we are going to die. Although I do have accounts of people who
know a number of weeks before they die that their death is imminent, this is a small
group. Much more common are the phenomena which occur in the next stage of the dying
process – the deathbed visions I have already mentioned. These deathbed visitors may
first be seen by the dying outside the room, looking in, then, as the dying become
weaker and nearer to death the visions come closer until finally they are sitting on
the bed. An analysis of 100 visions showed that parents were the most common visitors,
spiritual but unknown figures next, and then siblings. Angels in our sample were rarely
seen as were friends.
“As the dying become weaker they may say that they are moving from one reality to
another. This new reality is very much like that experienced by people who have had a
near-death experience, full of love, light and spiritual beings. They may also see dead
relatives who again say they will be there to help them through the dying process.
The dying persons will then find themselves back in their bed again. Many are surprised
at this shift of venue. The similarity of this experience to that of the NDE confirmed my
feeling that the NDE in cardiac arrest can be seen as the beginning of the dying process.
“Next, some people may experience what is known as lightening up before death, or
terminal lucidity, in which someone who has been unconsciousness, perhaps for a long
period of time, suddenly wakes, sits up in bed, may greet a deathbed visitor and say they
are ready to go with them, and then sink back onto the pillows and die. This is now being
recognised more and more as an important time for the dying, as this brief moment of
consciousness can help resolve difficulties in the family relationships.
“One of the most interesting phenomena, and perhaps the one that most defies rational
explanation, occurs at the moment of death, when the dying person is reported to ‘visit’
someone who is emotionally close to them. Our data indicate that the visit is initiated
by the dying person, and often the person visited does not know that their friend is
dying, or even ill. The form the visit takes will depend on the mental state of the
recipient. If they are awake, they may simply feel an awareness, perhaps of the other
person’s presence, or they may simply have an inexplicable sense of unease. If they
are asleep the experience is in the form of a narrative dream, and is much more explicit
and visual. The message given is usually that their friend is ‘all right’ and has come
to say goodbye.
“Finally at the time of death, shapes are seen leaving the body, radiant light may be
seen in the room emanating from the body, clocks stop, and pets may become upset and behave
strangely. All the phenomena which occur around the time of death or at the moment of
death, suggest that consciousness may exist beyond the brain, and that communication
between two people who are emotionally close but far apart is a possibility.”
Why do you think mainstream science is so reluctant to recognize this evidence?
“Mainstream science has shown little interest in the mental states of the dying, and so
many of these phenomena are poorly recorded and studied. The features of the
experiences of the dying are not taught in medical schools so doctors know little about
them. Consequently, nurses and careworkers are reluctant to talk about what they see
and experience as these things are not within their culture and not accepted.”
It doesn’t seem like mainstream science is any closer to accepting the evidence now than
it was a hundred years ago. Do you agree? Do you think there will ever be a day when
mainstream science will embrace the evidence for survival?
“I do think mainstream science is beginning to take more interest in what happens when
we die. Further scientific studies are likely to show that the phenomena which we have
discussed above are not uncommon and can be extremely helpful both to the dying and to
their bereaved families. However, if mainstream science is to accept the possibility
of the survival of consciousness after death we will need a very different model of
the universe. It will be one in which consciousness is central and not just an
epiphenomenon. This will mean that much of science will have to be rewritten and so
the acceptance of such a model is likely to take some time.”
With hundreds, if not thousands, of credible near-death experiences having been recorded,
what else can be achieved by NDE research? Isn’t it well past the point of diminishing
returns? Isn’t future research now prejudiced by the fact that so many people have read
or heard about NDEs?
“In 1987, I was involved in a QED TV film, Glimpses of Death, which was the first TV
programme to describe the near death experience in this country, I received over 2000
letters from people who had had such an experience. I sent out a questionnaire to 500
of these and used the questionnaire data for a book on NDEs (The Truth in the Light,
now an e-book). What we found was that over 98 percent of people who wrote to us had
not heard of NDEs when they had their own experience. A comparison of the phenomenology
in this series with more recent studies of Western populations shows very little
difference between them. Thus, there is little evidence from the current data that
the NDE has been influenced in any way by its popularity and discussion in the media.
Further cross cultural studies of the NDE would be extremely helpful, and studies to
validate the veridical OBE of the NDE, particularly during a cardiac arrest, would help
to show that consciousness, in certain circumstances, may exist beyond the brain and
thus raise fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness itself.”
Many people say that we should focus on the here-and-now, and not concern ourselves
with death and after death. What is your response to them?
“I certainly agree with people who say we should concentrate on the here and now,
particularly the here and now while people are dying. As I have described above,
the dying have many experiences which are helpful both to them and to their families.
However, we do still need more studies as the data is far from complete.”
Have you come across any interesting cases since the publication of your books?
“Recently I have been able to compare the dying experiences of people who have been
brought up in a rural setting with those who have been brought up in an urban
environment. Although this data is preliminary it does suggest that animals appear
much more prominently in the experiences of the rural group. We have accounts of birds
who come into the room of the dying, are seen on their window sills and collect in
large groups around the hospice at the time the person is dying. In the cases we’ve
heard, the dying person who has had such visits has always been interested in birds
and the type of birds which appear around their time of death is the one in which
they have been interested. We have also had animal stories suggesting that an
emotional interest and connection with animals leads to their appearance at the
time of death.”
Do you have any future research or book plans?
“My next project is to look into the stories of radiant light at the time of death by
the use of very sensitive photometers which can measure individual photons of light.
I hope to be able to chart the death process and monitor any changes in light which
occur in the room of the dying. In some of our accounts of light surrounding the
dying person, this light is seen by only one or two people present. This would suggest
that the light is more psychological or spiritual than physical. But other accounts
suggest the light is physical as it is seen reflecting off surfaces in the same way
that physical light behaves. Gathering further information about why clocks stop or
shapes are seen leaving the body will help us understand the importance of
consciousness at the time of death and our universal interconnectedness.”