Peter Fenwick is a neuropsychiatrist and neurophysiologist who is known for his studies of epilepsy and end-of-life phenomena.
Peter Fenwick – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT
This is the final border. All of you are going to die. Most of you are afraid.
Why are you afraid? Because you don’t know what is going to happen.
I expect, many of you think it’s going to be like this: that the Grim Reaper will come along and take you. No, it’s not.
It’s much more like what the man thinks, “I thought, it was going to be my mom.” Actually, our data shows that probably, it will be your mom, or a group of dead relatives, happy dead relatives, who come to collect you.
SO, WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW ABOUT DYING?
In the 1970s, Raymond Moody published a book. This was a fantastic book. Told wonderful stories about people in America, who, after a cardiac arrest, came back, with having gone down a tunnel, having met a beam of light, all that sort of thing. Oh, come on, had to be rubbish.
This was California, that would never cross over to the UK, no. So you can imagine my surprise, when into my consulting room, came a guy who had had a failed catheter, a cardiac catheter, and had a near-death experience. It was my moment of realization that, in fact, these things did happen, but it was much more important than that.
If what this guy was saying was true, then we could start thinking about what death might actually mean. And so, I had to start studying and looking into death.
First of all, this was the near-death experience. Now I found, it did occur in England. I went into various hospitals and spoke to people, and so I appeared on the BBC and two films in the 1980s, and I got over one thousand, no two thousand letters.
Do you remember letters? They are rather fun, you can read them.
Well, these letters were written by people who had never ever before told anyone about their experiences.
“Why?” I said, “Too frightened.”
They told it to their wives or their husbands, they weren’t interested. They told it to their friends, they said, “You’re mad.”
They were very relieved to be able to put them down on paper, and I was very pleased because I could then study these and understand what the near-death experience was about.
What we found is that it was, in fact, very similar to that suggested by Raymond Moody.
First of all, you lose your pain – if you’re in pain. Then you become very calm. And then some people leave their body, others will go down a tunnel, a fascinating tunnel, it varies, and at the end of the tunnel, there’s a speck of light.
If you can move towards the speck of light, it gets bigger and bigger, very, very bright. When you come into the speck of light, it envelops you as a full light experience. And it’s calming, compassionate, loving, supportive, amazing.
And in the light, there is the being of light. And the being of light may speak to you, may not. What you do then is that you may get a life review.
You come out of the light, you may get a life review. Very interesting because you can then see exactly what you’ve done before, and review all the things you’ve done and understand why you did them.
Then you will go into a space, and the space is usually, in our culture, in the UK, is an English country garden. Oh come on, it’s lovely. Beautiful flowers, birdsong.
I can tell you that no spiders, no snakes etc. have ever been seen there. So, it’s a wonderful experience.
And walking around the garden, are dead relatives. They will greet you. Some of them will send you back. And you will come to a point where you know it’s a border of some sort and if you cross it, then you won’t return.
This is important because at that point, you have to make a decision: you’re going to go on and never come back, or you are going to return.
Some people decide to return because they’ve got a family, kids, that sort of thing. Others are sent back by the being of light. And others, the relatives will say, “Go back. It’s not your time yet.”
So, the people then find themselves back in the hospital.
NOW, WHAT SORT OF THINGS CAUSE THE NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE?
Well, illness, operations, accidents, all those sorts of things. But that is not terribly helpful to us, because you cannot study the brain function of these people, if you take them from accidents or childbirth. You see, it’s all different.
So, what you have to do is to try and get the brain in the same state. Now, heart attacks is the obvious one. In a heart attack, the heart is stopped, obviously, no respiration, and the brainstem reflexes have all gone. So, you are clinically dead.
So, we know what state the brain is in. And so, it makes a very, very good model for looking at near-death experiences. In our sample, we had about 9% of people who had their near-death experiences during their heart attack.
Now, was this really true? Could we see it in hospital? So we set up a study in Southampton Hospital, looked at 69 people who had had a cardiac arrest and found just under 9% of people who had had a near-death experience.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE?
Now, we could actually look at it. Very similar to the ones we’d seen? Yes, it does occur in cardiac arrest.
Now, if that’s true, when does it occur? You see, the NDEers say, the experience occurs when you’re unconscious. Now, if that’s true, that you can get these experiences when you’re unconscious and the brain isn’t functioning, then it would make a very good model for the beginnings of death.
Science says, “This is impossible, it is ridiculous: Fenwick, go home!” Because the argument is that consciousness is created by the brain.
So if I’m saying to you the brain isn’t functioning and there’s consciousness there, it doesn’t fit easily into our modern scientific paradigm. So we had a little look further at this.
I’ve drawn you a cartoon as to what happens to consciousness when the heart stops. You see, the consciousness is high at the beginning. Heart stops, there’s a rapid fall in consciousness to unconsciousness. So the experience can’t happen then.
When the heart restarts, it’s confusional. People don’t know where they are, what’s happening, that sort of thing. But the near-death experience is very, very lucid, very clear. And so this confusional arousal means it can’t happen then.
So when does it happen? They say – that’s the NDEers – it happens when they’re unconscious. So we argue that possibly they’re correct and that this is the time this happens.
You have to understand that that’s against our current understanding in science but nevertheless run with the data, don’t run with the current model, if it seems to be wrong.
Now if what I’ve told you is correct, then it means the near-death experience is a good model for the dying process. You’d all agree with that. So let’s look at dying and see what it’s like.
So what we did is we went into nursing homes, hospices. We talked to palliative care teams. We did this in the UK, we did it in Holland, and our questionnaire has been given to people in Ireland.
We’ve come up with a lot of ideas about what actually happens when you die. But much more than that, I went on radio, and television, and got stories. I got over 1,500 stories about what people say happens when you die.