Heaven for Real? PET Scans Offer Clues

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A new film about a young boy’s near-death experience, “Heaven is For Real,” made a splash at the box office this past weekend, pulling in over $22 million. The film, based on the best-selling book of the same name, is about a father whose young son, Colton Burpo, visits heaven.

Burpo’s experience, though unusual, is not unique: There are dozens of people who have claimed to visit heaven -- or, less often, hell -- during near-death experiences. The best-selling 2010 book “The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven” tells the story of another young boy’s near-death experience:

“In 2004 Kevin Malarkey and his six-year-old son, Alex, suffered a terrible car wreck. The impact from the crash paralyzed Alex -- and it seemed impossible that he could survive. When Alex awoke from a coma two months later, he had an incredible story to share. Of events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was unconscious ... Of the angels who took him through the gates of Heaven itself.”  

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Of course neither Colton Burpo nor Alex Malarkey offered any real evidence of entering heaven, encountering angels or meeting God. These are two of many seemingly inexplicable examples of people who have been gravely injured and yet, upon recovery, later presented apparently accurate descriptions of things they should not have been aware of in their condition. Sounds, smells and snippets of conversations that occurred in the emergency room when the patient was assumed to be unconscious, comatose or even dead are offered as evidence of out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences.

A Scientific Explanation?

A recent study offers evidence that patients who are in a vegetative state may in fact have more awareness than previously thought. This research may also help explain near-death experiences. If, as this study suggests, apparently unconscious and vegetative patients are more conscious than assumed, their recollections are less mysterious.

An article in “The Scientist” reports:

“Some brain injuries can leave patients awake but unresponsive with little hope of regaining consciousness. But the gold standard of bedside evaluations, including shining light in the person’s eyes among other tests, may miss some subtle brain activity in patients in vegetative states — those thought to have little to no chance of ever recovering. According to a study published this week (April 16) in The Lancet, positron emission tomography (PET) scans can help clinicians detect with greater certainty these faint hints of consciousness even in patients thought to be hopelessly vegetative.”

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PET scans, which can detect more subtle brain activity than the more frequently used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, found that a significant percentage of patients who were thought to have no brain activity at all had in fact progressed to minimally conscious states. PET scans predicted a return to consciousness for 13 out of 41 subjects deemed by bedside observation as unlikely to regain consciousness.

The lead author of the study told The New York Times that PET scans “might show signs of awareness in people who turn out to have little or no chance of meaningful recovery,” but that “We shouldn’t give these families false hope. It’s just a very complex medical reality. Quantifying consciousness is tricky.”

Near-Death Experiences

A 2001 article published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences by neuroscientist Dean Mobbs, of the University of Cambridge’s Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, and Caroline Watt, of the University of Edinburgh, found that “contrary to popular belief, research suggests that there is nothing paranormal about these (near-death) experiences. Instead, near-death experiences are the manifestation of normal brain function gone awry, during a traumatic, and sometimes harmless, event.”

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The research also busts another myth: that people have “returned from the dead” -- if by dead you mean clinical brain death. No one has survived true clinical death, which is why the experiences are called near-death. Many people have been revived after their heart stopped for short periods of time -- around 20 minutes or more -- but anyone revived from brain death would be permanently and irreparably brain damaged and certainly unable to report their experiences.

Though people often think of consciousness as a binary, on/off system -- we are either conscious or unconscious -- psychologists and doctors know that that consciousness is in fact a continuum with many steps along the way.

We may be conscious while we’re active during the day, but we can experience moments of unconsciousness (called microsleeps). We may be unconscious while we sleep at night, but we can still be aware of what’s around us -- for example when we incorporate an ambient sound into a dream, or wake up at a faint noise.

Heaven may or may not be real, but PET scans have shown that even externally induced unconsciousness -- such as by anesthesia or brain trauma -- may not be as “unconscious” as widely believed, and thus information gleaned and remembered by apparently unconscious -- or even comatose -- people may have a natural, not supernatural, explanation.

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