Guest review by Jude Isabella
About 42 percent of the way through Erika Hayasaki’s Kindle Single, Dead or Alive, a book about Near Death Experiences (NDEs), I experienced a freaky coincidence. I was in the field with a team of scientists when a member of the crew started telling me about a horrific accident he had been in a year before. I asked him if he still had nightmares. Not as often, he answered, before telling me about the out-of-body experience he had in the operating room, when he suddenly found himself above the action, looking down on his body as doctors and nurses struggled to save his life.
"I don’t know why I’m telling you this," he said. “I’ve told almost no one and I don’t like to talk about it.” The subtext being, he keeps it to himself to avoid either one of two reactions: disbelief or way too much belief.
Hayasaki explores this treacherous territory in Dead or Alive, investigating the science behind NDEs. The story is perfect for the length of a Kindle Single: the study of NDEs is in its infancy and so there's little solid scientific evidence. A longer book would be repetitive, recounting endless anecdotes and relying too heavily on speculation.
Hayasaki opens Dead or Alive with the NDE experienced by her uncle, Richard K. Harris, a lawyer turned writer. It sounds like the typical NDE description familiar to anyone who reads, watches movies, television, or roams the Internet, complete with tunnels, brilliant lights, and the presence of already departed loved ones.
It’s a brave place to start. If not for the fact that Hayasaki is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, (where she wrote several articles that inspired this book), I might have rolled my eyes and left Dead or Alive to languish in the “Books” collection of my Kindle. But Hayasaki understands something fundamental about NDEs — the universality of NDE descriptions can make them less credible, since anyone can describe an NDE whether they’ve had one or not. To give the experience some specificity, she focuses on Harris, recounting his experiences before his own brush with death.
By introducing both Harris and his NDE, Hayasaki hooks the reader. It becomes paramount to find out if NDEs can be scientifically explained. Is it just the product of a brain trying to make sense of dying? Or is it possible that a meta-consciousness awaits us all at the end?
Hayasaki delves into past writings about NDEs. In the mid-1970s the psychologist Raymond Moody interviewed 150 people who had been declared dead and were then revived. From the interviews he drew a universal description of NDEs, which, it turns out, have been reported throughout history. Research has accelerated since Moody’s study. A number of studies suggest that a lack of oxygen to the brain may be the cause of NDEs. Hayasaki interviews NDE researchers, even finding a neurosurgeon who experienced an NDE himself.
This is compelling reading. Who does not want to know if science can determine if death is final? (Less compelling is Harris’s story, which Hayasaki weaves into her narrative. Hayasaki never knew her uncle well. He had distanced himself from his family, and he died of cancer soon after they met.) And when it comes to the subject of NDEs, Hayasaki’s timing is impeccable. Baby boomers are reaching the age when their family and friends are starting to die. The cynic in me says the latest research on NDEs is driven by a dominant generation accustomed to questioning the status quo. Boomers, after all, made 40 the new 30 and 50 the new 40. They can’t cheat death, so they’re questioning it through science.
The non-cynic in me says technology is the true driver of this research. It’s easier than ever to study NDEs. Better brain maps courtesy of medical imaging equipment have allowed scientists to stimulate specific parts of the brain with electrodes to induce out-of-body experiences in test subjects, for example. With MRIs scientists can study test subjects’ brains as they recall NDEs. And scientific papers on the topic have turned up in journals like The Lancet and Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
Although studies often focus on the out-of-body experiences associated with NDEs, I didn’t know until reading Dead or Alive that people near death frequently say they feel nothing as they gaze at their corporeal forms, however broken and distressed they might look. When my new acquaintance, the accident survivor, expressed the same sentiment, I hadn’t read far enough into the book to know that about NDEs and I doubt he scoured the Internet looking for lesser known details. This volunteered bit of information, his hasty retreat from the conversation, and reading the book, made me think the NDE experience — brain-based or not — is more real and profound to people than I had previously accepted.
It’s hard to tell if Hayasaki believes NDEs reside only in the brain or that consciousness lives on despite the body’s death. The balance of probabilities tips toward the brain studies and their conclusions so far. But ultimately no one knows what happens after death and in Dead or Alive I get the sense that Hayasaki is asking us all to keep our minds open.
Jude Isabella writes about science for kids and grown-ups. She has written for The Walrus, New Scientist, Archaeology Magazine, Canadian Geographic, and other publications. Her books, Chit Chat, a Celebration of the World’s Languages will be published fall 2013 by Kids Can Press, and Salmon: a Scientific Memoir in spring 2013 by RMB. Follow her on Twitter.