What does science say about life after death?

Tom Vaughan 31 May 2022

Author and entrepreneur Tom Vaughan muses on what the latest scientific discoveries could teach us about life after death.

Near death experiences, in which people see their lives flash before their eyes or experience the sensation of floating above their bodies, have long been relegated to the realm of pseudoscience. 

But now an international team of researchers have called for the phenomenon to be taken seriously. Experts from universities including New York, King’s College London, Harvard, California and Southampton have just published the first-ever consensus statement featuring guidelines for studying these experiences in an attempt to answer one of life’s biggest mysteries: is there life after death

This move is positive news. In researching my new book, I’ve spent seven years mulling this question. Gathering the thoughts of some of the world’s most pre-eminent minds, I was surprised to discover that many of these great thinkers, such as astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle, also refuse to dismiss the possibility that death may not be the ending to life after all.

Sir David Attenborough even once famously said that nature wastes nothing, which surely begs the question of what happens to all the knowledge in our brains when we die?

Scientific breakthroughs in reversing death

Macro shot of blue eye iris on black backgroundEyes taken from organ donors responded to light five hours after death in one experiment conducted by scientists

These days it seems near death experiences are a common phenomenon. The research team named above, which studied hundreds of cases to narrow down the medical definition, discovered that around 15 per cent of people who have been resuscitated from a coma after cardiac arrest have had these experiences.

The researchers concluded that millions of people around the world may have inhabited a "grey zone" between living and dying, in which they have had an out-of-body experience. People often wake up profoundly changed, no longer fearing death and resolved to live a better life.

"A group of scientists brought dead eyes back to life from organ donors"

It’s taken a while for modern science to bring near death experiences into the mainstream. But now, thanks to medical advances bringing more people than ever back from the dead, we are witnessing a clarion call for greater understanding. 

This is also happening in a time of rapid scientific progress. Only last month a group of scientists brought dead eyes back to life from organ donors.

Because the neuron cells within the eye’s retina form part of the central nervous system (CNS), which encompasses the brain and spinal cord, this raises the possibility that other cells in the CNS could also be restored, perhaps bringing back consciousness.

As one expert pointed out, it raises the question of whether brain death, as it is currently defined, is truly irreversible.  

Real-life out-of-body experiences

There are many tales of near death experiences that can’t be explained rationally. I recall the famous case of Pam Reynolds, an American singer-songwriter who nearly died during an operation to remove a brain aneurysm in 1991.

Floating above her body on the operating table, she later accurately recalled doctor’s conversations and described tools they were using, before drifting out of the room and travelling through a tunnel of light where she met long-deceased friends and relatives.

Her extraordinary experience ended abruptly when Reynolds’s deceased uncle took her back to her body—a feeling she described as “plunging into a pool of ice.” 

"It was the toughest decision of my life to come back"

One of the most powerful stories I have ever come across is that of Wiltshire teenager Jonathan Bryan. Born with severe cerebral palsy, he is “locked in”, only able to communicate with the outside world through eye movements through his computer. 

On one occasion, he was left battling an aggressive respiratory infection which left him close to death. It was at this moment he described a vivid, dreamlike, vision of himself in Jesus’ garden where he could speak and play.

Able-bodied, free to run and climb trees, Jonathan wanted to stay there. He told his parents, “it was the toughest decision of my life to come back.”

We hear so often of people’s out-of-body encounters, but less so about physical sensations that have never been experienced by the person in their waking life. The fact that an 11-year-old child who had never had the fortune of having the ability to talk and move for himself could describe them so succinctly I find astounding. 

Finding meaning in the great beyond

Person jumping between cliffs under blazing sun and blue skyPeople who come back from an out-of-body experience often say that they have lost their fear of death and, by extension, their fear of life

Should we wait for science to find an answer to the big question? Or should we just go ahead and choose to put our faith in believing that there is something more? 

Many people who have experienced near death experiences describe that by losing their fear of death, they lose their fear of life. An out-of-body experience leads to a feeling that you are part of something greater than yourself.

"By losing their fear of death, they lose their fear of life"

In essence, we all have a binary choice: we can either decide that life is a huge, meaningless cosmic accident or, alternatively, choose to believe the opposite—that it has meaning and a purpose. 

If we choose to believe in the latter, it leaves open the possibility, even the likelihood, of there being a higher power and, in turn, somewhere we go after death. 

By choosing this path, and of being unafraid of death and of losing everything, you are unafraid of taking chances and living life to the max. And this, in my mind, makes life so much more meaningful, and much more fulfilling. 

Hope and The Hedgehog: A Digestible Exploration of the Meaning of Life by Tom Vaughan is out now, available from Amazon.

Read more: Does the answer to life after death lie in quantum physics?

Read more: The revolutionary promise of stem cell cures

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