THURSDAY, Dec. 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Bill Taylor was 37 when his heart stopped beating, the result of a viral infection that attacked the vital organ.
More than two decades later, he vividly recalls what happened next: he was floating in a celestial sea of stars and planets, looking across the vast universe bathed in overwhelming love and feeling integral to its design.
"You see as if you had eyes, but yet you see other things too," he says. "I could see how everything was connected to everything else." Doctors then jump-started his heart, bringing him back to life and tearing him from the peaceful emptiness.
As disconcerting and improbable as his account sounds, Taylor, a computer programmer in Clarksville, Md., is hardly unique. In a new study that keeps the door open for an afterlife, Dutch researchers say they can find no scientific explanation for why some people report having near-death experiences (NDEs) while others do not.
"NDE pushes at the limits of medical ideas about the range of human consciousness and the mind-brain relation," write the researchers, whose study appears this week in The Lancet.
Led by Dr. Pim van Lommel, of Rijnstate Hospital in Arnhem, the Dutch team interviewed 344 patients brought back from clinical death from cardiac arrest at 10 hospitals in the Netherlands between 1988 and 1992.
Of those, 62, or 18 percent, reported an NDE. Most were considered superficial, involving only a vague memory of one or two impressions, such as seeing a bright light or moving through a tunnel. But 41 of the people, or 12 percent, reported stronger experiences with several components, ranging from star-flight like Taylor's to leaving the body and conversing with the dead.
Younger patients were more likely to report an NDE, as were those who had more than one heart stoppage or who'd had a previous NDE. Having a good short-term memory was also an important predictor of who reported the events.
Women, people who'd been revived outside the hospital and the few who said they remembered being afraid during their heart episode tended to have deeper NDEs.
But the researchers also say that people who had the experiences, and particularly those with powerful NDEs, were more likely to die in the hospital, or shortly after leaving it.
Near-death experiences are often explained away by a lack of oxygen to the brain after the heart stops beating. But if that's the case, van Lommel's group says, most of the people in their study should have reported the phenomena.
"Our results show that medical factors cannot account for occurrence of NDE," they write.
The researchers also conducted follow-up interviews with some patients two years after, and even eight years after, their brush with death. They found that those who'd reported NDEs were much more likely than those who did not to say they'd come to believe in an afterlife and were unafraid of death. All the patients reported being more religious and more spiritually and socially aware than before.
Even among those who survived to the eight-year interview, NDE patients continued to have almost-perfect recall of their experience.
Dr. Bruce Greyson, a University of Virginia psychiatrist who has studied out-of-body experiences, agrees that existing medical knowledge can't account for reports of NDEs.
"It is possible, of course, that reports of NDEs are erroneous misinterpretations of mundane events that do not require accounting. But that hypothesis becomes increasingly unlikely as more and more well-documented NDEs accumulate," Greyson says.
Although the frequency and rudiments of NDEs don't vary much across countries and cultures, some important details do differ, Greyson says. For example, he says, the "tunnel" that is fairly common in American and European experiences is quite rare among Asians.
What's more, people often interpret their experience through the lens of culture and religion. Christians may encounter what they believe is a benevolent "being of light," and label that Christ, he says, while others may view the same light "in terms of their own cultural or personal expectations."
Taylor, who is now president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, saw a bright light, like that shed by a welder's torch, during his NDE. But in his experience, he says, he also was a light source, a tiny spark charged with pouring energy into the links uniting the universe.
The worst part about his NDE, Taylor says, was initially having no one with whom he could share his visions. "It was very difficult and isolated. It was painful not to be able to talk about it with someone," he recalls.
To be sure, not every scientist is convinced that NDEs are in fact a brief trip into the afterlife.
Christopher French, a psychologist at the University of London and author of an editorial accompanying The Lancet article, argues that it's impossible to determine whether the phenomena truly occur after the patient has been declared dead.
"Was it really during the period of flat [brain activity], or might they have occurred as the patients rapidly entered or gradually recovered from that state?" he writes.
French also points out that a small fraction of people in the Dutch study who first denied having an NDE later changed their mind. Perhaps these patients had created false memories of the phenomena after hearing the reports of others, he argues. And if they did, so could have anyone, he says.