Hereafter – a film inspired by Near Death Experiences

Have you seen Hereafter yet?  Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Matt Damon as a psychic (who hasn’t come to terms with his gift – at least at the film’s start!), it asks the question of whether there is life after death and tells the stories of three people who make contact with their loved ones during Near Death Experiences (NDEs). 

The film was written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote the film The Queen, following the death of a close friend, but was in part helped along by research by Dr Penny Sartori, a former intensive care nurse from Swansea.  Dr. Sartori researched experiences of NDEs amongst patients at Morriston Hospital and was given a PhD from the University of Wales for her work. 

In an interview with Walesonline, Dr. Sartori said that she hoped the film would bring the existence of NDEs out into the open, as she said that many people hung back from talking about them out of fear of the response they might get. 

I can’t wait to see the film.  Critics haven’t given it very good write ups, but strangely this seems to have focused on whether they agree with the subject matter rather than whether it’s actually a good film, so that means we get to make up our own minds. 

It really does seem, however, that even with an increasing number of medically qualified people getting interested, collecting case studies and doing their own research in the field of NDEs,  some remain absolutely entrenched in the idea that NDEs are nothing more than a particular pattern of neurons firing as part of the biological process of dying.  This idea can’t possibly account for the number of people who are able to accurately report on what was done to them, what medical personnel around them said, or events outside of the treatment room itself that could later be verified during the time when they were clinically dead. 

The whole area throws up another interesting debate about how research is actually done in general, and how it is done around NDEs in particular.  There was a flurry of excitement a few years back when in 2008 Dr. Sam Parnia announced that he was embarking on a three year study in the US and the UK to see what could be said about Near Death Experiences which should be finishing up round about now.   But some have said that his study is almost doomed to condemn the existence of NDEs.  Why?  Because of its methodology.   It seems that Dr. Parnia decided that this would involve putting cards in places that couldn’t be seen from ground level and checking to see if patients who went through NDEs could report what was on them as they would have been able to see them when they floated up out of their body.  We will have to see the results of the study itself, but for now it looks as though for Dr. Parnia’s study, absolutely no other reported finding will score any points.  

There’s nothing new about this approach.  In fact, Dr. Sartori used it as well.  But it does pose a huge problem.  Say you were doing a study using the same methodology and talked to someone who had gone through a Near Death Experience.  Imagine that they could tell you what a relative at a  far away location they ‘visited’ during the NDE was doing at the moment they were declared dead, what they were wearing, and loads of other details of that kind that could be independently verified later.  If they couldn’t tell you what was printed on a card placed on top of a cupboard,  those results couldn’t count towards findings that would at the end decide whether NDEs were ‘true’ or not. 

Now say that you were going through an NDE.  Would you stop to notice a card on top of a wardrobe, or might you be preoccupied with bigger things? 

Some are rightly worried that Dr. Parnia might have drawn up a study that effectively forces him to overlook fascinating evidence that he might come across during its course and declare NDEs to be something else by default.  Interestingly, in using the same approach but broadening what could be considered an acceptable finding, Dr. Sartori gathered loads of case studies where people might not have been able to say what was on the cards she placed, but otherwise gave evidence that could only have been gleaned by someone leaving their body. That’s actually a much better approach that embraces important factors within the nature of the experience of an NDE itself whilst still being rigorous in setting out what constitutes evidence.

It’s all fascinating because whilst we so want science to do studies that look into this and other paranormal phenomena, there does need to be some kind of meeting between the two worlds at the discussion stage of how research is currently carried out.  Right now, it’s still a little bit like the early days of anthropological research, when Western anthropologists would take their values to indigenous cultures and come back reporting what savages they were because the ingorance and racism of the researchers stood in the way of them understanding the subtleties of the very different cultures they had encountered. 

Perhaps the starting point would be a genuine truce?  In the meantime, let’s watch that film – and watch this space!Loads of love,

Michele x 

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