Inducing Near-Death Experiences with Chemicals

Luke, D. (2007). Lecture report: Inducing near-death states through the use of chemicals – Dr.

Ornella Corazza. Paranormal Review, 43, 28-29.



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Inducing near-death states through the use of chemicals

– A review of a lecture given by Dr. Ornella Corazza at Goldsmiths University, London, February 2007.

As the last in a series of biweekly lectures on aspects of anomalous psychology at Goldsmiths, organised by Prof. Chris French, Dr. Corazza gave a fascinating talk comparing experiences with the dissociative anaesthetic ketamine to near-death experiences (NDEs). This presentation had grown out of the speaker’s own research, having recently completed her PhD at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where she investigated the phenomenology of NDEs through the use of anaesthetics.

Dr. Corazza outlined the typical features of near-death experiences, as originally proposed by the likes of Raymond Moody and later by Kenneth Ring, who broke down the NDE into five stages: Peace, bodily separation, entering the darkness, seeing the light and entering the light. Similarities between these experiences and those arising from the use of ketamine were discussed, following the trend first observed by D. Scott Rogo in the 1980s, and later elaborated by Dr. Karl Jansen in the last decade or so. It was Rogo who first pointed out that OBE’s regularly occur with ketamine experiences and that other features also commonly resemble the NDE. However, Dr. Corazza’a research departed from that of these earlier researchers by conducting a formal controlled comparison between 36 cases of NDEs reportedly caused by a cardiac arrest or other life threatening circumstances, and 36 cases of NDEs induced by ketamine, thereby in non-life threatening circumstances.

Supporting the ketamine-NDE hypothesis that similar neurochemical processes are at work during both experiences, a number of similarities were found in the incidence of experiences in both groups. Approximately equal amounts of people in each group reported that during the experience time had become meaningless (~68%), their visions had speeded up (~70%), and that they had an unverified ESP-type experience (~22%), with slightly less people in the ketamine-NDE group reporting dissociation from the body (33%) than the cardiac NDE group (53%) and the remaining group (87%). The biggest differences occurred comparing visions of light, which were only experienced by 19% of the ketamine group compared to 73% of the ‘natural’ NDE group, and similarly with encounters with deceased or religious beings (K-NDE, 17%; cardiac NDE, 57%). Further inconsistencies occurred with reports of feeling a unity with the universe, which were about twice as common among the ketamine group (52%), and many of the respondents in this group also uniquely reported witnessing ‘the fabrication of the universe itself’. Nevertheless, old arguments that ketamine experiences are frightening but NDEs are not were not well substantiated as 72% in the ketamine group felt a strong sense of peace and pleasantness much like the majority (93%) of the natural NDE group. Furthermore, the ketamine group were more prone to feeling joy than the others.

Considering these findings Dr. Corazza was prepared to accept that NDEs, albeit of a slightly different type, might be induced through the use of ketamine, drawing on Jansen’s neurochemical model of NDE in which the NDE is mimicked by the action of ketamine in the brain. However, the speaker suggested that purely reductionist-materialist explanations were unsatisfactory because brain function does not necessarily cause consciousness. Similarly, the speaker was not taken by psychological theories of the NDE, such as Blackmore’s dying brain hypothesis because ketamine shows that genuine near-death does not seem to be necessary for the experience, although Dr. Corazza also rejected the survivalist hypothesis because of it’s dualistic stance on the mind/body relationship. In preference to these various positions, which she considered ‘disembodied’, she instead chose to champion a non-reductionist, non-survivalist approach inspired by Eastern, especially Japanese, teachings on higher states of consciousness, according to which the experience has to be connected to the latent potential within the whole body, not only the brain. Given that the debate on NDEs still remains wide open it would be good to hear more about this approach; meanwhile the ketamine-NDE relationship and its implications still pose many questions for the ongoing debate and beg further investigation.

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