Robert Mays has studied near-death experiences for years, and has reached some conclusions.
One is that the mind is "an energetic entity" that separates from the body as people are dying.
"We believe a strong case can be made that the mind survives death," Mays said. "If we take what the near-death experiencers are saying, the mind will go to a place which is very positive. It's what everybody would call heaven."
Mays is a board member of the International Association For Near Death Studies, a nonprofit research organization based in Durham. It has about 850 members worldwide, and its stated purpose is to promote responsible, multi-disciplinary exploration of near-death and similar experiences.
An MIT graduate and retired software engineer at IBM, Mays has been interested in accounts of near-death experiences since he and his wife read Raymond Moody's book, Life After Life
, in 1976, and George Ritchie's book, Return From Tomorrow
"Both books really convinced us that there was something very real and, to us, fairly obvious: that the mind separates from the body at death."
Since 2005, Mays and his wife Suzanne have been doing concentrated research, gathering data from near-death experiences. They have studied hundreds of cases, including those who report what they see and hear as they begin to die and seem to separate from their bodies - in other words, their out-of-body experiences.
A typical case involves a hospital patient who perceives that he's floating above his body and sees doctors working on him below.
In one study, Mays said, evidence showed that 92 percent of near-death experience cases where people report seeing and hearing things when they're "out of their body" were later verified as completely correct, such as what surgeons were doing and saying. The other cases, Mays said, "had only one or two details incorrect."
But not everyone is convinced that the near-death experience is anything but an imbalance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.
A story published April 8, 2010, in the National Geographic Daily News cites a study in the journal Critical Care
suggesting that near-death experiences are mind tricks triggered by too much carbon dioxide in the blood.
In the study, researchers investigated whether different levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide play a role in the near-death experience.
The team studied 52 heart attack patients who had been admitted to three major hospitals and were eventually resuscitated. Eleven reported near-death experiences.
It found that those 11 patients had blood carbon-dioxide levels "significantly higher" than those who did not.
But Mays said the problem with such studies is that these researchers haven't read the literature on near-death experiences.
"Whenever there is a physiological explanation for what is happening, we can come up with hundreds of near-death experience cases where that physiology was not present," he said.
For example, there have been cases of people involved in car accidents who had near-death experiences, but survived the crash with no or only minor injuries and thus with normal levels of oxygen or carbon dioxide.
Part of what bothers Mays about much of the medical profession is how dismissive they can be when a patient tries to share a near-death experience.
He doesn't believe that doctors and nurses should pretend to believe them - only that they have an open mind.
"The medical profession should be neutral to the idea," he said. "They don't have to accept the idea that near-death experiencers are saying something real. But the experience to the patient is very real, and it's actually quite profound and life-changing."
Too often, he said, when a patient starts to talk about the experience, a doctor or nurse says: "Well, that was just a hallucination, or it's just the drugs, or we're going to give you a little more sedative," Mays said. "That is psychologically devastating to the experiencer. Here you have this very profound experience - very real experience - and when somebody says that's just a dream or hallucination or the drugs and we don't believe you or we won't accept that you had an experience, then the medical profession does terrible psychological damage."
Meanwhile, Mays and his wife are trying to take a scientific approach as they continue looking at the near-death experience.
"We're focusing on how the mind works with the brain and further implications," he said. "If we can demonstrate that the out-of-body part of the experience is real, then we think there's strong evidence for these other things that are reported in the transcendent part, such as an afterlife, the existence of a heavenly realm and possibly even reincarnation."
Although much research remains to be done, the Mayses are convinced that the lessons of the near-death experience "are that we need to learn to love everyone, and we need to develop our knowledge and wisdom."
"For us, the real message to everyone is that you are a spiritual being. You have a mind that will go on after your physical body is dead."
For more information about the International Association For Near Death Studies, visit iands.org
and for more information about the Mayses' research, visit selfconsciousmind.com