A glimpse at death
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Janna A. Excell
You've just died.
You are traveling weightless through a tunnel of an immense darkness, inexplicably drawn toward what appears to be an intense light in the distance.
Just as you begin to forget all your earthly anxieties and fear, you perceive a disembodied voice commanding you to, "Go back, it isn't your time yet."
Sound like science fiction? In near-death experience cases reported, the preceding scenario is consistent with most of the tales people bring back from a brush with death, said Robert Wrenn, a University of Arizona psychology professor.
Survivors often claim to remember leaving their bodies behind, traveling through a tunnel, feeling joy incomparable to earthly existence - and even seeing God, Wrenn said.
Researchers studying the phenomenon have found a commonality of experiences that transcend the boundaries of age, gender, race or culture.
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Janna A. Excell, a bereavement counselor at the Evergreen Mortuary Cemetery and Crematory, 3015 N. Oracle Road, heads a support group for people who say they have had near-death experiences. Excell said she had an out-of-body experience when she was 5.
"Some of the researchers have taken the experiences of children in different countries across the world who think they've had an out-of-body experience or near-death experience," he said, "And these are kids - 7, 8 or 9 years old who've probably never read about other people's experiences - who are coming up with the same basic experience that happened to them."
Wrenn said he has never experienced near-death but thinks the subject warrants enough attention to include it as a section of his Psychology of Death and Loss course, which he has taught at the UA since 1976.
A trio of faculty member suicides in the late 1960s and Wrenn's frustration with how educators treated death as a "taboo" subject inspired him to pitch the idea for his course to university.
"We don't do a good job at telling students what this great mysterious thing is all about," he said.
Within the past 25 years, the scientific community has shown a growing interest in studying near-death ex-periences.
In 1978, researchers founded the International Association for Near-Death Studies to explore the study of near-death experiences and human consciousness.
Such organizations have erased some of the anxiety surrounding death, and people today are more likely to publicly admit they believe to have experienced the phenomenon, Wrenn said.
"I try very carefully to listen to people who've had experiences in order to learn more about what it is they had," he said. "I have no reason to doubt that they've had the experience."
One of the people Wrenn has listened to is Janna A. Excell, a former student of his who now heads a support group for near-death survivors at the Catalina United Methodist Church, 2700 E. Speedway Blvd.
Excell said Wrenn encouraged her to stand up in his class in 1977 and speak of her childhood out-of-body experience.
"I was scared, I was worried what people would think of me," she said. "Then I got to a point, finally, where it didn't matter what people thought."
Excell also works as a bereavement counselor at the Evergreen Mortuary Cemetery and Crematory.
During one support meeting, Excell told her story in a calm, steady voice.
She described when she was 5 and left the doctor's office after hand surgery. She said she began to feel "very heavy and leaded down, the way you feel when you're about to pass out."
"I wasn't sure what was happening ... and as soon as I hit the pavement I was out-of-body," Excell said. "I was watching everything from a 45-degree angle, and this did not seem weird or anything. As I was looking down, I heard my mother and saw my mother beckon to my brother, who was in front of me."
Excell was with her family in the elevator of the clinic when she "came back," she said.
Later, she tried to tell her mother about the experience and was told she was only hearing everyone else talking about her. Excell's mother said she couldn't have seen anything because she had been unconscious.
Excell said during the episode, she thought she had died.
"I wasn't feeling fear, I wasn't feeling anxious," she said. "I was feeling very normal, curious and delighted in some way, that I was out of this body and not confined to this density."
Wrenn said he has encountered at least 10 people who claim to have had a near-death experience and interpreted the phenomenon as a spiritual journey. He said another person read it as brain-chemistry or biologically oriented.
The professor said because science is based on rational explanations, some researchers are reluctant to announce that their studies have unraveled the mystery of death or constitute proof of an afterlife.
"I think it's an interesting topic because it's one of, really, of exploration and it's very difficult to get a handle on," he said.
Scott Sherman, an associate professor of neurology, said a common theory shared by many neurologists could explain the spiritual aspect of the near-death experience.
Sherman theorized that loss of blood to the brain's memory center triggers the near-death experience. He said it may be the same area where human belief systems and religious ideals have developed and evolved over time.
"I think there's probably some - from a neuro-psychological viewpoint - hint that whatever the human experience of what religion is may reside in the temporal lobes," he said. "When you're in the process of dying, near dying, or if you're losing blood flow to the brain, it may be that the relative loss of blood flow to those areas triggers that (near-death experience). And that may explain why ... there's sort of a uniform experience."
The same brain area is often associated with schizophrenia and epilepsy, and is often responsible for seizures, Sherman said. As a result, patients often experience spiritual or religious visions during an attack, he added.
Wrenn said although there is ongoing research into the paranormal experience, it is difficult analyze phenomena such as near-death experiences for obvious reasons.
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Robert Wrenn, a psychology professor, has studied near-death experiences for the past 20 of his 36 years at the University of Arizona.
"It would need to be a quick study," he said.
At one of Excell's group meetings, Charles Chatham, a 52-year-old Navy veteran, said he had a "body travel" years ago when a car nearly struck him while riding his motorcycle.
The car went through a yield sign and he had to lay down his bike. Chatham said he "went out" just as he hit the ground.
"I didn't go through a tunnel, I just had a bright light, and a voice said, 'It's not your time,'" he said. "As soon as that happened, I went back. I got up, and I didn't think I was out too long when I saw the car drive away."
Chatham said he had no sense of place - he just remembered the light, and then being pulled back into the physical world.
"It was like a guy on death row," he said. "You know you're going to get it, you're convicted and you're dying, then somebody's saying, 'You've got a reprieve, come on back.'"
Chatham, staring unflinchingly through thick-glassed spectacles, said the experience changed his life.
"I'm learning. Learning not only about myself, but others," he said. "Things that were important aren't. People are important. Lives are important."
Wrenn said those who believe they have crossed over into the afterlife - and returned - often think their lives have changed, along with another interesting side effect.
"They reduce their fear of death," he said.
Bryon Wells can be reached via e-mail at Bryon.Wells@wildcat.arizona.edu.