On June 6, 1961, in the picturesque town of Kuessnacht in Switzerland, eminent psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung died. But, if you believe what Jung had written in Memories, Dreams, Reflections (a collection of manuscripts published after his death), it may not have been his first time.
After Jung suffered a heart attack in 1944, he described a vivid picture of what he had experienced while at death's door:
"It seemed to me that I was high up in space. Far below I saw the globe of the earth, bathed in a gloriously blue light. I saw the deep blue sea and the continents… The sight of the earth from this height was the most glorious thing I had ever seen.”
Jung was known for detailed descriptions of dreams and other “visions” in his life, but his sky-high out-of-body experience offered up a pretty accurate picture of what one might see from a satellite or spacecraft—technologies that would not exist for at least another decade.
As Jung wrote, “Later I discovered how high in space one would have to be to have so extensive a view – approximately a thousand miles!"
Like humanity itself, the experiences of those who have died and been resuscitated are both varied and share common themes.
Medical researchers refer to these episodes beyond life as NDEs: Near-Death Experiences. These experiences have been compiled in individual news reports and anonymous testimonies, as well as in a number of recorded statements from patients collected by Dr. Sam Parnia, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Stony Brook University and author of multiple books and studies about bringing cardiac arrest victims back from the dead.
So what happens to those who are pronounced dead only to be brought back to life? Read on to find out.
A Life-Changing Brush With Death
It was an average day with a few storm clouds in the sky when Tony Cicoria, a surgeon in upstate New York, hung up the phone after what could have been the last call of his life.
It was 1994 and Cicoria had been waiting for his family at a lakeside park. He had just ended a call with his mother on a payphone and started to walk away when the phone, and he, were suddenly struck by lightning. After seeing a flash of light, Cicora experienced something remarkable.
“I saw my own body on the ground,” Cicoria recalled in an interview with The New Yorker. “I said to myself, ‘…I’m dead.’ I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman—she had been waiting to use the phone right behind me—position herself over my body, give it CPR.”
Cicoria went on to describe watching himself in an out-of-body experience, followed by a deep sense of peace and comfort as he seemed to float away from it all. Similar to Jung’s account, Cicoria described it as “the most glorious feeling I have ever had.”
However, as the woman behind him (who just happened to be a nurse) became successful in her resuscitation efforts, Cicoria found his astral serenity replaced by pain. It was the pain in his foot, because he was alive again.
Cicoria diagnosed himself and did not even make a trip to the hospital that day, though he did end up going in later for some neurological tests when he felt sluggish and had trouble remembering some names. It was only after he got the “all-clear” from other medical professionals that something unexpected happened: Cicoria became infatuated with classical piano music.
First, he just felt a strong desire to listen to it, but soon he could hear music in his head and was driven to start playing original compositions. Though he continued to work as a surgeon, music became the centerpiece of his life. Today you can see Cicoria's mastery of the piano online:
Most people who are resuscitated emerge with a new vision on life, but Cicoria’s musical passion and talent are a truly unique and remarkable phenomenon.
One Ohio Man's Heavenly Vision
Brian Miller of Ohio was dead. His heart had stopped beating for 45 minutes after suffering a heart attack caused by a blockage in his main artery. Miller had originally called 911 when he felt something wrong at his home. Once in the ambulance and after arrival at the hospital, medical staff desperately tried to revive him. After multiple attempts, the staff believed all hope was lost—until Miller’s heart suddenly started beating again.
Miller recalled the miraculous experience he had while deceased: “I've seen the light and just kept walking towards it. And then all of a sudden it opened into a most beautiful path with flowers.”
Miller then said he saw his mother-in-law, who had recently passed away from cancer, there to greet him. She took him by the arm and told him that it was time for him “to go back.”
When Miller came back to life, his wife was near. One of the first things he said was that he had seen her mother. Especially astounding for his case was that Miller had been dead—meaning his brain had not received any oxygen—for 45 minutes and yet he suffered no brain damage or impairment.
A long-practicing Christian, Miller said unequivocally after the experience: “There is an afterlife and people need to believe in it.”
A Tennis Player’s Reset on Life
In his book, Erasing Death: The Science That Is Rewriting the Boundaries Between Life and Death, Dr. Sam Parnia draws on his medical expertise in resuscitation to recount the testimonies of those who were clinically dead, only to have their heart start beating again after some time.
One stunning case is of a young tennis professional named Lauralynn who was undergoing a routine operation. The procedure was only supposed to last 20 minutes but a doctor’s accidental puncture of her abdominal aorta caused severe blood loss. Lauralynn went into cardiac arrest and died on the operating table.
Lauralynn had an out-of-body experience at this point: She could see herself on the table and doctors frantically working, but felt no stress or sense of dread. Free of pain and fear, Lauralynn recalled “seeing a bright warm light on the horizon that beckoned her… It was a place of unconditional love; it was a place I would never want to leave.’”
Like Miller, she also saw a recently deceased relative: her brother-in-law who had passed away from cancer earlier that year. Lauralynn was also notified she had to go back—“You have to live your life’s purpose,” she was told—and before she knew it she had returned to her body and was alive again.
Upon her return, the mortal world was at first bizarre to her; she was “like a stranger in a strange land.” Lauralynn, like others who have had an NDE, had come to a new understanding of what life’s purpose was: “giving yourself to people.” She could not understand why everyone around her seemed to busy themselves with so much meaningless work and stress. Going forward she has made sure to live each day like it might be her last.
The out-of-body experience (OBE) is one element that seems to be found in many testimonials of those who have died and come back to life. Similar stories can be found on Reddit after one user asked of survivors "What did dying feel like?"
One user named Beautifulflaws told of an experience which caused them to flatline in an ambulance. Their recollection involved seeing themselves being worked on by the EMTs—“I saw my own unconscious body, completely flatlined, in the ambulance. I remember the EMT who was in the ambulance with me (whom I did not see before I passed out) had mint green hair.”
Not all testimonies of experiencing death include an OBE, though. Another Redditor by the name of TheWiebat said that they too had flatlined in an ambulance but described their experience as “sleeping without any dreams.” Unlike other experiences that left individuals feeling calm, peaceful, and unafraid of death, this individual was shaken: “I hope there is more to our existence, once our time on this earth is up, but having experienced such nothingness is truly frightening.”
One topic Parnia covers in his book is the long-used term “Near-Death Experience.” He finds it to be too vague and inaccurate a term for an age when resuscitation science is so advanced.
Parnia uses his medical background to point out that there is a very clear line between life and death: “people who have had a cardiac arrest weren’t near death. They were dead.” He advocates calling these situations an Actual-Death Experience, or ADE.
By redefining the term, Parnia wants to underscore the remarkable nature of the experiences of those who have died: “Scientifically speaking, people who lose consciousness under these circumstances, by definition, should not be able to able to report highly lucid, detailed, and chronologically accurate memories and accounts.”
Essentially, Parnia is saying that people like Tony Cicoria, Brian Miller, Lauralynn, and others should have no memory of what happened while dead. From a strictly medical perspective, all those who die would be expected to experience what Redditor TheWiebat had described as “sleeping without dreams.” Yet, should the many testimonies be believed, visions do occur.
A Psyche Unbound?
The recollections of those who died and were resuscitated bring to mind Carl Jung again. In an interview with the BBC, he was asked about death— whether it was an end or if it was like birth.
Jung talks about the psyche—a word defined in many different ways by society: one’s “consciousness,” “soul,” “being,” or “mind.” He says that it is likely that the psyche is not something beholden to time and space as we know it in our everyday lives—“the psyche is not submitted to those laws and that means a practical continuation of life of a sort of psychical existence beyond time and space.”
Testimonies from Jung, Cicoria, Miller, and studies from Dr. Parnia and others recall a fascinating convergence of science, philosophy, and belief. Are the recorded NDE (or, as Parnia would prefer, ADE) recollections merely hallucinations of a brain in its final moments? Or do they give evidence to an existence beyond the world we see, smell, touch, and experience every day as part of the living?
It is a question that has weighed heavy on the minds of humans for centuries. Even with advanced medical knowledge and studies, it may never truly be answered.