Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
This column marks the fourth installment in a series exploring topics and research that provide new insights into the boundaries of established science, and part one of a package focused on the spiritual realm.
By Adam Stone
Are you dreaming or hallucinating right now as you read this column?
You know the answer to that question is no.
How do you know?
In short, you know because you know.
So before you’re quick to dismiss Laurie Goldsmith Sperandio’s powerful experience as a dream/hallucination, or before you push back on the legitimacy of any credible near-death experiencer’s story, just keep in mind your current level of certainty that you’re awake.
With that in mind, let me quickly take you back to the winter of 1978.
‘Drifting to the Light’
Sperandio, currently 71 and an Irvington-based fitness instructor, was visiting the Catskill Mountains with her boyfriend, Rick, for a day of skiing. Only 27 at the time, Sperandio went back to the vacation house in the evening after a day on the slopes.
“I was fooling around in the snow with my boyfriend,” she recalled. “He picked me up to throw me into soft snow. But he lost his footing. He slipped on ice.”
He fell, she fell and Sperandio’s head slammed hard onto solid ice.
Everything went black.
“And then I opened my eyes and I said to him, ‘I’m dead,’” she recounted of her near-death experience (NDE) in our telephone interview last week. “‘I’m dying. Don’t let me close my eyes again.’ And I remember vividly, I saw my body go up. I saw my parents, my friends, close people below me.”
Where was she?
“I was drifting to the light,” she said. “I don’t have words for it.”
Most who recount NDEs note how the nature of the bliss is beyond words. It’s heavenly euphoria, a bath of eternal joy, complete understanding, total wisdom and, most of all, marked by warm, indescribable, infinite love.
Sperandio was no exception.
However, there’s a wrinkle.
Despite the ineffable perfection, she said she actively sought to return to her body, aware that her boyfriend would very possibly become a murder suspect if she remained on the “other side.”
“And I got to the sort of arch of this light and I started to scream, ‘I’m not ready. I’m not going. I’m not ready. I’m not going. I’m not leaving my boyfriend,’” she recalled.
Sperandio’s boyfriend, with a background in emergency medicine, couldn’t find her pulse or heartbeat at the time. He dialed 911. But to his shock, Sperandio suddenly regained consciousness, urging him not to let her fall asleep again.
They rushed to the hospital, where doctors were amazed by her recovery despite her elevated blood pressure and diagnosed concussion, which ultimately resulted in occasional difficulty remembering names.
“Keep in mind, they said my blood pressure was so high that I shouldn’t have been alive,” Sperandio said. “And they just kept me awake for 24 hours, they would not let me fall asleep because they said if I fell asleep, I would probably die.”
If you’re prepared to challenge Sperandio’s certainty around her NDE’s true nature, also be ready to defend your belief that you’re currently awake.
Like most anyone else, Sperandio recognizes a dream as a dream. And with just as much confidence, she knows the truth of her NDE.
While the comparison is inexact, the point is that experiencers like Sperandio are entirely equipped in their everyday life to distinguish between truth and fiction, between reality and alternate realms.
The history of NDEs can be traced back to ancient civilizations, with accounts of such phenomena found in Egyptian and Greek texts dating back thousands of years.
For instance, in Plato’s “The Republic,” his most famous work, he highlights the story of Er, a warrior who unexpectedly revives during his funeral and describes his journey through an intricate afterlife.
These early records often depicted encounters with divine beings or otherworldly realms.
Balderdash, you say!
A rational soul, you’re level-headed and logical.
You trust science.
OK, all the more reason to open your mind.
Facts of Life
In the latter part of 20th century, NDEs eventually began to gain significant attention in the medical and scientific communities.
The term “near-death experience” was coined by Dr. Raymond Moody in his 1975 book “Life After Life,” which brought these phenomena into mainstream view.
Moreover, the medical community’s growing embrace of NDE science is not just rooted in individual anecdotes. It’s reinforced by an expanding body of research encompassing various medical and psychological fields, including studies on the neurobiology of consciousness and the striking consistency of reported NDEs across diverse cultures and belief systems.
Furthermore, documented cases of NDEs show how people accurately describe events and objects in adjacent rooms, such as the attire of individual people, or specific medical instruments used during their “unconscious” state.
The inexplicable aspects of so much of the testimony from credible people essentially disproves claims that NDEs are all just hallucinations, at least in my book.
“Instead of being hallucinatory, illusory or delusional,” a new clinical paper titled Awareness During Resuscitation observes, NDEs appear to facilitate “lucid understanding of new dimensions of reality.”
‘Universal, Shared Elements’
Mind-blowing new science on the subject broke last week.
A major study led by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine, involving 567 patients from multiple countries who experienced cardiac arrest, revealed that some survivors had clear memories of death experiences even an hour after their hearts stopped.
The research, published in the journal Resuscitation, found that nearly 40 percent of these patients exhibited brain activity associated with higher mental function during CPR, suggesting a unique dimension of consciousness during NDEs.
“Consciousness, awareness and cognitive processes may occur during [cardiac arrest,]” the clinical paper published in ‘Resuscitation’ on July 7 also summarizes.
Study authors believe these findings could guide heart restart and brain injury prevention methods and warrant further investigation into the nature of awareness during death.
“Although doctors have long thought that the brain suffers permanent damage about 10 minutes after the heart stops supplying it with oxygen, our work found that the brain can show signs of electrical recovery long into ongoing CPR,” senior study author Dr. Sam Parnia, an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, stated in a press release last week. “This is the first large study to show that these recollections and brain wave changes may be signs of universal, shared elements of so-called near-death experiences.”
Brain v. Consciousness
NDEs commonly involve elements such as an out-of-body sensation, a tunnel with bright light, feelings of peace and love, encounters with deceased loved ones or divine beings, a life review, expanded sensory perception and a return to the physical body.
In fact, NYU Grossman School of Medicine researchers last year had already revealed that one in five people who survive CPR after cardiac arrest report lucid experiences of death, including a sense of separation from the body and meaningful life review, while seemingly unconscious.
Twenty percent! Think about that.
The study found measurable electrical signs of heightened brain activity during CPR, suggesting human consciousness persists and exists outside our biological bodies.
“These recalled experiences and brain wave changes may be the first signs of the so-called near-death experience, and we have captured them for the first time in a large study,” Parnia, an intensive care physician, stated in a Nov. 7, 2022, press release.
Like most journalists, I’m a billion miles from an expert in this field. But I think reporting will play an important role in objectively documenting and analyzing firsthand accounts and scientific research, and ultimately contribute to a more enlightened understanding of reality.
Earth, Sun, and Afterlife
Profound shifts in scientific understanding can often be met with understandable (if ultimately misguided) pushback.
Comparing current NDE coverage to theoretically writing in 1543 about Copernicus’s controversial and passionately challenged discovery that the Earth orbits the sun, though not a perfect analogy, underscores the general idea.
Experts in the 16th century resisted Copernicus’s heliocentric model due to its contradiction of religious beliefs, lack of empirical evidence, reluctance within the scientific community, fear of social and religious consequences and persistent controversy surrounding the model.
Sound generally familiar?
Come the early 17th century, Galileo was accused of “heresy” by the Catholic Church for his strong advocacy of the model and his astronomical observations with a telescope that supported it.
By the early to mid-1700s, the model was firmly established in the scientific community, and, broadly speaking, it became widely accepted by the general populace not until well into the 19th century.
‘Wait a minute’
That said, when it comes to a topic as mysterious as the afterlife, it’s also important for believers to stay humble, and be open to new data that alters or challenges our own understanding.
I’m only a recent convert, and have to remind myself to keep the learning process fluid and avoid confirmation bias.
Yet I couldn’t help but be captivated by all the coverage last week of the new research findings.
For instance, CNN reported on an 80-year-old man, Aubrey Osteen, who briefly regained consciousness during open-heart surgery in December 2020. He described a surreal out-of-body experience where he observed his own procedure.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute here before y’all go any further,’” Osteen recalls in the CNN report. “Give me some more anesthesia, you know?’ Well, it took me a minute to realize I wasn’t in the same dimension they were in, so they couldn’t hear me anyway.”
(I have an interview scheduled with Dr. Parnia for later this week, as part of a future follow-up.)
Debate the Doctor
It’s important to emphasize that there is basically no argument within science about the existence of people’s near-death experiences. The only serious debate centers around the true nature of NDEs, and what exactly people are seeing (including people blind since birth) and feeling.
I would dare any doubters to debate someone like Dr. Eben Alexander.
A neurosurgeon, Alexander gained widespread recognition in 2012 for his NDE described in the bestselling book “Proof of Heaven,” challenging his prior scientific beliefs and detailing his journey from skepticism to a belief in a spiritual dimension.
A Harvard Medical School surgeon and brain expert, his account carried special gravitas.
“During my coma my brain wasn’t working improperly,” the Duke University trained doctor explains in his book about his NDE. “It wasn’t working at all.”
Debunkers often argue that the subjective nature of NDEs and the influence of brain chemistry raises doubts about their objective reality.
But the consistency of reported experiences (and the accurate recounting of events in adjacent rooms during resuscitation) more than suggests to me the reality of what countless credible people have vividly described, bolstering the mounting scientific research.
The story that first piqued my particular recent interest about NDEs was the account of Dr. Mary Neal, a spine surgeon, who discussed her 1999 kayaking accident for a 2021 Netflix series, “Surviving Death.”
I binged all six episodes earlier this summer.
Neal drowned but described leaving her body and entering a radiant, heavenly realm during her NDE. Remarkably, she claimed to have witnessed her own surgery from a spiritual perspective while unconscious, including the use of specific surgical tools.
“I knew that my efforts to exit the boat were not working, that I was out of air, and that I was too far from the riverbank for anyone to reach me,” Neal replied in a Q&A for her blog in July 2019. “I knew that I would probably die. Having grown up with a fear of drowning, I was surprised to find my transition from life to death was seamless, peaceful and beautiful. I felt quite wonderful.”
Yet there are also many scientists who reject the afterlife interpretation entirely.
Physicist Sean Carroll pithily encapsulated the perspective of scientific doubters on Twitter last year.
“Near Death Experiences are real, but in no way spooky,” Carroll tweeted when sharing his view on the topic. “Just our brains doing brain things.”
‘Certainly an Afterlife’
In everyday life, we often form legitimate opinions despite lacking complete facts.
Even when the rightfully rigorous nature of the scientific method is insufficient to prove likely conclusions, we as laymen arrive at near-certain inferences all the time.
Believing without complete and unequivocal scientific evidence is something we confidently, frequently and reasonably do.
You look at a jigsaw puzzle with some missing pieces and even though you can’t see the whole picture, the pieces you do have fit together in a way that can more than suggest what the final image might be.
That being said, NDEs are actually an area where more evidence exists than in many fields where we often casually assert a firm grasp of understanding.
Just last month, Dr. Jeffrey Long, an oncologist who has studied about 5,000 near-death experiences, published a first-person essay for Insider about how he had “come to believe there’s certainly an afterlife.”
A Horse is a Horse
Long cited the story of a woman who lost consciousness while riding her horse; her consciousness accompanied the horse to the barn, and she was able to accurately describe the events there despite her physical body remaining on the trail.
“I’ve read brain research and considered every possible explanation for NDEs,” wrote Long, who founded the Near Death Experience Research Foundation in 1998. “The bottom line is that none of them hold water. There isn’t even a remotely plausible physical explanation for this phenomenon.”
A month or so ago, I happened to start reading a book by Dr. Pim van Lommel, a Dutch cardiologist known for his research on NDEs. His dispassionate, highly technical research suggests consciousness can exist independent of the brain.
In “Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience,” published in 2007, van Lommel asserts that consciousness “cannot be located in a particular time and place.”
“There is no beginning and there will never be an end to our consciousness,” he writes after introducing the science of non-local consciousness, then adding that death, like birth, is likely passing from “one state of consciousness into another.”
Near-death experiences also aren’t exceptionally rare. Surveys taken in the United States, Australia, and Germany suggest about 4 to 15 percent of the population have had NDEs.
Using a conservative estimate, working off the 4 percent figure, with a global population of 8.1 billion, that means about 324 million people have had NDEs worldwide, almost equivalent to the U.S. population.
I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost
It’s too easy to conjure amusing images of Bill Murray’s iconic character, Dr. Peter Venkman, in “Ghostbusters” when you initially learn about the work of Barry Pirro.
But when you start digging into the details – carefully vetted evidence Pirro has documented for public view on a volunteer basis – there’s every reason to take his work super seriously.
A retired northern Westchester middle school music teacher and band director, Pirro is a seasoned paranormal investigator and podcaster with more than two decades of experience. (His wife Amy is also a local educator, an immensely respected science research teacher, no less, who happens to be my older daughter’s instructor. She told me about her husband at last week’s parent open house.)
In fact, I’d first learned of Sperandio’s story, the Irvington woman, when reviewing Pirro’s website, where he shares interviews with a variety of NDEers.
For people who spend their time delving into the spirit world, NDEs offer low-hanging fruit to help illustrate proof of an afterlife.
Haunting Origin Story
Pirro’s journey into the realm of the paranormal began at a young age when he and his family moved into what seemed to be an ordinary new house in Tarrytown, just across the street from the famous Lyndhurst estate.
Little did he know that this house would help spark his lifelong fascination with the supernatural.
“After we moved in, weird stuff started happening,” Pirro said. “My piano, which was in the basement, would play by itself at night, and everybody heard it. We would see things, lights would turn off, faucets would turn on and off by themselves.”
These eerie occurrences persisted since Pirro was 11 years old, triggering both fear and curiosity.
Pirro, always deeply intuitive, embarked on junior ghost-hunting adventures, placing powder on the piano keys to detect any fingerprints.
It was during this formative period that his passion for paranormal investigations was ignited.
He’s Got Receipts
Pirro’s inquisitiveness led him to uncover that his house was built on land with a history; a farmhouse had once stood there, suggesting that the lingering spirits had predated the construction of his family’s new home.
As he continued to read about the subject, Pirro’s interest grew, ultimately culminating in his decision to join a paranormal investigation group, some about 20 years ago. It was a serendipitous twist of fate as he explained.
“Somebody just needed some help carrying a recorder on investigations,” recalled Pirro, a music teacher for 31 years before retirement. “The first time out, I got a spirit voice on my recorder, and then I was hooked because it was like, ‘Whoa, I’m hearing actually the sound of a ghost talking.’”
Pirro noted how at the heart of his work lies the profound question of existence beyond death.
“The thing that’s most interesting about doing paranormal investigation is the whole idea that you are, in a sense, proving the existence of life after death,” he said.
Who You Gonna Call?
I also asked Pirro how more exactly his ghost-hunting work led to chronicling NDE stories.
“I’m like, well, I’ve investigated hundreds of places that are haunted and interviewed tons and tons of people who have had experiences where they’ve seen things and experienced different things with ghosts, for lack of a better word, in their houses or businesses or wherever it’s been,” he explained. “But I wanted to hear something else, and that led me to the interviews with the near-death experienced survivors, I guess you’d call them.”
Just two weeks ago, Pirro interviewed a man (a future podcast guest) who experienced a heart-defibrillator malfunction at work. His heart stopped, and he found himself in a bright, featureless space.
In the distance, he saw a crowd of silhouetted people, including his deceased mother and aunt, who appeared young and radiant. He felt immense love and lost track of time. His mother told him he was still needed in our known world, and he was pulled back into his body.
“As soon as he got back, he said he felt very lonely and a little depressed because he left this beautiful place that was so perfect,” Pirro said.
It was later confirmed that the man’s heart had stopped for a minute-and-a-half.
Northern Westchester Ghost Story
Separately, I inquired about any recent hauntings from our coverage area.
Pirro then mentioned a northern Westchester case, which he investigated last winter.
A local woman contacted him because strange occurrences were happening in her house.
Her jewelry would disappear and reappear in odd places, and a significant check she received in the mail vanished only to reappear on her desk weeks later.
“And she said she looked for weeks for this check,” Pirro said. “After, I think two or three weeks had gone by, she said, okay, I finally have to call the company and say, ‘You got to send me another check.’ And she said, ‘I walked over to the desk, and there it was, sitting on top of the desk.’ And she and her husband had been looking for this check all over the place, and nobody else had been in their house after that.”
‘Clear as Day’
Additionally, friends who stayed at the local woman’s house to dog-sit while she and her husband were on vacation reported seeing apparitions and experiencing strange phenomena.
At one point, she called to see how the dogs were doing.
“The guy who answered – she said he’s this big, burly guy – he said, ‘Oh, the dogs are great, but did you know your house is haunted?’ And she hadn’t told him any of the experiences she’s been having.”
What had the man seen?
“He looked in the mirror…and he could see that there was an old woman standing behind him in the room,” Pirro said. “He said he could see her clear as day.”
As for Pirro’s role in a paranormal investigation, after being summoned he begins documenting experiences through detailed questioning, and often conducts clearings to guide spirits away, or ask them to cool it.
“I record with a digital recorder the whole time,” said Pirro, whose case files have been sought by several paranormal TV shows, including “Ghost Adventures” for the Travel Channel. “I do investigations and I often get spirit voices. Those are on my website.”
Pirro doesn’t require any payment for his volunteer services. (He accepts donations when offered unsolicited.)
When confronted with skeptics, Pirro’s approach is straightforward. He pushes back on occasional doubters with a simple observation – there are countless accounts and stories from credible people who have experienced unexplained events.
“There are whole families who have had shared experiences in a house or in a business,” Pirro said. “There have been workers that have all experienced the same thing. Some of them didn’t even know that the other people were experiencing these things. And then when they finally shared it, they said, ‘You too?’ So it’s things like that.”
In everyday life, even as healthy skeptics, we rightly don’t tend to think that credible people (or credible groups of people) concoct bizarre lies for no apparent reason.
I met with a psychic via Zoom last month for the first time, out of both a desire to report somewhat directly on the paranormal for a future column and out of personal curiosity.
(The medium was able to summon astonishingly specific details, and there’s no earthly explanation for a ton of what she knew and articulated, including, but not limited to, nuances of a random inside joke I shared with late Examiner Digital Editor Robert Schork about the “Wonder Twins,” a 1977 Hanna-Barbera cartoon.)
In his investigations, Pirro often meets witnesses who misinterpret benign activity as something sinister. Objects moving, lights flickering, or unusual sounds can easily be misinterpreted as malevolent forces at play.
Pirro explained that most of the time, these manifestations are simply spirits attempting to communicate or gain attention, not to harm. It is a matter of perspective and understanding the nature of these phenomena.
“I think the most important thing to realize is that it’s more common than you think,” Pirro said. “But if you ask most people, they will either tell you that they’ve had something happen to them that they can’t explain or they know somebody that it’s happened to.”
Although I’ve never consciously observed the spirit world myself (other than perhaps through my one psychic Zoom in August), Pirro’s comment immediately reminded me of a family night out from the early fall of 2021 at the Pleasantville restaurant Pubstreet, where we met with David Brezing.
A former USA Today editor and copy desk chief, Brezing, a cousin on my wife’s side of the family, is a deeply intelligent, thoughtful guy.
To our surprise, Brezing, at the dinner, unexpectedly regaled us with story after story of spirits at a former bed and breakfast, named Our House, that he previously operated in St. Augustine, Fla. for about a dozen years.
He shared the evidence matter-of-factly, and we all left with our jaws still lingering on the floor.
I later learned that St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States, is known as a tourism hotspot for paranormal enthusiasts, with widely discussed encounters at historic landmarks like the “Old Jail.”
Credible newspapers like The Florida Times-Union/Jacksonville.com have reported on the region’s haunted history.
As a caption in the newspaper’s Oct. 5, 2018, photo gallery mentioned about Brezing’s former B&B, “guests have told the owner that the sensual spirit inspired them to great erotic passion.”
Knock at the Door
I called Brezing last week for a refresher on the details.
Built in 1890 during a boom period in St. Augustine, the house was originally a gilded-age getaway for the wealthy. It eventually transformed into a single-family home in the 20th century before being purchased by Brezing in 2001.
He intended to convert it into a thriving bed and breakfast after leaving a 20-year career as a journalist.
While ripping up dusty, rose-colored 1980s carpeting in the house’s first floor, he felt an eerie sensation of being watched.
“And I would turn, and just as I turned, it seemed like somebody would quickly duck back from the doorway like they’ve been peering out at me,” he said.
One evening, a visitor joined him in the house, and things took a supernatural turn. The visitor inquired if Brezing had met the spirits in the house. Shortly after, the pair heard loud, distinct knocks on the door. The visitor became noticeably unnerved and left hastily.
The knocks continued, consistently manifesting as three distinct knocks at a time.
‘Cut it Out’
Eventually, Brezing sought advice from a local psychologist who was also involved in ghost tours.
The psychologist suggested that Brezing may have unintentionally stirred up the energy in the house while renovating it, leading to these unusual occurrences. He recommended that Brezing verbally reclaim the house.
“I just looked at the wall where this knocking had been coming from, and I said, ‘All right, cut it out. Just stop it,’” Brezing recalled. “I never again heard any knocking.”
His investigation into the house’s history revealed more curious events. The previous owner had experienced strange incidents such as disappearing keys and unusual scents in the house, like cigar smoke and lilac fragrances.
Additionally, guests reported encounters with spirits in the B&B’s Greenhaven guest room, including a vivid account involving a 19th-century woman advising them to move the bed away from the fireplace, unknowingly coinciding with a patched hole from a previous renovation that Brezing knew about.
After the guest’s stay, she recounted her experience over breakfast.
“‘I was in bed, we were asleep, and all of a sudden, I felt someone grab my foot and my leg, and they’re shaking it, and they’re going, wake up, wake up,’” Brezing recalled the guest saying. “‘And at first, I’m thinking, I’m drowsy. And I thought, I’m dreaming.’”
But she opened her eyes and there was a woman saying, “‘the bed is too close to the fire. You must move the bed.’”
Brezing was stunned.
“And this bed was right over the hole where the chimney had been and there’s no way, I mean, you couldn’t see it,” Brezing told me in our phone interview last week. “It was hidden. There’s no way anyone could see that there was this hole in the floor, or if they did, they wouldn’t know what it was about.”
Floorboards and Squirrels
His journey from doubter to believer was gradual.
In fact, the former Gannett news and lifestyles editor retains his skeptical nature, and believes there are usually traditional explanations for most supernatural stories.
“It didn’t turn me into a ghost hunter,” he said. “It didn’t make me really gullible. I still am the person looking for the loose floorboard and the squirrels in the attic as my first line of explanation.”
But he became more open to the possibility of unexplained phenomena.
“So I think it’s kind of impoverishing in a way to your own perception of the world if you just put up a wall to alternative experiences and alternative interpretations and you block yourself to being sensitive to things that maybe don’t fit the general perceptions of normal,” Brezing reasoned.
That conclusion resides at the heart of my feeling as well. Our understanding of the universe is ever-evolving and generally expanding.
So much contemporary conventional wisdom from any era eventually proves false.
As for Sperandio, the mother of an adult daughter and a former New York State All Natural Fitness Champion, she said NDEs transcend organized religion.
“It’s not a conflict for me,” she said. “I’m a practicing Jew, but I know what I went through. It didn’t make me more or less religious, let’s put it that way.”
Knowing there’s an afterlife also allows her to communicate with loved ones, including her late father, who died four years ago.
She recounted a bad car accident she had in Ardsley in her Honda Fit just two weeks ago. Her car had careened over a ledge, falling seven feet. Her airbag didn’t deploy.
But she overwhelmingly felt her father’s presence, and she remarkably survived – again.
Sperandio said there are signs “all the time.”
“But,” she concluded, “you have to be open to it.”
If you have a near-death experience and/or another type of spiritual story to share, publicly or privately, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.