People seeking out-of-body experiences do not need to turn to hallucinogenic drugs.

New research by Dutch cardiologist Pim van Lommel suggests that out-of-body experiences can occur during near-death experiences when people have conscious thoughts while their brains are inactive. In front of an audience of about fifteen people at the Institute for Social Policy Studies Thursday, van Lommel spoke about the new science of unconsciousness that he has been working on for more than 20 years. Van Lommel’s speech explored the prevalence of these experiences and tried to disprove the widespread perception that conscious thinking coincides with the functioning of the brain.

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Although audience members said they believed near-death experiences occur, three of the four people interviewed said they were not sure that this issue could be scientifically proven.

“[Near-death experiences] are difficult to reconcile with current medical opinion,” van Lommel said.

Van Lommel said his research explores the correlation between consciousness and the location of memories in the brain.

Near-death experiences occur when people lose brain function and report a “special state of consciousness,” van Lommel said. These memories can include seeing a tunnel or deceased relatives, an out-of-body experience or believing one exists in a dimension without time and space. Near-death experiences often change people’s lives and can eliminate their fear of death, van Lommel said.

Although some people might find these observations difficult to believe, van Lommel asserted nearly nine million Americans have reported conscious memories during periods of physiological brain deadness. These numbers could be even higher since patients, van Lommel said, are often reluctant to share their experiences with physicians.

Van Lommel said out-of-body experiences are not hallucinations, delusions, or illusions, because doctors, nurses and relatives are often able to verify the patient’s memories of their out-of-body experience.

One audience member said he found van Lommel’s research convincing, based on a near-death experience he said he had 36 years ago.

“It’s real, that’s all I can say,” said Christopher Matt of Hartford, Conn., close to tears. “The actual experience is unbelievably full of life and energy. It’s indescribable.”

But other audience members had mixed reactions to van Lommel’s proposition that the mind functions separately from the brain.

“I don’t think you can scientifically evaluate subjective experiences,” Sandra Canosa, a School of Medicine research assistant in pathology, said.

Yale neuroscientist Pradeep Mutalik, who said he had a near-death experience of his own, said he is not convinced consciousness is separate from the brain.

“It’s a real mystery—it’s difficult to study scientifically,” Mutalik said.

Lommel is the author of the 2007 book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, which sold over 100,000 copies in its first year, and was nominated as book of the year in the Netherlands in 2008.