This year, a study of 52 cardiac-arrest patients in Slovenia, published in the Journal of Critical Care, found that the 21% who had near-death experiences also had high blood levels of carbon dioxide, which has been associated with visions, bright lights and out-of-body experiences.
A study of seven dying patients at George Washington University Medical Center, published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, noted that their brainwaves showed a spurt of electrical activity just before they were pronounced dead. Lead investigator Lakhmir Chawla, an intensive-care physician, notes that the activity started in one part of the brain and spread in a cascade and theorized that it could give patients vivid mental sensations.
Patience appeared on the scene just when spiritualism, enjoying its last great American revival, collided with the age of science, and a brigade of investigators, including magician Harry Houdini, prowled the nation to expose bogus mediums. Since most mediums were women—the spiritualist movement accorded women social status they rarely attained elsewhere—this crusade turned into an epic battle of the sexes: supposed hard-nosed men of science against swooning female seers.
The Patience Worth case remains one of the most tantalizing literary mysteries of the last century, a window onto a vanished era when magic seemed to exist because so many people believed in it. In the decades since Pearl Curran’s death, in 1937, no one has explained how she produced Patience’s writing. Combing through the voluminous archives, however, a modern sensibility starts to see clues and patterns that may not have been apparent at a time when science was just starting to explore the far reaches of the human mind.