The Science and Research Behind Near-Death Experiences
Wed, April 21, 2021

The Science and Research Behind Near-Death Experiences

Most of the people who have had near-death experiences recount seeing flashbacks, bright lights, and warmth and having a feeling of a detachment from the body, encounters with angels, and time distortion / Photo by: Lincoln Beddoe via 123RF

 

"My first visual memory was looking forward and seeing a brilliant bright light, almost like looking directly at the Sun. The strange thing was that I could see my feet in front of me as if I were floating upward in a vertical position. I do not remember passing through a tunnel or anything like that, just floating in the beautiful light. A tremendous amount of warmth and love came from the light.”

This statement was from the case of Robin Michelle Halberdier of Texas City, Texas. She claimed that her near-death experience took place in a hospital when she was between one and two months of age. Accounts like this have been widely reported across the world where people claimed to have experienced an impending death. It’s a topic of growing interest and popularity and has baffled researchers and scientists.

Most of the people who have had near-death experiences recount seeing flashbacks, bright lights, and warmth and having a feeling of a detachment from the body, encounters with angels, and time distortion. A recent study presented at the 5th European Academy of Neurology (EAN) showed that around 10 percent of people have had near-death experiences, which is 1 in every 10. The researchers analyzed participants from 35 countries who have experienced truly life-threatening situations such as heart attacks, near drowning, or combat situations, and car crashes. 

According to Medical Xpress, a web-based medical and health news service that features the most comprehensive coverage in the fields of neuroscience, cardiology, and many more, participants reported that the most frequent experiences they had include abnormal time perception (87 percent), exceptional speed of thought (65 percent), exceptionally vivid senses (63 percent), feeling separated from or out of their body (53 percent). 

While these near-death experiences are widely recognized phenomena, many experts and people are still skeptical about them. However, many have used NDEs as proof of life after death, heaven, and the existence of a divine being.

Supernatural Theories

There has been a long debate about NDEs—why they occur or what do they mean. Theories explaining NDEs fall into two basic categories: scientific and supernatural.

According to HowStuffWorks, an American commercial infotainment website, many people believe that NDE is about experiencing and remembering things that happen to their disembodied consciousness. During this phase, an individual’s soul leaves their body and they begin to perceive things that they normally cannot. They usually claim to see a tunnel with a light at the end, which represents the border between our world and the afterlife.

There has been a long debate about NDEs—why they occur or what do they mean. Theories explaining NDEs fall into two basic categories: scientific and supernatural / Photo by: Spectral via 123RF

 

During an NDE, a soul will begin to encounter a divine entity, which many subjects perceive as God, and other spiritual entities. Most of the time, they claim to stay in another realm of being, often thought to be Heaven. However, they are usually pulled back to their bodies. NDEs are also connected to astral projection, the ability of an "astral self" to travel outside the body freely to other places. In Judeo-Christian theology, NDEs are proof that we have souls and that these souls continue to exist after death.

Scientific Explanations

Many scientists argue that there have been hundreds to thousands of well-documented NDEs that it’s impossible that they are all completely fabricated. Thus, they suggest that these are the result of physical changes in the brain. For instance, many theorized that NDEs are due to troubles with anesthesia, loss of oxygen, and the body's neurochemical responses to trauma. NDEs are also increasing with the advances in the medical field as doctors are now able to bring patients back from the brink of death more often. 

According to VeryWell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides guidance to improve people’s mental health and find balance, a lot of medical professionals often link NDEs with “anesthesia awareness” where patients can still hear the music playing or hear conversations while they are partly unconscious. A recent study discovered that there are similarities between NDEs and drug experiences for those who had taken a specific class of drugs.

The researchers compared the stories of more than 15,000 individuals who had taken one of 165 different psychoactive drugs with the stories of 625 individuals who reported NDEs. According to Scientific American, the essential guide to the most awe-inspiring advances in science and technology, the study showed that NDEs may reflect changes in the same chemical system in the brain that is targeted by the drugs.

Many scientists argue that there have been hundreds to thousands of well-documented NDEs that it’s impossible that they are all completely fabricated / Photo by: Karuna EM via 123RF

 

Also, the vivid memories from NDEs can be due to a cascade of activity that ripples through the brain while patients are fighting for their lives or pronounced dead. Researchers at the George Washington University reported that "seizures" happen in the memory areas of a person's brain after it stopped. This explains these hallucinations and memories that people report when they are resuscitated.

The EAN study also discovered a link between NDEs and Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, a phase in the sleep cycle when the eyes move rapidly. During this phase, an individual’s brain is as active as when they are awake. They experience a state of temporary paralysis and their dreams are more vivid. "Our central finding is that we confirmed the association of near-death experiences with REM sleep intrusion. Although the association is not causality, identifying the physiological mechanisms behind REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness might advance our understanding of near-death experiences,” lead researcher Dr. Daniel Kondziella said.