The science behind near-death experiences

What would it be like to grasp a feather in the wings of Death? For as long as humans have been around, we have wondered what exists after we die (if there is, indeed, an existence after death). For most of us, the question is answered only as we experience it; but for others, they are able to briefly glimpse what lies “on the other side.” These are called near-death experiences (NDEs) and are profound psychological events that typically occur in people close to death. Take note that NDEs are different from out-of-body experiences (OBEs), which refer to the sensation of being outside one’s body. A person may have an OBE without being near death.

NDEs have been the topic of fascination for both the spiritual and scientifically minded. What exactly are they? Do they really exist? What do these experiences mean?

The science behind the phenomenon

To begin, NDEs are fairly common, with about a third of people who have come close to death reporting having experienced one. Most people who’ve had an NDE say that they felt content, felt psychically detached from their body (as with an OBE), had rapid movement through a long dark tunnel, and entered a kind of bright light.

There seems to be a cultural and age difference in the experience. Indians, for example, say that they met the Hindu king of the dead, Yamraj, whereas Americans would say that they met Jesus. Children younger than 10 typically say that they met their friends and teachers who were bathed in light.

Most NDEs are reported to be positive, with those experiencing them saying they felt less anxious about dying in general. However, some NDEs are negative, and may include feelings of a lack of control, hellish imagery, and perceived judgment from a higher being.

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Physiologically, NDEs are divided into two types by neurologists. The first type describes an abnormal activity occurring in the brain’s left hemisphere, which explains an altered sense of time, and impressions of flying. The second type involves the right hemisphere, and is characterized by seeing or communicating with spirits, and hearing voices, music, or any type of sound. It is still unclear why there are different types of NDEs.

There are hypotheses that NDEs are the effects of sudden electrical activity within the temporal lobes. This area of the brain is involved with processing sensory information and memory, so abnormal activity in these lobes can result in strange sensations and perceptions.

However, the leading explanation for NDEs is lack of oxygen. Called the “dying brain hypothesis,” neurologists believe that when brain cells die, people are more prone to experiencing hallucinations. Though plausible, this theory fails to explain the full range of other characteristics involved in NDEs such as why people feel psychically detached from their bodies. (Related: New study backs up reports of near-death experiences, claiming that consciousness continues to work after the heart has stopped.)

Currently, there is no definitive explanation as to why NDEs occur. Religious people believe that near-death experiences provide evidence of a life after death — particularly in the existence of a soul. Scientists, on the other hand, say that NDEs are a form of de-personalization that may happen due to a highly traumatic experience. Scientific author Carl Sagan once suggested that the stress of death forces a person to remember his or her birth, explaining why some people see a “tunnel” — a re-imagining of the birth canal.

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