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Near Death Experiences: Where Science and Religion Meet

Near death experience

“I went through a tunnel. I saw a very bright light. My deceased father was there. My father stated he forgave me. My father passed away when I was sixteen from lung cancer. I was very mean and not understanding. I have always regretted the way I treated him. He was a very kind and devoted father… I know this was not a dream. The emotion and peace that I felt when I woke up was nothing of this world.”

This is just one person’s account of a near-death experience. But many of us have heard similar stories. About 5% of dying patients and 10% of cardiac arrest patients describe having a NDE. Is it really a thwarted trip into the afterlife, or just brain activity at the time of unconsciousness? Scientists are studying the phenomenon using laboratory animals.

Jimo Borjigin PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and colleagues examined nine rats who were induced into cardiac arrest while hooked up to EEG machines to measure electrical activity in the brain. About 30 seconds after the heart had stopped, all the animals experienced waves of synchronized brain activity that were characteristic of the conscious brain. The visual cortex, which processes visual imagery, was also highly activated, which sheds light on why people describe NDE’s so vividly.

The team believes that the electrical surge may be a mechanism the brain uses to rescue itself from the sharp drop in glucose and oxygen. Another theory is that calcium floods the brain cells as they die from lack of oxygen flow

"Now science tells us the experiences really could be real for these individuals, and there is actually biological basis for that," says Dr. Borjigin. "There's a scientific basis in their brain. It's all really happening in their brain during this very early period of cardiac arrest."

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Of course, what the animal study cannot tell us is what the animals actually perceive during their experience. Are they traveling into a tunnel of light, visiting with those who have gone before them, talking with God? Other animal studies that included dogs did not reveal the same types of brain activity.

Patients who have had NDE’s can often recount exactly what happened at the point of almost dying. Many describe it as life-altering. Previous research has patients describing largely positive emotions such as peace, calm, love, happiness, joy, comfort and warmth. Many come from the experience with a stronger faith in God and the afterlife and a stronger sense of purpose for this life.

Near death experiences can be found in numerous cultures around the world. The person’s background often influences what they see. For example, in a study of 440 dying American and Indian patients, those with a Hindu background did not see Jesus and those who were Christian did not meet a Hindu deity. But that could just be because they describe the experience based on previous knowledge.

We may never know what is truly happening at the time of death.

"This study, performed in animals, is the first dealing with what happens to the neurophysiological state of the dying brain," says Dr. Borjigin. "It will form the foundation for future human studies investigating mental experiences occurring in the dying brain.”

Journal Reference:
Jimo Borjigin et al.Surge of neurophysiological coherence and connectivity in the dying brain PNAS 2013 ; published ahead of print August 12, 2013, doi:10.1073/pnas.1308285110

Additional Resources:
Tiberi, E. (1993). Extrasomatic emotions. Journal of Near-Death Studies, 11(3), 149-170.
Horizon Research Foundation: Do Religion and Culture Affect a Near-Death Experience?
Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF)