The Science Behind Near-Death Experiences

filed under: death, science
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By Keith Wagstaff

The internet is full of stories by people who claim they floated above their bodies or moved towards a bright light after nearly dying.

Some people claim it's a glimpse of the afterlife. Scientists have been unable, for the most part, to explain the phenomenon. Whatever it is, it's not uncommon — around 20 percent of cardiac arrest survivors report having some kind of near-death experience, according to The Washington Post.

A new study by researchers at the University of Michigan could shine some light on the topic. No, researchers didn't take a cue from Flatliners and purposefully give themselves near-death experiences.

Instead, they picked some very unlucky rats. Those rodents were outfitted with electroencephalography (EEG) sensors to monitor their brain activity and then given lethal injections to induce cardiac arrest.

The result? A burst of brain activity after the animal's heart stopped.

"Measurable conscious activity is much, much higher after the heart stops — within the first 30 seconds," Jimo Borjigin, who led the research, told NPR. "That really just, just really blew our mind... That really is consistent with what patients report."

To make sure it wasn't just the lethal injection causing the surge in electrical activity, researchers also subjected the rats to other forms of death, including drowning. The result was the same.

That could mean that the brain is wired for one "last hurrah," as the University of Birmingham's Jason Braithwaite described it to the BBC, no matter what the cause of death.

The researchers also noticed an EEG pattern associated with visual stimulation during the rats' dying moments. "My hypothesis would be that during the near-death process, the visual process is highly activated,” Borjigin told The Washington Post, which could explain why so many people see bright lights.

Ultimately, Borjigin told NPR, "The near-death experience is perhaps really the byproduct of the brain's attempt to save itself."

Not that this definitively explains near-death experiences. Scientists still understand very little about the human brain, which is why the White House has committed millions to mapping it.

Still, Borjigin's research is a step towards understanding what happens to our brains as we die.

"This finding firmly reinforces basic tenets of the scientific method," wrote Smithsonian.com's Joseph Stromberg. "Although discussion of the afterlife and the supernatural have a place in philosophical and theological realms, it need not be used to explain near-death experiences — physical processes can do that just fine."

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August 16, 2013 - 1:00pm
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