A near-death experience can be a life-altering event, and not just because coming back from the dead gives survivors a new outlook on life. Thousands of people have reported near-death experiences, and these experiences frequently follow a predictable pattern: Survivors may feel that they are moving down a tunnel toward a bright light, or report that they leave their bodies and can see themselves receiving medical care. Often, survivors of near-death experiences are hesitant to return to their bodies, and they report an overwhelming feeling of peace. Those who have undergone near-death experiences report that their sensations are vivid and powerful, and not at all like dreams or hallucinations.
New Research on Near-Death Experiences
Scientists have grown increasingly interested in the near-death experience phenomenon. Reports of these experiences are so similar that it seems unlikely that people are manufacturing them, so experts have felt the need to investigate. Furthermore, people from every culture, health status, educational level, and walk of life have reported near-death experiences; these events can’t simply be attributed to superstition or hallucinations.
Jimo Borjigan, a researcher at the University of Michigan, led a study into near-death experiences by observing dying rats. As a result of this study, Borjigan believes that near-death experiences may be a product of a dying brain. His team observed rats immediately after they went into cardiac arrest, and sure enough, he found something different was happening in their brains. Rather than slowing down, rat brains showed a burst of electrical activity in their brains immediately after their hearts stopped.
Different Research Perspectives
Borjigan and his team argue that a similar burst of activity may occur in human brains just before death. This could be part of the brain’s attempt to save itself. Perhaps by remaining active, the brain is less likely to die, enabling people to survive and even thrive if doctors are able to revive them.
Not everyone agrees with Borjigan’s interpretation, though. Both animal advocates and scientists have long questioned the value of animal research, emphasizing that, while animal brains are similar to human brains, they’re not the same. Moreover, researchers can’t ask animals about their subjective experiences. Although rat brains do show an increase in activity prior to death, researchers don’t know if rats have near-death experiences because a rat can’t report that it’s walking toward a light or hovering over its body.
What about Religion?
Many people who are brought back from the dead view their near-death experiences as religious events. They may renew or deepen their faith after surviving a catastrophic event, so it’s understandable that scientific explanations of near-death experiences might cheapen their meaning for some people. But research into near-death experiences doesn’t have to negate religion altogether.
While scientists are getting closer to explaining the brain activity during a near-death event, they can’t yet explain why this brain activity occurs, or why people almost universally report walking toward a light and an overwhelming sense of calm. For some people, religion may help to assign meaning to these extraordinary experiences, and it’s certainly possible for both scientific and religious explanations to peacefully co-exist.
- Stein, R. (2013, August 12). Brains of dying rats yield clues about near-death experiences.NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/08/12/211324316/brains-of-dying-rats-yield-clues-about-near-death-experiences
- Wagstaff, K. (2013, August 13). The science behind near-death experiences – The Week.The Week. Retrieved from http://theweek.com/article/index/248238/the-science-behind-near-death-experiences
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