What Can Rats Teach Us About Near-Death Experiences?

bright lights at the end of a tunnelA  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.


  1. 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
  2. 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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  • Lacey


    November 7th, 2013 at 12:27 PM

    I would much rather hear from humans who have undergone this type of exeprience than to just guess at what a lab rat did or didn’t feel when faced with this type of experience.
    How could it even be the same, and how would you really know given that these are animals who can’t verbalize what they felt or what they may hev seen?
    I am sorry but there are just some things that I want human feedback on and while I find it interesting that these kinds of studies are being done, I for one only want to take what I learn from real human subjects.

  • Samantha


    November 8th, 2013 at 4:39 AM

    Are lab rats really the way to go with this? Are there still groups who protest that this would be cruel to the animals in a lab setting?

  • Marcus


    November 9th, 2013 at 5:18 AM

    Let me start by saying that we just don’t know. That’s right, we don’t know, and I am fine with that. I hope to never be this close to death as to have this type of experience, and whether it is electrical firings in the brain, God, or something else, I am fine with not knowing. If that scientist believes that this is the rat’s way of having a near death expereince then that’s fine, there is no way to prove or disprove this one way or the other. But there is no way to prove or disprove that when it happens in cases of humans either. This is one where we all have to be okay with saying that it is unexplainable, it ncould be one thing or it could be another. I would just be happy that I made it back alive and not really focus so much on the stuff that was happening when I was so close to death.

  • drake


    November 11th, 2013 at 4:35 AM

    I am not opposed to lab science in any way, and whatever we can learn from animals, I say go for it.
    The hard thing about this one though, is that we are relying only on scientific data to make presumptions, whereas when this happens with a human they are typically able to verbally relay what happened to them, what they saw, even if there wasn’t this recordable electrical burst in their brains that shows up.
    So that’s the downfall. Is this information real and comparable to what a human experiences, or are we simply taking something and making it into what we wnat it to be, because there is no one to say any different?

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