Most likely everyone has heard of the phenomenon of “Near Death Experience” or “NDE”. It occurs when a person is either very near death or clinically brain-dead. Those who claim to have had NDE’s report similar experiences: floating out of their bodies, going down a tunnel toward a bright mystical light, meeting the spirits of deceased friends and relatives, and feeling extreme joy and peace beyond anything known on Earth. But what causes such an experience? Is it proof of an afterlife, that consciousness survives physical death, or is it merely hallucinations produced by the dying brain’s chemicals? There are several scientific theories, but the scientific community hasn’t done a whole lot of research on it, partly due to lack of funding, and partly due to their inability to reproduce the same effects in controlled studies. My own personal belief is that consciousness survives death, but I think it’s important to understand the medical explanations, because I don’t see why there can’t be both spiritual and medical phenomena occurring together. Everyone who believes in the “paranormal” explanation seem to dismiss the theories scientists offer, but even if the brain is hallucinating, that doesn’t mean that the things it’s hallucinating aren’t real. They could be things to which the “normal, living” brain wouldn’t have access. Maybe the brain is actually assisting consciousness to experience “the other side”. However, this speculation assumes there is some brain activity still happening. What about people who report NDE’s who are brain-dead? We’ll get to that in a moment.
The standard scientific theory is that NDE’s are meaningless hallucinations triggered by the physical condition of the dying brain. To explore more in-depth explanations I turned to the wonderful world of the Internet. The two theories I found most compelling are as follows:
1) DMT: In the 1990s, Dr. Rick Strassman conducted research on the psychedelic drug Dimethyltriptamine (DMT) at the University of New Mexico. Strassman advanced the theory that a massive release of DMT from the pineal gland prior to death or near-death was the cause of the near-death experience phenomenon. DMT is supposed to be (I think) the most powerful hallucinogen known to medicine. It would therefore stand to reason that the dying brain could, for whatever reason, release massive amounts of it, causing people to see light, spirit beings, or their own bodies down below. Again, this explanation only makes sense if there is still brain activity occurring.
2) CO2: Near-death experiences are tricks of the mind triggered by an overload of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. The research also supports the argument that anything that disinhibits the brain—damages the brain’s ability to manage impulses—can produce near-death sensations. Physical brain injury, drugs, and delirium have all been associated with a disinhibited state, and CO2 overload is another potential trigger. (In contrast to these findings, one earlier study found an association between NDE’s and below-average carbon dioxide.) So an overload of carbon dioxide, or a severe lack of it, could explain the “hallucinations”. This theory as well only makes sense if there is some brain activity.
Before we explore how NDE’s can occur with no brain activity, I want to mention one other theory. It is psychological. According to Wikipedia: “In a new theory devised by Richard Kinseher in 2006, the knowledge of the Sensory Autonomic System is applied in the NDE phenomenon. His theory states that the experience of looming death is an extremely strange paradox to a living organism—and therefore it will start the NDE: during the NDE, the individual becomes capable of “seeing” the brain performing a scan of the whole episodic memory (even prenatal experiences), in order to find a stored experience which is comparable to the input information of death. All these scanned and retrieved bits of information are permanently evaluated by the actual mind, as it is searching for a coping mechanism out of the potentially fatal situation. Kinseher feels this is the reason why a near-death experience is so unusual. Because people who experience NDEs report the experience of memories long considered lost, this theory necessarily depends upon a theory of memory in which all memories are indefinitely retained. Such a stance would be at odds with current scientific findings. The theory also states that out-of-body experiences (or OBE’s), accompanied by NDEs, are an attempt by the brain to create a mental overview of the situation and the surrounding world. The brain then transforms the input from sense organs and stored experience (knowledge) into a dream-like idea about oneself and the surrounding area.” To my understanding this simply means that the mind, in order to put the ordeal of impending death into some sort of known perspective, conjures up all of its stored memories in an attempt to find one that most closely resembles what is happening. Our collective unconscious could come into play here I would think.
Anyway, these theories all infer that there is still brain activity occurring. What about those people who were brain-dead that reported NDE’s? The strongest case for proof that NDE’s are real is the case of Pam Reynolds. She suffered a giant basilar artery aneurysm in her brain that threatened her life. With the standard neuro-surgical techniques it was inoperable. However, she was referred to a surgeon who had pioneered a daring surgical procedure known as “Hypothermic Cardiac Arrest” – nicknamed “standstill” by the doctors who perform it. During the operation the patient’s body temperature is lowered to 60 degrees, the heartbeat and breathing are stopped, brainwaves are flattened, and the blood is drained from the head. To all intents and purposes, the person is put to death. While undergoing this procedure Pam had an out-of-body and near-death experience. She was later able to describe the unique surgical instruments used, and she heard what the operating nurses said. This is what she described (I assume it is an excerpt from the book, Light and Death, by cardiologist Dr. Michael Stanton):
“The next thing I recall was the sound: It was a Natural “D”. As I listened to the sound, I felt it was pulling me out of the top of my head. The further out of my body I got, the more clear the tone became. I had the impression it was like a road, a frequency that you go on; It was not like normal vision. It was brighter and more focused and clearer than normal vision. There was a sensation like being pulled, but not against your will. I was going on my own accord because I wanted to go. I have different metaphors to try to explain this. It was like the Wizard of Oz – being taken up in a tornado vortex, only you’re not spinning around like you’ve got vertigo. You’re very focused and you have a place to go. The feeling was like going up in an elevator real fast. And there was a sensation, but it wasn’t a bodily, physical sensation. It was like a tunnel but it wasn’t a tunnel, At some point very early in the tunnel vortex I became aware of my grandmother calling me. But I didn’t hear her call me with my ears … It was a clearer hearing than with my ears. It’s a dark shaft that I went through, and at the very end there was this very little tiny pinpoint of light that kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. The light was incredibly bright, I noticed that as I began to discern different figures in the light – and they were all covered with light, they were light, and had light permeating all around them – they began to form shapes I could recognize and understand. I could see that one of them was my grandmother. Everyone I saw, looking back on it, fit perfectly into my understanding of what that person looked like at their best during their lives; They would not permit me to go further … It was communicated to me – that’s the best way I know how to say it, because they didn’t speak like I’m speaking – that if I went all the way into the light something would happen to me physically. They would be unable to put this me back into the body me, like I had gone too far and they couldn’t reconnect. So they wouldn’t let me go anywhere or do anything. Then they [deceased relatives] were feeding me. They were not doing this through my mouth, like with food, but they were nourishing me with something. The only way I know how to put it is something sparkly. Sparkles is the image that I get. I definitely recall the sensation of being nurtured and being fed and being made strong.”
When it was time for her to return to her body, she described it as follows:
“It was communicated to me that it was like jumping into a swimming pool. No problem, just jump right into the swimming pool. I didn’t want to, but I guess I was late or something because he [the uncle] pushed me. I felt a definite repelling and at the same time a pulling from the body. The body was pulling and the tunnel was pushing … It was like diving into a pool of ice water”
That’s pretty compelling evidence in my opinion. This woman wasn’t just brain-dead. She was dead. It would also negate my own belief that the brain could be releasing hallucinogenic chemicals causing a valid near-death experience.
I have never had a NDE, nor have I known anyone personally who has, but there is still much research to be done before science can prove they are legitimate. Until then we must all form our own conclusions based on past research and near-death survivor accounts.