What happens when we die? It’s a question people have been asking throughout time and the answer is still a mystery. Now, a review of research exploring what people experience when they’re close to death leads scientists to one important conclusion — “near-death experiences” are a real thing, even if we can’t explain them.
Countless people have claimed that their life “flashed before their eyes” or that they actually left their body and traveled somewhere else while close to death. Critics have called these experiences hallucinations or illusions, but researchers from NYU Grossman School of Medicine say something else is actually happening.
The team of scientists across several medical disciplines — including neurosciences, critical care, psychiatry, psychology, social sciences, and humanities — have come up with a number of scientific conclusions after reviewing unexplained lucid episodes which involve a heightened state of consciousness.
What exactly is a near-death experience?
The main finding is that these events don’t have much in common with the experiences someone has if they’re hallucinating or using a psychedelic drug. Instead, people who have a near-death experience typically report five different events taking place:
- A separation from their body with a heightened, vast sense of consciousness and recognition that they’re dying
- They “travel” to a different location
- A meaningful and purposeful review of their life, involving a critical analysis of all their past actions — basically, their life flashes before their eyes
- Going to a place that feels like “home”
- Returning back to life
Researchers note that the near-death experience usually triggers a positive and long-term psychological transformation in the person. The team notes that people who had negative and distressing experiences while near-death did not experience these kinds of events.
Something is happening in the brain
The team found that there’s more to a near-death experience than just the stories each person tells. It turns out scientists can actually see physical changes taking place in the brain when someone is close to death.
Researchers found the presence of gamma activity and electrical spikes when people are technically dying. This is typically a sign of a heightened state of consciousness when scientists measure it using an electroencephalography (EEG). The findings further back up the claims from people who say they “left their body” while dying.
Study authors note that advances in medicine over the last century have brought back countless people from the doorstep of death. For many of these patients, they come back with stories of unexplainable events, which until now, have not been studied in detail.
“Cardiac arrest is not a heart attack, but represents the final stage of a disease or event that causes a person to die,” says lead author Sam Parnia in a media release. “The advent of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) showed us that death is not an absolute state, rather, it’s a process that could potentially be reversed in some people even after it has started.”
“What has enabled the scientific study of death is that brain cells do not become irreversibly damaged within minutes of oxygen deprivation when the heart stops. Instead, they ‘die’ over hours of time. This is allowing scientists to objectively study the physiological and mental events that occur in relation to death,” Parnia continues.
Death may not be the end
Study authors conclude that neither physiological nor cognitive processes completely end at the moment of death. While prior reports haven’t been able to prove what people are saying about their near-death experiences, the new report finds it’s also impossible to disprove what they’re saying.
“Few studies have explored what happens when we die in an objective and scientific way, but these findings offer intriguing insights into how consciousness exists in humans and may pave the way for further research,” Parnia concludes.
The findings are published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.