This is what actually happens in your brain when you have a near-death experience

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The term, Near-Death Experience, was premiered by American psychologist and philosopher Dr. Raymond Moody in his best-selling book Life After Life, published all the way back in 1975. The book is premised by the then yet to be officially identified phenomenon that sees individuals experience curious sensations when facing impending death: Distortion of time, dissociation, correspondence with either the diseased or the central figure of their particular persuasion. The inherently mystical elements associated with NDEs described by those studied in Moody’s meditation and the medical mediations of others, often reinforce a belief in the numinous. 

When religion was our only mode of medicine, psychology, morality, and law this estimation made a lot more sense. Today, advancements in science have effectively robbed these positions of all their ethereal splendor. Love doesn’t come from the heart, dreams aren’t portended from deities, time is relative, and empathy is likely a survival byproduct of evolution. Everything that makes you-you has all to do with the squishy meat in between your ears-the same likely goes for the ineffable strangeness of near-death experiences. 

The findings

According to new findings presented at the 5th European Academy of Neurology Congress, presented by researchers from the Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen University Hospital, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, the Center for Stroke Research, Berlin, and the Norwegian University of Technology, Trondheim, Norway, as many as one in 10 people have had near death experiences. The team of experts enlisted 1,034 participants from 35 different countries. The experiences occasioned the most in this specific study group were as follows: Abnormal time perception (87%), exceptional speed of thought (65%), exceptionally vivid senses (63%), and out of body experiences (53%). 


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The severity of each encounter was determined via an exhaustive questionnaire assessment tool called The Greyson Near-Death-Experience (NDE) Scale. Scoring a seven or higher  indicated a true NDE; for whatever it’s worth 53% of respondents that reported a true NDE, described it as a “pleasant experience.”  

A notable association was established between reports of true NDEs and Rapid Eye Movement Sleep intrusion into wakefulness. During REM the brain is extremely active, so when the phase intrudes into wakefulness it’s not uncommon for people to experience visual and auditory hallucinations.  Lead researcher, Dr. Daniel Kondziella, who is also a neurologist at the University of Copenhagen, had this to say about the unexpected correlation,

“Our central finding is that we confirmed the association of near-death experiences with REM sleep intrusion. Although the association is not causality, identifying the physiological mechanisms behind REM sleep intrusion into wakefulness might advance our understanding of near-death experiences.”

REM sleep intrusion on wakefulness was more prevalent in participants that scored a seven or above on the Greyson NDE scale than in people that scored below a six.

Dying to know

The intense psychological effects that accompany NDE have also been evidenced in people that experience trauma, heart attacks, traumatic brain injuries and many variations of emotional or physical pain. Victims of every one of the conditions indexed have mentioned the famous light at the end of the tunnel. The popularity of this scenario in particular may be authored by its spiritual significance, though decorated cosmologist, Carl Sagan once suggested the tunnel might actually be us remembering our birth canal in our final moments. Culture seems to play a huge role in governing what each individual experiences while on the brink: Hindu’s report meeting Yamraj, Christians report meeting Jesus, and so forth. On balance, these hallucinations are associated with positive and anxiety reducing emotions, with participants reporting hellish incarnations belonging to a relative minority. Even still, the truth isn’t as poetic as the one many people privilege. The fundamental personality of an NDE is determined by the location in the brain that originated it. 

NDEs that occur in the left hemisphere of the brain are typically less philosophical in nature. Individuals might perceive time differently or be deaf to the physical nature of things. Conversely, NDEs that stem from the right hemisphere of the brain father the most commonly reported form: apparitions, voices, communicating with the dead, hearing music. Different regions of the brain are responsible for distinct experiences, though the why can only be guessed at by professionals. 

High volume changes in the temporal lobe, which is involved in primary auditory perception and processing sensory information and memory, produces psychotic symptoms in those suffering from schizophrenia. It thus follows that unusual activity in these lobes would energize abnormal perceptions and sensations. Another popular theory posits that the body makes an effort to reduce feelings of stress and physical pain by releasing specific chemicals or endorphins during near-death experiences.  

The DMT theory

You might be familiar with the DMT theory-the leading chemical based theory meant to lend reason to the preternatural  circumstances of a common NDE. The theory has gained popularity in recent years in in part due to discussion podcasts like The Joe Rogan Experience or Making Sense. 

Dimethyltryptamine is a psychedelic substance found naturally in some plant species. The connection between near-death experiences and DMT was first established in a study conducted by professor of psychology, Rick Strassman between 1990 and 1995. The participants in the study group reported NDE after being injected with the psychedelic, which set Strassman on course to uncover the broader implications of the chemical and its role in modeling the kind of experiences that attend our march back to the maggots. 

Strassman believes that the brain has a reserve of DMT stored in the pineal gland, that it releases after birth and just before death or alternatively in instances of extreme stress. This theory, though well received, has yet to be substantiated. It has since been proven that the body does indeed produce endogenous DMT, as small quantities of the substance have been found in human urine, blood and cerebrospinal fluid-no one quite knows where or why the body makes this stuff, however.  

That isn’t to say Strassman’s hypothesis is wanting for merit. Just last Thursday a peer reviewed paper published in the journal Scientific Reports motioned that the mammalian mind not only possesses the tools to produce DMT, it has the capability to produce a quantity sufficient enough to be biologically relevant. Jimo Borjigin, Ph.D and his team of researchers from the University of Michigan, extend the legacy of Strassman’s famous spirit molecule experiments, altering only one element of its finds dramatically by contesting that the pineal gland isn’t the only area of the brain capable of producing DMT.  In a series of tests conducted on rats and then examined against a human translation, the team found that the rodents contained two enzymes required to make DMT while humans contained only one: and not just in the pineal gland, but in the hippocampus and cerebral cortex as well.

However close we get to quieting the ambiguity surrounding the endogenous production of DMT, it’s important to remember that the similarities that link the two experiences, DMT trips and NDEs, are fairly broad. They both locate a certain alternate state of consciousness but there are important distinctions as well. For one thing, the body would have to produce an exorbitant amount of DMT to mimic the mystical effects noted in the trial settings.  In fact, just last year one expert estimated that the pineal gland would need to produce around 25 milligrams of DMT in a few minutes to be considered as a serious explanation for the hyper-reality associated with NDEs. 

NDE effects might owe themselves to a lack of oxygen, or be the aftermath of millions of cells slowing dying at once. Ultimately, the human consciousness is helplessly energized by the mechanisms that dictate the nature of its undoing, so much so otherwise ludicrous postulations have been allowed credence for a lot longer than they should have. Prophetic anecdotes like Steve Jobs’ famous “Oh wow”, or even humorous ones like Voltaire’s, “This is no time to be making enemies,” continue to change the rules of the morbid riddle. 

There’s a freshet of literature that confirms ruminating on death more often enhances life, than it impoverishes it. Remember there would not be a Crime and Punishment without the awakening brought on by a last minute pardon that spared its author. There would be no Starry Night,  without the shadowed episodes that lighted Vincent’s path to the east window of Saint Remy. No Mortality, had Hitchens yielded his wit to his malady. It’s important and healthy to consider death as a serious and neutral numen. Near death experiences don’t necessarily provide us with an insight into the abyss beneath the cradle but they do foreground the significance of our utter terror and lack of regard for it. Nietzche once remarked upon how strange it is that everyone knows death is coming, yet it exercises almost no influence on us. NDEs are so rousing becuase they foreshadow another act, the “party goes on, and you’re not allowed to leave.”

Near-death experiences might be products of biological function, vehicles of delusion, or assuagement from forces unknown- though to be honest, the varied and specific accounts studied do well to caution me against getting my hopes up. It very well may be that transient trips to hyperspace, and the brunches with Jesus are just dress rehearsals for an eternity of nothing.