Many people who’ve had a near-death experience describe it as a much stronger experience than a dream — more “real than real life,” a moment that forever changes them as a result. But is this the work of some grand spiritual force, or is it just your brain dousing itself in feel-good chemicals before it logs off forever?
To find out, I had Jimo Borjigin, associate professor of neurology and associate professor of molecular and integrative physiology at the University of Michigan, and Susan Blackmore, psychologist and author of Dying to Live: Science and the Near-Death Experience, explain what’s really happening during that flatline.
Blackmore says most near-death experiences aren’t only similar in nature, but also follow the same timeline. First in that timeline, more often than not, is the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Whether it’s a bridge (Chinese culture) or a stairwell (Western culture), those who’ve died see a bright light at the end of a long distance. “The decorations of the tunnel itself can depend on the experiences of the individual — it can be a sewage pipe, or multi-colored television sets,” says Blackmore. “But they’re just the form that’s given by the hyperactivity in the visual cortex.”
It’s caused by the brain sending out a ton of electricity and chemicals that flood your field of vision, making you “see” a tunnel — and when you “see” a tunnel, you walk toward it, Blackmore explains. “Just from a psychological point-of-view, if you’re in a dark room and you see a bright light, you’ll go toward it, because you have no other point of reference in the visual system.”
Another possible explanation comes from a 2013 study on dying rats at the University of Michigan, which found the oft-reported deathbed vision may be caused by the narrowing of one’s field of vision. This happens when blood and oxygen are depleted from the eye as a side effect of experiencing extreme fear, aka, how you’d guess most people feel when they’re that close to death (or how most rats feel when they see a guy in a lab coat).
One of the most common near-death experiences is feeling yourself leave your body, floating above and looking down upon your mortal visage, eavesdropping on the doctors panicking around you.
This, though, is as much of a mirage as the white light. Even before cardiac arrest begins, the human brain can sense there’s something wrong, and attempts to save the heart by “sending it a load of goodies,” explains Borjigin. A similar situation arises in sleep apnea — the brain senses a drop in blood-oxygen because the sleeper stops breathing. The difference here is that your brain is able to lurch your heart into action and wake up during sleep apnea.
“Basically it’s a mismatch between what your brain is telling you, and what your body system can do during cardiac arrest,” says Borjigin. In normal circumstances, your brain has a carefully crafted sense of “self,” exquisitely tracking every movement while forecasting what’s coming next to physically prepare the body.
“Under normal conditions, let’s say you’re being chased by a tiger. Your brain tells your legs and heart to speed up, and your only choice is to run really fast to get away,” says Borjigin. “In that situation, your whole body is coordinated: Your brain is telling the heart to pump more blood to your muscles to run faster — everything is in synch to achieve the goal of escaping the predators.
“But if you’re drowning, your heart gets no oxygen, so it can’t do what the brain is telling it to do. It’s an un-coordination between what your brain is telling your body to do, versus what the body parts can or cannot do.”
So your brain continues to freak out, emitting a storm of chemicals and electricity all over the place. One of those places is the “left temporoparietal junction,” or “TPJ,” which is the “central hub for the self representation in the brain,” says Blackmore. In a 2010 study published in World Neurosurgery, researchers found that stimulating the TPJ “repetitively induced out-of-body experiences, in which the patient felt as if she was floating above the operating table looking down on herself.”
“The TPJ is then linked through the temporal lobe’s memories, through the frontal lobe’s control and decision making, and so on,” says Blackmore. It makes perfect sense then, she continues, that when the brain undergoes an electric storm during cardiac arrest, “you interfere with the the TPJ by electrically stimulating it, and the body-schema falls apart.”
Or in layman’s terms, it’s just a glitch in the way you process sensory information.
A 2008 study attempted to place stimuli in operating rooms to see if those who had near-death experiences could recall them after their heart died. Of the 2,060 patients, only one had a “verified” out-of-body experience, though he was unable to recall what the stimuli was in the time he was “dead.” While that might rule out a spiritual self leaving the body for most, the study concluded concluded that “recalled experience surrounding death now merits further genuine investigation without prejudice.”
Feelings of Euphoria
Before being dragged back into their fleshy prison, those who’ve crossed over report feelings of euphoria, like they’ve been imbibed with a universal knowledge and the infinite love of the universe. I’ll have what she’s having, amiright?
This, sadly, is also just about chemicals. Only this time, according to a 2011 study from the University of Edinburgh, the chemicals are both the stimulants administered by the hospital (medical grade stimulants are fun, y’all!) and yet another effect of the brain going into “please don’t die” mode, lighting up its opiate center along with everything else. “The brain is super-active,” says Borjigin, “and the reason it’s super-activated is because it’s trying to save the heart by bombarding it with goodies.”
However, it should be noted that not many are happy and totally chill when they die. “[Positive stories] are the majority of reports,” says Blackmore. “But there’s a minority that get the opposite — terror and fear and hellish near-death experiences.” Luckily: “They’re not common — probably less than 10 percent of near-death experiences are the hellish type.”
Mental Telepathy, Life Review and Learning From A Religious or Spiritual Figure
Whether it’s communication with dead family members and friends, or faceless spiritual entities, many near-death experiencers will encounter nonverbal communication that, much like the euphoria, is felt on a non-physical plane of existence.
Blackmore suggests that while the earlier stages of the near-death experience are mostly related to the brain firing on all cylinders, this is the part of the cycle that starts to use areas of the brain that store people’s upbringing and memories, “which fits with what we know of what’s happening in the brain.” She also adds, oddly enough, “[Life reviews] are more common with drowning than other reasons for nearly dying.”
“People in near-death experiences typically describe the life-review with a sense of timelessness,” says Borjigin. “We think that’s because, rather than the brain’s control mechanisms operating in their normal way and only bringing up memories that you want, when you want them, during death and the hyperactivity happening in the frontal lobe, they’re all firing off at once.”
Borjigin adds that whenever adults have near-death experiences that include others, they’re almost always a close relative or religious figure. “That suggests that during the dying phase, your brain is digging into your memory storage, your own neurons that have memories of certain figures, names, feelings and characters that you’ve been exposed to in your life. It’s searching through that. To me, it’s almost as if the reason your brain wants to go through your memory store is that it’s searching for a reason for your body to survive.”
So if religion is a huge part of your life, it’s not so strange that your brain would dig up your memories of important religious figures to inspire you to keep fighting.
As a caveat, Blackmore says that each culture and religion has their own narrative of near-death experiences, but that they’re all built around either the tunnel or the meeting with religious or personal connections who tell them it’s not their time. It’s specific to American Christians, she says by way of example, to “have this ghastly, horrendous genre of ‘heavenly tourism’ books and have this very, very American version of Christianity played out in front of them, complete with nine gates and St. Peter at one of them.”
“The role of the brain in the dying process is minimally understood at the moment, because right now, if someone is suffering cardiac arrest, the only focus is on the heart,” says Borjigin. She adds that the University of Michigan’s 2013 paper may be “one of the first papers demonstrating that not only is the brain not dead, but hyperactive in the dying animal.”
All in all, we’ve barely scratched the surface on how the brain reacts to death. “Hopefully future research sees this as potential way to save dying patients, as more people start to understand that the brain has a major role in a dying human,” says Borjigin. Until then, however, near-death experiences will remain a mystery — for most of us, at least.